The Common Core Needs a Common Curriculum

by Guest Blogger
May 23rd, 2013

As first published in Education Week, May 22, 2013. Reprinted with permission.

The Common Core State Standards contain laudable goals for what students ought to be able to do. Attaining those goals, especially in English/language arts and literacy, depends on how schools interpret the standards’ call for a content-rich curriculum: “[W]hile the standards make references to some particular forms of content, … they do not … enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.”

What is a content-rich curriculum? And who should pick the content? I argue that we should all come to agreement on the content. But first, we must understand the cognitive science that explains why content is important.

Instead of writing a content-rich curriculum, some schools have selected a scripted program. Some new teachers have said their schools’ scripted reading programs saved them because they were not prepared to teach children with widely varying backgrounds. But once teachers build expertise, they meet individual students’ needs better than any script. Perhaps scripted programs should be optional, not mandated.

At the other extreme, some schools have a sink-or-swim approach in which each teacher writes his or her own curriculum. This drives too many new teachers out of the profession, creating a level of turnover that is harmful to students. Some teachers swim, but their ability to learn from their peers is minimal when everyone is teaching very different things.

Many educators seem to agree that the middle ground between a script and a free-for-all makes sense, so the sticking point is defining that middle ground. This is where my perspective differs from mainstream educational thought.

Many school districts mandate specific pedagogies, but not specific content. I think this is backwards. Effective instruction depends on the content to be learned and the students in the room, so pedagogical mandates are often counterproductive. What to teach ought to be a communal, research-based, and experience-based decision; how to teach should be up to the individual teacher.

The content of instruction is so important that any responsible community should be willing to do the hard work of specifying and agreeing to what students need to know and be able to do by the end of each grade.

Research demonstrates that knowledge and skills develop together. The most crucial skills—comprehension, critical thinking, and writing—all depend on having relevant knowledge not at one’s fingertips, but already stored in one’s long-term memory. The cognitive science is clear: Any topic students need to read or think about is a topic they must know about.

Exactly what are those topics? Research can partially answer that question. Skim a few newspaper articles. For brevity’s sake, the articles explain what’s new, but offer little background knowledge. The sports section gives game highlights and scores; it does not explain the rules. The economy section tells you where the Dow closed and offers the latest jobs and housing data; it reveals little about what those are or why they matter. The news tells you what’s new—it expects you to know enough to digest it.

As a foundation for lifelong learning, the knowledge all students need is the knowledge that adults are assumed to have. One way research can help determine what to teach is by showing what knowledge is taken for granted in publications intended for broad audiences.

Here’s a recent example from The New York Times: “Samuel Ting, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Nobel laureate particle physicist, said Wednesday that his $1.6 billion cosmic ray experiment on the International Space Station had found evidence of ‘new physical phenomena’ that could represent dark matter, the mysterious stuff that serves as the gravitational foundation for galaxies and whose identification would rewrite some of the laws of physics.”

What knowledge is assumed and what is not? We are not expected to know who Ting is or what dark matter is. But we are expected to know MIT, the Nobel Prize, particle physics, cosmic rays, the International Space Station, gravity, and galaxies. That’s a lot to know.

Researching what knowledge is commonly taken for granted is the approach E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of Core Knowledge, and his colleagues took when they initially developed a list of what all Americans should know. Many critics pointed out—rightly—that the list was too narrow. By focusing on knowledge assumed by mainstream outlets, it did not adequately reinforce fundamental American values: finding strength in diversity and appreciating all Americans (not just those who become famous).

Many of those critics do not realize that Hirsch agreed with them. That initial list has been revised with input from hundreds of teachers and scholars; today’s Core Knowledge Sequence contains a great diversity of people, events, and ideas.

When schools adopt the sequence, they go through their own communal process: The sequence takes half the instructional time, so each school adds on, creating its own curriculum.

As Jeffrey Litt, the leader of New York City’s Icahn Charter Schools, has pointed out, schools that go through this communal process can foster real collaboration among teachers, enabling them to build on one another’s strengths and reduce their workloads by sharing materials.

Agreeing on content also prevents repetitions and omissions, like the 2nd and 3rd grade teachers reading Charlotte’s Web aloud, instead of agreeing onCharlotte’s Web for 2nd grade and selecting another excellent book, like Bud, Not Buddy, for 3rd grade. The world is a fascinating place; the more of it we introduce to students, the richer their lives will be.

Now let’s tackle some uncomfortable issues. We all have our hang-ups. One of mine is highly mobile students. Far too many students change schools frequently, falling further behind every time. We can blame inadequate low-income housing, the bad job market, poor transportation … the list continues. Regardless, there’s one obvious way to help: Schools that share students should share grade-by-grade content. Mobile students would suffer less, and teachers would be better equipped to help them catch up.

Even better, if a state specified some content for each grade, it could overhaul teacher preparation and student testing. Today, teachers are taught, in education professor David Cohen’s words, “nothing in particular.” With specific content, teacher-preparation programs would know exactly what content and pedagogical knowledge teachers need.

With grade-by-grade content, a state could also develop better tests: Specifying course content and testing a sample of it is what our most highly regarded programs—Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate—do. Preparing for these tests (unlike typical state tests that are not anchored to specific content) means developing knowledge and related skills.

My hunch is that shared content appeals to far more teachers than policymakers realize. Many teachers find selecting content frustrating because students in our current, incoherent system have enormous variety in their knowledge and skills. Many teachers enjoy the communal process of agreeing upon content. Many more enjoy the result: time to focus on how to teach each student.



  1. Congratulations to Lisa Hansel for daring to point out that the Common Core (emperor) is still in his underwear, and I do believe that the Common Core is, in fact, “content-empty,” and is mostly a new set of “Methods” for teachers. But I hope it is only in America that a case has to be made for including actual knowledge as a part of education! Who knew?!?

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — May 23, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

  2. Will,

    To me CCSSI content standards are like a contract that lays out rights but the drafting lawyer forgets to put in provisions on enforcing those rights. Rights without a legally effective remedy are not worth the paper they are written on. Meanwhile we have federal laws and regulations and education doctorate programs explicitly credentialing Social Change Agents and definitions of Effective Teaching and Principalship. All those do have the ability to be binding on the classroom. They all have means for enforcement.

    I was in a formal presentation yesterday just full of politicos and the presenter openly stated that the Blended Learning model was based on Benjamin Bloom’s Mastery Learning. That’s not about content. It’s about keeping skills superficial enough that nothing ignites the abstract mind that can then create its own conceptual understanding.

    More people need to be asking “Exactly what would get the content-rich vision of the classroom into effect?” when every piece is calculated to prevent just that.

    Honestly I am so tired of principals who honestly believe and will say so to your face that what students feel is more important than what they now.

    And it is not only in America, Australia shifted in 2002 away from the transmission of knowledge to using education to cultivate “what kind of person you are.” There it is called Core Skills.

    Comment by Student of History — May 24, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

  3. When the Common Core standards first came out I was quite enthusiastic. Reading through its prescriptions for more complex text, evidence-based writing, etc., I thought, “This is what I’ve been saying for years!” Two things worried me: that the mention of Lexile scores would lead to a perverse obsession with quantitative readability scores; and that there seemed to be no provision for actually coming up with the “well-developed, content-rich curriculum” implicit in the standards.

    By now I’m rather jaded about the whole thing. And I begin to wonder if the problem is not with “the standards,” but with the whole practice of writing “standards” in the first place. Is it possible that these vaguely worded prescriptions are more of a distraction than a help? That they simply give us the impression of setting educational goals, without our having to do the hard thinking involved in deciding what it is students should actually learn?

    All standards seem to be liable to the “dead cat” problem: that is, by their very nature they are expressed in such general terms that you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a few.

    “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” It’d be kind of hard to come up with an assignment that didn’t do that in some way — which is why it’s so easy for publishers to call materials “standards-aligned.”

    As I look at them now, it seems to me that everything valuable in the Common Core Standards is in the appendices. Can we ditch standards entirely and just write a curriculum?

    Comment by A Librarian — May 24, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

  4. Kudos for comments, and yes, the Colemanaires don’t want to try to offer actual curriculum and so they waste our time with a new “Methods” program instead of deciding what students should learn. If you want to see some good serious research papers by high school students (from 39 countries since 1987) I will send you some of our best from The Concord Review—write Will Fitzhugh at or visit

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — May 24, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

  5. At the risk of raising a question that has been debated over and over, once you figure out content, how do you deal with very wide ranging ability groupings. When I read above and I admit this is a bit nitpicking, that say Charlotte’s Web is second versus 3rd grade.. there are a lot of kids, especially in affluent areas that are way ahead of this reading level and many kids for reasons of poverty or because they are not native speakers that are not at these levels. As much as anything this is a consequence of the extreme wealth disparity in this country, but I can’t help thinking it also undermines a project like the common core. Teachers and Principals know they will be facing these disparities and are overwhelmed and resort to the idea of skills because it often feels so impossible. Part of the problem in my mind is that education while critical to sustaining a middle class is also vulnerable to the many forces undermining it. Thus the mess with the common core, what should enable better teaching, may instead be lost to the continuing culture war.

    Comment by DC Parent — May 24, 2013 @ 7:45 pm

  6. “Many of those critics do not realize that Hirsch agreed with them. That initial list has been revised with input from hundreds of teachers and scholars; today’s Core Knowledge Sequence contains a great diversity of people, events, and ideas.

    When schools adopt the sequence, they go through their own communal process: The sequence takes half the instructional time, so each school adds on, creating its own curriculum.”

    These two salient points are rarely mentioned when anyone (CK Foundation employees included) speaks/writes about Core Knowledge. Unfortunately, the mainstream image of CK is it is highly prescriptive and focused exclusively on dead white males. Convincing teachers and admins that there is plenty of time for remediation, inquiry, favorite projects/activities, and whatever else deemed important might just open them up to giving CK a try.

    Comment by Miss Friday — May 25, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

  7. Our school does not have curriculum that will support the common core state standards. I am quite worried about this, as our students are now expected to read more non-fiction texts. We are also quite in debt as a school district, so there are no funds for new curriculum. As a district, we are also not allowed to write our own “themed” units.

    Also, when students are behind already, how are they going to make the catch up growth that they need to make?

    Comment by IL teacher — May 26, 2013 @ 10:14 pm

  8. @Il teacher, this will not solve your underlying problem, but a great resource for non fiction materials is the Teacher Resource page at the Library of Congress. It is common cored aligned and connects to primary non-fiction documents.

    For better or worse I can see the common core really pushing teachers into using the web. DC also is writing a common core realignment without supplying new text books. What I see teachers doing is using resources like this to locate what is needed.

    Comment by DC Parent — May 27, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

  9. DC Parent–

    The assumptions of the Common Core is that it will promote equity. The idea being promoted is a Discourse classroom where the less able readers and the students with more limited vocabularies get to access the knowledge and ways of explaining and vocabulary of their more able or experienced classmates. The concept is referred to as Distributed Intelligence and what anyone can know or do is treated as a collective asset.

    Smart kids can end up wondering why they go to school as it is all giving and no getting. Teachers being told their jobs are at risk if they teach material instead of letting the students do group learning.

    I was looking at the Language Arts progression and it takes years of doling out words and concepts to get by 6th grade to a point that should have been available in 2nd.

    Comment by Student of History — May 27, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

  10. [...] Hansel: The Common Core needs a common curriculum; teachers won’t object. (Core Knowledge) Email Share  Print [...]

    Pingback by Remainders: 60 percent more high-poverty schools since 2000 | GothamSchools — May 29, 2013 @ 7:35 pm

  11. I have come to think more and more that a curriculum should be partly common, partly determined by a particular school, and partly determined by the teacher (and, on occasion, the students). That way, there’s both commonality and flexibility, and teachers can bring their own knowledge to the table. This also protects students and teachers from the tyranny of the average.

    Having written and taught the entire high school philosophy curriculum for my school, and preparing to pass some of it on to other teachers, I know that (a) writing one’s own curriculum is an enormous task; (b) a curriculum should stay in place from one year to the next but should also undergo adjustments; and (c) my curriculum (which has many challenging texts) is much more difficult to make “common” than, say, a “Philosophy for Teens” program that focuses on teen issues.

    I have worked on curriculum projects and have been told more than once, “The curriculum you propose is incredibly rich but a bit too difficult for the average student or teacher.” I think people underestimate students’ and teachers’ abilities–but it’s true that a good curriculum assumes both background knowledge (on the teacher’s part) and extensive thought.

    Also, some of the best courses I took in school were created by the individual teachers. I am thinking of my English courses in particular. The curriculum wasn’t a free-for-all, though. The teachers created literature seminars on various topics. They had a common understanding of the kinds of texts (and many specific texts) that students would be reading. I took courses in “Innocence and Experience,” Shakespeare, Modern Drama, Southern Literature, Satire, Expository Writing, and more.

    It is possible to combine the common with the particular–and in the case of curriculum, this seems optimal.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 11, 2013 @ 7:36 am

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