Teaching Profession

AFT Presses Need for Curriculum Linked to Standards

Union worries about lack of content during assessment design
By Catherine Gewertz — February 24, 2011 5 min read
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Keenly aware that the common academic standards and assessments have the potential to reshape American education, the American Federation of Teachers is pressing a key question: What sort of curriculum should lie between the standards and the tests?

That question was front-and-center on Feb. 23 as the AFT’s committee on implementation of the common standards met at the 1.4 million-member union’s Capitol Hill headquarters. The committee is exploring what it can do to ensure that the common standards are translated with fidelity into classroom teaching. By late spring, the committee plans to recommend to the union ways it should position itself to influence professional development, curriculum, common assessments, and other aspects related to the new standards.

All but seven states have adopted the new set of common academic standards, and all but five states are involved in designing new tests for those learning goals. The standards were developed by experts and state officials.

The curriculum question is a sensitive one, since the tradition of local control over what students learn is zealously guarded in many states and contributed to the collapse of an attempt to create national standards in the 1990s. The new standards effort has reignited that debate, along with questions of who sets expectations for students and who defines the routes by which they reach those goals.

During the meeting of about three dozen local, state, and national union representatives, the AFT committee heard presentations by experts on the English/language arts and mathematics standards and from representatives of the two state consortia that are designing the common assessments.

‘Something in Between’

AFT Secretary-Treasurer Antonia Cortese was the first to broach the curriculum question. “You’ve been talking about building skills,” she said to David Coleman, who co-led the writing of the English/language arts standards. “What knowledge is a kid supposed to be building? I’m having trouble when I look at this, finding that element.”

Mr. Coleman said the standards are deliberately written in such a way that it “lies to others” to create content, but the document “strongly signals” the importance of “building a coherent progression of knowledge” and offers other key guidance, such as specifying the portion of students’ reading that should be drawn from informational texts and from literary ones as they progress through their education.

Ms. Cortese revisited the issue after a representative of one of the two state test-design collaboratives, the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, had outlined the group’s vision of its testing system.

“Isn’t the ‘no content’ of the common standards a detriment to developing good assessments if there isn’t a curriculum in place for those standards?” she asked Susan A. Gendron, the former commissioner of education in Maine, who now serves as the consortium’s policy director. “I don’t know how you proceed too far down the line based just on standards. There has to be something in between.”

Ms. Gendron noted that SMARTER Balanced is working on model curriculum frameworks and other instructional materials as part of its library of resources for teachers. The other consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, is working on similar instructional and curricular materials. (“Common-Assessment Consortia Expand Plans,” Feb. 23, 2011.)

Maria Neira, the first vice president of the New York State United Teachers, expressed concern that there is no broad, collective work being done on a shared curriculum, as there was on the standards and is now on the assessments. “I would love to see a consortium around curriculum,” she said, sparking chuckles around the room.

Responding to Ms. Neira, Colleen A. Callahan, the director of professional issues for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, touched on the tension between curriculum and testing. “Some vision of assessment can help drive curriculum, too,” she said. “But I agree with you that [curriculum] is the big, gaping hole.”

Review Process

AFT President Randi Weingarten told the group that the union has a potent role to play in guiding the field as it puts the new standards and tests into practice. “Someone has to be out there saying, ‘In order to do this, these are the things we need to do,’ ” she said. Unless the union helps shape “the core, the substance, the content,” the standards risk being poorly implemented, she said.

The union laid out its views on a “common-core curriculum” in the winter issue of its quarterly journal, The American Educator.

After the meeting, Ms. Weingarten said the field needs “common, sequential curriculum” so teachers “are not making it up every day.” That is different, she said, from “a lockstep, inflexible script.” Teachers need some kind of roadmap for the journey ahead, she said, because “right now we got nothin’.”

Review Process

Part of the AFT common-core committee’s work is to grapple with just how that curriculum should take shape, said David B. Sherman, an aide to Ms. Weingarten who is overseeing the committee. The union doesn’t favor one mandatory curriculum, he said, but beyond that, questions hover: Should there be one voluntary curriculum? Should there be multiple curricula or curricular pieces that the union and its members assemble and adapt from place to place to meet local needs?

Like many others in education, the AFT is working on materials and resources, such as model lesson plans, for the common standards. Aware that educators could face a marketplace crammed with instructional materials, all of which will purport to be “aligned” to the common core, the union is also designing a curriculum-review process to help officials evaluate how well they embody the standards.

To help guide curriculum developers and the publishing industry as they create materials, the lead writers of the English/language arts standards, Mr. Coleman and Susan Pimentel, are refining a document that highlights the key ideas. Consultants Beth Cocuzza and Sandra Alberti, who walked the AFT committee through the math standards, said they are working with the lead writers of those standards to produce some form of guidance for educators in evaluating how well materials reflect the standards.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as AFT Presses Need to Tie Curriculum to Common Standards

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