In my last post, I tossed out a not-quite-baked idea for a new academic major for elementary teachers: World Studies. That major would ensure teachers have the broad range of knowledge they need to introduce our students to the world via literature, history, geography, science, mathematics, and the arts.
One point that is obvious to the Core Knowledge community—yet somehow shocking and mysterious to most of the education world—is that before we could decide what academics future teachers need to study in their prep programs, we need to decide what all elementary students must learn. Drum roll: We need a core K-5 curriculum.
Refusing to identify and teach essential knowledge has consequences. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)
Some people might think we kinda sorta have a core curriculum with the Common Core standards. In math, I would agree—the actual math that has to be mastered each year is specified. It’s far from a full-blown curriculum, but it does provide concrete guidance on what math to teach. However, the Common Core ELA standards are nearly content free. They indicate the reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills students need to develop, but they do not outline content to be taught grade by grade. Instead, the ELA standards call on schools to create content-rich curricula infused with nonfiction texts, thereby systematically building broad knowledge across academic subjects.
I am grateful that the Common Core ELA standards explain the benefits of building knowledge. In implementation, schools need to realize that when they forge ahead without any shared core of content for each grade, they miss out on the many benefits of a coherent educational system. I’ve written about the problems with student mobility; today I want to share a terrific, little-known article by education professor David Cohen. In “Learning to Teach Nothing in Particular,” he explains the massive leaps forward we could make in student and teacher evaluation if only we specified what students are supposed to know:
Because local control and weak government were the foundations of U.S. public education, most of our school systems never developed the common instruments that are found in many national school systems…. These include a common curriculum or curriculum frameworks, common examinations tied to the curriculum, teacher education grounded in learning to teach the curriculum that students are to learn, and a teaching force whose members succeeded in those curriculum-based exams as students, among other things. Teachers who work with such infrastructure have instruments that they can use to set academic tasks tied to curriculum and assessment. They have a common vocabulary with which they can work together to identify, investigate, discuss, and solve problems of teaching and learning. Hence, they can have professional knowledge and skill, held in common….
Because there is no common infrastructure for U.S. public education, it has developed several anomalous features. One of the most important concerns testing: because there is no common curriculum, it is impossible to devise tests that assess the extent of students’ mastery of that curriculum. So, even though we’ve been testing student learning for nearly 100 years, only isolated programs (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate) have tested whether students learned what they were supposed to have been taught. In the early 1900s, when E. L. Thorndike and his colleagues and students invented tests of students’ academic performance, they devised tests that were designed to be independent of any particular curriculum. Nonetheless, those tests, and more recently developed similar tests, were and are used to assess students’ progress in learning. That has to rank as one of the strangest creations in the history of education.
Teacher education is a second anomaly: absent a common curriculum, teachers-in-training could not learn how to teach it, let alone how to teach it well. Hence, teacher education consists of efforts to teach future teachers to teach no particular curriculum. This is very strange, since to teach is always to teach something, but the governance structure of U.S. education has long forbidden the specification of what that something would be. For the most part, teacher education has been accommodating: typically, teacher candidates are taught how to teach no particular version of their subjects. That arrangement creates no incentives for those training to be teachers to learn, relatively deeply, what they would teach, nor does it create incentives for teacher educators to learn how to help teacher candidates learn how to teach a particular curriculum well. Instead, it offers incentives for them to teach novices whatever the teacher educators think is interesting or important (which often is not related to what happens in schools) or to offer a generic sort of teacher education. Most teachers report that, after receiving a teaching degree, they arrived in schools with little or no capability to teach particular subjects….
Absent a common curriculum, common assessments, common measures of performance, and teacher education tied to these things, it will be terribly difficult to devise technically valid and educationally usable means to judge and act on teaching performance. Building a coherent educational system would be a large task, but not nearly as daunting as trying to solve our educational problems without building such a system. Without standards and measures of quality practice—grounded in linked curriculum, assessments, and teacher education—it will be impossible to build a knowledgeable occupation of teaching, and a knowledgeable occupation is the only durable solution to the problem of quality in teaching.