Nations Performing at Top Committed to Broad Curriculum

By Sean Cavanagh — June 09, 2009 3 min read
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Though top-performing countries tend to win acclaim for their math and science performance, the key to that success may lie in their commitment to a broad curriculum, with healthy doses of the liberal arts and sciences, a new report contends.

Common Core, a Washington organization that advocates giving students a strong grounding across disciplines, makes that argument after examining the curricula of several high-achieving countries.

Too many American schools are, in contrast, sacrificing the arts and humanities because of pressure to improve reading and mathematics scores, according to the report, released last week.

“Why We’re Behind: What Top Nations Teach Their Students But We Don’t” examines tests, content, and curricula in nine jurisdictions that topped the United States on the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, in science: Australia, Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea, and Switzerland.

“What is the common ingredient across these varied nations?” writes Lynne Munson, Common Core’s president and executive director, in an introduction to the report. Rather than a “delivery mechanism or an accountability system,” she said, those countries share “a dedication to educating their children deeply in a wide range of subjects.”

The authors’ task in examining the standards and assessments of the nations was difficult, Ms. Munson said, partly because information on academic content in the countries was not always available. They collected standards and tests from various sources, including embassies and ministries of education.

At an event here to release the report last week, Ms. Munson acknowledged that it does not show that promoting a broad curriculum, as opposed to some unrelated factor, had a direct connection to high performance. But those countries’ ability to perform well in subjects like math, science, and reading, while also maintaining a comprehensive, content-rich curriculum, should prove instructive to U.S. officials, she and the other authors argued.

Picasso by Grade School

The report presents test content and curricula, and bores in on the subject-specific requirements in different countries. For instance, it highlights the required music curriculum for 8th grade students in the Canadian province of Ontario, which includes the ability to read music and produce basic compositions.

Fourth graders in Hong Kong visit an artist’s studio, study Picasso’s famed painting “Guernica,” and analyze modernist sculptor Henry Moore’s work, the authors say. Finnish 5th and 6th graders study how the invention of writing changed human life, as well as the influence of the French Revolution, the report says.

The authors argue that the No Child Left Behind Act’s focus on math and reading has “dumbed down” the curriculum, and say the movement toward “21st-century skills” promotes teaching “skills such as media savvy and entrepreneurship disconnected from content of any significance.” (“Backers of ‘21st-Century Skills’ Take Flak,” March 4, 2009.)

But Ken Kay, the president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, said that criticism is misguided. The goals of that movement—which include cultivating students’ applied skills, communication ability, and financial literacy—are not in competition with efforts to build content knowledge across many subjects, he said.

“You have to know the content, and what to do with it,” Mr. Kay said.

Mr. Kay also noted that some of the foreign lessons cited in the report—such as visiting an artist’s studio or studying Picasso—reflect “a merging of skills and content.” Education leaders in high-achieving countries are intent on not only building students’ content expertise, he said, but also teaching students how to apply that knowledge and solve problems.

“The idea that these countries are only focusing on content, and not content and skills, is a misreading of what’s going on,” Mr. Kay said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week as Nations Performing at Top Committed to Broad Curriculum


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