The Push for Common Curriculum: a Violation of the Spirit of Education

8 Mar

The call for a common curriculum has officially rumbled across the political wires. This week, 75 leaders in business, education, and government met to discuss and advocate the creation of shared curriculum guidelines. These guidelines will be based upon pre-existing common core standards.

While common curriculum guidance (also called “shared curriculum guidelines”) and common core standards are sister phrases, they are by no means identical in description.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative was developed by states (coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices [NGA Center] in conjunction with the Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO]) to set clear expectations for student achievement; the standards are determined by grade level and do not prescribe any curriculum. Standards for two subjects currently exist: English Language Arts and Mathematics. Standards are broken down by grade level, the varying skills/abilities within a subject (i.e. English encompasses reading, writing, speaking and listening, language, etc.), and subtopics within the differing categories. For example, a common core standard for 7th graders in reading literature looks like this:

Reading Standards for Literature Grades 6-12

Key Ideas and Details

Grade 7

“Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.”

(Source: The Official ELA  Common Core State Standards Document, page 37)

While prescriptive in what a 7th grader should be able to do with a piece of text, the standard does not define how or what to use to teach the standard. The standards are also not overly demanding; an English Language Arts teacher should be teaching these concepts. I’ve read through much of the document have found little to disagree with in terms of the language used to define standards. The standards allow for expressive teaching; I could teach Beowulf or a contemporary art magazine if I chose; I would, however, have to teach kids applicable literacy skills.

However, a difficulty arises when one considers that the common core standards were developed for the average student. Holding each student accountable for these standards is little more than idealistic; schools are becoming increasingly diversified in terms of student ability – when an English Language Learner cannot read the primary text in English, it is difficult to expect the student to “cite textual evidence” and “draw inferences.”  The problem of expecting the same achievement from every student is widespread in the development of laws and legislature regarding education; No Child Left Behind (ESEA) demands that each student be evaluated by standards and standardized tests. Expecting each child to achieve these standards is simply unrealistic.  If the standards are in place to help students pass standardized tests, the goal has failed and will continue to fail. Standardized tests are not accurate measures of what a student is learning. However, if the standards are used to individually evaluate where each student is progressing in comparison to the average student, a teacher can use this information to hand tailor a child’s education. In this sense, the standards will help.

In terms of teacher freedom and curriculum expression, the standards are very loosely formed. English Language Arts teachers do not face a prescribed set of methods, materials, or assessments. Teachers are free to teach as they choose, as long as they satisfy varying foundational principles. Many of the standards will be taught inherently by a good teacher; most of the standards simply reinforce what successful teachers already do. Visit the website and learn about the Common Core Initiative HERE.

The push for a common curriculum is another story.

Organized by the Albert Shanker Institute, which is closely affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, the “Call for Common Content” releases a cry into the nation for prescribed materials, methods, and assessments in the teaching profession. “The Call” also tries to link this idea to the common core standards:

“…attaining the goals provided by these standards requires a clear road map in the form of rich, common curriculum content, along with resources to support successfully teaching all students to mastery. Shared curriculum in the core academic subjects would give shape and substance to the standards, and provide common ground for the creation of coherent, high-quality instructional supports — especially texts and other materials, assessments, and teacher training” (1).

While developers of the common core standards deliberately and carefully created the standards to be devoid of an assigned curriculum, “The Call” promotes a shared curriculum with vague and contradictory language. While advocates claim the shared guidelines are “no straightjacket” (2), the document begs to differ.

Let’s take another look at the “Call for Common Content”:

“To be clear, by “curriculum” we mean a coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the content knowledge and skills that all students are expected to learn, over time, in a thoughtful progression across the grades. We do not mean performance standards, textbook offerings, daily lesson plans, or rigid pedagogical prescriptions” (1).

Hm. The common core standards already provide states with a “sequential set of guidelines” that do not include “textbook offerings, daily lesson plans, or rigid pedagogical prescriptions” (1). The standards also specify content knowledge and skills students are expected to learn (i.e. refer back to the 7th grade standard in Reading Literature). So, if the shared curriculum “do(es) not mean performance standards, textbook offerings, daily lesson plans, or rigid pedagogical prescriptions,” what does it mean?

Because these 75 leaders in education, business, and government have not fleshed out their actual plan for the public (they simply sit like fat hens on a golden egg of ideals), the public has no definitive idea what “The Call” is actually calling for. One might take a guess.

I’m guessing they will create guidelines requiring specific content for specific grades. The common curriculum will expect students across the nation to be on the same page on the same day. The guidelines will focus less on how a student is learning and zero in on what a student is learning. If a national organization can choose exactly what students are studying, national testing organizations can ensure that students will know what will be on the national test. Ahhh…. yes. It’s all making sense now. National bragging rights. Money, money, money.

NCLB has already shown us that nationally prescribed regimens for education do not work. Students and schools are for the most part not improving under the requirements of these laws. Isn’t education about learning? Standardized tests, standards, and specific content are all background in the field of education. A student can learn the same literacy concepts reading Shakespeare as they can reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Stifling a teacher’s creativity is no way to ensure the learning of a child – teachers will teach best when our nation and states learn to trust that education is a profession and the professionals are professionally trained. Yes, we must develop excellent evaluative standards to make sure we have great professionals in our schools. However, when we have the great professionals, we do not want them working within a box. This will destroy great teaching and learning.

Advocates claim that there will be plenty of room for expressive teaching as the guidelines would account for  “no more than 60 percent of what is to be taught” (1). The document also calls for Including sample lessons, examples of acceptable levels of student work, and assessments that help teachers focus instruction as well as measure student outcomes” (1). These statements are interesting, as prior, the document stated that there would be no required texts, performance standards, or daily lesson plans.

Director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute (a Washington-based think tank), Frederick M. Hess, states:

“They can’t go on about a ‘coherent, substantive, sequential’ plan for the ‘knowledge and skills’ students need and still claim there is enormous room for people to come out with all kinds of instructional and curricular materials,” he said. “What they’re pushing is a national model of instruction” (2).

While advocates such as education pedant Linda Darling-Hammond state “The Call” is not a push for a national curriculum, the document states, “new teachers would enter classrooms having already studied and practiced teaching the curriculum they are to use” (1). There is no way to achieve this goal unless all teachers across the United States were studying the exact same materials. Yes, Linda, this is a national curriculum.

The truth of the matter is that a common curriculum has no place in local education. Shared content is not “required” to attain the goals in the common core standards. Rather, “The Call” is in direct opposition to “The Standards.” Mr. Hess comments:

“They (common core standards) were carefully crafted to be agnostic on curriculum, so that there would be lots of different ways to organize scope and sequence, and create and deliver materials, and so educators and state leaders could embrace them whatever their stands in debates about pedagogy, the desirability of school autonomy, and the wars about what to read” (2).

If we move toward a national curriculum, teacher autonomy will be lost and we will have yet more government control in our education system. Future teachers, this is our chance to say “NO.” Read the document, get informed, and start sounding your barbaric yawp.

1. The Albert Shanker Institute “A Call for Common Content”

2. “Leaders Call for Shared Curriculum GuidelinesEducation Week

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3 Responses to “The Push for Common Curriculum: a Violation of the Spirit of Education”

  1. iceangel16 March 10, 2011 at 4:53 am #

    Has anyone looked at the qualifications that a teacher would have to have if there was a national curriculum?

    I mean, if there’d be more government control over education, and every 7th grade student would be reading the same chapter(s) on the same days no matter where they were geographically, then couldn’t a state hire an individual with the “bare bones” qualifications for the job and hence save money by hiring “entry” level employees.

    Sorry if this makes no sense Jaime.

    As I see this, the concept of a more nationalized curriculum would allow for the hiring of “just” qualified individuals in order to save a state/district money on paying salaries for more qualified individuals.

    This doesn’t seem like an educational advancement plan to me, it seems more like a way to balance a budget.

  2. Jaime VanEnkevort March 10, 2011 at 9:09 am #

    Good question, Jenn.

    What you’re talking about actually already occurs in the charter school model – applicants don’t need education certification to become a teacher in many charter schools. Some charters do require their teachers to be certified; some require a percentage of their teachers be certified; the rest do not require certification at all. This leads to the exact problem you bring up – the invasion of the business model into the US public school system. Most charter schools are not unionized and teachers do not have bargaining rights. You could be a highly qualified, excellent teacher and not get hired because the school would have to justify the hire with an equally merited salary. Therefore, we’ll hire the guy off the street whose minor was English in college. He can teach.

    You bring up a great point, as public education funds are being used to support the charter school system in the forms of vouchers and school of choice.

    Public schools currently still have state-certification systems. There is speculation that these requirements may change, as the entire profession is undergoing massive reforms. One example is the state push toward value-added pay (basing teacher salary and raises, etc, off student performance on standardized tests). If states move to this evaluation method (which several already have), it wouldn’t be a short leap to a standardized curriculum. I would guess “bare-bones” hiring would be a stone’s throw away.

    Not good, this business model creeping up. You raise an interesting question indeed.

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