How Specific Should the National Curriculum Be?

After being away from the blogoshpere for a few weeks, I weigh in on what I believe to be a critical issue in the world of education: the call for a national curriculum derived from common standards.

Determining how national common standards will influence classroom lessons is drawing sharp opinion from all sides.  Scholars, bloggers, and especially practicing educators are raising concerns that a shared curriculum means lesson plans dictated from afar.  They’re worrying that the local school could lose a voice in shaping what children learn, and asking whether the federal government is overstepping by funding curriculum development.

Some of the debate about common curriculum for the standards is driven by the multiple meanings of the word “curriculum.”  To some, the term can mean a set of scripted, daily lesson plans, while to others it’s a concise set of big ideas that can be taught in many ways. In some states, academic standards and broad outlines called frameworks are rolled together and referred to as “state curriculum.”  Some districts use textbooks as the curriculum, while others purchase off-the-shelf curricula.  Many districts pay administrators and/or teachers to prepare their own.

“Curriculum is not always easy to define.  But it’s critical that we have clear understandings of what we mean by terms like this,” says J. Wesley Null, an associate professor of curriculum at Baylor University.  “Otherwise, we have curriculum being implemented that doesn’t do what states or districts hope it will do.”

Most of the curriculum debate stems from questions about the scope of what is being discussed.  Whether “curriculum” means a high-level outline or whether it means the content of specific lesson plans greatly affects the discussion.  One might think in terms of curriculum on two levels: the “macro,” or the big ideas found in standards or frameworks, and the “micro,” or what gets taught unit by unit in the classroom.  “What rings alarm bells in people’s minds is this notion of who would be the august body who decides what is worth teaching and what is not,” says Michael Stetter of the Delaware Department of Education.  “It’s worse when discussions about curriculum don’t make clear what it is we are actually talking about.”

Others say it is entirely possible to agree on central ideas for the common standards and leave schools to teach them in their own way. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, director of Curriculum21, is a New York-based consultant who trains educators nationwide on curriculum.  “It’s a crucial distinction,” she said, “between guidelines and ‘operational curriculum’.”  In the medical field, doctors might consult guidelines for the field’s expertise in treating appendicitis, but still base each case’s course of treatment on the patient’s specifics, Ms. Jacobs said. “What’s stirring everything up here is the word ‘common,'” she said.  “It suggests everything is the same, when people know that curriculum has to be responsive.  But we can think of ‘common’ as more like a town common, a place where we all meet.”

Related links:

Curriculum Definition Raises Red Flags; Leaders Call for Shared Curriculum Guidelines

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About mprater

I'm a recently retired school teacher/administrator continuing to help people grow through personal learning. When not blogging, I do consulting work for schools and organizations, make presentations at conferences, and research for publication. At the same time, I have to set aside enough time to enjoy the "good life" of retirement!
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