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School & District Management

Critics Post ‘Manifesto’ Opposing Shared Curriculum

By Catherine Gewertz — May 09, 2011 7 min read

A group led by critics of the new common academic standards issued a manifesto last week arguing against development of shared curriculum and tests for those standards.

The document, signed by more than 100 leaders in education, business, and politics, most of them conservatives, is a response to a “call for common content” for the standards, issued in March by the Albert Shanker Institute, a Washington-based research and advocacy group named after the late president of the American Federation of Teachers. (“Leaders Call for Shared Curriculum Guidelines,” March 9, 2011.)

Calling itself a “counter-manifesto,” the paper is also a response to the U.S. Department of Education’s $360 million investment in the development of assessments and curricular supports for the common standards. That money was awarded to two large consortia of states as part of the federal government’s Race to the Top competition.

“We do not agree that a one-size-fits-all, centrally controlled curriculum for every K-12 subject makes sense for this country or for any other sizable country,” the document says.

Leaders of the Shanker paper strongly dispute the way the the counter-manifesto characterizes their proposal.

The counter-manifesto represents the latest entry into the ongoing debate about common standards and assessments, which have drawn support from those who see them as ways to elevate student achievement and enhance American competitiveness, and criticism from those who view them as attempts to standardize education, undermine teachers’ professional judgment, or erode local control of schools. All but six states have adopted the standards—spearheaded by governors and state schools’ chiefs—and all but five are participating in the federally financed assessment consortia.

Objections Raised

The latest manifesto was organized by activists known for their opposition to the common standards: Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution think tank; Jay P. Greene and Sandra Stotsky, both professors at the University of Arkansas; Greg Forster, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indianapolis-based school choice organization; and Ze’ev Wurman, a former federal Education Department official who has also helped shape California’s standards and tests in math.

Common-Core Adoptions So Far

31curriculum C1s

Lending support to the statement are figures from education policy, academics, politics, and business, including Harvard University math professor Wilfried Schmid; several members of state boards of education or state legislative education committees; former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III; former California Gov. Pete Wilson; and Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, co-authors of a controversial 2003 book on racial and ethnic achievement gaps.

No ‘Best’ Approach

Signatories argue that shared curriculum and tests will stifle innovation, threaten local and state control of education decisions, and standardize learning for students with diverse needs. Arguments for a common curriculum are flawed, they contend, because there is no evidence that it would lead to higher student achievement or that there is one “best” approach to curriculum for all students. Additionally, they say, the standards are not sound enough to serve as the foundation for such a curriculum.

The new signatories also attack the assessment consortia’s plans to develop curricular supports, such as model units. They argue that shared curriculum and assessments are prohibited by federal laws restricting the U.S. government’s influence on curriculum, and by the U.S. Constitution, which defines which powers are held by Congress and which are reserved for states.

The assessment consortia and the Shanker Institute, as well as the AFT, which advocates common curriculum for the standards, have said that any curricular materials would be voluntary. The Shanker Institute manifesto, which now has more than 200 signatures, also says that it does not advocate one curriculum for all students, but multiple “curricular guides,” based on the common standards, that would leave teachers free to impart those standards as they wish.

Since the federal government is subsidizing the consortia, which are designing curricular supports as well as tests, organizers of the counter-manifesto see the consortia’s work as leading to “centralized control” of education at the federal level.

In calling for shared curriculum guides, the Shanker Institute and the AFT advocate a “more constrained and unified vision” of what students should learn that boils down to a “nationalization” of education, Mr. Greene said in an interview.

“I think it’s odd that they are denying that they are trying to establish national curriculum,” he said. “Their denials sound like weasel words: ‘Curriculum modules’ are not ‘curriculum.’ It just sounds like someone trying to impose national curriculum who doesn’t want to be called out for it. It would be more honest if they just said a national curriculum is good and defended it.”

Spokesmen for the two assessment consortia defended their work as providing support to teachers and schools, not dictating what they do.

“We appreciate the differing views and the debate surrounding the common core state standards,” Joe Willhoft, the executive director of the smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, said in a statement. “We believe the assessment system we are developing will provide valuable support to teachers, students, parents, and other educational decisionmakers to help them improve student learning.”

Marketplace of Choices

Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, which is the project-management partner for the other consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, said that the group is drafting a “content framework” that will define the types of skills PARCC’s test will measure, such as the level of complexity of text students should read or the sorts of responses that might be solicited. It will also offer “a handful” of model instructional units, which don’t constitute a complete—or required—curriculum.

“We’re not saying, ‘In 4th grade English/language arts, here are the four books students will read,’ ” he said. “A required curriculum would do that. A model curriculum might suggest that. Content frameworks for assessment don’t do either.”

Mr. Cohen noted that many people are working to devise curricular supports for the new standards: states, districts, the publishing industry, and organizations working with philanthropic support. Additionally, states that haven’t signed on to the common standards will still be teaching and testing to their own standards, he noted.

“It’s not like everybody is going to end up doing the same thing,” he said. “The net result of all this, I think, is that there will be a marketplace [of materials] from which educators can choose.”

Signers of the counter-manifesto did find one area of agreement with the Shanker Institute and the AFT: that curriculum should be developed before assessments. But such efforts should be decentralized and varied, not managed by an “elephantine, inside-the-Beltway bureaucracy,” they write.

Leaders of the Shanker Institute effort released a statement saying that the response to their manifesto “distorts” their purpose, which was to ensure that teachers have “access to voluntary curriculum guidelines” to help them shape instruction around the standards.

“Educators need and want a set of curricular roadmaps that are aligned to common standards and developed from various high-quality, content-rich, multiple curriculum resources, with strong input from teachers themselves and other curriculum experts,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.

“Without these resources, especially in a time of tight education budgets, it will be up to teachers to make up all of this content aligned to standards as they go along, under the guise of local autonomy. That is a recipe for failure and unfair to both students and teachers.”

Some observers expressed frustration with the way arguments take shape about common standards, curriculum, and tests.

“It’s too bad that this is so often being framed as a liberal versus conservative issue,” said John Robert Schrock, a professor who oversees the training of biology teachers at Emporia State University in Kansas. “This is about the deprofessionalization of teaching. Once you judge teachers and schools by test scores, not one bit of that system is voluntary: not teaching to the standards, and not teaching to the tests that go with them.”

Grant Wiggins, a co-author of the Understanding by Design model of curriculum development, said he is frustrated with the repeated argument that having sound curriculum guidelines deprives teachers of their creativity.

“It’s a red herring,” he said. “By that argument, doctors and soccer coaches have no creativity. There are protocols in every profession. The creativity is in the coaching.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2011 edition of Education Week as ‘Manifesto’ Proposing Shared Curriculum Draws Counterattack

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