Here’s Why It’s Hard for Schools to Pick Good Curricula

Jul 5, 2018 12:00:00 AM


In a recent  blog post, Michael Petrilli asked an excellent question wondering why more districts aren’t picking highly rated curricula. I’m glad Petrilli got hold of the EdWeek Market Brief, which surveyed almost 700 superintendents and other district leaders around the country to discover which math and literacy curricula are getting the most market share and learn what district leaders have to say about their quality. Unfortunately, the news is not good. In English language arts, administrators said they would not recommend a single one of the most widely used core curricula. And in math, they said they would recommend just one curriculum to their peers: Great Minds’ “Eureka Math.” While I’m gratified that administrators singled out “Eureka Math” for its effectiveness, we shouldn’t be so alone. The results of the survey translate to millions of teachers and students who are stuck with subpar materials. The lack of quality curricular choices means schools are left using books and worksheets that are incoherent, promote rote memorization and emphasize learning math “tricks.” And [pullquote]a low-quality curriculum produces too many frustrated teachers, and students who soon believe “I’m not a math person” when they haven’t been given a chance.[/pullquote]

Let’s Stop Picking Curriculum in a Black Box

From my perspective, there are three barriers getting in the way of curriculum reform. First, there hasn’t been much transparency around curriculum quality. While EdWeek Market Brief uncovered a huge problem by conducting this survey, I’m frustrated that the publication’s paywall will leave school districts and the general public without access to the full story. Only recently, a few states like Louisiana have started to do thorough public reviews of curriculum materials, earning praise nationally for that work. And the nonprofit now provides independent reviews of curriculum for district leaders thinking about making a new curriculum selection. These are available for all to see. So, over time, this information should impact the decisions districts make. Second, most curriculum decisions get made behind closed doors. It has been largely an inside game, dominated by large textbook publishers with eight-figure sales and marketing budgets. Not surprisingly, these [pullquote position="right"]traditional industry practices have led to terrible school contracts.[/pullquote] Many publishers lock districts into multiyear contracts, some lasting as long as eight years, and they make it incredibly expensive to try to get out of those agreements. What happens when a curriculum is not working? The district is stuck with the curriculum or has to pay a fortune to exit the contract. That’s money that could be going to educate kids and compensate teachers. The open education resources market has begun to open up the game a bit, allowing teachers to try out alternative curricula—such as “Eureka Math”—at no cost. We also sell printed copies of our teachers guides, student workbooks, professional development and more, but we allow districts to purchase materials for only a year at a time. Plus, as a nonprofit, we plough all revenues back into improving our materials and developing new ones. Third, curriculum decisions are largely invisible because classroom teachers typically have so little involvement in selecting materials. Yes, in some cases, districts create advisory committees that include teachers, but too often that is performed merely as a routine duty and has little impact on the final purchasing decision. By contrast, teachers—working side-by-side with college professors—actually wrote our math, English language arts and science curricula. And through our unique fellows program, they are central in revising it. Here's the bottom line: The old way of writing, selecting, purchasing, and evaluating core content materials for our schools doesn’t work anymore. Yet too many districts are still stuck in the old ways. Education advocates and leaders must insist on transparency so that curriculum finally comes out of the shadows and into the spotlight, where it belongs.

Lynne Munson

Lynne Munson is the founder and CEO of Great Minds, the nonprofit developer of Eureka Math (originally EngageNY), Wit & Wisdom and PhD Science.

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