Curriculum: Not Your Average Silver Bullet

Elizabeth Chu and Molly Gurny
November 28, 2023

Educators across the country are using high quality instructional materials (HQIM) to change their instruction. But what about using it to transform entire school systems?

With massive city, state, and foundation investments fueling adoption and implementation, HQIM is everywhere. Thirteen states (and counting) participate in the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Instructional Materials and Professional Development (IMPD) Network; in math alone, research shows that about a third of the biggest districts in the country have taken on these reforms.

The momentum presents enormous possibilities—and not (only) for the reasons you think. 

While some see HQIM as  a silver bullet for improving academic outcomes in the short term, we see its potential to be much more than that. It can be a doorway to big, bold change. It's an opportunity to ease our way into rewiring how school systems operate, enabling them to learn, adapt, evolve, and dismantle systemic inequities in a rapidly transforming world. 

The need for good instructional materials is both intuitive and anchored in research. Curriculum is the key resource in the instructional core that sets expectations, elaborates those expectations in tasks, and supports student learning. And there’s an emerging, growing evidence base substantiating HQIM efficacy. 

At a time when schools face widening achievement gaps alongside crisis after crisis, HQIM is a positive change that is both within reach and comes with a playbook already working in many states and localities.

HQIM brings with it a comfort and familiarity by focusing on the thing teachers and school leaders know best – instruction – while also offering a mechanism to change the way schools and people work. HQIM equips teachers with a shared body of knowledge that can change the way adults learn, problem solve and improve, collaborate, advance their craft, and partner with families. HQIM invites schools to rethink the use of time and student groupings and provides the common set of tools and knowledge infrastructure needed for learning to transcend traditional classroom or school building boundaries and expand equitable access to meaningful learning experiences.

Put simply, HQIM is positioned to change the very system itself. 

Consider the arc of CCSSO's IMPD Network as an example. At launch, the network of state leaders focused on HQIM adoption, generating commitment by state and local leaders to HQIM via a strong evidence base and responsiveness to documented disparities.

These states then turned to the harder work of systems change under the banner of consistent, high-quality HQIM implementation at scale. These states have transformed adult learning; changed how curriculum, professional learning, and other vendors are selected, managed, and evaluated; shifted the goals and scope of educator preparation; changed the use of time in schools; and advanced learning across boundaries within and across states. Next up: tackling assessment and accountability regimes.

We are seeing this ripple effect of HQIM adoption across education systems. Taking on HQIM opens up opportunities for improvement that previously seemed too big, too hard, or too disconnected from the immediate learning needs of students to tackle. HQIM generates the energy and commitment needed to engage in the deeper work of systems change.

Of course, this change is not easy. Realizing these possibilities requires opening up lines of collaboration across education reform efforts that may appear in conflict. A focus on HQIM does not necessarily mean an attachment to the system status quo. And just because there’s a focus on HQIM doesn’t mean change efforts stop with HQIM adoption. The boundary-spanning work requires bridge building across systems change advocates and those focused on implementing and scaling HQIM as a technical solution to strengthening instruction.  

If we get this right, 10 years from now, HQIM will have evolved far beyond what it is today. With the adoption of HQIM as a doorway to broader system change, we will have realized a strong, resilient K12 public education system focused on student-centered learning, family-school partnership, participatory problem solving, ongoing discovery, and pursuit of equitable opportunity.

HQIM - done right - is so much more than instruction and it's so much more than materials. It may very well be the silver bullet we need.

Elizabeth Chu is Executive Director and Molly Gurny is Senior Director of Legal Strategy and Policy at the Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) at Columbia University.