Do you know the curriculum at your child’s school? If your answer is “no,” you’re not alone. The reality is that most parents know little to nothing about a school’s curriculum. (You’re also forgiven if you don’t quite know what a curriculum is. More on that below.)

Many parents also may not know the importance of a curriculum on the quality and outcome of their child’s education. Adding to the confusion around curricula in American schools? Some schools have them, and others don’t. Among those that have a clearly defined curriculum, some are good and even great, and others not so much.

For starters, there are two basic rules of thumb when it comes to curriculum:
1) Having a curriculum is better than not having one (though there may be a few renegade outliers to this rule); and
2) Having an excellent curriculum is far better than having a mediocre one.

So what’s a curriculum, anyway?

For many, the first thing that springs to mind is a textbook. But a good curriculum should offer more than compendiums of facts and problem sets.

“It’s beyond textbooks,” says Javier Cabra Walteros, chief academic officer of Envision Education, which operates three charter schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. “[It’s] about the promise we give to parents when we say we’re preparing their students for college and the world.”

In other words, a curriculum comprises all the materials and experiences used to teach a student what they need to learn. This means that along with textbooks, a curriculum could include everything from online tutorials from, for example, Khan Academy to field trips to at-home projects to internships and other learning experiences.

A good curriculum should also give teachers a roadmap for grade-level learning goals, based on the standards established by a state’s education department. On average, districts adopt new curricular materials every five to seven years, according to Lauren Weisskirk, chief strategy officer of EdReports.org, an independent nonprofit that reviews curriculum and instructional materials.

A curriculum doesn’t usually include lesson plans. Teachers still need a daily plan to guide how they teach the material. So in practice, this could mean that in a history class studying the Civil Rights Movement, a student will read Martin Luther King’s, “Letter from A Birmingham Jail,” read a relevant chapter from a newly published textbook, and write a paper on the topic. The teacher would still need to plan the day-to-day and minute-to-minute lessons to engage students in this material. In a more innovative classroom, the students might take greater ownership in their learning by collaborating in how and what they learn. They might devise a unique project to show what they’ve learned or help define how they approach the topic.

Why having a good curriculum matters

Decades of research have confirmed that a well-crafted curriculum is a critical factor in a student’s academic success. In particular, research points to significant gains in learning when schools shift from a weak curriculum to a strong one.

There are a range of reasons that a faulty curriculum might undermine learning at a given school. “Drill-and-kill” aka teach-to-the test curricula do little to get students excited about learning. Or the curriculum may not be appropriate for the specific school community, teaching material that is at worst, racist and culturally insensitive, or at best, antiquated and tone deaf to a 21st-century student.

As for schools with no set curriculum at all, the burden for how well a student will learn what they need to learn often falls on individual teachers, requiring them to do extensive content development and research beyond lesson planning.

How to tell if a school has a strong curriculum

Schools and districts should be able to show how their curriculum is aligned to the state standards that students are expected to master in each class and grade level. They should also be able to explain how and what students learn in any subject, be it math, history, English, or biology.

If your child’s school or teachers point to the textbooks they’re using as their “curriculum,” that may be cause for concern. “Simply buying new textbooks won’t fix the problem,” Baltimore City Schools Supt. Sonja Santelises explained in an op-ed about her district’s multiyear efforts to improve their curriculum. “If we want to ensure that all students — no matter what their zip code, family income, or background — get what they need to be successful, we must take a far more thoughtful approach to curriculum: the actual content kids learn in school.”

It’s also important that the curriculum and the materials that accompany it reflect a school’s community. This is something that many districts are attempting to address by adopting a culturally responsive curriculum that allows students of different ethnic or cultural backgrounds to see themselves in what they are learning. Unfortunately, given the existing curriculum, experts say finding a culturally responsive curriculum is anything but easy.

“The vast majority of packaged curriculum isn’t culturally responsive, anti-racist, or pro-Black,” says Cabra Walteros.

Finally, a school should be able to confirm that the school has what it takes to implement the curriculum effectively. Whether it’s novels or test tubes, teachers need training and the tools to successfully breathe life into the curriculum. In the best cases, a curriculum is always evolving, with teachers working together to improve it. At Envision Education, for example, teachers for each subject meet regularly to evolve the curriculum.

Key takeaways

For parents…

Although curriculum decisions are not easy for an individual parent to influence, there are things that parents can do to find out about and advocate for a better curriculum:

  • Ask your child (or the school) what curriculum they’re using. Check the copyright year in textbooks and other materials. “If it’s from the 1990s or early 2000s, it’s not aligned to standards,” Weisskirk says.
  • Then look them up on EdReports.org, an organization that employs teachers to vet established curriculum. Is the curriculum considered ineffective? Share the link to what you find with the principal and superintendent. You may make them rethink next year’s purchase!
  • Tell your principal or superintendent that you want to provide feedback the next time they review the curriculum. When districts are reviewing or adopting new curriculum, they often provide opportunities for parents to participate in the process.

For educators…

If you’re spending a lot of time looking online for material to use in the classroom, you’re not alone. The average teacher spends seven to 12 hours a week searching the Internet for supplemental materials, and that’s not a bad thing. “Curriculum is not a script,” Weisskirk says.

However, it’s important to think through how well the material you bring into the classroom aligns with your curriculum, as well as how relevant it is to your students and the way they ordinarily learn in your class. This infographic from online curriculum developer Edmentum offers one lens through which to evaluate supplemental resources.

For administrators

Since cultural relevance has become an essential part of curriculum review and adoption, the best way to ensure that parents and students feel that curriculum reflects their lives is to ask them — and to cast a wide net. School leaders “should be talking to parents and the community to see what’s important to them,” Weisskirk says. To that end, Guilford County Schools in North Carolina began its work with a 75-person task force in which parents were represented, and Baltimore City Schools held multiple public feedback sessions, including one held on Facebook Live, to gather public input on proposed curriculum changes.

This article is part of our Transforming High School series, a collection of stories, videos, and podcasts exploring the practices that prepare students for success in college and beyond.

 

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Updated: August 17, 2021