Shared Curriculum: Great Goal or Bogeyman?

By Catherine Gewertz — March 07, 2011 3 min read
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Today marks the second time in a month that I’m hearing calls for common curriculum for the common standards. Seventy-five leaders in education, government, and business released a statement today calling for development of such curriculum (see my story on our website). A couple of weeks ago, folks at a common-standards committee meeting of the American Federation of Teachers said there has got to be some good curriculum between the standards and the new tests being designed for them. And that doesn’t even count the AFT’s call, in the winter edition of its quarterly magazine, for common curriculum.

The minute anyone says “common curriculum,” or anything like it (“shared” curriculum, “national” curriculum), there is an instantaneous reaction in some quarters that envisions every 3rd grader in America reading from the exact same page of the exact same textbook at the exact same moment on a given Tuesday in February.

This perception is exactly what the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers bent over backwards to offset when organizing the common-standards movement. They studiously avoided the phrase “national curriculum” because it stirs up folks’ blood. They repeated endlessly that states had designed the standards along with content experts.

Common-standards lovers argued that just because states share standards doesn’t mean everyone needs to walk in lock-step on curriculum. There are many different ways to get to the same learning goals, they argued. Even with a solid “roadmap” to guide teachers, they still have plenty of creative space to decide how best to teach their students, AFT President Randi Weingarten told me after the committee meeting, in arguing for “common, sequential curriculum” for the new standards.

That’s a point that’s reiterated in the statement released today by the Albert Shanker Institute. The document goes so far as to illustrate multiple ways teachers could impart a 4th grade unit on the solar system to teach the same goal in a shared curriculum.

In reporting the discussions about curriculum, I have begun to notice people struggling with semantics and using varied definitions. Take as an example an exchange I reported on last month. I was in Atlanta for a meeting about through-course summative assessment, a feature of the common assessments currently under design. One consortium representative happened to mention that both state test-design consortia were using supplemental federal funds to design curriculum resources for the standards (see my story on that here). That tidbit changed the tenor in the room; suddenly everyone was interested. The question was raised: Doesn’t federal law bar you from using federal money to create curriculum? The response: Well, we’re not designing an entire curriculum; we are creating curricular resources and materials. It would be up to teachers, districts, and states to use these as building blocks to create complete curricula. This is one type of distinction I’m hearing drawn a lot lately.

Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, hardly one to agree to teachers reading from a scripted curriculum, told me last week that people in the United States think curriculum is a very tight, prescriptive thing, while those in some other countries, like Japan and Singapore, think of it as a very lean set of goals—more like an outline teachers fill in with their own professional judgment. Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and a cranky skeptic of many things, including anything that smells like loss of choice, told me that he doesn’t see why people get all riled up over “national standards” or “national curriculum” if those standards and curriculum are 1) high quality and 2) voluntary.

So I’ve been thinking, in these roiling currents, is our problem here just a semantic one? If we were to agree on exactly what we mean by all these phrases (“curricular resources,” “curriculum,” etc.), would we still have a highly charged debate on our hands?

I don’t see any national clarity on what “curriculum” means, since in some places a textbook serves as curriculum, where in others, teachers work together and draw on a variety of intriguing resources to forge flexible, creative, and responsive learning plans for their students. Is there a chance we could get past all these words—or clarify the distinctions among their meanings—and actually figure out what rankles us in these debates and how to resolve those concerns?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.