A Curriculum Manifesto

by Robert Pondiscio
March 7th, 2011

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.”


  1. This would be more convincing if it called for a re-write of the Common Core standards. I don’t believe it is possible to overlay a common curriculum on the Common Core. I mean, you can create a much larger super-set of standards, but are they going to be assessed, or are we talking about two separate layers of assessment now?

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — March 7, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

  2. Robert,

    Great topic.

    For me, there needs to be transparency about what is to be in the guidelines and who appoints the “control body.” Beyond that, why should this country allow the likes of Linda D-H and Mike Cohen to decide what our curriculum guidelines should be for the country? Is that really what we want for our schools nationwide? That could get scary, real fast.

    A first-rate national curriculum is mandatory, especially in math and science. But, one needs mathematicians and scientists playing a leading role, not the NCTM or AAAS officials.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 7, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

  3. There needs to be transparency about a process for the proposed guidelines so that public feedback is possible and visible on the USED’s website somewhere. Who is to formulate the process for getting feedback and who is to be responsible for incorporating feedback? There was no transparency with Common Core’s so-called ELA standards.
    In addition, who is to responsible for choosing members of the “control body?” How can we get input from, say, mathematicians who teach at the college level and high school math teachers about the content of the math courses that should be available in high school? How can we get input from a range of college English/humanities profs and high school English teachers about the content of the high school English courses–and some ideas about what makes for a coherent curriculum sequence in grades 9-12? How do we hold a national conversation about these matters before anything is finalized? And who should finalize curriculum guidelines which will not be voluntary if the wording the administration wants for a re-authorized ESEA is used? Sandra Stotsky

    Comment by Sandra Stotsky — March 7, 2011 @ 6:15 pm

  4. Librarians should be included in any control body.

    Comment by B. Stone — March 7, 2011 @ 8:53 pm

  5. This is encouraging. Another thing to keep in mind: how do we deal with the students who can master the curriculum well, if they get to take it at a slower pace?

    Comment by pinetree — March 8, 2011 @ 9:17 am

  6. @Tom Those of us who are curriculum advocates see an entirely different issue: How can you possibly design assessments in the absence of a curriculum? The ELA standards are process-heavy, describing what students should be able to do, not what they should know. This leads to assessments of reading “skills” that are content-neutral, and defy what we know about the domain-specificity of reading comprehension. We had a common curriculum and reading passages on assessments were culled from those subjects, rather than random incoherent topics, we might get somewhere.

    @ Paul Hoss I’m all for subject matter experts outside of education having a voice, and a leading voice, in curriculum design.

    @ Sandra. Agreed. I’m a little nervous to see this entire process might get subverted by arguments about evolution, or the founding fathers’ religious beliefs in high school. PreK to 5 curriculum never gets done because of such arguments, even though I suspect there would be little disagreement that first graders, for example, should know the names of continents, primary colors, names of geometric shapes, etc.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 8, 2011 @ 9:27 am

  7. pinetree,

    Go to the Core Knowledge archives, late December, 2009 (29th?) to read my chapter on individualized instruction. It addresses your concern (as well as that for “faster” learners) comprehensively.

    It’s an aspect of education reform that has been too long avoided.



    Being aware of some of the players that could wind up driving this bus, I’m a little nervous to see this entire process might get subverted by arguments for emphasizing critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration at the expense of the acquisition of KNOWLEDGE first.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 8, 2011 @ 10:55 am

  8. Robert,

    You continue to make a good case for opposing the current Common Core standards and seeking their *replacement*.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — March 8, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

  9. Student of History,

    Where are you and your valued research/input?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 8, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

  10. @TomH Well, thanks, I guess. If you were to read what I’ve written about CCSS (not recommended) you will see that I have no particluar love of standards qua standards. I’ve always viewed reforms–any reforms–through a single prism: will this make it more likely or less likely that my students, and students like them, will get a rich, coherent core curriculum. CCSS makes it more likely. A sure thing? No. But the CCSS guidelines explicitly call for a coherent curriculum to make the standards work. That’s not a guarantee, but it’s a step in the right direction.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 8, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

  11. On its face, the recommendations seem to move in the right direction. There are some technical problems with the level of detail suggested and notably missing from the initial signatories were representatives from CCSSO and NGA or any of their superintendent and governor members.

    The other thing missing is an action plan with a funding source to make it happen, which anyone who has followed the development of the CCSS knows exist, and while already being put in motion, is not intended for public review.

    The “Curriculum Manifesto” floats the notion of a common curriculum without the explicit connection to the two RTTT assessment consortiums. It puts the whole issue on the table in an independent way. When it comes to execution, it will be conveniently “discovered” that the consortiums are already doing this work with $330 million plus of federal funding. The action plan was explicitly stated in their RTTT proposals. For example:

    Excerpts from the SMARTER Consortium proposal regarding standards build-out: “While it is critical that the assessment system validly reflects these standards, SBAC must interpret or translate these standards before they can be used effectively for assessment or instruction” [Page 34]; “Translate the standards into content/curricular frameworks, test maps, and item/performance event specifications to provide assessment specificity and to clarify the connections between instructional processes and assessment outcomes.” [Page 35]; “Targeted constructs – a clear definition of the specific grade-level content skills and knowledge that the assessment is intended to measure” [Page 48]; and “Building from the CCSS, we propose to convene key stakeholders and content specialists to develop assessment frameworks that precisely lay out the content and cognitive demands that define college- and career-readiness for each grade level.” [Page74] “Building from the CCSS, the Consortium will develop cognitive models for the domains of ELA and mathematics that specify the content elements and relationships reflecting the sequence of learning that students would need to achieve college and career-readiness” [Page 76]

    Excerpts from the PARCC Consortium regarding standards build-out: “Unpacking the Standards. As a first step to ensuring full alignment of the assessment items to the CCSS, it will be important to unpack the standards to a finer grain size as necessary to determine which standards are best measured through the various components … To do this, the Partnership will engage lead members of the CCSS writing teams … and the content teams from each state, assessment experts and teachers from Partnership states.” [Page 174]

    Excerpts from the SMARTER Consortium regarding curriculum: “Teachers are provided with curriculum, instructional materials, rich professional development, and other supports and resources to effectively instruct students on the standards.” [Page 35]; “[provide] Model curriculum and instructional modules that are aligned with the CCSS” [Page35]

    Excerpts from the PARCC Consortium regarding curriculum: “The Partnership will develop challenging performance tasks and innovative, computer-enhanced items … [that] will send a strong, clear signal to educators about the kinds of instruction and types of performances needed for students to demonstrate college and career readiness.” [Page 7]; “… two important instructional supports: model curriculum frameworks that teachers can use to plan instruction and gain a deep understanding of the CCSS, and released items and tasks that teachers can use for ongoing formative assessment.” [Page 57]

    When the CCSS leadership ‘insiders’ determine that the time is right, the content will be unveiled because the CCSS consortiums need to eventually reveal the curriculum they develop. Is it possible that the leadership intends to hold back the content until the curriculum is ready and it’s too late for public discussion or meaningful revisions? If so, I am concerned that they are in the process of compromising our nation’s civic principles of open debate and transparency.

    Comment by Steve Kussmann — March 8, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

  12. I wish they hadn’t misspelled “ORIGINAL.”

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 8, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

  13. This is my problem with common curriculum. It seems to ignore child development in their eagerness to rush ahead.

    I’m not at all sure that first graders should know the names of continents — first, second, and third graders should know what a town is, a street, village, a neighborhood, a farm. Different kinds of buildings — a hut, a tent, a lean-to. Maybe a map. A stream, a river, a lake, an ocean. Let them really know with these concepts deeply and live and play with with them. The continents can wait until fourth and fifth grades!

    Comment by Harold — March 8, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

  14. Having taught students in second grade who had been taught the continents in first grade let me assure you that first graders are quite capable of learning the continents. This is in a low SES school with 85% free and reduced lunch. If we wait until fourth or fifth grade to even introduce the concepts of continent then fourth and fifth grade teachers are forced to teach simple memorization when they need to be getting busy teaching more complex concepts like the history of the people on those continents and why certain historical events happen. Students need a background knowledge of geography before they can understand history. Do not underestimate your students they can do this.

    Comment by Mary Sulgrove — March 8, 2011 @ 5:24 pm

  15. Steve,

    “Is it possible that the leadership intends to hold back the content until the curriculum is ready and it’s too late for public discussion or meaningful revisions?”

    While I hope you’re wrong, I fear you could be right. I’ve seen it too many times in the past.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 8, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

  16. Another reason to teach the continents as soon as children are ready is that it gets them started on a kind of pattern recognition that they don’t get from learning to recognize and name the features in their own environment. Plus, there’s an element of the exotic that children are attracted to.

    Comment by JBB — March 8, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

  17. Paul-

    I was traveling and am just catching up. Everything I have indicates and frequently actually states that the “content” is tertiary to using learning tasks and activities to socialize the students so that they cease to think of themselves as independent individuals. They are to see themselves in terms of the various groups to which they belong and to always remember their responsibility to the community.

    All this dancing around with vague but also alarming rhetoric is because the intended common core curriculum is contrary to the expected curriculum that has been sold to politicians and the public. The real curriculum will be presented as a fait accompli with the states too addicted to federal money to disengage. The lesson learned from the reading wars is no one pays attention to the actual classroom implementation if they can only come up with pleasing descriptions of their plans.

    Common Core is all about changing the values, attitudes and beliefs of enough individual students and training them to respond based on emotion, not facts and analytical thought. Over time and with these stakes and plenty of tax and foundation money they can be patient, you change the nature of a majority of the American electorate over time. If that sounds a bit fantastic, I am simply paraphrasing what certain leaders of the CCSS movement have said when they only think fellow true believers are listening.

    I am truly shocked by the real CCSS story. It will come out. Soon. The idea that certain college of ed professors have taken it upon themselves to decide what kind of country we are going to have, what kind of economy, political structure, and that sovereignty should be international, not national, is beyond unacceptable.

    Please remain skeptical and alert. At this point though the story needs to be told in its entirety, not in bits and pieces. That’s what books are for, not blogs.

    Comment by Student of History — March 9, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

  18. SoH,

    My fear is we’d be returning to the good ole days of 1918 and the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education which promulgated a new de-intellectualized curriculum. The Cardinal Principles resulted in a successful philosophical coup which had far reaching implications on our children for years that followed. In short, it was a disaster. It appears history could be on the verge of repeating itself.

    Wait a minute. You ARE the STUDENT of history, aren’t you? You (we) need to get yourself out there and spread the word. You could be the Paul Revere of education reform. “To arms! To arms! The progressives are coming! The constructivist are coming!” Whatever they want to call themselves, they’ll be our children’s ruination if Paul Revere fails to spread the alarm to every Middlesex village and farm, for the every folk to be up and to arm.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 9, 2011 @ 7:26 pm

  19. I remember when my son was in a so-called “gifted” second grade class and he was expected to do a “research paper” (he could barely read) on the State of NY. I guarantee that these “gifted” 7 year old kids did not know the difference between a city and a country, let alone what a state is. And such excercises, though they may gratify the teachers and parents do not stick. They don’t know what a stream is, or the names of birds and flowers, and neither to their parents.

    I went to private schools myself, way back in the dark ages when literacy was common, and in first and second grades we didn’t learn anything like that. We spent 3 months building a huge model of the East River and playing on it with toy ferry-boats, and I believe that that taught me more about geography — North, South, East, and West, than mere memorization of the names of continents. We also had a ton of literature read to us, including a long novel about of a whale and her peregrinations around the oceans of the world, which also taught us something about geography — though not anything that needed to be tested. (Not to mention Greek myths, poetry, and bible stories). It is the adults who don’t have faith in these kids to absorb knowledge at the proper time when it can become meaningful to them.

    By the time my son was in fifth grade I asked him and his other “gifted” classmate what the name of the ocean was beyond the Verrazzano Bridge, near where we lived, and neither he nor his friend could answer (and neither could a teacher to whom I posed the same question).

    Comment by Harold — March 9, 2011 @ 7:59 pm

  20. Those Cardinal Principles of 1918 were cited approvingly in something I read this week.

    Interesting you brought that up. I started to say funny but there is little humor in this.

    Like 1918 in an attempt to change what is not changeable and gain what is not realistic, you can destroy what was working and everyone loses. If we cease to transmit through our schools the aspects of our culture that made us prosperous, again, we all lose.

    Comment by Student of History — March 9, 2011 @ 8:08 pm

  21. Just because people typically develop pattern recognition later doesn’t mean that you can accelerate it by teaching it first — it is like the idea of giving “research” papers, which children will need to do later — in high school – in second grade when they are still struggling with reading. In Finland and the Soviet Union they started reading itself in second grade, when a certain capacity for abstraction begins to set in. In the first and second grades the individual details are exactly what ought to be mastered so that when they later form into patterns the patterns will be meaningful. A meaningless pattern without content is a waste of the teacher and students’ precious time.

    However, I do support the idea of a transparent curriculum, even a faulty one, in preference to the chaos we have now. Though what I read here doesn’t fill me with hope. I dread that the “curriculum” will consist of how to design a company logo or how to sell things.

    Comment by Harold — March 9, 2011 @ 9:49 pm

  22. Several weeks ago on a related issue, Robert astutely labeled this phenomenon a “market correction” or a change from one direction to another, a polar opposite.

    A century ago, the Cardinal Principles were a “market correction” in the wrong direction for US students away from the Committee of Ten’s recommendations for academic rigor for all students, college or terminal, two decades earlier.

    Here we are, almost a century later, and the pendulum is on the verge of swinging away from academia toward twenty-first century skills of critical thinking and problem solving. The obvious problem: our schools will be failing miserably in arming our students to think critically or solve problems by de-emphasizing the acquisition of knowledge.

    It’s possible to understand how this could have occurred a century ago, ‘behind closed doors’ with apparently few aware it was transpiring. However, in 2011, with our almost instant access to information/change, it’s difficult to comprehend how this could take place under our very noses.

    Is it too late stop the bus or has this academic holocaust already left the terminal?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 10, 2011 @ 8:23 am

  23. Paul-

    You forgot creativity. UNESCO says the 2 purposes of education today are fostering critical thinking skills and creativity.

    Major disconnects on the purpose of education that are too often not acknowledged so that funding and political support are not withdrawn from the gravy train.

    Comment by Student of History — March 10, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

  24. SoH,

    You lost me with your reference to UNESCO. I thought we were talking about education in this country, not what the United Nations envisions for education internationally.

    Please fill me in..

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 10, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

  25. Many education professors and ed bureaucrats insist that we must adhere to UNESCO mandates on education. Let’s remember who gets to decide what is kosher in American ed. It’s the same industry groups and if they want to mandate something, they simply make it part of the NCATE accreditation standards for schools of ed.

    If it’s controversial or stirred up a past tempest, they are simply more careful as to how it is described.

    The US participated in both the 1990 and 2000 UNESCO “Education for All” international conferences.

    There’s a lot more but Common Core should be understood as part of an international schools political and social movement. In fact our federal system of so much control being at least nominally invested in states and locally and the defeat of Goals 2000 slowed down the implementation that has devastated traditional education in many places all over the world. A charming Carnegie report refers to the 2008 financial crisis as fortuitous as it forced financially desperate states to be willing to advocate for almost anything to get at more money.

    That’s how you got 44 states to adopt Common Core. Did you notice how Arne Duncan waited until after the RTT applications were due to clarify that Common Core was intended to be a floor and ceiling. Numerous commenters assumed states had to adopt at least 85% of the CCSS. He only clarified that the CCSS had to be adopted verbatim and then states could also require up to 15% more content later.

    The Department of Ed is thus actively limiting what US students are to be allowed to learn in K-12 public classrooms.

    Comment by Student of History — March 11, 2011 @ 6:47 pm

  26. [...] curriculum to supplement the Common Core State Standards. Robert Pondiscio over at Core Knowledge applauds the move, arguing that, while the CCSS are “praiseworthy,” they are “not a curriculum–and are [...]

    Pingback by 2% Raises in Oakland, Student Funding Change in Utah, and Curricular or Instructional Problems? — March 11, 2011 @ 9:13 pm

  27. SoH,

    “The Department of Ed is thus actively limiting what US students are to be allowed to learn in K-12 public classrooms.”

    I never thought there was a problem in that direction (learning too much). Always thought we had to make sure our kids learned enough. That’s a bit mind-boggling. Then again, can they actually limit the amount our kids can learn?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 12, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

  28. I work for a school in Oklahoma and we are moving toward aligning our curriculum 6th-12th using the common core standards. We are also using the UBD method to help us in this alignment. I am wondering if anyone else has tried this using the common core and UBD. If so please let me know how it went for you all. We are struggling with how to get our kids from our pass skills standards to the common core standards. Any help will really be appreciated.

    Comment by Michelle — March 17, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

  29. Alison Gopnik says teaching too much too early can be harmful


    Don’t get me wrong, I am in favor of a core curriculum, graduated, transparent, and cumulative. I just think that the ages before seven can profitably concentrate on other, preparatory, literacy skills, arithmetic, storytelling, art and music, and elementary penmanship, as they do in Europe (and as was done here once upon a time) — with a lot of free, expressive, but monitored, play. I find even E.D. Hirsch’s cookbook-style recommendations to be too premature. (Disclosure, I sent my child to a Waldorf School and was happy with the result — she scored 800 on the English SAT.)

    Comment by Harold — March 22, 2011 @ 5:47 pm

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