Can the Federal Government Fund Curriculum Materials?

By Catherine Gewertz — February 11, 2011 3 min read
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The question in that headline came up here in Atlanta, where the ETS has convened 100 or so test designers, state policy people, academics and others to talk about through-course summative assessment.

I know, I know. You’re probably tilting your head, wondering what the two have to do with each other. Here’s what: through-course assessment is a feature of the plans two big state consortia are making as they design new tests for the common standards. (One group’s plan is far more heavily based on this than the other’s. But I digress....)

The assessment consortia are doing more than just designing tests; they are both planning to design a range of curriculum and instructional materials reflecting the common standards. (See my story today on this.)

The consortia’s plans to wade into designing curricular and instructional materials came up at the meeting, sparking immediate questions about what sorts of things they have in mind, and when folks in the states will be able to see it. But it also sparked this question: are you allowed to design curriculum using federal funds? (The work is being done with $31.6 million in supplemental funds above and beyond the $330 million in grants the two groups won in the Race to the Top assessment competition.)

Christopher T. Cross, who is a partner in the Washington-based education consulting firm Cross & Joftus, noted that the 1979 law that created the most recent iteration of the U.S. Department of Education prohibits the federal funding of curriculum. Cross helped write that law when he was the Republican staff director of the House committee on education and labor in 1978. (A brief overview of the history of the department is here, including mention of that law. The 1979 ban was prompted, knowledgeable sources tell me, by the National Science Foundation’s controversial “Man: A Course of Study” curriculum. UPDATE: the text of the law is here. See section 103(b), which begins on page 5.)

Cross put the question to Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, the advocacy group that is serving as project management partner to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of the two assessment consortia. (Cohen, himself a former U.S. assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, is no stranger to that 1979 law either.)

Cohen said that PARCC is planning to develop curriculum frameworks, model instructional units and such, not entire curricula. Those resources, along with others, would be housed in a digital library and made widely available, but no state or district would be obliged to use them. (The other consortium, SMARTER Balanced, has a similar plan.)

“The language here is very important,” said Cross. “It’s important to clarify” that the consortia do not intend to “standardize curricula across the country.”

No way, Cohen said, adding that actually, “a whole bunch of states [in the consortium] would bolt in the other direction if they thought this would be a national curriculum.”

Gilbert Andrada, an assessment consultant to the Connecticut department of education who was at the meeting representing the SMARTER Balanced consortium, said the group envisioned a “clearinghouse” of various curriculum resources.

Cross noted that while development of the common standards was not a federally funded effort, the development of common assessments is, so “a bright line needs to be drawn here” to clarify the intended use of that money.

When meeting participants moved on to other topics, and later took a break for coffee, at least a few of the attendees were still talking privately about the federal law-and-curriculum question. When talking about a ban on federal involvement in curriculum, they asked, is it legitimate to make a distinction between “curriculum” and “curricular/instructional materials/resources”?

Cohen told me later that the distinction is actual, not just semantic.

“To most people, curriculum implies something highly detailed that dictates what gets taught and how it’s going to get taught,” he said. “We’re not doing that.” He noted, too, that the consortia submitted their plans for these materials to the U.S. Department of Education and they were approved, so “clearly the Department didn’t think this was running afoul” of the 1979 law.

Pascal “Pat” Forgione, the former Austin, Texas schools superintendent who is hosting this meeting as the head of ETS’s Center for K-12 Assessment & Performance Management, said that this issue could be “the Achilles heel” of the consortia’s work. Will that turn out to be the case?

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