Is curriculum coherence a fundamental characteristic of high-performing education systems?

by Cambridge Assessment, 01 June 2021
decorative design a web of digital nodes connected by lines

In the last two decades, a number of studies in education research have argued that ‘curriculum coherence’ is a fundamental characteristic of high-performing education systems. Indeed, in Cambridge Assessment’s outline principles for the future of education, curriculum coherence is considered vital. In this blog, we explore what is meant by curriculum coherence, and examine possible connections between curriculum coherence and learner attainment.

What is curriculum coherence?

Curriculum is here understood as a broad concept that encompasses curriculum content and standards, teaching practices or approaches, initial teacher education and subsequent teacher professional development, learning resources, assessment, and other key aspects of the education system.

Curriculum coherence refers to aligning and logically organising parts of a curriculum. For instance, in a coherent curriculum the subject content is age-appropriate and organised in logical progressions. In turn, these progressions align with textbook content, tests, pedagogy, instructional methods, staff continuing professional development and other education policies and practices.

Two different conceptualisations of curriculum coherence are present in the literature. Both are important for understanding the performance of education arrangements.

The first one, which we term ‘internal coherence’, refers to coherence in the curriculum content. Internally coherent curricula typically include: 

  • systematic connections between the content studied in each subject within a year and as learners advance through the years(1)
  • organising and sequencing curriculum content to reflect the structure of the target discipline(2)
  • a narrower range of content, and an expectation that learners engage deeply with the content.(3)

On the other hand, curricula that have poor internal coherence may exhibit content that is illogically sequenced, and is repeated with little depth being added at each revisit(4). Internal curriculum coherence is important as it offers in-depth learning of core subject knowledge essential to performance and participation in society.

Internal curriculum coherence is important as it offers in-depth learning of core subject knowledge essential to performance and participation in society.

The second conceptualisation of curriculum coherence, or ‘external coherence’, refers to the extent of alignment between parts of an education system, such as curriculum content and standards, textbooks, learning resources, pedagogy, tests, parent/carer involvement, staff working conditions, professional development, and staff accountability(1), (2), (5). In countries such as Japan, France and Singapore, where education systems are centralised, national institutions ensure a high level of ‘external’ curriculum coherence between different parts of the system (e.g. textbooks, standards and assessments)(3).

There are challenges both in defining and measuring curriculum coherence, as Bateman (6) and colleagues highlighted in their study of curriculum coherence in higher education. However, they reiterate the importance of the process of curriculum coherence, highlighting the value of collaboration, and the need to focus on the conditions and complex factors that are necessary for curriculum coherence. Similarly, Oates(7) found that the concept of coherence was not defined with any precision in reviews of England’s National Curriculum prior to the 2010 review. He suggested that a precise definition could guide the relationship between the national curriculum’s aims, and the effects of national assessment arrangements (page 128).

An important question for education policymakers is whether attending to curriculum coherence leads to improvement in learner attainment.

Does curriculum coherence lead to improvements in learner attainment?

Internal curriculum coherence appears as a common characteristic of countries/regions whose learners score highly in international tests – there is empirical evidence for it as a feature of high performing systems. In a key study, Schmidt and colleagues(4) compared intended and taught content in mathematics in 37 countries that took part in Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Specifically, they reviewed curriculum frameworks, examined what was included in textbooks, and also drew on TIMSS survey data about what was actually taught in classrooms. The study showed that countries where learners gained high test scores had highly coherent curricula. The study showed that countries where learners  gained high test scores had highly coherent curricula.Generally, in these countries, the intended content was present in textbooks, while what was in the textbooks was also what was typically taught in classrooms. This includes the alignment of instructional approaches, and thus links to practice and professional development. In addition, mathematics was defined as a narrower set of topics, the curriculum content built on prior content, and content became more demanding as learners progressed through school. Furthermore, what learners were taught reflected how knowledge is organised and created within the mathematics discipline. The findings of this study arguably suggest an association between curriculum coherence and learner attainment.

A similar association was found in the case of Minnesota, one of the few US states that performed well in TIMSS. This high performance was attributed to factors such as the curriculum containing fewer topics and students being allowed time to study each topic in sufficient depth(4).

Around the same time, Newmann(1) and colleagues studied learners aged 5 to 11 in Chicago (USA) public schools. The researchers drew on a wide range of evidence (including classroom observations and interviews with staff) to rate each school on indicators of internal and external curriculum coherence. These ratings were then analysed in conjunction with student reading and mathematics test results over four years. The analysis indicated a strong positive relationship between the ratings and the test results, suggesting a strong association between higher learner attainment and internal and external curriculum coherence.

Another question that would be useful to ask is whether poor curriculum coherence can hinder improvement in learner attainment.

To answer this question we revisit two studies. The first study, by Schmidt and colleagues(4), examined internal curriculum coherence in the US and concluded that many US science and mathematics curricula exhibited poor coherence. The study showed, for example, that many such curricula contained a large number of topics which were not sufficiently linked to one another, and that content was repeated year on year without added depth. This poor curriculum coherence was viewed as a key driver of US students’ overall underperformance in TIMSS. The second study, by Bateman and colleagues(6), examined internal curriculum coherence within subjects in the context of a Canadian higher education institute. It showed that subjects with poor curriculum coherence had an uneven distribution of learner results which did not match the learners’ prior attainment(6). The findings of these two studies arguably point to a link between poor internal curriculum coherence and lower or varied learner attainment.

Concluding comments 

It is important for educationalists and policy makers to be aware of the detailed and thoughtful ways in which experts use the phrase ‘curriculum coherence’. Blending these views into an overarching meaning of curriculum coherence, we suggest the terms 'internal curriculum coherence’ and ‘external curriculum coherence’ to distinguish between coherence within curriculum content (internal coherence) and coherence between curriculum content and other parts of the educational process (external coherence).

This taster of key research shows several things. First, it indicates that curriculum coherence is a key feature of many countries/regions with high learner attainment. Second, it suggests that curriculum coherence links with higher learner attainment, whereas poor curriculum coherence relates to low/varied learner attainment. These observations arguably suggest that curriculum coherence is indeed valuable and that it is worth pursuing as an aim, in both practice and policy.

Read more about curriculum coherence in this blog on Describing coherence of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment from Cambridge Assessment International Education.

About the authors:

Filio Constantino - Blogger Jackie Greatorex Blogger Melissa Mouthaan Blogger Tori Coleman Blogger

The authors are all members of the Cambridge Assessment Research Division, from left to right:

Filio Constantinou, Senior Research Officer

Jackie Greatorex, Principal Research Officer

Melissa Mouthaan, Research Officer

Tori Coleman, Research Officer


1↩ Newmann, F. M., Smith, B., Allensworth, E., and Bryk, A. S. (2001) Instructional program coherence: what it is and why it should guide school improvement policy. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23(4), 297–321. DOI: 10.3102/01623737023004297.

2↩ Schmidt, W. H, Wang, H. C., and McKnight, C. C. (2005). Curriculum coherence: an examination of US mathematics and science content standards from an international perspective. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 37(5), 525-559. DOI: 10.1080/0022027042000294682.

3↩ Schmidt, W. H., and Prawat, R. S. (2006). Curriculum coherence and national control of education: issue or non‐issue? Journal of Curriculum Studies, 38(6), 641-658. DOI:10.1080/00220270600682804  

4↩ Schmidt, W., Houang, R., and Cogan, L. (2002). A coherent curriculum – the case of mathematics. American Educator, 1-17. 

5↩ Cambridge Assessment. (2017). A Cambridge Approach to Improving Education - using international insights to manage complexity. Cambridge: Cambridge Assessment.

6↩ Bateman, D., Taylor, S., Janik, E., and Logan, A. (2007). Curriculum coherence and student success.  

7↩ Oates (2011) Could do better: using international comparisons to refine the National Curriculum in England, The Curriculum Journal, 22(2), 121-50.

Before you go... Did you find this article on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook? Remember to go back and share it with your friends and colleagues!

Related blogs