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Curriculum Counts: NYC Public Schools and the Common Core

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Curriculum Counts: NYC Public Schools and the Common Core

June 9, 2015
EducationPre K-12
Urban PolicyNYC

Executive Summary

Recent research suggests that well-designed, content-rich instructional materials can have as positive an impact on student learning as can high-quality teachers. As school districts across the U.S. endeavor to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS, or Common Core), the issue of curriculum quality has become even more important.

This paper examines NYC elementary and middle schools—math and English language arts (ELA) curricula decisions in response to CCSS implementation. The author's findings are based on information derived from an online survey e-mailed to NYC's 1,168 elementary and middle school principals, a focus group conducted with eight NYC principals, and interviews with current and former officials at the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE) and numerous other curricula experts. This paper finds that NYC has taken the adoption of Common Core seriously and—notwithstanding controversy over state tests and their use in teacher evaluations—that curricula implementation has largely proceeded smoothly. Key findings include:

  • Information scarce on curricula choices. While NYC collects data on its schools—curricula procurement choices, it largely remains in the dark on the extent to which such curricula are used in classrooms.
  • DOE-recommended choices largely followed. If survey results are extrapolated for all NYC elementary and middle schools, roughly two-thirds have likely switched to NYC DOE—recommended ELA and math curricula. Further, low-performing schools appear more likely than high-performing schools to have switched to recommended options: the latter face few incentives to change curricula; and the former, strong incentives.
  • Principals largely satisfied with Common Core. If survey results are extrapolated for all NYC elementary and middle schools, the majority of NYC principals are likely satisfied with their curricula choices and believe that their teachers are faithfully implementing principals' choices. Likewise, the majority of NYC principals value the curricula guidance offered by the city (via its Common Core Library website) and state (via its EngageNY website).

This paper concludes with the following recommendations:

  • Collect data on curricula choices. New York State already requires schools to complete an annual survey—the results of which are published on the state's website. NYC collects reams of data from city schools, too, from attendance to suspensions. Adding curricula-related questions to such data-collection efforts could be done at minimal cost.
  • Hire an analytical research firm to review curricula. What curricula are most effective? Few have been subjected to rigorous, empirical tests. Indeed, simply establishing a correlation between curricula and student achievement would be a great step forward.
  • Mandate that schools post curricula choices on their websites. Parents deserve to know—and should not have to jump through hoops to find out.
  • Encourage education charities to finance such efforts. Major philanthropic organizations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that have invested heavily in Common Core should support curricula information collection efforts as well as empirical research on the relative effectiveness of various curricula.

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