Time for a common curriculum?

Creating a common core curriculum to match Common Core Standards is the theme of the new edition of American Educator

In Soaring Systems (pdf), Linda Darling-Hammond argues for commonality.

High-performing countries have created coherent education systems in which all students have equally well-resourced schools, learn the same core content, and benefit from uniformly well-prepared teachers.

Equality of Educational Opportunity (pdf) is a myth write William H. Schmidt, Leland S. Cogan, and Curtis C. McKnight. 

Despite being known as the land of opportunity, the United States is far from equitable when it comes to the mathematics that students have the opportunity to learn.

“Without a defined K-12 curriculum for teachers to master, education schools tend to offer generic advice, not grounded content and pedagogical knowledge,” writes David K. Cohren in Learning to Teach Nothing in Particular (pdf).

There’s more from Diana Senechal, E.D. Hirsch and Laura Hamilton.

About Joanne


  1. I’m all for a common curriculum for each subject as long as it is created with a top-down philosophy with experienced and knowledgeable individuals-
    High School curriculum should be created by a committee of industry professionals, college professors, and high school teachers.
    Middle School curriculum should by created by high school and middle school teachers.
    Elementary curriculum should be created by middle and elementary teachers.

    The top-down design maintains standards and prevents any aim-for-the-bottom tendency, while the teachers from the targeted grade levels provide a dose of reality.

  2. Jenny DeMonte says:

    This is a great issue, fascinating group of people writing about what should be one of the hot topics in the edu-world.

    Thanks for the mention of David K. Cohen, UMich prof of education. His linking of the lack of a core curriculum to teacher training is interesting. But I think his name is misspelled in the post.

  3. And as long as the curricula in elementary, middle, and high schools are integrated with one another, I’d love to see this happen.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Common curricula are great for the elementary grades.

    Beyond that, knowledge gets a lot less firm, especially in history and economics. Even something like English (writing and literature) isn’t an open-and-shut discipline with fixed content. There are a lot of different, perfectly reasonable, useful ways to go about teaching writing. There are a lot of different ways — more than could every be covered in 4 years of high school — to read a book, and many of them are just as “good” as the others.

    What you need are teachers who know that the way that they do things ISN’T necessarily the “only way”, but that it’s a good way. That requires teachers who really know a little something about their fields, though, so we might be waiting a long time for that: many high school teachers are very, very knowledgeable about the things that they teach in their CLASS, but don’t really have much knowledge (or desire to know, really) other things going on in their fields.

    I’m not saying that high school teachers should have PhDs, or anything, but it might be nice to have English teachers really know a lot about English. Most teachers are just undergraduates, and many, many undergraduates are just kinda clueless.

  5. Roger Sweeny says:

    Don’t we already have a semi-national curriculum? A high school chemistry course in Massachusetts is pretty much the same as one in Iowa. All elementary schools try to teach students to read and write and do simple arithmetic.

    Anyone who has looked at different textbooks for a course can tell you how similar they are.

    All across the county, students are told, “You have to take these courses because colleges require them.” And to take the courses requires preparation further back.

    Maybe I’m old and cynical but this sounds like another ed. fad.–a lot of time, energy, and money will be spent but very little student achievement will be bought–though it will create jobs and power for the people pushing it.

  6. Increased federalization of education is a mistake. We should be going the other way, increasing local control of education.

  7. Rather than focusing on common curriculum, I’d like to see us produce better teachers and eliminate standardized testing.

    I agree with Michael, that a lot of teachers are clueless when it comes to comprehensive subject knowledge and when it comes to best practices. To make any of this work, though, we really need a paradigm shift.

    A nation that focuses on standardized testing breeds teachers focused on teaching to the test. These teachers are ineffective. They concentrate on meaningless homework and poorly-written summative assessments that mimic statewide achievement tests.

    So, although common objectives across the nation might work, we’ll never get there with standardized tests and bad teachers.

  8. Who decides what gets taught? I might trust E.D. Hirsch, Jr. to come up with a curriculum (the Core Knowledge one is pretty good) but I sure as heck wouldn’t want somebody like Linda Darling-Hammond to do it.

  9. Human company is important. Why not have national standards for friendship? Wouldn’t it be wonderful is a government-approved committee of nationally recognized experts determined age-graded shoe sizes for all people aged 6-18?
    This is insane and stupid. Humans are not standard.

    The standard most likely to improve the education of minors in the US is the parent standard: “Do I want this to happen to my child?”

    The most effective accountability mechanism that humans have yet discovered is a policy which gives to unhappy customers the power to take their business elsewhere. Federalism (local control) and markets institutionalize humility on the part of State (government, generally) actors.

  10. I wonder how a common curriculum would work with differentiated learning, as described in recent posts? I imagine it wouldn’t.

    I’m all for everyone knowing what they’re expected to learn in order to gain credit for a given grade level, but doubt that this would go over well with the “teaching as an occult art” crowd.

  11. Peace Corps says:

    I must be old and cynical too. Roger Sweeny covered most of my thoughts on this.

    The statement that bothered me the most from “Equality of Educational Opportunity” was “Perhaps most salient, though, is that many studies have found that mathematics tracking tends to exacerbate achievement inequalities between high- and low-tracked students.”

    This statement says to me that the authors believe that keeping higher achieving students “down” is better than having larger “gaps” between high and low achieving students. How about working toward each student achieving to the best of his/her ability.

    When you start the school year in Algebra 1 with half the students ready to learn Algebra 1 and the other half not having mastered third, fourth, and fifth grade math, what specifically do the researchers propose a teacher do. I propose tracking.

  12. The U.S. – and certain segments of the population – are so hyper-obsessed with fear of “the government” that national standards will never fly. And that is the least of our problems in education.

  13. Bart, your imagination is faulty.

  14. (Bart): “I wonder how a common curriculum would work with differentiated learning, as described in recent posts? I imagine it wouldn’t.
    (Mike): “Bart, your imagination is faulty.
    Perhaps. Or not. An operational definition of any curriculum implies a performance measure (a test). If a test defines a curriculum, so that some measure of vocabulary or reading comprehension defines, say, second year French, or the solution of some equations defines, say, Analytic Geometry, then “common curriculum” means no more than acceptance of that test as a measure of student (and teacher) performance, and the means by which teachers get students to the accepted goal (passing the test) is still to the teacher. The problem with such an explicit definition of “the” curriculum is that explicit definition would open the door to non-occult paths to student learning (cram schools) and the NEA/AFT/AFSCME does not want competition.

    (Peace Corps): “ The statement that bothered me the most from ‘Equality of Educational Opportunity’ was ‘Perhaps most salient, though, is that many studies have found that mathematics tracking tends to exacerbate achievement inequalities between high- and low-tracked students.’ ”

    Now that you point it out, that bothers me, too. Chubb and Moe (1990) found that tracking (by which they apparently meant ability grouping) was correlated with overall school success, as measured by performance gains on standardized tests. You cannot teach addition, multiplication, and factoring of polynomials with rational coefficients to students cannot add and multiply rational numbers.

    You can put students of varied ages and abilities into the same room and turn them loose on a self-paced curriculum, but this would allow most students to get through Alg II, Biology, and Classical Mechanics by age 14 and that would cut into the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel’s dues revenue.

  15. Darling-Hammond likes common standards so that she and her minions can be in charge. Then, they can fail like they did with the school run by their ed dept.

    Like Gahrie says, education should be local. It should also be private, not government-run. Schools should have to compete with each other, and parent’s money should follow their child to the school of their choice.

  16. Are we trying to make a case for detracking middle school math in order to merely expose students to the same content?


    It might work in countries where students are more motivated to learn math by many different social factors, but it apparently isn’t working in the US.


    We’ve been conducting the “reform” math experiment for too many years now with mediocre programs infiltrating schools – still to this day!

    Yes, ALL students should have an opportunity to learn rigorous content, but what this has translated to in far too many US schools is excrutiating boredom for many middle schoolers who mastered the basics the first time and are expected to cooperatively work in groups on meaningless activities for the next two years!

    BTW – popular elementary “reform” math programs used in many schools undermine basic algorithms that students need for the study of authentic algebra, they strip parents of their ability to assist their children, and attempt to cover it all up by keeping the evidence at school – rarely sending papers home for parents to review.

    You want to find America’s lost competitiveness – take a look at so-called “reform” math programs.

  17. j.d salinger says:


    You’re optimistic! “many middle schoolers who mastered the basics the first time and are expected to cooperatively work in groups on meaningless activities for the next two years! ” There also middle schoolers (and high schoolers) who cannot do basic math operations without a calculator.

  18. The problem is that for those students who did master the basic skills prior to middle school, the “meaningless activities” did absolutely nothing to reinforce those skills or move the students forward.

    I understand j.d. I teach high school math.

  19. There are already common standards which are tested by NCLB. The Common Core Standards (CCS) movement really is a fad, a red herring thrown out by the text book publishers. Implementation of CCS by California this year has been projected to cost taxpayers $1.6 billion next year, to pay for new textbooks and curriculum, according to EdSource. This is coming in the wake of a $2 billion loss to the ed budget and an additional $28 billion state deficit that will likely be closed through further ed cuts.

    It’s disappointing that someone like Darling-Hammond would be jumping on this bandwagon. Of course, having common standards makes sense. But the idea that we have to buy a bunch of new text books and curricula to make it happen is not only absurd, but dangerous and expensive.

  20. Oh, the sales blitz has already begun. I’ve been getting tons of adverts, samples, etc. for new text books (I have a novel-based curriculum, so I don’t use text books regardless — it’s much more economical).

    I think if somebody actually cared to conduct a study, they’d find that curriculums across the country are far more similar — have more in common — than they are diverse. I can go to English Web or the NIH and find dozens of lesson plans for Frankenstein or Kite Runner. I wonder why that is?

  21. They have talked about common standards for 25 years in this country, and they’ve failed miserably (and this won’t get better any time soon) (see the latest PISA results for proof)…

  22. Roger, I think you are right in comparing one high school chemistry class to another.

    At the elementary level there seems to be more variation though.