Marc Tucker (2004) has observed that one of the key differences between the U.S. education system and systems in countries whose students regularly outperform U.S. students is that they are instructionally coherent. He describes these educational systems as follows (p. 203):
They had instructional systems that could properly be called systems. The list is now familiar: clear standards; high-quality examinations designed to assess whether the standards had been met; curriculum frameworks specifying what topics and concepts were to be taught at each grade level; a standard required curriculum (with very few electives), typically through the ninth or tenth year of school; instructional materials that fit the curriculum frameworks; and training designed to prepare teachers to impart the official curriculum successfully.
Tucker labels these conditions coherent instructional systems, and he goes on to say that true coherence requires more than formal alignment of standards, curriculum, and assessments. He says that coherence occurs when the culture of schools and all the elements of practice, large and small, are “in harmony with one another” (p. 208). He continues (pp. 208-209):
[Coherence] is what happens when the school makes sure that the parents know what standards the students are expected to meet, how their children are doing, and what they can do to help where the help is most needed. It is what happens when the master schedule is set up so that student time is allocated to the tasks on which they are furthest behind and so that teacher time is allocated to the students who need the most help. Finally, it is what happens when tests or examinations are designed to assess whether the students learned what they were supposed to learn from the courses they took, which were in turn derived from a curriculum that is referenced to the standards they are supposed to meet. It is a matter of making sure that every aspect of the school’s functioning is organized to advance its stated purposes.
This argument has a persuasive logic, and there is some empirical support for it. Beginning with the effective schools studies, researchers have found that focus, unity of purpose, and a shared vision of outcomes are related to gains in student learning (Smith and O’Day, 1991; Bryk, Lee, and Holland, 1993; Hill and Celio, 1998). However, no one had examined the importance of instructional coherence at the school level as defined by Tucker until Newman et al. (2001) investigated whether elementary schools in Chicago that had improving instructional coherence showed improvements in student achievement. They found that such schools made higher gains over multiple years than schools that were lower on measures of instructional coherence.