Cornering the Market in Common-Standards Curriculum?

By Catherine Gewertz — May 05, 2011 2 min read
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Last week’s announcement that the Gates and Pearson foundations are teaming up to provide online curriculum for the common standards has prompted interesting new rounds of dialogue. We reported some folks’ reservations in our story, but more are still ricocheting around the blogosphere.

Take, for instance, a post by EdWeek opinion blogger Diane Ravitch, who cites the Gates-Pearson deal as the “outrage of the week.” The comments section of Ravitch’s post neatly captures key strains in the debate about developing curriculum for the common standards: resentment about the roles of corporations, big foundations, or the federal government; worry about too little teacher participation in developing common curriculum (although the AFT went out of its way to point out that its own teachers will be involved in the Gates-Pearson work); recognition that teachers need help with curriculum, but varying views on the best ways to respond to those needs. Many teachers are worried, too, about how such curricula will restrict their professional judgment and creativity.

One strain of concern I heard as I reported the story was the aspect of the Gates-Pearson arrangement that seemed to give Pearson, the for-profit company, the right to market the 24-course sequence to be developed by the Gates and Pearson foundations. Chris Tebben, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, a group of education funders, told me that while the foundation-corporate linkage represents an increasingly popular kind of “market-based thinking” in philanthropy, as funders seek ways to better scale up their ideas, it also raises concerns about “advantaging” one large education company. That concern is shared by others, as well.

I decided to run this idea by the Pearson Foundation. Foundation President Mark Nieker told me that there is, as yet, no firm exclusivity agreement in place with the Pearson company. The idea, he said, is to ensure the course sequence has “wide distribution,” so the Pearson Foundation would “distribute it with whatever partners we thought would give it the best chance of being used.”

None of this, of course, will resolve arguments about the role of the marketplace in education. One example that went round this week: Colorado education professor Kevin Welner, arguing in the current issues of Dissent magazine that “educational opportunities should therefore never be distributed by market forces, because markets exist to create inequalities151;they thrive by creating ‘winners’ and ‘losers,’ ” and the Flypaper blog’s Chris Tessone, arguing that a market-based approach affords more choice and customization for a varied student population.

The Gates-Pearson work certainly isn’t the first entree into common-core curriculum development (see here, here and here) and won’t be the last, even as folks disagree on what the heck “curriculum” means. The field is getting increasingly crowded. Who is crowding it and what they’re creating are sure to be topics of interest and argument for a good long while.

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