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What About Curriculum Effects?

Our guest author today is Barak Rosenshine, emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Bill Gates, the Los Angeles Times, and others have argued that teachers should be held accountable for the achievement of their students. This has led to heated debates over the validity and proper use of value added statistical measures. But no one seems to be talking about curriculum effects. What if an excellent teacher is in a school that has selected a curriculum for mathematics or for reading that isn’t very good. How accountable should the teacher be in those circumstances?

In the July-Sept. issue of the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness (Vol. 3, No 3, 2010) Roberto Agodini and Barbara Harris reported on a large-scale study in which four different elementary school math programs were randomly assigned to first-grade classrooms in 39 schools. These schools all served students from low-income families and were located in four different school districts. The same standardized test in mathematics was administered to all students.

Students who were taught using two of the programs (let’s call them A and B) obtained achievement scores that were 9 to 12 percentile points higher than student achievement scores using the other two programs (X and Y). In other words, a student who scored at the 50th percentile when taught using curriculum X or Y would have scored at about the 60th percentile had they been in a class that used curriculum A or B. If we assume two teachers of equal ability, the teacher whose class used the A or B curriculum would have had a much higher value added score than a teacher whose class used the X or Y curriculum. In this specific case, then, how accountable can we hold the first-grade teachers who were given curriculum X or Y for the achievement of their students?

Currently, very few effective curriculum programs such as A and B have been identified and, right now, we don’t know how well any of these four programs would do in grades 4 or 5. But I suggest that the study by Agodini and Harris illustrates the fact that some specific curriculum programs can help raise student achievement in the hands of an average teacher whereas other programs aren’t as successful even in the hands of an excellent teacher. Unfortunately, when we look at student achievement scores for a specific teacher or a specific school, we don’t know whether the curriculum program helped enhance the scores or had little effect. But I suggest that the quality of each curriculum program a teacher is using needs to be considered when student achievement scores are used to grade teachers.

I believe that teachers are responsible for implementing a program well, but are only responsible for the implementation. As this research shows, the quality of a given program has a strong influence on the students’ achievement. Teachers, who generally have little say over which curriculum programs their states, districts, and schools select, should not be held responsible for the quality of the program they were given. The program developers and adopters, not the teachers, are responsible for the results when the program is implemented well.

Comments

Barak Rosenshine assumes that the Math standardized achievement tests were equally fair to the two curricula. Such tests are usually planned to be independent of particular curricula but there is always a risk that they are not. How recently were the tests standarized? How new were the two curricula? Maybe newer "fashions" in curriculum inclusions render particular older standarized tests inappropriate. Pity the poor teachers who risk victimization due to these types of mismatches!

All well and good, but I don't see the effect of curricula significant for using value-added in teacher evaluation. Teachers are evaluated within administrative unit contexts (school, or school district) and those have uniform curricula throughout. And if a teacher uses his or her own curriculum instead of the school-wide or district-wide, I see no reason why he or she should not be held responsible for that selection too. But I would like very much to see also whole schools and whole school-districts held accountable for their unit-wide value-added scores. Perhaps this will finally induce them to pay attention to selecting effective curricula, rather than running after some fashionable curriculum du jour.

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