Curriculum Opinion

Gene Wilhoit: Quality Curriculum is Key to Common Core Implementation

By Marc Tucker — January 15, 2015 6 min read
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This is the second round in my interview of Gene Wilhoit, the former Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, who led the effort to create the Common Core. In the first round, Wilhoit identified four arenas that would have to be addressed to make the Common Core a success: 1) high-quality, coherent and powerful curriculum frameworks and materials matched to the Common Core, 2) high-quality assessments matched to the standards and curriculum, 3) vastly improved programs of initial teacher preparation designed to produce teachers capable of teaching the Common Core well, 4) a revolution in professional development for currently serving teachers, also designed to enable teachers—in this case currently serving teachers—to teach the Common Core well to students from many different backgrounds. In that round of the interview, Wilhoit expressed confidence that in only one of these arenas—assessment—is the nation taking some of the needed steps. Here, he talks about what it will take to make the same sort of progress in the other three arenas.

Marc Tucker: Of those four arenas you identified as keys to the successful implementation of the Common Core, there is only one that is underway and that you think may come out OK. That is assessment. Let’s discuss each of the others. How can each of the states develop a powerful curriculum fully informed by the standards? There appear to be only a few options: commercial publishers, the states themselves and non-profits. I see a few publishers behaving in creative ways, but most appear to be just sticking gold stamps on existing products declaring them to be aligned with the standards when it is patently clear that they are not aligned. I see foundations investing in enabling third party institutions to stick good housekeeping seals of approval on clumps of instructional materials that do not add up to a coherent curriculum. I don’t see the foundations or the federal government stepping forward and investing in large-scale programs of curriculum development, in the way both did in 50s and 60s. Do you see any way that we will be able to develop the kind of standards-based, first-rate curriculum frameworks and curriculum to match the quality of what we see in the top-performing countries?

Gene Wilhoit: I agree totally with the picture you have just painted. Also, there doesn’t seem to be the capacity in school districts, which is the one addition I would make to your list. This country has to figure out how to make a big investment in this area. I am pessimistic about federal funding. I’m not advocating that the U.S. Department of Education have a role in designing any of this; their role should be supporting research, not curriculum development. We need to go back to our foundations and make the case. Good housekeeping seals of approval are not going to give us what we need. Quick fixes of this sort will not do it. Far more will be required.

There are international models that could help us. The board examination systems--tightly integrated systems of standards, curriculum and exams—that come from Cambridge Assessment, and that can be found in New South Wales in Australia, Singapore, and several provinces in Canada—just to name a few—provide some outstanding models of curriculum design and tons of expertise on which we could build to create very strong curriculums in the United States. The idea is not to adopt these other curriculums but to identify what others have done internationally and learn from them. They have gone deeply into issues we have not considered. These systems all use curriculum to drive instructional practice to very high standards. Our leading foundations need to understand how critical it is to have curriculum designs that can drive fundamental improvements in instructional practice. Though the will is there in some of our state departments of education, I don’t think they have the needed deep expertise. So it will be up to our best universities and our leading not-for-profits. And they will have to decide that this is a major priority for them. I can see a coalition of strong, thoughtful faculty across a number of top universities providing this guidance and leadership, perhaps in association with one of more not-for-profits that have the necessary management expertise.

MT: Education Development Center, where I started my career in education years ago, did this back in the 60s and developed some of the finest mathematics and science curriculum this country has ever seen, so there is a precedent here. When we look around the world for powerful curriculum designs, we find board examinations built around standards and syllabi.

GW: Some of the most respected programs in the USA are just that: the Advanced Placement program and the International Baccalaureate have those characteristics.

MT: Most of the top-performing countries have systems of this sort. Their assessments aren’t directly based on standards but on the course as it is described in the syllabus. The best example worldwide is the work of Cambridge Assessment, used in more than 150 countries. Their exams cost about what the Advanced Placement tests cost, between two and three times what the new consortium tests will cost. One reason is that they are scored by human beings rather than computers, and the other is that they release all the questions every year with examples of papers that received good scores and analyses of why they got those scores. That means that teachers know, parents know, and kids know what good student work looks like. It is actually these pieces of student work that set the standard. But American test-makers won’t release the questions in the tests each year and they won’t show you examples of the student responses that get top grades. They won’t show teachers how their students do on particular test items, so the teachers don’t know after the tests are given what their students need to work on to do better the next time. So, compared to students and teachers in other countries, our students and teachers are flying blind. Their curriculum and exam system, unlike the systems of the top performers, is designed to measure student performance, but not to improve it.

GW: All that is true. It is also true that the system you just described provides the best professional development for teachers I have ever seen. When you release the items and provide examples of student work that meets the standards, you can then engage teachers in conversations about why a particular piece of student work meets the standards. When teachers bring the work of their own students to a meeting with other teachers, it promotes a conversation about why your students were able to meet the standards, while mine did not. These conversations quickly get to the most important issues in teaching and learning. Not enough of this is happening today in the US. There is too little deep professional exchange about content, pedagogy, and student work going on in our schools, and, until there is, the Common Core will not be implemented as it should be implemented.

When I was commissioner in Kentucky, we did have opportunities of this kind for teachers. Again, the point is that we do not have to create new models. In some cases, we can resurrect very good ones we’ve used before. The longer we delay providing these types of support, the more frustrated we will become.


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