Standards

Multiple ‘Curriculum’ Meanings Heighten Debate Over Standards

By Catherine Gewertz — March 29, 2011 7 min read
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Calls for shared curricula for the common standards have triggered renewed debates about who decides what students learn, and even about varied meanings of the word “curriculum,” adding layers of complexity to the job of translating the broad learning goals into classroom teaching.

The most recent calls for common curricula came from the American Federation of Teachers and the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank named after the late aft leader. Many others are working on pieces of that puzzle—an array of instructional resources for states, districts, and teachers. But the calls for “shared” or “common” curricula have sparked particularly heated conversations.

Scholars, bloggers, and activists are exchanging fire about whether shared curriculum means lessons dictated from afar. They’re worrying that the public could lose a voice in shaping what children learn, and asking whether the federal government is overstepping by funding curriculum development.

The common standards in English/language arts and math, devised by states and content experts under the guidance of governors and state education chiefs, have been adopted by all but seven states.

Part of the debate about common curriculum for the standards is driven, observers say, by the multiple meanings of the word “curriculum.”

To some, that term can mean a scripted, day-to-day lesson plan, while to others, it’s a lean set of big ideas that can be tackled in many ways. In some states, a textbook becomes the de facto curriculum. In others, standards and broad outlines called frameworks, with or without model lesson plans and other resources, are rolled together as “state curriculum.” Some school districts purchase off-the-shelf programs they refer to as curricula, and others craft their own.

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Some observers worry that lack of clarity about the meaning of terms like “curriculum,” “frameworks,” and “curriculum guidelines” risks muddying a public dialogue about an important issue.

“Curriculum is not always easy to define. But it’s crucial that we have clear understandings of what we mean by terms like this,” said J. Wesley Null, an associate professor of curriculum and the foundations of education at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “Otherwise, we have curriculum being implemented that doesn’t do what states or districts hope it will do.”

Local Control

As controversial as standards can be, curriculum can make people even more nervous because it edges closer to the classroom and to defining content, some experts say.

“That’s where dicey decisions need to get made. And curriculum, done really well, is going to involve some pedagogical decisions,” said Kathleen Porter-Magee, a former curriculum director for a charter school network who now oversees the standards program for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank. The Shanker Institute’s March 7 call for a “core curriculum” was attacked in some quarters as a threat to local control over what is taught. The 200 signatories advocated crafting one or more voluntary, broad outlines of key knowledge and skills, not dictating daily lessons or pedagogy.

Such distinctions are meaningless, said Neal P. McCluskey, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington. Decisions about even “big ideas” in curriculum will mold what happens in classrooms, he said.

“The whole point of having national standards is to drive curriculum,” Mr. McCluskey said. “When they start talking about curriculum, they’re putting meat on the bones of the standards. That gets closer and closer to the students.”

Additionally, Mr. McCluskey argued, the common assessments being developed with federal funds by two consortia of states will shape the curriculum. “Those tests will have to test something,” he said. “When they test specific readings, we will see that we now have a national curriculum.”

Some of the heat in the curriculum debate stems from questions about the degree of granularity at issue. Does “curriculum” mean a high-level outline, or the content of a six-week science lesson? That affects the conversation, and it isn’t always clear.

Michael W. Stetter, Delaware’s accountability chief, said he thinks of curriculum on two levels: the “macro,” or big ideas, in documents such as state standards or frameworks, and the “micro,” or what’s taught in units or marking periods. What sets people off, he said, is talk of managing the micro curriculum.

“What rings alarm bells in people’s minds is this notion of who would be the august body who decides what is worth teaching and what is not,” he said. “It’s worse when discussions about curriculum don’t make clear what it is we are actually talking about.”

Some think the debate is too black and white. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, a Rye, N.Y.-based curriculum consultant, said it is possible to agree on central ideas for standards and leave schools to teach them their own way. It’s a crucial distinction, she said, between guidelines and “operational curriculum.”

“What’s stirring everything up here is the word ‘common,’ ” she said. “It suggests everything is the same, when people know that curriculum has to be responsive. But we can think of ‘common’ as more like a town common, a place where we all meet.”

Public Input

For some educators, concerns in the shared-curriculum debate center on a shift away from the traditional curriculum-development process, in which states most often craft standards and broad outlines and leave districts to design classroom-level plans.

With public entities making those decisions, community members typically have a chance to provide input as boards or committees are shaping them. Some worry that “shared curricula”—however high level or close to the classroom—could circumvent public access by cutting out the public’s role.

“At what point will all these materials be available for public review? When they’re final?” asked Sandra Stotsky, who helped shape Massachusetts’ standards and curriculum frameworks when she worked in the state department of education. “The point of a public, civic process is to allow time for public input, feedback, and revision.”

Some privately financed efforts to build instructional resources for the common standards are already using an open, iterative process. Curriculum maps created by the Common Core organization in Washington, for instance, are posted on the group’s website and are undergoing constant revision as teachers and others examine and react to them, said President Lynne Munson.

“There is a certain unease about curriculum creation because it connects to content, and there have been various wars in recent decades about reading lists and such,” said Ms. Munson. “We are trying to navigate those admittedly difficult waters. ... We would be fools to create materials in a process that doesn’t draw on the tremendous wisdom of a public-review process.”

Leaders of both state assessment consortia—the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC, and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC—told Education Week that their array of instructional resources will be available for review, feedback, and revision while they are being written.

Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based group that serves as PARCC’s managing partner, noted that the content frameworks, model instructional units, and other products are being created not by private staff members “in a cubbyhole,” but by the states themselves. Joe Willhoft, the executive director of the SBAC, said that consortium’s exemplar curriculum units, prototype formative assessments, and other tools will undergo a process of creation, use, feedback, and revision.

Federal Meddling?

Some in education policy circles have questioned whether the state assessment consortia’s plans to produce instructional resources violate restrictions on federal involvement in curriculum.

While federal grants have often supported curriculum development, sections of federal law bar the government from dictating what is taught.

Responding to questions about the use of federal funds for curriculum work, a senior official from the U.S. Department of Education said the department awarded supplemental Race to the Top money to the state consortia to help them transition to the common standards and assessments.

The official noted that the department did not dictate or control how the states planned to make that shift, but accepted the consortia’s proposals for doing so. Additionally, department officials said, no state is obligated to use the consortia’s materials because the funds are part of a discretionary grant.

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as Multiple ‘Curriculum’ Meanings Heighten Debate Over Standards

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