Great Menus for Great Meals: Providing Vetted Curriculum Options for Every Palate

In addition to my passion for all things curriculum policy, I’m also a fervent foodie. When we eat out, I’m reminded of how my husband and I have very different palates. My go-to’s are seafood and pasta while he’s more of a meat and potatoes guy. Ordering off a menu, we’ll choose very different things and have totally different experiences – even though our food is coming from the same source. My best restaurant experiences have come from knowing the menu is thoroughly vetted by the chef and, while I may prefer one item over another, there are no bad options. 

In its best-case scenario, curriculum adoption and implementation is like choosing from a well-vetted menu. The definition of quality and capacity depends largely on the consumer, though we can all agree to some universal characteristics. No one wants contaminated ingredients a chef would reject, just like no one should want to use instructional materials that lack an evidence base endorsed by educators. Someone who comes to the table depleted from a 10-mile run will have a much larger appetite than someone who’s been snacking all day, just like districts with outdated materials and professional learning practices will need more support than those looking for supplements to existing strong programs.

We hear a lot of debate about what makes curriculum “high-quality” and who gets to make that determination. Quality is a critical consideration for any program, but we can sometimes get caught up in differences of opinion on which choice is right for which context. Advocating for high-quality materials isn’t about choosing a district’s meal for them; it’s about giving educators access to a menu of vetted options so that they can select what works best for their unique context.

Fortunately, the landscape of curriculum options – and information about their quality — has improved significantly over the past decade-plus. The ingredients have expanded to cover the nuances of instruction in areas like structured literacy and three-dimensional science concepts. Thanks to EdReports, districts and states can come to the table knowing which options appropriately address grade-level standards, include additional dimensions of quality such as supports for multilingual learners, and whether the programs facilitate student learning and enhance a teacher’s ability to differentiate and build knowledge.

The situation unfolding in Ohio offers one look at how the menu matters. Last year, the state passed a sweeping science of reading law, which included a requirement that schools use high-quality instructional materials and allocated $64 million to cover new purchases. In February, Ohio released the results of a survey of the state’s curriculum landscape to better understand the changes needed to comply with the law. The survey shows real challenges Ohio’s districts will have to address. Nearly half will likely need to change their elementary reading program, and it will take much more than adopting a stronger curriculum to realize more effective instruction. These districts will also need to equip teachers with curriculum-aligned training and customize the programs to effectively serve their unique populations. 

So far, much of the conversation about this work has focused on the specific offerings included in Ohio’s near-final list of approved curricula that districts will choose from. In my view, the list establishes a new and welcome baseline of quality. All the materials on Ohio’s menu come with strengths and challenges – no program is perfect and each requires human touch – but all are better than using outdated or unreviewed materials. Further, the menu options are just the beginning. From here, the critical work of how districts and teachers implement their choices really begins. 

When it comes to efficacy – evidence on how well the curriculum works for students and teachers – knowing what to select from Ohio’s (or any state’s) menu gets murkier. One reason for this is that it’s very hard to find independent studies of any program’s efficacy across multiple contexts. Many studies are sponsored by the publishers themselves, and others look within just one school or district. Independent studies are expensive and can take years to complete—and even when they’re done, can produce inconsistent results. A recent study of more than 10 clearinghouses that evaluate educational program effectiveness finds, “Of all the educational interventions considered here [1,359], only 17% were rated by more than one clearinghouse. So, stakeholders interested in learning about the consequences of a specific education program will usually have no choice about which clearinghouses to use or prefer; they must accept whatever is available and the assumptions/standards that go with it.”

While efficacy studies are important to consider for curriculum adoption, depending on the ingredients at hand, design of the kitchen, and skill of the chef, the same recipe can lead to different results. You can serve two people the same dish cooked to perfection and get radically different reactions based on their preferences. The effectiveness of any set of materials depends on whether it was selected for the unique student population in the district and whether teachers are equipped with sustained professional learning and communities of practice. 

I applaud Ohio for embracing a state role in offering a vetted menu of curriculum options while trusting teachers to cook up the meals their students need. As other leaders think about tools for assessing curriculum quality and efficacy, they’d be wise to remember the mission: getting better materials into teachers’ hands and equipping them with the ongoing professional learning they need to offer students the education they deserve. 

Jocelyn Pickford is an education policy and communications specialist focusing on understanding and promoting practitioner-informed public policy across the private, public and non-profit sectors as a Senior Affiliate with HCM Strategists. She began her career in education as a high school English teacher in a regular and special education inclusion classroom and is now a public school parent and recent member of her local district school board. Previously, Jocelyn led the design, launch and implementation of the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education to integrate teachers into the national education policy dialogue. Jocelyn’s passion for her work was seeded during her own public school education and took root during her classroom teaching experience in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she led action research and presented instructional materials to a variety of audiences. Jocelyn earned her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College (CT), working as a professional writer and editor prior to becoming a teacher, and obtained her master’s in secondary education from the George Washington University. Jocelyn lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two children.