Kemble: Standards Not the Same As Curriculum

by Robert Pondiscio
August 4th, 2010

We’ll never get ed policy right as long as we continue to conflate standards and curriculum, notes the Shanker Institute’s Eugenia Kemble.  Discussing the rapid adoption of Common Core State Standards on the Institute’s blog, Kemble notes “the creation, promotion and acceptance of the Common Core Standards…represent[s] a sea change in the way this country is coming to think about its education system.”

“But, aside from a few enlightened souls, most of education’s brains trust still fail to recognize that curriculum is where the rubber hits the road. The road is about implementation and implementation requires curriculum – that is, the selection and sequencing of essential content knowledge so that teachers can produce a sensible year’s worth of expected learning in the core domains of math, literature, science, history, civics, the arts, foreign languages, and health and physical education.

Kemble notes that calls for a common curriculum have been made by Shanker, E.D. Hirsch, Diane Ravitch and many others, but the idea has never gained traction, probably because of preoccupations about local control of curriculum.  “Aligning education around a common core curriculum the way most developed nations do,” Kemble writes, ”means a virtual overhaul of the way American education operates.”

“But think about what doing this might actually mean for all the pop solutions currently on the table – good teacher preparation (education schools might have to acknowledge that student curriculum actually matters), good teacher evaluation (we might even consider the fairness of having a consistent set of expectations for what students should know), good research (imagine research not plagued by an inability to truly control for the variation in what students are expected to learn), performance pay, targeting low performing schools, assessments to measure defined accomplishment rather than to differentiate students, and on and on.

25 Comments »

  1. Indeed, standards are not the same as curriculum, and the Common Core Standards (at least for ELA) are essentially non-curricular. They emphasize the importance of curriculum and include a few curricular references, but when it comes to literature, they leave it to districts and schools to decide what students should actually read and know.

    Whether curriculum should be determined at the local, state, or national level, it is the essential piece. Standards mean very little if curriculum isn’t there. If you have assessments that are “standards-based” but not based on a curriculum, they will test mostly skills. If the standards, however well conceived, are the basis for all instruction, then even the curriculum will focus on skills in order to be “aligned” with the standards.

    The paradox here is that for the standards to be valuable, they can’t be at the very center of instruction. They cannot be the highest value. The standards (as they are right now) should support the curriculum and not the other way around. The curriculum must go beyond the standards–it must name specific works, concepts, ideas, historical periods, literary forms, and forms of argument and rhetoric. Some aspects of the learning cannot be measured. Others can.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 4, 2010 @ 8:40 am

  2. Agreed, Diana. You observed “assessments that are ‘standards-based’ but not based on a curriculum…will test mostly skills.” Right. And those who had the curriculum will demonstrate the skills.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 4, 2010 @ 8:44 am

  3. Standards define what students should know and be able to do. Curriculum defines ways to get students to the standards. Assessments determine if students know and are able to do what the standards ask for. Its pretty straightforward, really.

    Part of what is tying us up in knots is trying to pile too much onto standards. What you really want is something like Finland, where the standards are very thin, practically just a preface in the curriculum.

    But logically, it makes no sense to start with curriculum and derive standards from that.

    What you really want are standards like this, from Finland:

    “The pupils will:
    * come to know and appreciate the culture of one’s home region, and the nature of being Finnish, Nordic and European.
    * come to understand the roots and diversity of their own cultures and to see their own generation as a continuer and developer of previous generations’ ways of life
    * get an introduction to other cultures and philosophies of life, and acquire capabilities for functioning in a multicultural community, and in international cooperation
    * come to understand the component factors of cultural identity and their meaning for the individual and community”

    And the just MOVE ON and fight over the curriculum to get kids to that place.

    As far as I can tell, Fordham deserves a lot of the blame for confusing this issue.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — August 4, 2010 @ 11:48 am

  4. Tom, I am not so sure about that. You can’t write standards like Finland’s unless you have a clear vision of the specifics. Take a look at their high school curriculum. How can you create standards for philosophical ethics (p. 177), for example, unless you have certain works in mind? How else are students to learn about “classical virtue ethics” and “consequentialist and duty ethics”?

    OBJECTIVES
    The objectives of the course are for students to
    • familiarise themselves with the most important problems, concepts and theories in
    philosophical ethics;
    • be able to assess life and action from moral perspectives and to justify their assessments
    with ethical concepts;
    • be capable of structuring their own moral solutions and reasons by means of philosophical ethics;
    • learn critical and tolerant approaches both towards their own choices and towards other people.

    CORE CONTENTS
    • morality and applied and normative ethics concerning moral issues as well as meta-ethics;
    • di?erent grounds for convictions concerning moral values and norms; the relationship of
    morality vis-à-vis justice and religion; roles of reason and emotion in moral convictions;
    • objectivity and subjectivity of moral values and norms; the questions of the rationality of
    ethical justi?cations and the possibility of ethical truths;
    • basics of classical virtue ethics and of consequentialist and duty ethics;
    • philosophical ethics and the question of a good life.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 4, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

  5. Sorry for the bad formatting and garbling above. Here’s how it should read:

    OBJECTIVES
    The objectives of the course are for students to
    • familiarise themselves with the most important problems, concepts and theories in philosophical ethics;
    • be able to assess life and action from moral perspectives and to justify their assessments with ethical concepts;
    • be capable of structuring their own moral solutions and reasons by means of philosophical ethics;
    • learn critical and tolerant approaches both towards their own choices and towards other people.

    CORE CONTENTS
    • morality and applied and normative ethics concerning moral issues as well as meta-ethics;
    • different grounds for convictions concerning moral values and norms; the relationship of morality vis-à-vis justice and religion; roles of reason and emotion in moral convictions;
    • objectivity and subjectivity of moral values and norms; the questions of the rationality of ethical justifications and the possibility of ethical truths;
    • basics of classical virtue ethics and of consequentialist and duty ethics;
    • philosophical ethics and the question of a good life.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 4, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

  6. Does Finland have “standards” at all? Are their “objectives” standards? Are the “core contents?” Are the “Objectives of instruction” for a subject area (e.g., 5.3.1 MOTHER TONGUE AND LITERATURE, FINNISH AS THE MOTHER TONGUE, p 34) standards but the objectives for each course curriculum?

    Maybe we’re really both just anti-standards and pro-objectives and/or core contents?

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — August 4, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

  7. You have a point there. It is possible that Finland’s “objectives” and “core contents” are tied to the curriculum and that they don’t have separate “standards” as we know them.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 4, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

  8. Is anyone else concerned that yesterday’s announcement that Pearson is acquiring Americas Choice for $80 million coupled with Americas Choice having received the franchise to develop the high school assessments for Common Core means we have a de facto national curriculum now?

    http://www.prweb.com/releases/2010/08/prweb4346464.htm

    Will the Pearson math textbooks and the Americas Choice ELA products be the national curriculum under Common Core?

    Can anyone come up with a better explanation for this acquisition and the timing?

    Comment by Student of History — August 5, 2010 @ 10:16 am

  9. Student of History,

    Your paranoia is probably well founded. Events don’t just happen without a reason in big business.

    On a somewhat related note I liked their apparent philosophy: “Let’s change the way pre-K through 12 students learn. Let’s get rid of “one size fits all” educational solutions. Let’s help each student learn at his or her own pace.”

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 5, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

  10. It simply amazes me… As a homeschooler, I am quite often asked about curriculum, by other homeschoolers, curious neighbors, nosy relatives, etc. We talk about curriculum all the time, we exchange it, I receive lots of catalogs, attend homeschool curriculum fairs. Homeschoolers never talk about standards the way public schools do. When we talk about “standards” we mean it in the sense that a 4th grader should know their times tables by heart. I should say, at least most homeschoolers do.

    When my daughter attended school, I asked about the curriculum they would be using in her class. I could never get a straight answer. The teachers and administration alike would always talk to me about standards. The standards were written in such a vague, yet confusing manner, that they could mean anything and everything. I would always have to wait and have my daughter bring home all her books from school for me to have a look at them. Of course this wouldn’t cover aspects of the curriculum not in these books.

    Comment by Laura — August 5, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

  11. They say they want to get rid of the one size fits all but they simultaneously insist that the individual learning needs to be occurring in an inclusive classroom.

    What’s more-any school or district with disproportionality in its classes or tracks or curriculum risks a civil rights enforcement action.

    It was no accident the Justice Dept and Ed Dept announced they would be using a ‘disparate impact” analysis in looking at who had access to the college prep and AP tracks. Same week as the Standards were released.

    Sandra Stotsky’s “Literacy Study in Arkansas” from this spring detailed the AC program and how it holds the better students back. “The program homogenizes kids to fit the lowest standards” .

    There are simply too many events that fit into a common pattern here.

    We will have inclusive classrooms that push a discovery, collaborative project based learning approach that has all students covering the same material. There will be a heavy emphasis on the cultural background of each student in the classroom so that each student always has something to contribute to a discussion.

    Finally, the teacher is to look for local and global issues to weave into the class activities to keep all the students aggrieved and engaged to create a better, more just tomorrow.

    The last 2 paragraphs track back to those Model Teaching Standards. The disparate impact discussion was announced by Russlyn Ali, a former VP of Education Trust who now heads the Office of Civil Rights at Justice.

    Sometimes it looks like a conspiracy because they are working together to achieve a common goal that would be politically unpopular if openly acknowledged.

    Comment by Student of History — August 5, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

  12. SoH,

    I hear what you’re saying and I don’t disagree. In my mind, since the Common Core Standards came out last week, I’ve been totally creeped out. These folks have a definite agenda and it appears to be diametrically opposed to what we had previously in Massachusetts.

    FYI; (In case you weren’t aware) Inclusive classrooms are an administrative attempt to cut district costs. Severely handicapped kids can cost a district an enormous amount of money if they get farmed out to a specialty school. If these same kids get serviced in-house it costs the district a fraction of what it costs to have them serviced out of district. Many savvy administrators will use this strategy. The problem arises when the parents of the child in question protest the placement.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 5, 2010 @ 7:37 pm

  13. I think we must mean something different by inclusive classrooms. When they amended IDEA to go to the least restrictive placement, there were a great deal of articles written about how instruction needed to change. Instead of bringing up, the plan was to come down. It was not the intent of the statute but it became the intent of the implementation.

    This is similar but it’s not a learning issue. It’s more a matter of identity. Think of school as less about an individual obtaining learning that you need to move forward but do not currently possess. It’s now a group interaction.

    Inclusive means you do not get to separate out by prerequisite knowledge or skills or aspirations.

    It may make for a utopian world but what an inefficient classroom.

    Comment by Student of History — August 5, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

  14. Again, “least restrictive” and “inclusive” are misleading terms. Trust me, school boards and administrators accepted these pseudonyms as code for saving money on a small yet extremely costly portion of their overall budgets.

    Many states have adopted “circuit breakers” in an attempt to ameliorate some of these out of district costs. The bottom line remains, someone has to pay for the education of these severely handicapped kids who are indeed entitled to an equal opportunity for their education. The inclusive classroom is simply an alternative attempt by districts to meet the needs of kids living in their district.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 6, 2010 @ 6:13 am

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  16. Ironically, Robert, it’s Ravitch herself who conflates standards and curriculum.

    Example from her book:

    “One of the few states with an excellent curriculum in every subject is Massachusetts.”

    But Massachusetts has no curriculum in every subject, if you use Kemble’s definition.

    In fact, there is no Massachusetts curriculum in ANY subject.

    We only have standards. Maybe Ravitch got tripped up, because they’re called the “curriculum FRAMEWORKS.”

    Comment by MG — August 6, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

  17. I made a decision to dumb down a map quiz today after “concern” expressed about its difficulty by a parent of a child with a 504 plan (similar to an IEP). I’m dumbing it down for all 190 of my students because about 25% of them have either IEP or 504 plans whose details I have failed to memorize, so I figure it’s safer to just dumb it down for everyone.

    In the old days, I would have enlisted the help of my special ed aide to administer a separate quiz to the low-functioning students. But this is Great Recession America: most of our aides have been cut.

    I can either teach juicy, meaty whole class lessons or individualize instruction via handouts; I cannot do both.

    Comment by Ben F — August 6, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

  18. If 25% have IEP’s or 504′s, either the parents or the special ed department in your school has run amok.

    Comment by JB — August 7, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

  19. Diana, How would you classify what Texas is doing with their course specific high school end-of-the-year exams? Would you consider these standards + testing or curricula + testing?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — August 8, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

  20. Erin, I don’t know! To answer the question, I’d have to look closely at the Texas standards, curricula, course descriptions, and end-of-year exams. What is your take on this?

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 8, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

  21. Diana, The Texas plan looks like something in between, and possibly more similar to the Finnish high school link that you gave above or to the current AP courses, than any of the state/CCSSI standards + testing that focus primarily on skills with only tertiary references to the necessity of curricula.

    If you are interested the link is:
    http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index3.aspx?id=3302&menu_id=793#engI

    My read on the Texas plan is that their approach is quite interesting and could possibly serve as a model for real school improvement. Certainly, the international evidence does provide substantial support for their approach. ref: Woessmann

    They have yet to develop the ELA courses (which is always the most difficult because of the controversy of delineating texts to be covered) but the US History course does specify detailed content as well as the skills necessary to succeed in the course.

    If you get a chance to look at the Texas model of school improvement, it would be great to hear your thoughts as well.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — August 9, 2010 @ 2:15 am

  22. Erin,

    At a first glance, the Texas plan does look promising. The course outline for U.S. history combines concrete knowledge with analysis and ideas. The world geography course seems quite rich (though it’s not clear whether students actually learn where countries are located). As you say, the ELA courses are under development; I am curious to see what they do with those.

    I am skeptical of the organization of the geometry course; the “objectives” are a bit general, and then the specifics seem at times improbable. For instance:

    Objective 1
    The student will demonstrate an understanding of geometric
    structure.
    (G.1) Geometric structure. The student understands the structure of, and relationships within, an axiomatic system. The student is expected to
    (C) compare and contrast the structures and implications of Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries.

    Will the student have learned the basics of Euclidean geometry? Will the student know how to prove a theorem? It seems highly unlikely that high school students without a background in geometry will be in a position to “compare and contrast the structures and implications of Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries,” except in a superficial way.

    So, as usual, much of this depends on what the words actually mean. In any case, these course outlines seem to be a gesture in the right direction. Not necessarily a model, but a gesture.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 14, 2010 @ 10:28 am

  23. Diana, Glad to hear your perspective. And I concur, the content of the courses will greatly influence whether the classes enable quality student learning. What do you think of the content of the Texas course syllabi vs. the CCSSI standards?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — August 14, 2010 @ 11:37 am

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