Curriculum: the missing link

In a July 21 New York Times cover story, reporter Tamar Lewin rightfully noted “the surprise of many in education circles…” that 27 states had already committed to adopting the new Common Core academic standards developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Lewin goes on to attribute this surprise to “states’ long tradition of insisting on retaining local control over curriculum” (emphasis added). With this simple statement—the equating of standards with curriculum—the author perpetuates an egregious error in the understanding of education policy. Though the politics of local control touches both standards and curriculum, educators and the public will never get policy right as long as too many conflate the two.

The creation, promotion and acceptance of the Common Core Standards does represent a sea change in the way this country is coming to think about its education system. These advances follow from “wave one” of reforms, begun during the Clinton years with the passage of Goals 2000, as well as acceptance of the idea that states should develop high academic standards. “Wave two” was a distorted follow-up, characterized by pumped up federal intervention enshrined in the test-based accountability of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Now comes Obama with another mix of “reforms,” the most promising of which take up, yet again, the standards agenda. As a recent Thomas B. Fordham Institute report suggests, the clarity, rigor, and coherence of the new Common Core Standards for mathematics and English language arts represent a significant improvement over most states’ existing standards. So, hats off to the states which have come so far as to adopt them.

But, aside from a few enlightened souls, most of education’s brains trust still fail to recognize that curriculum is where the rubber hits the road. The road is about implementation and implementation requires curriculum—that is, the selection and sequencing of essential content knowledge so that teachers can produce a sensible year’s worth of expected learning in the core domains of math, literature, science, history, civics, the arts, foreign languages, and health and physical education.

More detailed than even the most thorough state standards, but less detailed than textbooks and daily lesson plans, a high-quality common core curriculum would clearly define what teachers should teach and when students should learn it.

Over the years, a number of high-profile education leaders have made the case for a common curriculum. The list includes: Albert Shanker (see tp://reuther.wayne.edu/files/65.41.pdf">herehere, and here); E.D. Hirsch, of course (herehereherehere); Diane Ravitch (hereherehere); Bill Schmidt (herehere); David Cohen (hereherehere); Marshall Smith (here); Randi Weingarten (here); Grover Whitehurst (here); Lynne Munson (here); Checker Finn (here); and others.

But somehow, the argument has failed to take hold. Why? For one thing, because of continuing (and often irrational) preoccupations about local control. But also because—and this is likely an elephant in the room—aligning education around a common core curriculum the way most developed nations do (see here and here, for example) means a virtual overhaul of the way American education operates.

But think about what doing this might actually mean for all the pop solutions currently on the table—good teacher preparation (education schools might have to acknowledge that student curriculum actually matters), good teacher evaluation (we might even consider the fairness of having a consistent set of expectations for what students should know), good research (imagine research not plagued by an inability to truly control for the variation in what students are expected to learn), performance pay, targeting low performing schools, assessments to measure defined accomplishment rather than to differentiate students, and on and on.

Hopefully, the curriculum issue is starting to emerge from the shadows. Two efforts have more promise than most: E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation is plugging away at aligning its successful curriculum sequence to the new Common Core Standards. Also, the Common Core organization (no relation to the Common Core Standards effort) is developing curriculum maps aligned with the new Common Core English language arts standards. (Full disclosure: E.D. Hirsh is a board member of the Albert Shanker Institute. Barbara Byrd Bennett and Diane Ravitch, who are also our board members, and Toni Cortese, our secretary treasurer, are Trustees of Common Core.)

These players, and others like them who listen to teachers and think seriously about effective implementation, will eventually determine whether or not standards get the curriculum foundation they need to make a difference. Education reporters and others who speak policy to practice need to parse the agenda’s vocabulary, draw informed distinctions about policies, and keep a foot on school grounds once in awhile.

This piece first appeared as a blog post on the Albert Shanker Institute’s Shanker Blog. 

Kemble is the Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute.

More By Author