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Bruno: So The Common Core Probably Won't Lead to a National Curriculum

134329177_73f61a9bf3_nThe debate over the Common Core frequently returns to the question of whether the standards are really a curriculum.

For the most part, this is not a helpful debate to have. It is fair to say that, as a technical matter, the CCSS are not a curriculum, but most people do not care about the distinction and standards are meant to have curricular implications so not much turns on this question in any case.

To make the distinction between standards (what students are supposed to learn) and curricula (roughly, how to teach them) really seem to matter, you have to take one of two extreme positions: either that standards have almost no curricular implications or that standards effectively create a de facto curriculum.

Neither position is very plausible, but nor are they uncommon.

Proponents of the CCSS sometimes implicitly adopt the former position in an effort to avoid guilt-by-association with bad (or just unpopular) curricula.

Opponents, meanwhile, often adopt the equally-implausible latter position: that the standards are, for most intents and purposes, a curriculum.

Last week, for instance, Peter Greene took to the Huffington Post to argue that the CCSS "almost certainly will" result in a "nationalized curriculum".

I'll lay out my main objection to his argument below the fold.

The basic problem, as Peter sees it, is that in some places the CCSS are vague, but this "fuzziness" doesn't leave teachers any curricular leeway because it will ultimately be eliminated by large corporations publishing curriculum materials and designing assessment systems.

There's something intuitively plausible about his colorful argument, but one way to see why it doesn't quite work is to recognize that it proves too much. If standards lead inexorably to curricular homogeneity, that should already have happened under existing standards.

But it hasn't.

It's easy to forget, given the heatedness of the debate, that the Common Core is not the first time standards have been imposed on classrooms on a large scale. Quite the contrary: virtually all states already had content standards in a variety of subject areas.

In 1998, for instance, California adopted science content standards for K-12 schools, and those are the standards I have worked with in my classrooms for the past five years.

Did those standards become some sort of de facto statewide curriculum? Not at all.

I've taught in three schools, and each has used a different set of science textbooks. I've always been given pacing guides by my districts telling me which standards to cover in what order, but each of those three districts has used its own timeline and in some cases they have been radically different from one another.

Within my classroom I have considerable autonomy about how I will cover the various standards: how I will present new information to my students, what activities they will engage in, how I will assess them, and so on.

I've also met dozens of other middle school science teachers in California, and as far as I can tell no two of them ever take exactly the same curricular approach. There are certainly curricular elements that many teachers have in common, but it is natural that some classroom activities would be more popular than others even if they are not imposed by the standards.

Science is a tested-subject in California (at least at the 8th-grade level), but is curriculum more homogeneous in courses subject to higher-stakes testing?

To some extent, possibly. I've known many middle school math and English teachers, however, and despite working under shared standards they often seem to me to have very different curricula from one another. Indeed, I often find myself needing to modify my own materials when working with a math or English teacher for the first time to better align my curriculum with theirs.

None of which is to say that standards do not have implications for - or impose limits on - curricula chosen by districts, schools, and teachers. Those implications may be good or bad, and they may matter a great deal.

Nevertheless, it cannot be that standards per se necessarily result in something like a single curriculum. After all, the standards we've already had in place for many years have done no such thing. - PB (@MrPABruno)(image source)


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If "standards" means that every student is supposed to have attained the same knowledge and skills benchmarks at the same time, then I'm actually more in favor of a uniform curriculum (with leeway for students to attain the benchmarks at somewhat different times in their educational careers, since that is the reality on the ground) than I am in favor of the standards that seem to assume that students are identical to each other in all ways.

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