The United States has long resisted a national curriculum, but that’s changing. More than forty states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands have signed on to adopt a set of voluntary curriculum standards developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
Two years ago in this publication, Morgan S. Polikoff and I endorsed the nascent move toward a national curriculum, saying that it would likely bring greater efficiency and coherence, better accountability, and a stronger set of assessments to our educational system. (See inset below.)
I was betting that a national curriculum would give us something like a fresh start in the standards-based-reform business. A national curriculum, I thought, would let us leave behind the mistakes and inadequacies of existing state standards and give us an opportunity to build a curriculum full of strong content that was solidly aligned to improved assessments. The result of such an effort would be a stronger, outcomes-oriented educational system that serves all of our young people, in every state and at every income level.
In short, I hoped that new national curriculum standards would be better than the state standards they replaced, and that new student assessments would be better, too.
I wish I could say that our progress toward common-core standards has fulfilled my hopes. Instead, it seems to me that the common-core movement is turning into a lost opportunity.
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a Commentary by Andrew C. Porter and Morgan S. Polikoff. It was originally published on edweek.org on June 11, 2009.
After a history of more than 25 years, the national-standards movement seems to be at peak intensity. In April of this year, representatives from 41 states met under the auspices of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to work toward the establishment of common guidelines in mathematics and English language arts. As of the first week of June, 46 states had formally agreed to join in the effort.
Even though the 50-state, 50-standards system that has emerged out of standards-based reform has increasingly come under fire from researchers and policymakers, there has as yet been little investigation of the extent to which these many sets of standards differ, one from another.
We wondered whether the current state standards might be so alike as to already constitute a de facto national intended curriculum. If this were true, national standards, though not difficult to implement, might not even be needed. On the other hand, if state standards documents cover widely different content, there might be greater need for a push toward consistency. In either case, national standards would be more efficient and probably of higher quality than the hodgepodge in place now.
Recently, three doctoral students at the University of Pennsylvania—Jennifer McMaken, Jun Hwang, Rui Yang—and I mapped the extent to which the common-core standards are aligned with current state standards and with various U.S. and international assessments. Using a nationally recognized content-analysis procedure, the Surveys of Enacted Curriculum, we compared common-core math standards with math standards in 27 states and common-core English language arts standards with English language arts standards in 24 states. We used all the data available from a state partnership coordinated by Rolf Blank at the Council of Chief State School Officers and maintained by John Smithson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. What we found was unexpected and troubling.
Our research shows that the common-core standards do not represent a meaningful improvement over existing state standards. To be sure, when we consider state standards in the aggregate, the common-core standards present a somewhat greater emphasis on higher-order thinking. But the keyword here is somewhat; the difference is small, and some state standards exceed the common core in this respect. And, in terms of mathematics and English language arts curricula focus, the results are just as disappointing: The common core has a greater focus than certain state standards, and a lesser focus than others.
What all this means is that the common-core standards don’t seem to build on what we’ve learned through decades of research and experience. The common core is not a new gold standard—it’s firmly in the middle of the pack of current curricula.
Even more surprising was what we found when we compared the common-core standards with the national curriculum standards of several countries whose students regularly beat the pants off U.S. youngsters on international achievement tests like the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.
I wish I could say that our progress toward common-core standards has fulfilled my hopes. Instead, it seems to me that the common-core movement is turning into a lost opportunity."
Reformers, myself included, have been saying that U.S. schools need to teach more higher-order thinking skills if we’re going to catch up with other countries’ educational systems. But curricula in top-performing countries we studied—like Finland, Japan, and New Zealand—put far less emphasis on higher-order thinking, and far more on basic skills, than does the common core. We need to ask ourselves: Could our enthusiasm for teaching higher-order skills possibly have gone too far? Clearly, both basic skills and higher-order thinking are important, but what is the right balance?
Finally, I had hoped that along with a national curriculum, the common core would prompt us to develop better, more scientifically sound ways to assess student learning. In particular, I hoped to see assessments that are better aligned with the curriculum, that give teachers and administrators more useful information, and that are just plain better at measuring student progress.We may yet get such improved assessments. But what I know so far about the work of the two multistate consortia developing the assessments isn’t promising. It sounds as if the new assessments may ignore state-of-the-art research and technological advances, settling for tests that are much like the ones we already have. Meanwhile, innovative work on assessments that’s been going on in the states has ground to a halt while everyone waits to see what the consortia come up with.
If new standards don’t bring us better curricula than what we already have, don’t help us catch up with our international competitors, and don’t lead to better assessments, then all the hoopla over the common core may turn out to be much ado about nothing.
A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week as In Common Core, Little to Cheer About