Clearing Up the Curriculum-Standards Confusion

By Liana Loewus — December 31, 2014 2 min read
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If, in rounding out 2014, you’re still finding yourself a bit fuzzy on the difference between the common-core standards and curriculum, two recent NPR pieces might offer some clarity.

This week, Sarah Garland wrote a profile of Jason Zimba, one of the three lead writers of the Common Core State Standards for mathematics. The piece opens with Zimba practicing addition problems with his daughters on Saturday mornings. While obviously a fan of the standards themselves, Zimba is frustrated with how they’re being taught.

"[F]our years after signing off on the final draft of the standards, [Zimba] spends his weekends trying to make up for what he considers the lackluster curriculum at his daughter’s school, and his weekdays battling the lackluster curriculum and teaching at schools around the country that are struggling to shift to the common core,” Garland writes. “As powerful and influential in reshaping American classrooms as the standards could be, they don’t include lesson plans, or teaching methods, or alternative strategies for when students don’t get it.”

In a second NPR story, Cory Turner offers a close-up of what the common-core repeal in Oklahoma meant for teachers. In doing so, he indirectly illustrates the vast difference between just setting standards and translating them into classroom practice.

Before the state legislature voted to repeal, teachers and schools had been gearing up for several years to make the switch from the Oklahoma state standards to the common core. Turner writes:

Heather Samis was in Oklahoma City with other teachers writing new, common-core materials when she heard of the repeal.

“I was sick to my stomach. I cried,” Samis says, again fighting back tears. “I called some of the English teachers in my department here at Hugo. I had to ask them how they felt about it. I had to, I guess, try and come back to reality.”

How much hard curricular work—materials writing, lesson planning, unit planning—had come undone when the standards were scrapped? (Likely enough to warrant tears.)

And if the standards-curriculum divide is still blurry, I think William McCallum, another lead writer for the common-core math standards, put it well when I interviewed him in November: “Standards are just expectations for what we want students to know and understand and be able to do ... . Curriculum is how you get them there.”

Clarification: Jason Zimba contacted me to inform me that he and his wife began Saturday tutoring because their daughter’s school had decided to retain its pre-common-core curriculum. The tutoring was “not to make up for bad CCSS curriculum and/or teaching,” he wrote in an email.

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