The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a new plan intended to help public schools: improve the materials that teachers use to teach.

“Our goal is to work with the field to make sure that five years from now, teachers at every level in secondary school have high-quality aligned curriculum in English, math, and science,” Bill Gates said in a speech last fall, describing curriculum as “an area where we feel like we’ve underinvested.”

It’s part of a revamped strategy for the philanthropy, which has become one of the most influential forces in American education over the last two decades. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) Much of that work has been divisive: Gates was a key player in the push for the Common Core standards and teacher evaluations tied to student test scores.

By comparison, focusing on curriculum seems like a less controversial tack. But if history tells us anything about philanthropists’ role in pushing educational changes, it’s that these efforts prove more challenging than initially thought.

Here’s what we know about the curriculum push — and three tough issues the foundation will have to navigate.

First, what is the Gates Foundation actually doing?

Henry Hipps, a deputy director at the Gates Foundation who spearheads its work on curriculum, said the increased emphasis on the topic was driven by an emerging body of research — as well as feedback from educators and advocates — making the case for the importance of curriculum.

The organization’s efforts will center on three areas, Hipps said.

One is making “high-quality” materials more widely available. That means funding groups that develop curriculums and then make them publicly available, offering alternatives to the big textbook companies.

Another is steering decision-makers (read: school board members and school leaders) to select materials seen as high-quality, which the foundation will do by funding rating systems and research on teaching materials.

And the third is helping teachers successfully use those materials, which Gates will do by funding organizations like TNTP that provide teacher training.

Doing all three means wading into a few key controversies. Morgan Polikoff — a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied curriculum materials — said that he was optimistic about Gates’ efforts, but cognizant of those risks.

“I think it’s probably better than the status quo, which is in essence incoherent curricula in most places,” said Polikoff, who has received funding from Gates. “But then again, I completely recognize that what I’m describing is probably exactly what was said about teacher evaluation in 2007 … and also Common Core.”

Flash point #1: This is all still intertwined with the Common Core, which remains a source of opposition among conservatives and some teachers.

If the Gates Foundation wants to make “high-quality” materials more widely available, someone has to decide what earns a curriculum that label. That’s a tricky and values-laden task.

Hipps says one of the key factors will be whether a curriculum aligns with “whatever locally selected standards exist.”

That’s where Common Core comes back. In most states, “locally selected standards” still means the Common Core, or something very much like it. Polls show mixed support for those standards among both parents and teachers, with Republicans in particular opposing it as it became closely associated with President Obama. (The creation of the academic standards was heavily funded by the Gates Foundation and pushed by the federal government, though states made the ultimate decisions about whether to adopt and keep them.)

Some curriculum creators are aware of this.

“We have issues in places like West Virginia and Texas where the Common Core is a bad word,” said Larry Singer, the CEO of Open Up Resources, a Gates-funded developer of curriculums that can be freely downloaded. In West Virginia, he said, the organization was asked to a create a virtually identical version of its content without references to the Common Core.

All of that means that quality labels based on a connection to Common Core may not be broadly, or easily, accepted — just like the standards themselves.

Flash point #2: Other ways of identifying a good curriculum are controversial, too.

Educators have debated what to teach and how to teach it since forever. And English, math, and science — the three subjects Gates says it will focus on in the next five years — each have their own fault lines.

Defining a good curriculum is “a subjective call,” said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. “Part of the problem is who’s getting to define quality.”

Some of these issues have already bubbled up with a group known as EdReports, which bills itself a “consumer reports” for textbooks and teaching materials and is supported by Gates. After the group released initial ratings of math textbooks, its approach was criticized by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics for focusing on only a subset of the Common Core math standards, among other issues. (EdReports said it revised its approach in response to that and other feedback.)

Another way to judge different curriculums is to focus on which materials have been found to make the biggest impact on student achievement. Studies have shown that some textbooks do better than others, though differences tend to be fairly modest, roughly akin to moving a 50th percentile student up several percentage points.

It’s also possible that instructional materials won’t be equally effective in all schools. There’s not much research on this, but one recent study found that students of color in San Francisco benefitted from a class with an ethnic studies curriculum.

Hipps said Gates was aware that different schools and students might need different things. “One of the things that we hope would be included in high quality instructional materials are structured supports that help teachers adapt their material,” he said. “That’s another dimension of quality.”

Flash point #3: Teachers may be wary of curricular changes — and Gates’ influence.

Finally, there’s the question about how all of this will interact with teachers’ sense of control over their classrooms.  

Surveys show that virtually all teachers rely at least in part on materials they’ve developed or selected themselves. Is this a problem to be solved, or an example of teachers adapting materials for their particular context?

Hipps thinks the balance is tilted too far in one direction. “Too often [teachers] are left to scour the internet for hours to curate and tailor instructional materials for their students,” he said.

Many teachers, though, aren’t eager to have more forces pushing them to do specific things in their classrooms. The potential for conflict seems especially clear when you remember that defenders of the Common Core often argued that the standards were not curriculum and thus did not dictate how or what to teach. Now, Gates is diving right into that especially sensitive territory.

“Part of teaching is [using] your own expertise,” said Kathy Dahdal, an English teacher at a middle school in the Bronx who said teachers in her school work together to design a curriculum drawn from multiple sources.

Dahdal is encouraged by increased attention on curriculum, but said she would be skeptical of any efforts to turn ratings or recommendations into mandates. Tom Rademacher, a Minneapolis teacher and former state teacher of the year, recently wrote for Chalkbeat about how counterproductive it has felt to be told to use a standard curriculum.

“Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things,” Rademacher wrote.

José Vilson, a math teacher and author in New York City, is apprehensive about the foundation’s push. “I shudder to think what the Gates Foundation might do,” he said. “I’m always nervous about any organization with that education reform outlet coming into schools … because usually what follows is a lack of teacher input, a lack of student input.”

Hipps said the goal is not to get schools or districts to mandate a best curriculum, but to identify a variety of good choices.

“I don’t think there will ever be a one size fits all,” he said. “There should be some baseline by which those various options are deemed either high quality and good versus not, but there should always be variety.”