What’s the Big Deal About Common Curriculum?


The New York Times headline “Bipartisan Group Backs Common School Curriculum” is enough to make Rick Hess‘s head explode.

But is the development (a call for a common curriculum, not the condition of Hess’s cranium) surprising or even newsworthy? Isn’t it really just the logical next step in the implementation of the common core state standards? States have signed on to the same standards and have begun working in partnership on common assessments. The bridge between the two is . . . a common curriculum.

To be sure, the list of signatories calling for a common curriculum is impressive and diverse: former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, former Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Linda Darling-Hammond, Randi Weingarten, Checker Finn, Jocelyn Elders, Susan Neumann, and Grant Wiggins. But the statement itself reads like it was drafted by a bipartisan committee (which it was) and studiously intended to avoid any controversy.

Indeed, on reading the full statement it becomes clear that while the headline is for a “common” curriculum, the actual recommendation is for “developing one or more sets of curriculum guides that map out the core content students need to master the new Common Core State Standards.” So the call isn’t for one curriculum to rule them all, but any number of curricula that are shareable among states and districts. In short, “common” should be plural. This is news?

Instead, there are much more notable and interesting nuggets within the statement than the headlining common curriculum message. To wit:

  • The group calls for a common set of standards in history, geography, the sciences, civics, the arts, foreign languages, technology, health, and physical education.
  • The statement strongly criticizes the work and timing of the common assessment consortia as premature and invalid without an established curriculum. This recommendation is so important it is worth quoting in full:

    “Currently, there are efforts under way to develop assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards. But, as the past 30 years of the standards movement has shown, without attention to curriculum, standards are not specific enough to guide the development of valid measures of student progress. Simple logic suggests that it is impossible to assess student learning accurately when there has been no decision about what it is students are expected to learn. In order to create a rational system, we must begin with standards, then adopt curriculum and curriculum materials, and then develop assessments—in that order.”

    Talk about burying the lede! A more accurate and attention-grabbing news article would have highlighted the call to stop common core test development until the associated curriculum was created.

  • The group calls for a major governance shift over teacher preparation and certification away from state boards and licensure bodies to new “state teaching quality oversight bodies.”
  • A call for “increasing federal investments in implementation” and curriculum evaluation. A plea that is as ambitious as it is unrealistic in the current political environment and rising emphasis on local control.

The statement is telling, the recommendations bold, and the signatories preeminent. Alas, the call for a common curriculum, at least in this context, is none of those things.