When education legislation overestimates the power of available tools, districts are forced to invest resources in impossible promises. This ensures dollars flow to particular vendors, but does nothing to support better outcomes for children, and frequently neglects the work and development of teachers and leaders.
For example, a task force addressing the implementation of dyslexia legislation on Connecticut found that even if districts were in compliance with the requirement to select universal assessments from a menu of three approved options they would not be able to reliably identify students at risk for dyslexia. In fact, the best case scenario would include combining several screeners (thus multiplying costs to districts), and adding some tasks that have not yet been developed for commercial use. In other words, districts were told they had to scrap whatever tools they had and buy one of the three options — thus siphoning district contracts to one of three vendors — to screen for the risk of dyslexia when none of the tools on that list could actually do so.
The same story is about to repeat itself when it comes to House Bill 6620 which, among other things, would require districts to choose from one of five options for reading curricula for grades K-5. The goal is to ensure all schools have access to high-quality, effective curriculum. However, there is no existing list or rating system that could ensure this.
When curriculum is evaluated, it is most often rated based on alignment with state standards, and feasibility of implementation, not on its actual impact on students.
For example, the website, EdReports, identifies 8/20 curricula available for K-2nd grade, and 23/44 packages available for 3-8th grade that meet expectations for alignment with the Common Core State Standards. Eleven years ago, Johns Hopkins University’s Best Evidence Encyclopedia reported only two programs had strong evidence of effectiveness K-2, and none did for grades 3 to 5. Neither review mechanism considers factors such as the race and ethnicity of curriculum writers or included authors, the cultural responsiveness of activities and materials, or language supports for students developing English.
Without information on the content, quality and perspectives represented in commercially available curriculum packages, which five will Connecticut choose? What additional criteria will be applied? When the criteria are applied, will any options remain? Or will the most convincing vendors clinch the Connecticut market without evidence of impact, inclusivity, or feasibility? Connecticut citizens must carefully watch which vendors receive these lucrative contracts with no oversight or accountability for the promises made on websites and sales pitches.
Planned curriculum, even under the best circumstances, does not directly translate to actual instruction. Sometimes curricular materials are not in alignment with assessment materials, other content curricula, or the knowledge base of educators in the school, so teachers could not implement them with fidelity even if they wanted to. Sometimes there are conflicting messages about whether curricula is meant to be a resource, support or script for teachers. Sometimes teachers are faced with multiple competing priorities, so whole boxes of curricula remain shrink-wrapped on their classroom shelves — artifacts from a past effort or passing interest on the part of a school board or parent group.
In some districts, “curriculum” is in actuality a living document created by teachers, approved by the school board, and revised based on evidence of student progress each year. In these cases, mandating that schools implement one of five approved packages not only dismisses teachers’ knowledge, work, and professional judgement, but the work, knowledge and judgement of the board that approves their proposals.
In the best case scenario, research has accumulated to show that it takes two to three years for teachers to fully implement a new curriculum with fidelity to the program and responsiveness to individual students’ needs. Yet HB 6620 requires immediate adoption of a limited set of options by all districts, immediately following two years of interrupted and improvised curricula due to the pandemic. The new curriculum would be applied universally to districts across a spectrum: from those that have endured a steady march of new programs with little support or guidance, to those who have deliberately and collaboratively designed curricula to fit the needs and strengths of their communities. This violates the research on uses of curriculum and its role in instructional reform, as well as research on teacher learning and policy implementation. It will not work because it cannot work.
If our goal is to educate diverse learners and to create stronger schools where teachers and leaders work together, we have to care about curriculum options that are inclusive, cohesive, and reflective of the diversity of the state, selected by leaders and administrators that represent that diversity, and monitored by a diverse body of professionals that can adjust and implement it in real time.
We also need to care about the infrastructure that allows teachers and leaders to implement their reading program in a sustained, consistent way to benefit students. This undoubtedly requires reallocating resources, but not on the whim of a small group without the input and accountability of local authorities and practitioners who ultimately carry out these shifts.
The next step forward in “addressing opportunity gaps and equity” is not the current strategy outlined in House Bill 6620. Instead, the “Right to Read” should be fundamentally about protecting the right for all young people to have access to powerful, responsive, culturally sustaining instruction provided by highly trained professional educators in safe and welcoming schools. It should be about the rights of local communities to fully participate in decisions about their children’s education.
We do not protect these rights by limiting the curricular choices of educators and districts. We protect them by investing in inclusive policies that expand, rather than limit, our student’s potential.
Rachael Gabriel and Sarah Woulfin are Associate Professors of Education at the Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut.