Curriculum reformers vs what’s best for students, Part 2

Matthew Ladner

Curriculum reformers occasionally get annoyed about school choice, but choice remains the most effective mechanism by which families can access varying curricular offerings.

Last week, I wrote about a charter school’s announcement in 2013 that it would open in a North Phoenix neighborhood and how that decision heralded curricular changes at nearby schools. Repercussions included a banner across the front of Shea Middle School that screamed in 9,000-point type. I investigated further and found that while one of Shea Middle’s feeder elementary schools, Mercury Mine Elementary, adopted and stayed with Core Knowledge, Shea Middle School did not.

From the current (2020) Paradise Valley Unified School District website:

So, despite the giant banner, Shea Middle School did not stick with Core Knowledge. This is not surprising; Core Knowledge is a minority sect in a country with an established religion. Colleges of Education and unionized district employees tend to have very different curricular preferences than followers of E.D. Hirsch Jr., founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation. The increase in the pluralism of area schools failed to prompt sustained curricular changes at Shea, but Mercury Mine, in the same neighborhood and part of the same district, and whose students feed into Shea Middle School, stayed the course.

The state’s accountability exam, AZMerit, provides a consistent data source between 2015 and 2019. The chart below displays the academic trends for both schools:

Mercury Mine started off better than average in both English Language Arts and Math in 2015 and improved substantially. Shea Middle started below the statewide average and stayed there. Many factors influence scores, so this is far from proof-positive that Core Knowledge made the difference at Mercury Mine, and the over-time trend is more important than the passing percentages due to the varying grade levels of tests. Having said that, it appears that Mercury Mine chose wisely.

Before the introduction of charters into the area, it’s likely that there were no schools using Hirsch-type curriculum in this part of Phoenix. Now there are three – two charters and one traditional district elementary. The latter has improved substantially.

Curriculum reformers should leverage choice in order to increase family access to high-demand curriculum. It’s not magical, but it spurs progress.

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