School & District Management

Aligning Standards and Curriculum Begets Questions

By Catherine Gewertz — May 18, 2010 7 min read
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As the draft common standards undergo their final revisions, many minds are turning to the question of how to put them into practice in classrooms.

But as a recent meeting of leading educators and policymakers illustrates, that query generates far more questions than it does clear-cut answers.

At a two-day gathering in Washington last month, more than two dozen experts began to explore the issues they consider vital to creating good curriculum materials aligned to the common standards. The meeting was convened by the National Governors Association, which, along with the Council of Chief State School Officers, is leading the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

With the support of 48 states and many interest groups, that effort has produced a draft of K-12 standards in mathematics and English/language arts. The final version is expected later this spring. (“Proposed Standards Go Public,” March 17, 2010.)

The idea behind the meeting, said Dane Linn, the NGA’s leader on the initiative, was to explore the ways states can foster the development of curriculum materials that will embody the common standards and be clear and useful to teachers as they help students meet them.

But how to do that—and who should do that—in a marketplace full of companies that will rush to make that claim are just two of many unanswered questions.

“Do we take publishers’ word that the market will drive production of better curriculum materials? I don’t think so,” Mr. Linn said. “And yet, at the same time, we don’t want to create a centralized body that provides a gold seal of approval that a curriculum aligns to the [common] standards. So how do we tell people what’s good?”

Participants in the invitation-only meeting at the NGA’s Capitol Hill offices included professors, state commissioners of education, governors’ education advisers, an elementary school math coach, representatives of education organizations, and state education departments officials. A few attendees, such as the Core Knowledge Foundation, are already working to craft curricula for the standards or to align their own materials to them.

Mr. Linn said the NGA does not intend to design curriculum, but sought to mobilize the field and convene discussion on the subject.

The group plans a similar meeting with publishing companies.

Supporting Teachers

According to participants, one area of discussion centered on how to design materials that offer teachers real guidance without dictating how they should teach.

“It’s that dilemma of how you write curriculum and still value teachers’ expertise, so it’s not too scripted, and their voice is in the pedagogy, but it’s still realistic in terms of preparation and planning and time to deliver it,” said Sarah Baird, an elementary school math coach in the Kyrene district in Tempe, Ariz., who serves on the common-standards initiative’s validation committee.

One idea was that curriculum “maps” or frameworks, rather than detailed syllabuses, might be a way to avoid too tight a rein on teachers. Such materials might also “take the pressure off” the standards, allowing them to articulate the broad view and leave detailed descriptions of classroom activities to the guiding materials, said Stanley N. Rabinowitz, a senior program director of assessment and accountability services at WestEd, a technical-assistance provider. He attended the meeting and is also a member of the validation committee.

Michael W. Stetter, who oversees curriculum and instruction at the Delaware education department,described for the attendees the curriculum frameworks that his state uses to help teachers translate its math and English/language arts standards into lessons. The frameworks “unpack” each standard into grade-level targets, but allow local decisions about what materials and methods to use, Mr. Stetter said in an interview.

Discussion about transforming standards into instructional materials led to questions about the extent to which the materials should specify content.

“Talk about curriculum means we have to have some layout of content at some kind of grain size,” Lynne Munson, the president and chief executive officer of Common Core, a group that promotes liberal-arts education, said in an interview. “But at what level does the content discussion take place? Do we leave it up to the teacher? To the school? To the district, the state? No one in the room said we need to have a national content plan. But what guidance should be provided?”

In discussing curriculum, meeting participants noted that the word can carry many meanings, from general concepts down to daily lesson plans. Mel Riddile, the associate director for high school services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said attendees sketched out various levels of curriculum, and there was “general agreement that we weren’t going to that micro level” in envisioning materials for the common standards.

He characterized the discussion as a healthy exchange of ideas, with “more things still left in the air than resolved.”

Mr. Linn said participants’ “homework” was to think more about what comes next in preparation for more discussion.

Clear Messages

One message that emerged clearly for Mr. Linn was that practitioners want to stop feeling overrun by long lists of instructional materials with no way of knowing how well they reflect their states’ standards. Another, raised repeatedly at the meeting, was that curricula—not standards—should inform the development of assessments, he said.

The federal Race to the Top assessment competition, which offers $350 million in grants to groups of states to devise testing systems, requires that tests be put in place by 2014. Mr. Linn expressed the hope that curriculum for the standards could be written in time to help shape those assessments.

Even before the new standards are adopted by states, work is beginning to design curricula for them. In February, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced 15 grants worth $19.5 million to support the development of math and English/language arts materials. The Core Knowledge Foundation is aligning its main instructional sequence to the standards and making it freely available. Common Core has a Gates grant to create English/language arts materials for the standards. Publishers are gearing up as well. (“Core Knowledge to Link Curriculum to Core Standards,” Feb. 3 and “Gates Awards 15 Grants for Common-Standards Work,” Feb. 24, 2010.)

Vested Interests

The curriculum discussion at the NGA’s gathering sparked strains both of support and of concern among observers in the field.

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said he supports the idea of “getting smart people together to think about the need for better curriculum.” But he would be wary of narrowing the field of curriculum choices too much, he said. It would be better to have a vibrant marketplace of good materials, monitored, perhaps, by multiple panels that examine those materials, he said.

Education historian Diane Ravitch said the best way to craft curriculum frameworks for the common standards would be through a collaborative process of repeated review and revision, a lesson she learned from helping to guide an effort to design voluntary national standards in the 1990s.

“I would invite several states to design curriculum frameworks based on [the common standards] and implement them in their states,” she said. “They’d get teachers and curriculum developers involved, send [the frameworks] out to the field and try them. Everyone could use them. People could comment, and all of this could go into an iterative process of review, and back to the designers, and out again for more field trials and more comment. We could see how different states approach it.”

Any curriculum-design process will be affected by inevitable tension between good educational intentions and the vested interests of those designing or reviewing the materials, said Jon W. Wiles, a retired professor of education at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and a co-author of the textbook Curriculum Development: A Guide to Practice.

“When people go into a room and come out with solutions, it’s typically about money or politics,” he said. “Organizations know that they can use standards to control what kids study. And [instructional materials] is a humongous business. Dollars you can’t even imagine. So the question is, why are people going into that room? What are they after?”

Common standards are “a necessity” to build long-term economic strength, he said, and certainly schools need curricula for those standards. A panel of experts to certify alignment is a good idea, but the financial or political interests of those knowledgeable enough to serve on it would likely spark questions, Mr. Wiles said.

“There is,” he said, “no content-, value-, or business-free education.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2010 edition of Education Week as How to Move From Standards to Curricula?

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