The Downside of Frequent Curriculum Changes

  • by Bryan Wetzel - Tue, 11/22/2016 - 19:17


For much of the past three years, there have been rallying cry’s, in many states, to get rid of Common Core Curriculum.  This article is not to discuss the pros and cons of Common Core curriculum or any other curriculum, its to address the unintended consequences of changing curriculum too frequently.  Before the 1990’s changes to a state's curriculum took place, on average, about once every ten years.  Since the 1990’s, and ever since politicians began campaigning with education reform as an issue, many states have changed their curriculum, on average, every 3 to 4 years.  While the changes have been made in the name of improving education, some very clear negative consequences follow frequent curriculum changes.  In fact, the cons outweigh the positives.  It’s not just politicians, as parents have now been conditioned to believe that a new curriculum will solve struggling scores, below average grades, and any other frustration they have with the education system.  However, the next time you hear a politician or any other pundit promising to change curriculum, here are some things to consider.

First, curriculum changes are often sold to the public as a means of making grades better, when in fact, the opposite result often occurs, especially in the short term.  Since curriculum changes happen about every 3 to 4 years, there is rarely a long term.  In fact, it's increasingly rare these days for a student to graduated under the same curriculum they started in.  To understand why grades would be adversely affected by a change in curriculum, you must understand the primary differences between curriculum.  Math curriculums vary, mostly, by what grades you introduce and teach the core math domains that are commonly taught from kindergarten thru the twelfth grade.  For example, one math curriculum may teach solving for decimals in fifth grade while another may not teach it until sixth grade. If you can understand that example, then it will be easy to understand how changing math curriculum too often can introduce gaps in a student's math knowledge.  To explain this let me use another example.  In the state of Georgia, students who will graduate in 2016 and 2017 will have endured 3.5 curriculum changes from kindergarten to graduation.  I say 3.5 because Georgia is still tinkering with the changes away from Common Core.  A student who was in middle school when the change to Common Core took effect had math lessons that they were supposed to learn in the grade above suddenly move back to the grade they were leaving.  Since math education builds upon itself to progressively get harder, this left many students with gaps in their math understanding.  They were now trying to learn math when they had missed the previous building blocks to understanding it.  Those same students had the same thing happen to their math curriculum again in their freshman or sophomore year in high school when the change away from Common Core began.  Introducing more gaps in their math education.  Some states have tried to stagger the introduction of the new curriculum by introducing changes at the elementary and middle school level first and slowing the transition at the higher grade levels.  But teachers often complain that the transition is usually two years or less, hardly enough time to make a difference.  At this point, it is impossible to know what curriculum works best because we never see curriculum in place long enough for students to finish using the same curriculum they started. 

The second problem is the expense.  Whenever a change of curriculum is made, states and counties must spend tens of millions to buy new resources, change or update assessments,  and remove the name of the previous curriculum from all school documents and correspondence.  It's the expense of changing curriculum so often that has contributed to the disappearance of textbooks.  The money comes from the same funds that would go to hiring new teachers, buying new technology, and paying for special services. 

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the start of this trend began with politicians running a platform of education reform.  Politicians with no experience in the field of education often make policies that fit a campaign strategy and not what's best for education.  Is it a coincidence that curriculum is changing every 3 to 4 years?  Look at the changes, and you’ll see they often follow an election cycle.  Many states recently elected politicians who ran on a platform to remove Common Core.  The residents of those states probably do not realize that their state was still using the Common Core curriculum map, only the name was changed at the top of the pages.  In fact, the states that dropped Common Core changed less than 10% of the curriculum when introducing their new and improved curriculum.  The exception to this is Texas, which never switched to Common Core. 

I’ll let the readers make up their minds as to the value, good or bad, for future changes to the curriculum in their states.  Curriculum should be finely tuned and adjusted rather than uprooted and made over.  From my point of view, there are much more effective changes needed to education that would cost less, and make a much bigger difference in the education of our children. If politicians understood the inner workings of education, they would have already made proposals that dealt with real needs of schools and not the proposals that fit on a billboard.