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.