Standards

Leaders Call for Shared Curriculum Guidelines

By Catherine Gewertz — March 07, 2011 5 min read

Seventy-five respected leaders in education, business, and government issued a call this week to devise shared curriculum guidelines for the new common standards.

The move is notable for finding common ground on a sensitive topic among an ideologically diverse group of thinkers. Signatories include political liberals and conservatives, and those with varying views on controversial education issues such as charter schools, testing policy, and ways to evaluate and compensate teachers.

Among them are university scholars such as Harvard University’s William Julius Wilson; former top federal education officials in both Democratic and Republican administrations, such as Chester E. Finn Jr., Susan B. Neuman, and Marshall “Mike” Smith; business leaders such as IBM Corp. Vice President Stanley S. Litow; union officials such as American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten; and urban schools superintendents such as Andrés Alonso of Baltimore.

Brought together by the Albert Shanker Institute, a Washington think tank named for the AFT’s late president, the signatories issued a statement March 7 titled “A Call for Common Content: Core Curriculum Must Build a Bridge From Standards to Achievement.”

They emphasized, however, that they are not advocating one prescriptive learning plan for all children, but one or more “curricular guides” to help translate the common standards in mathematics and English/language arts, adopted by all but seven states, into sound curriculum and accompanying resources.

“To be clear, by ‘curriculum,’ we mean a coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the content knowledge and skills that all students are expected to learn, over time, in a thoughtful progression across the grades,” the document says. “We do not mean performance standards, textbook offerings, daily lesson plans, or rigid pedagogical prescriptions.”

The signatories acknowledged that with the nation’s history of state and local control over education, “the very idea of common curriculum guidance will strike many as overly controversial.”

No ‘Straitjacket’

But “common curriculum guidance does not represent a straitjacket or a narrowing of learning possibilities,” they said. For instance, if the guide calls for 4th graders to study the solar system,accompanying materials could suggest ways to teach it. Some teachers could ask students to spend a week building scale models, while others might choose to give a lecture with accompanying video, and still others might weave the topic into lessons about the chemical properties of gases and solids or have students draw or write about the characteristics of the planets.

States’ use of the guidelines would be “purely voluntary” and would account for no more than 60 percent of what is taught in classrooms, leaving ample room for regional variations. The guides would begin with math and English/language arts, but eventually encompass other areas such as history, the sciences, foreign languages, and the arts, the document says.

National Content?

Despite the arguments of the signatories, some viewed the manifesto as a call for national curriculum. Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, declined to sign it in part for that reason. Mr. Hess said he believes that shared curriculum guidelines “violate the spirit of the common standards,” which he supports.

“They were carefully crafted to be agnostic on curriculum, so that there would be lots of different waysto organize scope and sequence, and create and deliver materials, and so educators and state leaders could embrace them whatever their stands in debates about pedagogy, the desirability of school autonomy, and the wars about what to read,” said Mr. Hess, who advocates choice in many aspects of education.

“They can’t go on about a ‘coherent, substantive, sequential’ plan for the ‘knowledge and skills’ students need and still claim there is enormous room for people to come out with all kinds of instructional and curricular materials,” he said. “What they’re pushing is a national model of instruction.”

Not so, said Stanford University professor of education Linda Darling-Hammond, a signatory to the paper. The group is calling for a “very lean approach” to outlining the knowledge and skills students need “in some reasonable sequence,” as is done in Finland and Japan, where a K-12 math curriculum might run a total of 10 pages, she said. The actual curricular units and lesson plans are then left to educators to develop, she said.

“We’re trying to make a case for the fact that it matters how we organize curriculum for instruction,” she said. “Teachers need that set of curriculum tools, and we need to be paying attention to that. This is not the highly prescriptive curriculum that many people think of in the United States. This is, ‘What are the big ideas, what are the big concepts, that need to be taught for kids to acquire this set of knowledge and skills?’ ”

Mr. Finn, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, said he doesn’t regard national standards or curriculum as “the devil’s curse” if they’re high-quality and voluntary. “It’s dumb to have good standards not accompanied by good curriculum,” he said.

The group also called for establishment of a “control body” of teachers, content experts, curriculum designers, cognitive scientists, and assessment experts to judge various curricula, textbooks, assessments, and other resources on how well they reflect the standards.

The paper is scheduled for publication in the spring edition of American Educator, the quarterly magazine of the AFT. The 1.5 million-member union called for shared core curriculum in the winter edition of the magazine.

At a recent AFT committee meeting, some teachers and top officers expressed concern that common assessments were being developed from the common standards with no curriculum in between. That concern is repeated in the Shanker Institute document. (“AFT Presses Need for Curriculum Linked to Standards,” March 2, 2011.)

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as Leaders Urge Shared Curriculum Guidelines Across States

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