New NEPC Review Says Sound Curriculum Report Overreaches

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Key takeaway: NEPC reviewer finds report about better textbooks to be timely and insightful, but makes exaggerated claims

An NEPC reviewer finds that a recent Center for American Progress report, The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform, points to very real problems with textbook adoption, including poor alignment with standards and lack of attention to impact. A new review of that report offers praise but also cautions that the report overreaches in its conclusions and in its use of other studies.

Sarah Lubienski, professor of mathematics education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reviewed The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform: Do States and Districts Receive the Most Bang for Their Curriculum Buck? for the Think Twice think tank review project at the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education.

Professor Lubienski’s review points to clear merits of the report. For example, she describes, it presents a study of textbook adoption processes and costs, finding that textbooks are rarely chosen based on evidence of effectiveness and true alignment with standards, and that elementary mathematics textbook prices vary little, regardless of quality or whether or not a state recommends particular texts for adoption.

The review, however, also claims that the report overreaches. Based on a single prior study of first and second grade math curricula in some high-poverty schools, Dr. Lubienski claims that it draws general conclusions about the Return on Investment (ROI) for good versus weak textbooks, ignoring key findings within the original study and also ignoring other research showing that curricular effects vary, depending on context and implementation—that is, a good book is no guarantee of benefits. Dr. Lubienski points out that the report then compares its estimated ROI for textbooks with another study’s reported ROI for other interventions, while ignoring nuances of that second study’s calculations.

Overall, Dr. Lubienski concludes, Hidden Value is timely and provides important insights about the need for evidence-based curriculum selection. But its conclusions are marred by highly optimistic claims about curricular ROI.

Find Professor Lubienski’s review on the NEPC website at:
http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-curriculum

Find The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform: Do States and Districts Receive the Most Bang for Their Curriculum Buck?, by Ulrich Boser, Matthew Chingos, and Chelsea Straus, published by Center for American Progress, on the web at:
https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/06111518/CurriculumMatters-report.pdf

The Think Twice think tank review project (http://thinktankreview.org) of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) provides the public, policymakers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. NEPC is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. The Think Twice think tank review project is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence. For more information on the NEPC, please visit http://nepc.colorado.edu/.

This review is also found on the GLC website at http://www.greatlakescenter.org/.

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William Mathis

Sarah Lubienski
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
(217) 333-1564
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