Finish the standards first

The CCSS ELA standards are, as you may remember, heavily (though certainly not exclusively) skills driven. The choice to focus on skills rather than content was deliberate and the standards authors themselves acknowledged that states would likely want to enhance these skills-driven standards with additional content. In fact, adoption states were told that the existing CCSS standards could comprise 85 percent of the total standards, giving the states the flexibility to add ?15 percent? atop of the final standards.

To date, it doesn't seem like too many states have taken seriously the charge of fleshing out this additional ?15 percent.? It's no wonder, then, that folks are looking to curriculum to provide teachers with more specific details about what content students should learn.

I've already argued against making curriculum decisions at the state or national level. I remain convinced that it would be a mistake to do so for lots of reasons. Among them, in this debate over curriculum, one thing that we shouldn't lose sight of is the important distinction between standards and curriculum. Done right, standards define the outcomes?the knowledge and skills that students must master. Curriculum, on the other hand, helps shape the process through which students will learn that content. In other words, curriculum helps shape (among other things) how the content should be organized, how it should be taught, etc. (Pedagogy gets at this as well, of course.)

We all know how long it takes for states to change statewide education policy decisions like textbook adoption, standards, etc.? Once states begin to dictate curriculum decisions from the statehouse, curriculum becomes static. This is a problem because, in order to encourage innovation and to ensure that teachers, schools, and districts can nimbly respond to the needs of their students, curriculum needs to be a living, breathing being that schools and districts frequently tailor and improve to ensure that all students have mastered the content outlined in the standards. In other words, while the ends (i.e. the standards) should be fixed, the means by which we help students master those standards (i.e.: the curriculum and pedagogy) need to be flexible.

That said, I now wonder if the debate over a shared curriculum is a bit of a red herring. If the problem is that the standards don't clearly outline the content that students must learn, then the solution is not to create yet another layer of expectations atop the standards. Instead, states should focus more deliberately on finishing the job that started with CCSS adoption by filling the perceived content gaps in the standards themselves. How to do so is a much bigger conversation, but that is where we should be focusing our attention.

--Kathleen Porter-Magee

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