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Last night protestors seized a meeting of the Minneapolis board of education over the district’s contract with a Utah-based publisher of Reading Horizons, a reading curriculum that has become controversial after parents and teachers called some of its materials ‘offensive.”

At issue are depictions of native people, like ‘Lazy Lucy,’ that readers found racially backward. This comes a few months after that district was challenged by activists for using software that simulated the slavery experience.

With Reading Horizons, the district has struggled to find a way to acknowledge concerns about the specific reading materials that caused alarm, without ending the contract with the publisher. They believe the curriculum itself is evidence-tested, and sound. Teachers are mixed. Some support the curriculum and some don’t. District leaders say the materials could be replaced with non-offensive ones, and the program itself would help students who lag in reading improve.

But protestors see things differently. Do you really need to spend over $1 million with a culturally incompetent curriculum provider? Is it possible to teach struggling readers to read without running into issues of cultural incompetency?

This dustup in Minneapolis isn’t an insignificant blip.

While school reform magnifies battles over governance, school models, teacher practice and evaluation, and other issues, there hasn’t been a lot of focus on curriculum reform.

Yet, it recently made headlines when a mom in Texas busted McGraw-Hill for calling enslaved people “workers” in a history text-book.

Yes, we have the occasional article that examines some of the more ridiculous offenses in textbooks.

But these examples haven’t turned into a popular movement for change in curriculum production, adoption, and delivery. That’s interesting given the monumental importance of curriculum in the foundation of a school and learning.

Enter “The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform,” a new report from the Center for American Progress. According to CAP’s research curriculum reform is a low-cost, high impact endeavor.

Here are some of the report’s key findings:

  • Higher-quality curriculum in elementary school math can come at a relatively low-cost. The authors analyzed six pairs of curricula, where each pair included a lower-quality and higher-quality version. The authors looked at how much it would cost for a school to switch from a lower-quality product to a higher-quality one in elementary school math and found there’s not much of a cost. In fact, the data that the authors collected from 19 states indicate that publishers tend to charge all states roughly the same These findings mean that nearly all opportunities for boosting ROI are a matter of choosing the best product, not finding a better price.
  • More rigorous elementary school math curricula can deliver far more ROI than other reforms. In compiling this report, the authors compared the cost-effectiveness ratio for each of six pairs of elementary math curricula that had been subject to a rigorous evaluation sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. Reviewing these data in light of an influential study by economist Doug Harris, the authors determined that switching to a higher quality curriculum has a huge ROI relative to other educational policies—in large part because curricula cost so little. There are other factors at play, of course, and gains in math, for instance, can be easier to achieve relative to other subjects. But what’s clear is that the average cost-effectiveness ratio of switching curriculum was almost 40 times that of class-size reduction in a well-known randomized experiment.
  • When it comes to math curricula in the early grades, cost does not always equal quality.There is little relationship between the cost and quality of instructional products. Prices do not vary widely across products, with the most expensive product in the same government-sponsored study costing only $13 per student more than the least expensive product. If anything, the higher-quality products tend to cost less, and in some instances, the most expensive curriculum was among the least effective and the least expensive was among the most effective.
  • Policy decisions do not consider rigorous measures of curricula quality. State adoption decisions are often based on limited assessments of quality and weak proxies for alignment to state standards. Furthermore, politics often dominate the discussion over the adoption of textbooks and other instructional material, and issues such as the teaching of evolution are often center stage. There is also a clear gap between the reality of which curricula are effective or aligned to state standards and the curricula that publishers advertise as such.

Bottom line, curriculum matters. For those who see the cultural component of issues like the one faced in Minneapolis, the research supports curriculum adoption as a strategy for advancing student learning. That technocratic view of the world is insufficient though. Culture matters too. The relationship between self and text is important too. Reading is a skill that is enhanced by an experience of connection between what words say, what they mean to a reader, and how they result in greater understanding because of their relevance to the reader.

We should be asking: How is curriculum adopted?

What in the process to support both development of high-quality instructional materials, and materials that affirm the humanity of children who have been historically harmed by Eurocentrism in education?

Answers to those questions might prevent another Minneapolis episode, and make a positive impact on the achievement gap at the same time.

Citizen Stewart