Common or uncommon curriculum

We need a common curriculum linked to the Common Core State Standards, conclude 250 educators, civic and business leaders ranging from Fordham’s Checker Finn to Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.

Shared curriculum in the core academic subjects would give shape and substance to the standards, and provide common ground for the creation of coherent, high-quality instructional supports — especially texts and other materials, assessments, and teacher training.

Curriculum advocates promise their “guidelines” won’t prescribe how to teach, reports Ed Week.   

For instance, if the guide calls for 4th graders to study the solar system, accompanying materials could suggest ways to teach it. Some teachers could ask students to spend a week building scale models, while others might choose to give a lecture with accompanying video, and still others might weave the topic into lessons about the chemical properties of gases and solids or have students draw or write about the characteristics of the planets.

States’ use of the guidelines would be “purely voluntary” and would account for no more than 60 percent of what is taught in classrooms, leaving ample room for regional variations.

Rick Hess didn’t sign the statement, complaining that the common curriculum will represent “a national model of instruction.” 

Linda Darling-Hammond promises the guidelines will be “very lean,”  resembling curricula in Finland and Japan, where a K-12 math curriculum can run only 10 pages.

Finn says, “It’s dumb to have good standards not accompanied by good curriculum.”

EdReformer Tom VanderArk wants an uncommon curriculum  with “fully customized engaging learning sequences for every student.”

Next generation platforms will include digital content libraries and tagging schemes. Recommendation engines (like an iTunes Genius for learning) based on a full motivational profile will queue a sequence of the best learning experiences possible.  A Facebook-like social layer will support collaborative learning and will include a rich array of applications for learners and teachers.  Giant data warehouses will capture keystroke data and will support powerful analytical tools.  Platforms will be supported by vendors providing aligned services including student tutoring, staff development, school improvement, and new school development.

. . . Calls for a common curriculum come from a mental model of teacher-centric classrooms of age-cohorts on a common slog through a sequential curriculum.  

Get real, responds Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.

There are fewer ideas more seductive than the vision of customized education, where all children remain blissfully engaged solely by the ideas and subjects that interest them, and soar to ever-higher standards on tech-driven wings.  But this splendid vision ignores an inconvenient truth:  all of our most cherished goals for education are a function of the knowledge we possess and have in common with others.  To say that a common curriculum is the wrong idea is to say literacy is the wrong idea.  Let me not mince words:  If you don’t think  a common body of knowledge is important for all children, you don’t think it’s important to teach children to read with understanding, think critically, collaborate, or solve problems.  You can’t have one without the other.

Vander Ark’s vision for education “tacitly endorses a false and content-neutral, skills-driven notion that howchildren learn is more important than what they learn, writes Pondiscio in his No More Mr. Nice Blogger mode. All those  “comprehensive learning platforms” that support “customized playlists”  and service ecosystems are useless, writes Pondiscio, unless we figure out what knowledge to teach children so they can read with understanding.

I’m into sequence and knowledge, so I’m sympathetic to the argument for a common curriculum. But I worry that we’ve moved very quickly to common standards backed by a common curriculum — and, soon to come, a testing system. Are we sure about this?

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