Thursday, May 8, 2014

Standards & Curriculum

So is the Common Core a national curriculum or not? 

The Common Core is not a national curriculum, because it is not a curriculum at all. It is only a set of standards, and that's completely different from the scope and sequence of curriculum planning.

As angry villagers storm the Common Core Castle with pointy sticks and burny things, CCSS defenders keep repeating the curriculum/standards explanation over and over. And here's the thing-- theoretically, they aren't wrong. But like that terrible date you went on, the standards-curriculum distinction only looks good on paper. Even though the Common Core shouldn't have to lead to a nationalized curriculum, they almost certainly will.

I am not a scholar or expert in this field, so I'm going to approach this from a layman's perspective. Let's look at how this is going to work.

What Are Standards?

In manufacturing, standards generally are physical and functional. We have an agreed-upon standard for electrical plugs-- what shape, size and configuration they will have. We can actually see the effect of standards change with plugs; the standard was changed at one point so that one prong was wider than the other, and if you are trying to jam a new plug into an old outlet, you experience what frustration changes in standards can cause.

But education is not manufacturing, so educational standards are basically the children of educational outcomes (hands up, all you other greyhairs who remember Outcome Based Education). They are generally a list of behaviors that we expect the students to display.

Humans Are Fuzzy

Human standards tend to get fuzzy because they tend to fall into subjective terminology. For instance, your standard for a boyfriend might be "He will give me an appropriate gift on my birthday." This will become problematic if you think roses are appropriate and he thinks new shag carpet in his van is appropriate.

Except When They Aren't

Humans can get very specific. Your boyfriend requirement might include, "He will call me every day between 5 and 7 o'clock and talk to me for at least fifteen minutes."

What Is Curriculum?

There are people who get doctorates in this stuff, but the simple layman's explanation is that curriculum is the big list of what we're going to do, when we're going to do it, and how long we're going to take. That's it. It's a big, fat to-do list.

How Are Standards and Curriculum Related?

Standards are your destination. Curriculum is your road map. Standards say "You will be at the corner of East 9th and Superior in Cleveland on Sunday at noon." Curriculum is the directions you pulled up on mapquest and the travel plans you made with them.

The more specific my standards, the less freedom I have to create curriculum. What if the standards say that I will travel to Cleveland in less than three hours using only large highways, arriving with no food in the care and at least five gallons of gas in the tank? Now all manner of details about the trip, from vehicle to route to travel speed have all been pre-decided for me.

However, fuzzy standards also tend to limit freedom in writing curriculum, particularly when coupled with large penalties. If your girlfriend gets in the car and says, "Take me some place fun," you may not know exactly where she wants you to go, but you might feel secure making your best guess or even discussing it. If a carjacker gets in the car and says, "Take me some place fun or I will shoot you," you are going to feel an enormous amount of pressure to discern and match the carjacker's idea of fun.

So... Common Core State Standards?

Right. The Core features a mixture of the very specific and the very fuzzy. Let's look at some examples.

Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.

This is not a standard for writing; this is an outline. In classrooms that adhere to the Core, this may well be used as a template. It gets as close to dictating the actual curriculum as possible without listing actual topics to write about.

Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience's knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases.

This is "drive me someplace fun." "Fairly," "thoroughly," "most relevant," "strengths," and "limitations" are all subjectively assessed qualities. And that's before we even get to the psychic activity involved in working to our imaginary audience's biases etc.

In my own classroom, this standard would not make me uncomfortable. As the assessor of their writing, I would be obliged to share with my students what I meant by all of these subjective terms. We might even discuss them. And that would be cool.

But this is the roadtrip with the carjacker. Somewhere out there, in a triangle roughly between David Coleman, Pearson and Arne Duncan, is somebody with a specific idea of what he thinks those terms mean, and my students and I must nail that interpretation correctly. What we think doesn't matter-- only what that Font of Standards Knowledge thinks.

So how does that fuzziness lead to specific curriculum? Because we don't want to make the carjacker upset, so we look for every possible hint we can find about where he wants to go.

Vagueness screams out for explanation, and explanation is best served by specifics. We plead with the carjacker-- what do you mean by "someplace fun"? He answers, "Oh, someplace like Cedar Point." At that point, looking at the gun, we don't try to think of a place "like" Cedar Point, because we don't really know what particular Cedar Point trait is the fun-maker, anyway. No, we just head straight for Cedar Point.

Let's look at another example that is happening even as we speak.

By the end of grade 11, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 11-CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

The standards are clear that Some Stuff must be read. Appendix B, the famous text exemplars list, gives us some examples. "They are just examples," insist the Core advocates. "It's not an assigned reading list." But everybody is afraid of the carjacker with the gun. So what has happened? The numbers already indicate that school districts are treating Appendix B as an assigned reading list.

What Are We Supposed To Do

District after district is asking this question. The tenor of the top-down standards, imposed from on high, combined with the high stakes tests waiting at the end of the road, creates the strong impression that while there is no explicit Common Core curriculum, there is an implied one hiding somewhere between the lines. States and districts are desperate to be compliant to come up with a curriculum that properly reflects the Core the way it is supposed to.
From Middle Men To Grand Scale

Where the CCSS are broad and vague and subjective, middle men are leaping into the highly profitable breach. Textbooks, pre-built units, and various consulting firms are all leaping up to say, "We can give you the tools to create a CCSS-aligned curriculum. Or we can walk you through it step by step. Or we can just sell you one out of the box."

This isn't a bug; it's a feature. Remember one of the points of CCSS was to create economies of scale, to allow textbook publishers, for instance, to design textbooks that could be sold in all fifty states. The adoption of national standards insures, for the first time in US history, that one national curriculum could work. In fact, one national curriculum created by one vendor would probably be quicker, easier, and cheaper than everyone figuring out their own individual way of meeting the standards.

Sure, it's a level playing field. Any small company or in-house school district committee is free to compete with the hugest educational corporation in the world. Pearson's capture of the PARCC test contract without a single opposing bid can serve as a preview of coming attractions. The highly rigid and tightly structured instructional modules of engageNY really are the most efficient and simple way to align to the Core.

And corporations like Pearson are not just huge-- they have a head start. Because the standards were rammed through quickly and alignments are required yesterday, schools don't really have the time to do long careful curriculum development. But you know who has had several years to get ready? The corporations that were in the room to write the standards.

Other Connections?

Some of the goals of national standards supporters cannot be met by national standards. For instance, the idea that a student should be able to move from Tennessee to Utah without missing a beat-- you don't fix that "problem" with standards. You can only fix it with curriculum.

The Big Load of Cement

Of course, the other connector between standards and curriculum is the Big Test. High stakes tests push everyone closer to the same curriculum, because the curriculum is test prep.

Nobody believes that all the CCSS must be observed. Standards that promote collaboration are sweet, but they will never be on the test and therefor they don't matter. We all learned under NCLB that the testmakers love some standards and don't care so much about others, and it's the ones they love that we'll spend a chunk of the year teaching to.

So, Bottom Line?

Critics who say charge the Common Core is really a national curriculum (and supporters who accidentally say so) are not correct. The standards are not a curriculum. However-

Supporters who say that the Core is just completely divorced from a national curriculum and of course all curriculum control stays local are being disingenuous. CCSS does not mandate a national curriculum, but it ploughs the road, opens the path, greases the skids, and directs traffic toward it. The Core Standards make it hugely likely that we will not only have a national curriculum, but also that it will created by some corporation (best bet-- one whose name starts with "P" and end s with "earson").

That process may happen organically, or at some point the feds (or their designated agents) may step up and say, "The individual states have created a patchwork or policies that are inconsistent and vary too much from state to state. To bring consistent excellence to all states, we need to make the same high quality learning program available in all states." In other words, exactly the same argument used to push the Core can be rolled out again to push a national curriculum. It's entirely possible that we are only at the halfway mark on a very long road trip with a carjacker who is as patient as he is dangerous.


  1. I've always said....if Massachusetts creates a curriculum that scores well on the standards of Common Core....why reinvent the wheel? Massachusetts' curriculum will become the national curriculum!

  2. Excellent posting, Peter. I'm particularly taken with your analogy of the CCS to a carjacking. Both clever and sobering.

  3. It's a distinction without a difference. You can't have a road map without a destination or a starting point. Curriculum however, encompasses much more than a map to some arbitrary destination. Curriculum answers the question about what's most worthwhile for students to know and do? That's also a standards question. It could also be argued that both are open to debate and not fixed in time and space like the road from N.Y.C. to Pougkeepsie. Some might even say that the trip itself is the destination.

    1. Fair enough. Certainly the large number of educated people who can't agree on where to draw the line between the two suggests you are correct. And I believe that it's definitely all about the trip.