Do we really want a common curriculum?

Robert Pondiscio over at Core Knowledge wrote a very thoughtful response to my post the other day. He says that my point?which was that states would do better to focus their attention on standards and assessments, and allow curriculum decisions to be made as closely to the classroom level as possible?was a bit of a ?strawman-fest.? He argues:

She confuses the core curriculum manifesto's?call for guidance on what students should learn with?a call to?pick winners and losers among published curricula, or?prescribe the methods by which?children should be taught.? The Call for Common Content is merely a sensible proposal to?describe the?common, knowledge-building content that all children must have in order to be fully literate.

While I will admit to being confused about what, precisely, the Shanker Institute's ?call? is actually advocating (particularly after the latest round of blog posts about it), that may have more to do with the way the manifesto is written than with my larger point. So let me be clear: Prescribing scope and sequence from the state or national level is a mistake. If that is what the manifesto is trying to achieve, then it's a step in the wrong direction.

The details matter in this debate, since they have the potential to impact classroom practice very directly and deliberately. I do think it's entirely appropriate for states to define the scope of content that students should learn. States have for many years defined what students should know and be able to do in core content areas. We call those standards. Getting those right was what the push for ?Common Core? standards was all about.

But I don't think states?or, even worse, the federal government?should be in the business of prescribing sequence. (If it sounds like I'm splitting hairs here, you probably haven't had to sweat the details of sequence while building a scope and sequence for a school system.) Sequence matters exactly because it has pedagogical implications. To use my math example from the other day: Saxon math is a spiraled curriculum. The sequence of that material is wildly different from most curricula. And getting overly specific about sequence would either necessitate or prevent using a program like Saxon. Is that the kind of battle the signatories of the manifesto intended to create?

But, it doesn't even have to be that overt. Even deciding whether, for example, to teach fractions, decimals, and percents together or to teach fractions first is a decision of sequence that impacts pedagogy. And many teachers have very strong opinions about the ?best? way to introduce that essential content. Similarly, in ELA, deciding in what order you want to teach particular books or whether you want to scaffold research skills across several units or in one intensive unit is something teachers are likely to want to have some flexibility to decide. And, as I argued the other day, if we want teachers to feel real ownership over their students' achievement results, then we have to give some flexibility over these decisions. (While holding them accountable for student learning, of course?something the state is well positioned to do.)

Pondiscio also argues that a national or state focus on curriculum is rather uncontroversial.

Something is going to get taught, and there are no discounts for bad or ineffective curricula; the implementation costs are essentially fixed.? Thus a?coherent, content-rich approach to curriculum costs the same as?an inferior?content-neutral approach.? Why?bet on?incoherence?

Yes, something is going to be taught. And I wholeheartedly agree that a content-rich curriculum is essential. But I sincerely believe that if states get the standards and accountability pieces right, then schools will have no choice but to follow a content rich curriculum. (The reason this has yet to happen across states is either that the existing state standards are poor, the accountability system is weak, or both.)

What's more: there are already a host of fantastic content-rich curricula on the market. (Core Knowledge chief among them.) A state or nationally driven common curriculum is a solution in search of a problem that doesn't seem to exist.

Sure, there are a lot of ineffective curricula out there. But, the best way to drive out such curricula is by creating state accountability systems that keep the focus on student mastery of essential content. To be sure, very few states right now have the kinds of accountability systems we need to really drive achievement, but there are at least a few that have made a strong start. (Massachusetts and Florida come to mind.)

In the end, most people agree that schools need strong, content-rich curriculum. But I believe one of the least effectives way to get such curricula with the teacher and principal buy-in needed for it to transform student achievement is to mandate it?whether directly or indirectly?from the state or national level.

--Kathleen Porter-Magee

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