Curriculum, Part III: On Core Curriculum And Standards

This is the third post in a series exploring the concept and role of curriculum. Read Part I and Part II.

In my last post, I discussed how leaving the critical components of emotional/social literacy and character development out of our curriculum (the so called “hidden curriculum”) furthers inequity. I believe that inequity is also perpetuated by leaving what we teach our children up to chance, when we know quite firmly that there are foundational core components of academic knowledge. In national discussions and debates on public education, both reformers and their opponents are busy focusing on external factors such as poverty, human capital mechanisms (hiring & firing), and accountability. We have been largely ignoring one of the most easily and cheaply modifiable components of education: the curriculum. And this is the component that has arguably the most immediate and direct impact on a student.

When I began teaching fifth grade two years ago, though I knew I would be working with students presenting significant academic delays, I was still taken aback by how drastically far behind my students really were. I recall the moment in September of my first year when I introduced students to their fifth-grade Everyday Mathematics student reference books to review use of a table of contents and index. I was then awakened to the fact that the majority of my students not only did not know where a table of contents was located — nor even what a “table of contents” referred to — but furthermore had difficulty locating information in alphabetical order (not simply due to a difficulty with decoding words but more fundamentally from a difficulty alphabetizing). I had many such revelatory moments in my first year, in which I realized that I had to delve far back into the essential foundations of academic knowledge to provide access to our curriculum, such as via teaching phonemic awareness and phonics, or how to line up numbers for addition and subtraction using place value.

Teachers know that there are essential foundations underlying content knowledge that is requisite in advancing towards mastery. That’s what we teachers are paid to do, after all: break down complex subjects into the foundational procedural and/or conceptual components required for students to gain access to content and render these components memorable and imminently applicable to our students. I don’t know if folks who have not actually taught something understand just how difficult doing this kind of task analysis and explicit teaching can be. As an example of breaking down a seemingly simple concept into its relatively complex and explicit procedural components, refer to “Technique 13: Name the Steps” in Doug Lemov’s excellent “Teach Like a Champion,” in which teacher Kelli Ragin outlines the steps required in rounding. (I had originally written my own procedural outline, but it was kind of tedious and Ragin does a much better job of it.)

In math, there are concrete steps that can be developed, and we can pinpoint and target quite precisely where a student is struggling based on the evidence or explanation of their work. Different teachers will have different methods of addressing that struggling student’s needs, but the foundations underlying the content are there. When we discuss historical content, it might appear at first glance that such foundations are purely subjective. At a higher level, it may be to some degree in terms of the topics one chooses to focus on, but when we discuss elementary schooling, it becomes more easily apparent that there are fundamental concepts of community, essential skills such as reading maps and spatial awareness, and basic facts that are essential in understanding our common national and global history. When we look closer at high school-level historical studies (and beyond), I believe that we will find the same necessity for core facts and understandings behind different historical forces and events.

Why would we pretend the core foundations underlying content do not exist? Why would we leave it up to the independent exploratory process of a student, a teacher, a school district, or a state to determine these foundations? Why wouldn’t we pool together all of our evidence, from leading teachers, researchers, and content experts, to create a sequenced map of the foundations and background knowledge required to build towards mastery of that content?

I recently (randomly) learned about the concept of “learning progressions,” which I found in an article from a publication from the Teacher’s College educational policy program. This concept has been around for several years, and apparently had some influence on the development of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. I’m surprised, frankly, that the concept isn’t wider known and more fully explored.

Another construct aligned with these ideas which has been around literally for decades is E.D. Hirsch, Jr.‘s activism on the necessity for core facts and domain specific knowledge in public education. In “The Knowledge Deficit,” Hirsch argues that “the only way to improve scores in reading comprehension and to narrow the reading gap between groups is systematically to provide children with the wide-ranging, specific background knowledge they need to comprehend what they read.” Hirsch’s concepts, developed by the Core Knowledge Foundation, were rendered into a Core Knowledge Sequence, which is available for free download.

When I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence this year to the teachers at my school at a faculty staff meeting as a potential reference to guide their curriculum mapping, I expected either a lukewarm or even resistant reception. On the contrary, however, teachers were overwhelmingly excited by the sequence and gratified to have a copy of it to refer to. Aides and preparatory teachers were snapping the copies up like candy, such that we ran out of copies for core content area teachers! I feel like teachers — just like students — are desperate for guidance, given the superhuman demands made upon their time and energy. Why would we deny such explicit and systematic guidance to them?

The Common Core State Standards Initiative has impelled the process of acknowledging the central foundations underlying content knowledge and in establishing a unified consensus that states can adopt as firm guidance. This process has been ridiculously politically contentious, as has any movement in the past to establish national standards (read Diane Ravitch’s “The Life and Death of the Great American School System” for more history on the political machinations behind the standards movement). Ask any teacher who has actually examined and applied the CCSS: the new standards are well-written, more accessible and focused than our prior New York State standards, and an extremely useful guide for developing instructional lessons. Furthermore, as a special education teacher, I’ve found the new standards invaluable in developing my students’ annual goals on their IEPs. The language of the core standards is simultaneously specific and yet encompassing, allowing for easily tweaked goals that can target an individual student’s needs without being overly prescriptive.

There has been some criticism of the CCSS in that they aren’t necessarily more rigorous than what a few states already had in place, such as Massachusetts and California. However, what this criticism fails to take into account is that having a unified set of standards provides a critical opportunity in the development of a unified curriculum: We can now develop content matched to the standards across state boundaries with the confidence that this content can be applied without great modification. This is an outstanding opportunity for instructional innovation and collaboration on a national level.

The CCSS was a crucial and promising step forward. But let’s be clear about something: standards are largely guideposts and objectives, not actual content. In the words of the Common Core State Standards website, “the Standards are not a curriculum. They are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed.” In comparison to actual content, standards are relatively clean of contentious items and specifically applicable items for classroom use. The only item where standards provide direction on the actual content to be learned is the math standards, as they are fairly clear about what topics will be focused upon within each grade. In reading, social studies, and science, however, the standards are probably intentionally vague, as these are the areas that can swiftly become politically contentious.

But these contentious conversations around the actual content we teach our students are exactly the conversations that we should be having, if we are truly committed to equity. No teacher wants to be told what to teach. But every teacher – most especially teachers-in-training – would love having a guide to the underlying foundations required to gain the background knowledge necessary for mastery of content. This is why I was excited to discover the Core Knowledge Sequence. It doesn’t tell me how to teach and what to teach on any given day — it rather provides a clear outline of what topics would sequentially build the background knowledge necessary for my students to gain academic fluency. Problem is, the Core Knowledge Sequence is useless if every other teacher in my school isn’t following the same sequence for their respective grade levels. Which brings me back to my main point of this post: Without a systematic approach to the core content we teach, then we are systematically failing our students.

The Albert Shanker Institute recently put out a call for establishing a common core curriculum, in which they argue that “our nation must finally answer questions it has avoided for generations: What is it, precisely, that we expect all educated citizens to have learned? What explicit knowledge, skills, and understanding of content will help define the day-to-day work of teaching and learning?” In response to this, critics of national standards put forth a rebuttal against the idea of a core curriculum, stating, “we do not agree that a one-size-fits-all, centrally controlled curriculum for every K-12 subject makes sense for this country or for any other sizable country.”

Aside from an obvious misconstruction of the Shanker Institute’s intent, I think that these skeptics present two valid points that I agree with. If we are to have a unified curriculum, it must be flexible and able to encompass a great diversity of student needs, and it cannot be centrally controlled. But to create a unified core curriculum does not necessitate either of these things. We can agree to fundamental, core essentials of content without making curriculum one-size-fits-all. And we can develop a unified curriculum without it being centrally controlled.

We need to stop being political (and ethical) cowards and hold the necessary public discussion over essential core content and come to a consensus. Our children are sitting in classrooms that are all too often simply boot camp preps for a lifetime of imprisonment, with none of the essential knowledge that will enable them to succeed in this society. Our teachers are spending hours alone planning their lessons, attempting to dissect concepts in order to teach them effectively to their students. Why are we throwing our children and our teachers’ time, knowledge, and ability to the wolves?

In my next post, I will propose a potential method for developing a unified core curriculum from the ground level up. By the teachers, for the teachers, in conjunction with content experts. I will suggest the open-source process utilized in software development can be applicable to curriculum development, thus presenting a viable model for decentralizing curriculum development and addressing one of the main objections of those who are opposed to the idea of a unified core curriculum. Thank you for sticking with me thus far, and I welcome your feedback and constructive criticism!

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