As I’ve been listening to people’s reactions to the proficiency gaps we’re seeing in our students’ standardized test score data (including from commenters here and here), I’ve been struck by how seldom people seem to raise the role of curricular choices. I’ve seen comments debating the effect of pursuing socioeconomic balance, and comments about the need for more diverse or culturally sensitive staff—both of which are certainly topics worth discussing. And I’ve seen more general comments about the district’s competence and about accountability—which are certainly relevant concepts too, though they need some definition. But isn’t curriculum kind of an elephant in the room when it comes to proficiency data?
My sense is that many people think of the topic of curriculum as a specialized area in which they are inclined to defer to experts (which is to say, to the professional educators that our district hires to make those decisions). It’s hard to argue with that at some level, but it also seems to me that the board can’t entirely relieve itself of the responsibility to be involved in the issue. Curriculum decisions do come before the board for approval, for example. And even if the board were inclined to defer to administrative judgments on those approvals, everyone agrees that the board is responsible for “holding the administration accountable” for the district’s outcomes. How could we do that if we defer completely to their judgments about what the best choices are?
To put it more specifically: Is it possible that the curricular approaches we have taken unnecessarily advantage the kids who have lots of academic support and help at home, at the expense of kids who have less? I say “unnecessarily” because some effect like that is probably unavoidable, no matter what curriculum we adopt. But it doesn’t seem outlandish to think that some curricula might generate more disparities than others.
For example, when I see how much our schools’ curricula rely on homework, even in the elementary years, and how often my own kids seemed to struggle with it to the point where they asked for parental help, I have to wonder how much harder it must be for kids with fewer resources at home—that is, for example, kids whose parents, on average, can’t help them as much with the math assignments, or just don’t have as much time to read to them, etc. If we are, in effect, outsourcing a portion of our instruction to parents, or relying too heavily on the assumption that kids will get certain experiences at home, aren’t we practically asking for proficiency gaps? I don’t mean to say that homework is the cause of the problem; I just mean to give an example of how curricular choices could conceivably play a role.
I don’t know what the curricular options out there are, though, and I don’t pretend to have any special expertise in evaluating them. But at some point, if we are continually unhappy about the gaps we’re seeing in our students’ proficiency data, how should the board go about assuring itself that our curricular choices are not playing a role in the problem? What is the board’s responsibility on that issue, and how should it exercise it?