Evaluating curricula: #1—Jamie's committee hears from the curriculum company representative
What do you want to know about curricula?
This a little fictitious story about Jamie, a special education teacher in a local education agency named Monterrey and a member of Monterrey’s advisory committee on curricula for the LEA. But Jamie could be a parent, a general education teacher, or an administrator who’s been appointed to this committee, but in this telling, she’s a teacher. You may want to imagine that you are Jamie.
Jamie not only likes the other committee members, but she respects them. If you are Jamie, you’re convinced that those other members of the committee want to recommend curricula that will benefit students and school faculty members. Of course, you have differences—some of you tilt more toward phonics but some lean toward literature-based lessons—but you’re pretty sure that everyone cares about outcomes and is willing to listen.
Here’s a vignette about one of Jamie’s experience.—JohnL
Act 1, Scene 1
An educational advocate came to Jamie’s LEA (and the committee) to promote the XYA curriculum. The consultant essentially said, “Thanks for having me. I’ve got the best method of reading [it could just as well be math | behavior management | whatever], and I want y’all to buy it. It’s really groovy. It rings all the bells: It’s based on evidence; it has supplements for individualization; other LEAs tell us it’s their go-to resource….”
“Should I continue,” the consultant said, and then, without waiting for confirmation, she did continue: “It has embedded professional development and support. There’re student-friendly materials with illustrations by a Caldecott Award winner. The lessons and materials are designed to be considerate of kids’ backgrounds according to guidelines recommended by the DCAS [Diversity Council of American Schools]. It’s easy for teachers; it tells them exactly what to do in convenient checklists, but it’s not ‘scripted.’ It adjusts to students’ performance so that each student gets what he or she needs. We do this by using a tiered system with primary prevention, secondary adaptations, and tertiary individualization....”
At the same time that Jamie was already starting to tune out the advocate’s presentation, she began leafing through her handout (a fine and slick booklet!), looking for anything that mentions evidence of effectiveness. “This stuff rings a lot of good bells,” Jamie was thinking, “But does it actually work?”
Eventually, after a beautiful slide show using many painterly images from the Caldecott Award winner and gushing quotes from ecstatic customers (“We had no idea our kids would do so well!” “Last year we had so many failing students, but once we started using XYZ, we hardly have any!”), Jamie wondered how long the presentation would last. She found herself resisting letting her eyes close.
When the presenter says, “Any questions?” Jamie looked around at her admired colleagues on the committee, bolstered her courage, and said, “Yes. I’m Jamie Ireland from San Julian Middle School, special ed. Thank you for your presentation. I see too many students get to middle school and they are still struggling with the fundamentals of reading. I’m just wondering, do you have any actual research evidence about XYZ?”
“Yes,” the consultant replies. “Let me go back and find that slide about Smithtown Elementary. Remember...just a minute...yes, here it is. [The consultant shows an earlier slide with a beautiful graph…perhaps one Jamie missed while her thoughts wandered.] Now I know that you’re middle school, but middle isn’t that different from elementary…but remember that Smithtown’s scores went from 67% passing the state test to 81% passing in only three years of using XYZ. That’s a pretty great improvement! It’s almost 5% a year of improvement! Oh, yes…we don’t have break-out data about special ed kids, but I can assure you that they did really well, too. You know what a rising tide does to all the little boats, right?”
“Nice, indeed....” Jamie hesitated, glanced around again, and then decide to ask her next question. “Uhm, how did the control group do in that study?”
“Oh!” the consultant replies. “Well, this was what’s called a ‘quasi-experiment’; there wasn’t any control group. We didn’t want to cut kids out from benefitting from the program.”
Jamie politely half-listened as other members of the committee asked questions.
Act 1, Scene 2
Later, after the meeting has ended, Jamie found that the assistant superintendent for instruction was calling her in the hallway as she was leaving. “Jamie! Hold on. I’ve got a question for you,” she said. She catches up and as you walk together to the parking lot, you talk together. You notice the slightly brisk air of the early-December evening and how it seems to be getting dark sooner than it was, just a few months before when school was just starting.
After some small talk, she asks, “So, Jamie, were you happy with that answer about research?”
“Not really,” Jamie reply. “I’m not some big scientist, but I think it’s important to have a control or a comparison group...so you know what would have happened if kids didn’t get the special program. Like, you know, I’m just comparing tonight’s temperature to the temp in September?”
“Well,” Anna Fields, the assistant superintendent said, “I agree. I’m not a big scientist either. But, didn’t all those important research studies in all my classes—my biology classes, my psychology classes, shoot, even my archeology classes—almost all research had control groups...with all that talk about random stuff, too!”
“Right!” Jamie replied. “And I don’t get how they can say it works better than everything if they haven’t even compared it to something...one other thing, at least.”
“I agree,” Anna replies. “We need some hard evidence. I know a professor at the university who likes this research stuff. Brenda Bebopp is her name. I think we—well you and the committee—could use some help understanding how to judge a program’s evidence of how effective they are. Do you think I should call her?”
“Well, sure,” Jamie said, while continuing to walk across the cool, dark parking lot. “But it’d be great to get advice from someone else, too. I mean, what if Professor Bebee (?) is biased...maybe not in favor of the XYZ program, but about some other thing…something about reading research? Do you know what I mean? Do you know anyone else, too?”
“Oh, of course I do,” Anna replies. “I don’t think Brenda—it’s ‘Bebopp,’ by the way—is biased. But you’re right about how people have their own views, even researchers. So, I’ll shop around for another research expert, too. Good idea!”
As Jamie opened her car door, she caught Anna’s eye and, looking at her intently, she said, “Thanks, Anna. I’m really glad we’re going this direction. You have the clout. Maybe XYZ is really good...but it would be nice to know it really is instead of just believing it is.”
“You’re right, Jamie.” Anna replied. “Monterrey shouldn’t be spending hundreds of thousands a year—maybe millions!—on this if it doesn’t help kids and teachers.”
“Right, Anna!” you reply. “Talk soon! And drive safely!”