A Well-Rounded Curriculum, a More Competitive Nation?

By Sean Cavanagh — June 02, 2009 3 min read
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What’s the key to U.S. students keeping pace with their peers in high-performing foreign countries? The answer may lie in promoting a broad education that emphasizes the liberal arts and sciences, and not just reading and math.

That’s the argument put forward in a new report released today by Common Core, a Washington advocacy organization, which examines the curricula and assessments in nine nations that outperform the United States. A standard feature of those countries’ school systems is that they demand that students receive a well-rounded education across subjects, the authors say – and not simply in math and science, subjects in which some of them receive considerable acclaim.

Too many American schools, the authors contend, are by contrast sacrificing time spent the arts and humanities, because of the pressure to improve math and reading scores.

The report examines the standards and tests in nine jurisdictions that have topped the United States on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, a much-publicized exam: Australia, Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea, and Switzerland.

“[W]hat is the common ingredient across these varied nations?” writes Lynne Munson, Common Core’s president and executive director, in an introduction to the report. “It is not a delivery mechanism or an accountability system that these high performing nations share: It is a dedication to educating their children deeply in a wide range of subjects.”

Common Core advocates for students receiving a strong grounding across disciplines, including the arts and humanities. The organization has argued – as others have – that the No Child Left behind Act’s emphasis on math and reading has crowded out teaching in other subjects.

The process for examining the standards and assessment of the various foreign nations was difficult; Ms. Munson described the task as “terribly messy.” In some cases, little information on the actual content of education in several of the countries was available. The authors collected information on standards and tests from various sources, including embassies and ministries of education. Even so, they come away concluding that the various foreign countries offer a “comprehensive, content-rich education in the liberal arts and sciences.”

The report presents test content from various nations, and bores in on the subject-specific requirements in different countries. For instance, it highlights the required music curricula for 8th grade students in the Canadian province of Ontario, which includes the ability to read music and produce basic compositions. Dutch 12th graders have to know enough about the Crimean War to put seven events from that period in correct chronological order. Finnish 5th and 6th graders study how the invention of writing changed human life, and the influence of the French revolution, the report says.

How should teachers, curriculum directors, and state officials interpret the Common Core report? In some ways the report requires multiple comparisons. It’s difficult to know, for instance, how Finland’s or Canada’s treatment of the humanities compares to what’s used in the United States because we don’t have a single curriculum. Instead, the report may invite comparisons of how individual states stack up against the foreign countries that are showcased. Should we care how New York’s elementary school art curriculum matches up against Hong Kong’s? If Switzerland’s students are being tested in more depth about the Cuban missile crisis than U.S. students are, should that trouble us? You be the judge.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.