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Beyond Standards: The Fragmentation of Education Governance and the Promise of Curriculum Reform

reviewed by Simone A. Fried & Maxwell M. Yurkofsky - May 10, 2022

coverTitle: Beyond Standards: The Fragmentation of Education Governance and the Promise of Curriculum Reform
Author(s): Morgan Polikoff
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1682536114, Pages: 192, Year: 2021
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Since the 1990s, education reformers have pushed for stronger federal and state involvement in education as a means of achieving excellence and equity in schools. No Child Left Behind (2001) took the unprecedented step of requiring states to develop student learning standards and corresponding accountability systems. This forced the nation to grapple with previously concealed disparities in educational opportunity, but also generated numerous unintended consequences that compromised reforms’ effectiveness. Subsequent iterations of education laws have sought to address these limitations—pursuing better standards, more rigorous assessments, and more precise accountability systems—while still working within a standards and accountability framework. Yet student outcomes remain essentially unchanged. In a well-argued new volume, Beyond Standards: The Fragmentation of Education Governance and the Promise of Curriculum Reform, Morgan Polikoff (2021) lays out a powerful critique of the macro forces that prevent us from achieving our education goals. But don’t get the wrong impression from the title: Polikoff suggests that the failures of prior movements can be rectified not by eliminating standards-based reform, but by coupling it with state-level curriculum control.

In the first chapter, Polikoff offers a sympathetic overview of the logic of standards-based reform, primarily as articulated in Smith & O’Day’s classic (1990) piece. While agreeing with their diagnosis of the problem, Polikoff argues that the solutions proposed by the standards movement were too far removed from the core work of instruction. Indeed, Polikoff aptly observes that their analysis of the problems plaguing American education “could be written today with essentially no edits” (p. 2).

In Chapter 2, Polikoff draws on his own and others’ scholarship to argue that the standards movement has had limited success in changing teaching practice or improving student outcomes. Throughout, he carefully weighs the evidence on both sides—for example, acknowledging the steady increase in math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) while also explaining why the standards movement probably did not contribute significantly to these gains. Analyzing state and federal policy changes over the past fifteen years, Polikoff shows how efforts to address the most commonly cited barriers to improvement (i.e., low quality standards and assessments, badly designed accountability systems, etc.) have not yielded dramatically different outcomes. In other words, “the failure of standards is not about technical issues” but rather has deeper and more fundamental causes.

Chapter 3 focuses on the lack of quality curriculum materials in classrooms, which Polikoff attributes to states’ unwillingness to use their constitutional power to influence districts’ textbook adoption. A strength of this chapter is Polikoff’s presentation of research on the inefficiencies of districts’ curriculum review processes, which “take a substantial amount of time and resources and duplicate work that has already been done or could easily be done at higher, more centralized levels” (p. 54). He also describes Louisiana’s creative curriculum strategies, such as creating their own materials and offering incentives if districts adopt textbooks that are aligned with state standards. One question that Polikoff does not systematically investigate is why most states do not take a more muscular approach. Instead, he offers one anecdote of California officials not wanting to violate norms of local control.

In Chapter 4, Polikoff delves into the implementation challenges posed by the social organization of teaching. He first grounds the reader in the complexity of teaching—and thus why “treating teachers as cogs in a machine is a recipe for discontent and disaster”—and reviews the research that demonstrates the importance of allowing teachers to exercise professional discretion in the classroom (p. 58). The problem for Polikoff is that this requires teachers to evaluate resources based on their alignment with standards, which takes up a great deal of time and attention, and also requires that teachers have a knowledge of the standards that, in Polikoff’s reading, they do not have.

One might quibble with Polikoff’s means of assessing teacher standards knowledge. For example, he cites one finding that teachers are not often able to differentiate between standards for their grade (versus other grades) as evidence of poor knowledge, when in practice what matters is whether teachers know where to find the correct standard when planning lessons. In fact, it is reasonable for teachers to be just as familiar with earlier- or later-grade standards to support students of different abilities. Additionally, some teachers might find that what Polikoff considers inefficient (matching resources and activities to standards) is simply an inherent part of purposeful lesson planning, which involves backwards designing from a standards-aligned learning objective. Notwithstanding these critiques, the chapter fully persuades the reader that the social organization of teaching does not always facilitate meaningful implementation of standards.

Chapter 5 outlines the final piece of Polikoff’s problem framing: our nation’s lack of coherent systems to support teachers with standards implementation. He argues that standards are insufficient without supporting materials like scope and sequence guides, assessments, and a research-based professional development approach that aligns pre-service, in-service, and teacher evaluation to the standards and curriculum we wish teachers to use, as well as to other areas of school and district policy. Although he notes that districts and schools face constraints on their ability to provide these services, he primarily attributes the incoherence of our current approach to a lack of adaptive leadership from schools and districts in favor of “overly technical” solutions. Accordingly, his district-level recommendations in Chapter 6 include strong professional learning, clear expectations for teachers, and a transparent adoption process.

Having concluded his critique of the standards-based movement, Polikoff uses Chapter 7 to make the case for a new centralized, state-led approach to instructional reform. Because states are constitutionally responsible for education, they have the formal authority to design policies that encourage districts to adopt certain materials such as financial discounts for adoption, or state-created supplemental curricular, assessment, and professional development offerings. He notes that most states do not routinely collect or analyze curriculum data, and reviews two state-led curriculum efforts, EngageNY and Louisiana Guidebooks, both of which have seen widespread adoption. Based on these examples, Polikoff offers a simple hypothesis: If states require districts to select from a small, high-quality set of materials, then on average more students will have access to high-quality materials, which can’t be a bad thing. So why have they not done so?

In Chapter 8, Polikoff briefly addresses the larger political environment and structural factors that produce decentralization in the first place, writing, “We cannot achieve equity at scale with thirteen thousand school districts operating at current levels of independence from the state that funds their existence. It is impossible” (136). He recommends a “radical” increase in state control broadly in terms of funding and tax policy, a more equitable approach to allocating high-quality teachers where they are needed, redistricting and changing school board policies to improve democratic representation, and an unspecified host of “aggressive reforms” to rectify income inequality and structural racism writ large.

Reading this proposal, one can’t help but wonder if these ideas are vulnerable to the very same implementation challenges that plague the standards-based movement. While on the margins, it would likely be helpful for all schools to adopt standards-aligned materials, this work likely requires more than a technical substitution of one curriculum for another. District-level research documents countless ways in which strong instructional programs can be derailed or distorted during implementation, in part because developing strong curricula is just one small piece of the coherence puzzle (Cohen & Mehta, 2017; Hopkins & Spillane, 2015; Peurach et al., 2019). Districts must also develop systems for supporting its use in classrooms, managing relationships with external stakeholders, continuously assessing progress, and, in response to challenges, determining where the problem lies. Is the issue the curriculum itself? Efforts to support its use? Teacher knowledge or skill? Something else? While Polikoff begins to detail the complex adaptive work of transforming districts into organizations that can implement, evaluate, and improve curricular materials, this area of his analysis feels underdeveloped given the pivotal role of districts in implementation.

State-level implementation challenges also exist. Polikoff notes that state agencies have the formal authority to mandate curricular choices, but formal authority is a limited tool. In practice, state efforts to lead reform are mediated through their unique political environment (Louis et al., 2008). For example, Polikoff criticizes the Common Core movement for neglecting to impose accompanying curricula. Yet reformers faced such significant challenges with just standards that in 2018, 32 states were still grappling with proposed legislation to revoke them (Greer, 2018). It is difficult to imagine how they could have mustered the political capital to also prescribe curricula. State agencies likewise face capacity constraints, i.e., limited budgets that fluctuate with the political environment and are often tied to rigid restrictions and bureaucratic regulations, which Polikoff inadvertently illustrates by roundly denouncing their responses to the COVID-19 crisis. States will struggle to follow in the footsteps of Louisiana and New York without attention to how these states made their curricular reforms operationally and politically feasible.

Even when states take a stronger role in curriculum, this may not produce equity. The recent spate of controversies surrounding Critical Race Theory in schools is a testament to the significant resistance communities can muster in response to proposed curricular reform. Florida recently passed “parents’ rights” legislation prohibiting discussion of gender and sexuality in classrooms, which allows parents to sue school districts over curricular issues at the district’s expense (Goldstein, 2022). Moreover, the Florida Department of Education rejected 41% of submitted mathematics textbooks this year for “references to Critical Race Theory (CRT), inclusions of Common Core, and the unsolicited addition of Social Emotional Learning (SEL)”—characteristics that many educators would consider assets (FDOE, 2022). It’s clear that the nation is far from consensus on what children should learn, and that curriculum selection is a highly politicized issue that stakeholders can, and will, dispute.

Overall, this volume offers a coherent and well-evidenced diagnosis of the problem and outlines a promising avenue for change at the state and district level. It raises important questions about how states might ensure that high-quality curricular materials are adopted and successfully implemented in classrooms, and why they have not already used their constitutional authority to lead this work. We hope that readers who are convinced by Polikoff’s framing of the problem and proposed solution will be moved to research such questions to begin advocating for change.


Cohen, D. K. & Mehta, J. D. (2017). Why reform sometimes succeeds: Understanding the conditions that produce reforms that last. American Educational Research Journal, 54(4), 644–690. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831217700078

Florida Department of Education (FDOE) (April 15, 2022). Florida rejects publishers’ attempts to indoctrinate students [press release].  https://www.fldoe.org/newsroom/latest-news/florida-rejects-publishers-attempts-to-indoctrinate-students.stml

Goldstein, Dana (March 18, 2022). Opponents call it the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. Here’s what it says. The New York Times.  https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/18/us/dont-say-gay-bill-florida.html

Greer, W. (2018). The 50-year history of the Common Core. Educational Foundations, 31(3/4), 100–117.

Hopkins, M., & Spillane, J. P. (2015). Conceptualizing relations between instructional guidance infrastructure (IGI) and teachers’ beliefs about mathematics instruction: Regulative, normative, and cultural-cognitive considerations. Journal of Educational Change, 16(4), 421–450. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10833-015-9257-1

Seashore Louis, K., Thomas, E., Gordon, M. F., & Febey, K. S. (2008). State leadership for school improvement: An analysis of three states. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(4), 562–592. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013161X08323858

Peurach, D. J., Cohen, D. K., Yurkofsky, M. M., & Spillane, J. P. (2019). From mass schooling to education systems: Changing patterns in the organization and management of instruction. Review of Research in Education, 43(1), 32–67.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 10, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 24059, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 12:02:09 PM

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About the Author
  • Simone A. Fried
    Harvard Graduate School of Education
    E-mail Author
    SIMONE A. FRIED, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she recently defended her dissertation on the political, strategic, and operational considerations of state takeovers of low-performing school districts. More broadly, her research applies an organizational and institutional lens to education governance, leadership, management, and policy implementation. She has written for peer-reviewed journals including the Harvard Educational Review and Education Policy, and co-authored reports for the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy and Abt Associates. At Harvard, she has lately served as Lead Teaching Fellow supporting both the HGSE Writing Center and the thesis coaches for the doctoral program in Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.).
  • Maxwell M. Yurkofsky
    Radford University
    E-mail Author
    MAXWELL M. YURKOFSKY, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Radford University. His research draws on institutional and organizational theory to understand how school systems can organize for continuous improvement towards more ambitious and equitable visions of learning. His work has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals, including Educational Researcher, Educational Administration Quarterly, Review of Research in Education, the Harvard Educational Review, and Teaching and Teacher Education. He earned his doctorate in the Education Policy, Leadership, and Instructional Practice Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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