A call for voluntary common curriculum has been issued today by a surprisingly diverse group of education, business and civic leaders. The “Call for Common Content” issued by the Albert Shanker Institute, calls for a ”coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the content knowledge and skills that all students are expected to learn, over time, in a thoughtful progression across the grades.”
Among the dozens of signatories are Kati Haycock of the Education Trust, Linda Darling-Hammond, Tom Payzant, IBM Chairman Lou Gerstner, the Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn, and Harvard’s William Julius Wilson. Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and President Linda Bevilacqua also signed.
The statement supports Common Core State Standards, but makes the point long argued on this blog that while such standards are praiseworthy, they are not a curriculum–and are unlikely to amount to much in the absence of a shared curriculum. “To be clear, by ‘curriculum’ we mean a coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the content knowledge and skills that all students are expected to learn, over time, in a thoughtful progression across the grades,” reads the statement. “We do not mean performance standards, textbook offerings, daily lesson plans, or rigid pedagogical prescriptions.”
The manifesto addresses head-on the fear of “centralization, institutional rigidity, and narrow-minded political orthodoxy” that typically strangles any discussion of a common curriculum in its crib. “Common curriculum guidance does not represent a straitjacket or a narrowing of learning possibilities,” it reads. The proposed curriculum guidelines would be “purely voluntary, comprising only about 50 to 60 percent of what is to be taught”—leaving room for state, regional, and local variations.
One of the most practical arguments for a common curriculum has long been the extraordinary rates of student mobility, especially among low-SES students. And one of the most valuable contributions of the document is its contextualization of the role of poverty in student achievement—lifting the debate from narrow and needlessly polarized arguments about whether “demographics is destiny” or “teachers can overcome all obstacles” Economically advantaged children come to school with a head start in knowledge and language acquisition. “It is not poverty in itself, but poverty’s accompanying life conditions that help to explain performance gaps that begin at home and extend into secondary school and beyond,” the statement notes.
“Today, the information we need to minimize these performance gaps is in our hands, waiting to be used. Thanks to advances in cognitive science, we now understand that reading comprehension — so essential to almost all academic learning — depends in large part on knowledge. In experiments, when students who are “poor” readers are asked to read about a topic they know well (such as baseball), they do much better on comprehension measures than “good” readers who know less about the subject.
“The systematic effort to establish common, knowledge-building content must therefore begin as early as possible. The younger we start, the greater the hope that we can boost achievement across all schools and classrooms, but especially among our most disadvantaged students. Further, by articulating learning progressions linked to a grade-by-grade sequence for how learning should build over time, a defined curriculum will better enable each teacher to build on what students have already been taught. Students will also benefit, as they will be much less likely to find themselves either struggling to overcome gaps in their knowledge or bored by the repetition of what they have already learned.”
The manifesto also anticipates and addresses other knee-jerk objections that typically derail discussions of a common curriculum. Critical thinking skills, highly prized as a goal of schooling, for example, “requires a curriculum that builds knowledge upon knowledge.”
“Finally, some may fear that common curriculum guidance will neglect important cultural referents or ignore the diversity of student experiences. However, as national curriculum standards in several high-performing nations illustrate, a modern conception of curriculum in a diverse nation is explicitly mindful of how to attend to cultural connections, and how to leave room for local adaptations and resources that enable students to connect to the curriculum from their different vantage points.”
The New York Times previewed today’s release of the statement, noting that previous calls for common academic standards, curricular materials and tests for use nationwide have been “beaten back” by those who favor local control of schools. “But last year’s successful standards-writing movement was a departure, leaving the outlook for this proposal uncertain,” writes the Times’ Sam Dillon.
I’m as sanguine about a common curriculum and convinced of the need as anyone. Still, there will continue to be those who resist calls for common anything – standards or curriculum. What’s encouraging about the statement and the Who’s Who of heavyweights who have lent their names to it, is its recognition that the preponderance of evidence is on the side of knowledge and language acquisition as the difference maker in raising achievement. In that regard, it is an implicit challenge to would-be ed reformers to embrace not just structural change but instructional imperatives.
I’ll resist the worn-out phrase “game changer.” I’ll settle for “conversation changer.”