What’s the State Role in Ensuring Schools Have a High-Quality Curriculum?

Is it possible to balance local control of education with a state point of view on high-quality curriculum? Spoiler alert: I say it is.

I started my education career almost two decades ago in a transition-to-teaching program that placed me directly into a public high school for a year of substituting, observing, and student teaching while earning my credentials at night. A lot of this experience was trial by fire – at 25, I wasn’t much older than the seniors I would sub for in British lit (a curriculum unfamiliar to me) and they were not easily impressed.

While I grew more confident in front of a classroom, I realized that no matter how much my teaching skills improved, they were limited by the extent to which I knew my district’s curriculum. The textbooks and novels I received formed the core of what I would teach, but it was entirely up to me to design lessons, quizzes, and tests. I enjoyed this creative outlet but spent a lot of time searching for ideas and templates or borrowing them from willing colleagues. As an overwhelmed new teacher, I needed a strong set of materials and assessments that I could use to center and inform my instruction – but I was usually left to make them up on my own. While I would like to believe everything I put together was of the same high quality, I know it was not.

I wasn’t ashamed at the time to admit I needed (and wanted) help, but it was only after working for the U.S. Department of Education, on behalf of state education agencies, and as a school board member that I fully understood why that help was hard to come by. The tensions around curriculum and local control have extensive ripple effects on the teaching profession. Federal law prohibits the Department from specifying standards and curriculum, ceding that authority to states and local districts. State education agencies often distance themselves from local decisions around what should be taught, and how – thus leaving it up to district leadership and elected school boards.

I now sit on one of those local school boards and understand more than ever how our votes impact the daily lives of our teachers. Through curriculum adoption, we may be asking them to use materials they are familiar with or ones that are new to them, and we may be providing the necessary training and support to go with those materials — or not.

I firmly believe in local control of public education, but my experiences show that there’s a distinct and important role states can play in equipping teachers for success in the classroom – whether 25 and new to the job or 25 years into a teaching career. Local leaders are not always curriculum experts, so states can and should provide guidance and resources to make materials adoptions easier.

Curriculum HQ is illuminating states doing just that. The site includes an interactive map as a starting point for understanding how states support the use of high-quality resources and professional development. Here we will feature states where the education agency offers meaningful information for district and school leaders as well as educators in selecting and implementing curricular tools. Rather than providing a snapshot of uniform approaches, we’ll be featuring different state examples and populating their resources on the map over time. This reflects the evolving environment and the reality that while one size doesn’t fit all, there are many efforts worth watching.

We start with best-in-class examples from three states:

  • Mississippi has established a clearinghouse of high-quality instructional materials and selection rubrics supported by a state Curriculum Support Guide and other tools and resources, as well as a multi-district pilot to empower local educators in selecting quality curriculum.
  • Nebraska offers the Instructional Materials Collaborative, which provides a wealth of information on the selection of quality resources plus a map that displays a district-level look at which materials are in use across the state.

Resources like these would have been invaluable to me as a teacher trying to navigate my district’s curriculum decisions, and would serve me equally well as a school board member with new funding flowing to accelerate learning past the pandemic. It’s also worth noting the different political environments in these states, which proves leadership in this area is not ascribed to partisanship.

Stay tuned for more on this evolving landscape.

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 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.