How Ohio could pursue curriculum reform

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Louisiana gets a ton of education-related attention, most of it focused on the Recovery School District and the proliferation of charter schools in New Orleans. While these reforms are certainly worth a close look, it’s the state’s quieter efforts on curriculum that may be truly changing the game for students and teachers.

My colleague Robert Pondiscio wrote an in-depth analysis of these initiatives that’s definitely worth a read. The upshot is that education leaders in Louisiana recognized the transformative power of high-quality curriculum and took action. They started by reviewing the curricula that schools used in order to determine rigor, coherency, and alignment to state standards. After identifying the best curricula, Louisiana created incentives for districts to select those materials rather than others. The state also evaluated professional development providers and recommended to schools only the providers who offered trainings specific to the best curricula rather than broad and general strategies. 

So far, these efforts seem to be paying off: Louisiana students have shown improvements on state tests, the ACT, and  AP exams. In addition, the state saw upticks on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in fourth-grade math and reading. By most measures, Louisiana’s strategy appears to be working—and Ohio should consider following a similar path.

Right now, Ohio’s districts and schools are on their own when it comes to evaluating curriculua and materials. This isn’t just a waste of time and effort; it’s also a missed opportunity for collaboration. That’s why Ohio legislators should task the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), or another respected independent organization, to start conducting reviews of textbook and curricular materials. They might also want to consider allocating funds to help support these efforts.

The process could begin by asking districts to report what curricula they’re currently using or have used in the past. This list could serve as the basis for which textbooks and curricular programs the department evaluates first—that way, the materials that impact the highest number of Ohio students will be first under the microscope.

It is of the utmost importance that these reviews are rigorous and easy to understand. Ohio should ensure that its rubrics are evidence-based and similar to the frameworks used by independent evaluators across the country. The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) evaluates curricular materials with various rubrics for certain grade levels and subjects, and evaluations result in one of three ratings: Tier 1 materials are labeled as exemplifying quality, Tier 2 materials are labeled as approaching quality, and Tier 3 materials are labeled as not representing quality. Although Ohio could craft its own rating labels and rubrics, the system must effectively differentiate curricula based on alignment to state standards, coherency, rigor, and overall quality. 

It’s also important that the bulk of these reviews be conducted by the same people who are responsible for teaching curriculum—the state’s teachers. Again, LDOE offers an important example: Officials in Louisiana’s department selected teacher leaders from various geographical areas and grade levels based on demonstrated teaching and leadership ability. Not only would this leverage the expertise of teachers and ensure educator buy-in, it would also offer districts a way to empower their most effective teachers with leadership roles that don’t require them to leave the classroom.

Most importantly, though, the General Assembly must clearly assert from the start that the results of these reviews have no bearing on which curricula districts choose—local control remains paramount. ODE’s role is to support local districts in curricular decisions by providing independent evaluations of various textbooks and materials. It’s not to make those decisions for schools. Curriculum shouldn’t be a mandate, and local schools must maintain their right to select whichever instructional materials they believe will best serve their students.

That being said, the state has a clear role to play in encouraging adoption of first-rate curricula. Louisiana, for example, gave statewide contracts to the small number of curriculum vendors that achieved a top rating. This was not a mandate—districts were still free to choose whatever curricula they wanted. Those curricula that earned the highest marks from LDOE, however, were typically offered at discounted prices due to their contracts with the state. If Ohio pursued such an approach, this would offer high-quality resources to districts at a discount—without infringing on local control. The state could also follow Louisiana’s lead on teacher PD and recommend only the providers who can offer trainings geared toward the best-reviewed curricula.

Research shows that content-rich, high-quality curricula can improve student outcomes in a cost-effective way. By taking the steps outlined here, Ohio could impact thousands of students in a positive way—all for a fraction of the cost of other school improvement strategies. Sounds like a no-brainer to me. 

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.