Reviewing “The Tyranny of the Textbook”

Over
the past decade, education reform advocates on both the state and national
level have demonstrated an almost single-minded focus on various “structural
reforms”: setting standards, adopting assessments, establishing clear
accountability for results, providing school leaders greater autonomy and
flexibility, injecting greater competition and choice into school funding
systems, etc. But, by focusing on structural reforms over getting
classroom-level curriculum and instruction right, are reformers missing the
boat?

Beverly
Jobrack thinks so. In fact, she’s written a book— The Tyranny of theTextbook: An Insider Exposes How Educational Materials Undermine Reform—that
argues, essentially, that it’s curriculum, not structural reform, that has the
greatest potential to drive student achievement.

Standards alone will do little
to drive student achievement if they’re not meaningfully implemented.

Jobrack
has a point—as we’ve long said here at Fordham, standards alone will do little
to drive student achievement if they’re not meaningfully implemented (via,
among other things, a thoughtfully designed curriculum). In fact, few state and
national education reformers would disagree with Jobrack about the importance
of curriculum and instruction in driving student achievement. So why do so few
actually take up the fight for curriculum and instructional changes?

One
big challenge is the belief of many reformers—including Jobrack herself—that
curricular and instructional policy should not be set centrally. After all, if
you have to drive change one school at a time, you lose all the leverage
provided by state and federal policy. And this is where Jobrack’s argument and
policy recommendations start to break down. While Jobrack does highlight the
ineffectiveness and inefficiency of statewide textbook adoption policy, she
doesn’t offer much in the way of practical policy advice beyond that. And much
of the advice beyond the textbook issue seems misguided.

For
instance, Jobrack outlines what seems like an overly complicated and lengthy
selection process for schools looking to adopt curricula. And, once selected,
she encourages schools to manage the faithful implementation of the selected
curriculum—a policy prescription that seems sure to encourage a
paint-by-numbers approach to instruction and implementation.

Of
course, there’s no denying that a poorly implemented curriculum will have very
little impact on student achievement. But it doesn’t follow that managing to
implementation rather than to results will yield better results for students
for two reasons. First, no selection process, no matter how well designed, will
ever protect schools from making curricular mistakes. (Look at Joel Klein’s
disastrous decision to mandate—and manage, too—the faithful implementation of
“Everyday Math” and “Month-by-Month Phonics” in New York City schools nearly a decade ago.)
Second, there is no such thing as a “teacher-proof” curriculum.

Finally,
and perhaps most importantly, Jobrack doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to
the importance of instruction. Effective curriculum implementation relies on
effective instruction. And effective instruction relies on a teacher’s ability
to adapt curriculum to the needs of his/her particular students. And so any
discussion about classroom-level implementation of curriculum should include a
discussion of using formal and informal assessment to track student mastery of
essential content and skills, and of using the data from those assessments to
really drive short- and long-term planning and instruction. This kind of
data-driven instruction is essential in ensuring not only that teachers have
covered essential content, but that students have actually learned it.

In
the end, Jobrack helps reinforce the feeling that when it comes to state and
federal policy a focus first and foremost on structural reforms does make
sense. But Jobrack’s larger point still stands: a movement concerned only with
these issues of structural reform can’t claim to actually be driving student
achievement gains, instead only creating the opportunity for school leaders and
educations to do so when they get curriculum and instruction right within
school walls.

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