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?

About Joanne


  1. I’m not sure either. All I know is that the wheels of my own district are moving inexorably in that direction, so I’d better come up with a strong opinion quickly. Of the above opinions, none really line up with my own needs, as a school board member trying to change the model.

    Please read my latest blog post, it’s a call for help.

  2. Diana Senechal says:

    I am one of the signatories, but I don’t have any insider knowledge about the statement’s history. I signed it because I agree with almost all of it, and the points of disagreement or uncertainty are minor.

    A curriculum should precede assessments, that it should focus on content, and that it should not prescribe a particular pedagogical approach. The rush from standards to assessments is misguided, in my view–it almost guarantees that the emphasis will be on skills. A curriculum should not be “filler”; it should not consist of unit and lesson plans. It should be a description and sequence of the actual subject matter to be learned.

    It need not be a single national curriculum–there could be several model curriculua, or states could work together on curricula or develop their own. In my view, it should be a transparent process, with scholars and teachers involved.

    I see how a curriculum initiative could go awry. I hope, insetead, that it will help prevent things from going awry. We shall see how this plays out.

  3. I have the same doubts as Joanne.

    Our district has already jumped on the bandwagon with this line of thought. All of our schools now have to have the same elective classes and even the same bell schedule.

    What if we have have one elective teacher who is a phenomenal journalism teacher but the other middle schools don’t? It means our journalism teacher has to switch over and teach home economics.

    I see the advantages, but being on the same page often does more harm than good and the bottom line is it makes schools easier to manage. It’s less work for management at the expensive of education.

  4. (Joanne): “Are we sure about this?
    I’m sure that Fordham and the rest of the Common Core/national standards people push education in the wrong (180 degrees off) direction. People are not standard. Nothing about the education industry makes it a likely candidate for State (government, generally) operation or even subsidy.

  5. This is just a hunch, but I strongly suspect that if you empaneled 10 different groups of parents, teachers, and subject matter experts in 10 different states or cities, and asked them “what knowledge do you think kids must have, grade by grade?” and asked them to come up with the answers — write a curriculum, in other words — there would be remarkable similarity. If I had to bet, I’d guess there would be better than 90% overlap (and that common knowledge base is what enables us to speak to each other, read with understanding, think critically, etc. hence it MUST be attended to)

    In short, the dispute is less over what kids need to know than who gets to decide. (“Shapes and colors in kindergarten? Tyranny!”) Because we don’t want someone else to decide, nothing gets taught. This is what we’ve been doing for decades with predictably stellar results.

    I have full faith in my fellow citizens to come up with a workable curriculum. I have far less faith we will accept the need for one in the first place.

  6. Robert Pondisco: Hey, how ’bout letting kids decide? At least SOME of the time? Do you think they should have any say, at all? Why is their voice the least heard in this debate?

  7. j.d. salinger says:

    Hey, how ’bout letting kids decide? At least SOME of the time?

    It all depends how you present the choices. Do you let kids decide whether or not to take math in the early grades? Or to skip over fractions if they so desire?

  8. @Lisa. Fine with me. At about the same ratio they get to decide what to eat, what to watch on TV and what time to go to bed.

  9. Because they’re kids! They don’t know what they don’t know and they don’t know what they need to know. Schools have been playing that game for long enough that we know it doesn’t work; “Johnny’s not READY to learn to read, but he will learn naturally (magically- no need for specific instruction) when he’s ready.” Lo and behold, Johnny is in 5th grade and still can’t read.

  10. Diana Senechal says:

    There is an enormous difference between preparing students to make choices in their lives (when the time comes) and giving them choices that they don’t yet understand.

    Having them “choose their own books” when they have no background in literature is irresponsible. Give them a strong background in literature and other subjects. Then, when they go to college (if they do), they may choose their major and their courses.

    Even in college and graduate school, there will be a syllabus. Very few college courses leave it up to the students to select their own reading materials. They may choose their own essay topics–and in a few exceptional cases may pursue independent research projects–but it is understood that they need a good amount of direction from people who know more than they do.

    Also, my earlier comment had two typos. The words in question (not that there’s any question) should have read “curricula” and “instead.”

  11. Robert Pondiscio, I get it. You have no respect for children. Good to know.

  12. momof4, kids know perfectly well what they care about. They care as much as you do about what’s important to you, maybe more because kids aren’t good at holding back their emotions. Problem is, nobody in the traditional school model thinks kids’ passions are relevant. Solution: massive disengagement. Great model.

  13. Lisa Cooley, your comments demand a response. No one is saying that kids don’t kow what they care about. Rather, they’re saying that there are some things they need to begin to learn whether they cared about those things ahead of time or not. OF COURSE, it’s important to teach those things in an engaging way, and use childrens’ interests as a hook to keep them engaged. But it’s also true that letting children literally direct their own educations, based on what they’re interested in at the moment, is a recipe for disaster. Many, many children if given no direction would choose to learn about pop stars and video games. Others would choose to learn only about geology. It would be irresponsible to let children sabotage their own futures by giving in completely to these interests.

  14. Children are small people. Like big people, they dislike boring things, difficult things, and things they don’t feel like doing. Unlike big people, they have not yet learned the self discipline needed to CONTINUE doing something difficult and dull because it will pay off a few months or years in the future.

    It is our job, as adults, to provide EXTERNAL motivation until the internal motivation develops.

    So, for instance, my daughter wanted to be able to read American Girl books, but didn’t want to do phonics because it “made her tired.” I declared that we WOULD study phonics each day, and that if she refused, she would not get to play webkinz or watch princess movies.

    That was in September. Today she sat down and read an American Girl book in one sitting. If I’d given let HER choose, she would still be unable to read one. Not because she didn’t want to learn to read, but because she didn’t have the experience or perspective to see that, in order to read “Samantha Saves the Day,” she had to first be able to read “The Black cat ate a rat.”

    The point of of core sequence is that skills build on each other. And often the basic skills are boring and require lots of practice. But if you want to play Beethoven, you have to start with scales, and if you quit at the beginning, 25 years later you regret that you didn’t learn piano back when you had the time……

    (Of course, I let my daughter explore her passions, too. Which is why she knows an awful lot about Ancient Egypt, Norse Mythology, Ancient China, Dinosaurs, Volcanoes, and the Revolutionary War. But it’s a rare child who has a passion for phonics, or times tables, and whatnot. And it’s good for kids to learn to persevere, even when something ISN’T fun. It’s fun to be GOOD at things. It often takes drudgery to get there. I hated the third declension, I love reading Homer. The same goes for kids, only they have less self-discipline.)

  15. OK. Well, I entirely disagree. We’ve sabotaged not only our children’s futures but all our futures but handing kids an education that disenfranchises them entirely. Read up on the difference between using adult authority and turning that into the baseball bat of authoritarianism. It’s just not necessary to go to that extreme. Children naturally look up to us. In return, the system acts as if children aren’t even part of the discussion.

    What’s wrong with studying geology, pop stars and video games? It takes a person with very little imagination to not translate those interests into opportunities for learning. Passions lead to other passions! Meantime, you’ve taught a child that following a passion is fun! I’ve been following my childrens’ interests all their lives and they both have a huge curiosity about the world. And I’ve learned an incredible amount from them.

    You see disaster, I see a turning point in education. You can write off my opinions as silly, or you can entertain the possibility that respect for children is a huge missing piece of this debate.

  16. I respect my children. I also love them and realize that they have poor impulse control. That’s why I’ll read them “Egg Drop,” but inform them that Dora the Explorer 8x8s are unmitigated garbage.

    That’s also why I insist they eat Broccoli AND cookies. (They like both, but would RATHER have the sugar, if it’s totally up to them.)

    That’s why I limit screen time, and don’t let them watch PG-13 movies. That’s why I make my child wear a helmet when she rides a horse, and why I make my three year old HOLD MY HAND when we cross the street.

    If we let our kids do whatever they want, whenever they want, their physical development suffers.

    Why is intellectual development different?

    Perhaps my kids are just unusually impulsive and prone to give up… It’s possible. But 2700 years or so of Westen Civilization seems to bear me out.

    And Rousseau, frankly, didn’t know much about the education of children. After all, it’s not like he spent any time with his! (Actually, he didn’t seem to know much about women, either. Or men…… or people who weren’t Jean Jacques Rousseau….)

  17. tim-10-ber says:

    @ Diane and Robert — need help. One of the challenges facing schools today is a very weak scripted curriculum that keeps everyone on the same page (high mobility rate — this might make sense) but stil keeps the subject matter being taught very shallow — heaven forbid something on the test be missed.

    The standard curriculum you envision…would it be at a high enough and deep enough level that teachers can finally stop teaching to the test but the curriculum will more than cover the assessments and take the kids to a higher level then they get today?

    Don’t know if this makes sense or not but I think you know what I am trying to say…thank you

  18. tim-10-ber says:

    @ Lisa — have you tried Montessori? Even then there is an end game in mind.

    Yes, kids are part of the equation. They should be respected, loved and encouraged. Yet, there are certain things they need to learn and the kids are, many times, ready to learn them earlier than we think…math, reading, writing, english, science, history, foreign languages, art, music, sports…kids are a sponge…The parents I know incorporate daily learning in raising our kids. Every opportunity we have we try to answer questions, pose questions, observe, encourage, allow them to “fail” and try again or just get out of their way. All of this should be paving the way for what they are expected to master in school…

    One of the biggest challenges I see with schools today is not what kids are being taught and when. (Although people on this board know I am for ability groiuping/tracking with flexibility by subject and grade level.) It is kids tend not to be respected by so many of the adults in their school, yes many teachers do not respect their own students. Kids get yelled out, put down, bullied by the adults, are not respected and not encouraged to excel. Change these things around and I think you will see wonderful things happen in the schools…

    Just my two cents worth…

  19. I was trying to write the response twice already… Now, I think I will finally post it. I am wholeheartedly signing under the common curriculum. There is absolutely the need to have for the common body of knowledge, carefully sequenced and commonly accepted. And that should come first before all kinds of other reforms in education.
    First, as a science teacher at a high school that accepts students from different districts, I see students with background too various to find a common starting point thus making us repeat and reteach things that in other ways would be expected to be known to all students (like metric system, or measurements etc). In addition, while some students performed dissections in the 8th grade and learned of Mendel’s Laws, others never heard of such things. There is a disparity too wide to overcome in high school…
    Second, when we moved from NYC to NJ, we learned that even in the second grade the differences in things taught were quite wide .
    Third, I went to school in the former Soviet Union… The whole country had the same curriculum, we read the same selection of literature, and studied the same topics in the same grades. There also was a careful vertical and parallel alignment between subject, so the physics reinforced algebra, and chemistry was connected to biology and physics… Now, even though there were local variations, I talk to people who came here from different republics and localities of the country… and we can share jokes, and memories, and the same common knowledge… That’s priceless.
    Now, in regards to Lisa’s comment… Obviously, you can do as you please with your children. However, when we are talking about mass education, it its much easier to ensure the minimal common ground than to dwell on whims of whatever whoever wants to learn.
    We don’t know what life brings us. And our children, as it was mentioned before, do not know what they may need to know. There is a limited time in a person’s life when one has no other big responsibilities as to pick up as much knowledge and skills as possible. And that time passes very quickly. So if we let that time pass without having the child equipped for as many challenges as we can, we are doing that child a disservice . And if there are more chances that in later in life that child will have to do something that he/she does not really like or interested in…

  20. Pardon for typos…

  21. Exo,
    All your arguments for a common curriculum relate to the convenience for providers of education services that a common curriculum would provide. Wouldn’t life be easier for restaurants if there was a national standard menu? Wouldn’t life be easier for shoe stores if we all had to wear the same size shoes? Yes, but that would guarantee a poor fit for most people.

    Children are not standard. Richard Arkwright, Cyrus McCormick, Thomas Edison, Bertrand Russell, and Yehudi Menuhin were homeschooled.

  22. (Exo)”There is a limited time in a person’s life when one has no other big responsibilities as to pick up as much knowledge and skills as possible. And that time passes very quickly. So if we let that time pass without having the child equipped for as many challenges as we can, we are doing that child a disservice .
    100% agreement. Why suppose that the State (government, generally) will outperform a competitive market responsive to parent choices in education services?

  23. Michael E. Lopez says:

    A common curriculum makes sense for grades 1-4 (if we’re still talking in terms of grades) and maybe grades 5-8.

    But there’s just way too much good literature, way too much interesting history, to try this stuff at the high school level. (I limit my discussion to the humanities because it is in the character of the sciences and of mathematics that they carry their own syllabi with them.) I categorically reject the notion that there is any one particular great book that kids must, or even should, read.

    Hire teachers who really know their fields. Have those teachers build their own syllabi. It’s not that hard: there are literally thousands of jobless or underemployed PhD’s and ABD’s out there. You can’t move your foot in a bookstore without hitting one in most major metropolitan areas. Find out what they want in return for teaching and give it to them.

    But here’s the rub: even if we set a common curriculum for the lower grades, most of high school is still going to be spent trying to learn things that should have been picked up in 5th grade. So it doesn’t really matter whether we have a common high school curriculum or not.

  24. there’s just way too much good literature, way too much interesting history, to try this stuff at the high school level.

    Is there enough room in history for some schools to teach that many of the important figures in European history were black Africans?

    I bring up this example of lies taught in the name of “Afrocentrism” to make a point:  there’s a core of important facts and concepts there, and whatever else students learn, the core has to come first and foremost.

    It’s not that hard: there are literally thousands of jobless or underemployed PhD’s and ABD’s out there.

    If you will pardon me for saying so, that is part of the problem.  These people are like the surfeit of doctors in some metropolitan areas, who generate demand for medical procedures but produce no improvement in health.  In the case of educational “innovations”, they are actively harmful.

    We could reduce the harm by controlling the number of PhD candidates and the schools allowed to accept them.  I would recommend that any school which rates “dispositions” should be shut down and its staff put to work which does more good for society, like digging ditches.

  25. Malcolm, yes, convenience of providers, but also the convenience of learners. If the student can master the material faster, that leaves more time for him/her to pursue other things. Or just jump from grade to grade. That means you know what is supposed to be done in each grade in each subject. When I was in 4th grade, I missed 2 marking periods due to illness – and was just able to follow the books (which were constructed in exact sequence and contained exactly what was supposed to learned and practiced), and I did not have to “catch up”.

    Also, I was faster then the rest, which translated into having less time to spend on homework, and more time to do other things, like participating in a choir, theater studio, young naturalists club etc.

    Speaking of why t’s the job of the state… Parents who have the means, have their choices – parochial, private, homeschooling. But the minimum core knowledge is needed for everyone. At this moment, as a parent of a child in a public school, I still have to control that my son receives the core knowledge (and if he doesn’t, to make up for it at home).I should not do it. The roles now are reversed. The schools focus on “perks” in expense of essential. Having the district, school, or even a teacher write their own curriculum leaves to much to a chance.

  26. Yeah, note that Lisa is on a local school board and probably has more influence than any teacher here combined.

  27. I don’t believe I have ever said that kids should only learn what they want to learn. Interesting that people have jumped to that conclusion. Total control is so necessary that when someone says “SOME of the time, kids should learn what they are passionate about,” it creates this dead panic. My interest is in creating a trustful relationship at schools — “you respect what I need to learn, so I will respect what you want to teach me.”

  28. <<< you respect what I need to learn, so I will respect what you want to teach me.”

    Lisa, could you please define — specifically, please — what a first grader "needs" to learn, how this might vary from one first-grader to another, and how — again, specifically how — first graders communicate those needs to their teachers? If it helps, cite specific examples of actual first-graders with whom your school works.

    I'm asking this not as a challenge, but in earnest.

  29. Peace Corps says:

    Lisa Cooley your comment to Robert Pondiscio gave the impression that “kids should learn what they want to learn.”

  30. This just seems to me ridiculous. Robert, the implication of your question is that in order to properly debate with you I have to do so on your terms. I don’t have your language. I am not a pedagogue. It’s one thing “professionals” do — in arguing with the non-professionals you decide that they need to adopt the perspective that they have, use their language and their focus. I suppose that if I don’t rise to this question in the way you specify, it’s because I can’t answer, and therefore by extension don’t have a role in the discussion of what kids learn. It’s very easy that way, isn’t it? Perhaps you think I”m being defensive, but it’s a real problem.

    Can YOU discuss how to gain the trust of children? We have schools full of kids who don’t give a shit because school doesn’t meet their needs, has never addressed what’s important to them. Many people here have dismissed the notion that kids should have a say in what they learn, and have jumped to a conclusion about what I am saying (Peace Corps, way to take a quote out of context! Nice going! I may be a fan of the Sudbury model, and fascinated with Unschooling, but you have set up a straw man.) in order to address what I am not saying.

    But to take your question seriously (while not answering it directly), I’d have to point to the question I’ve been trying to answer myself: can you blend a fixed curriculum with time and effort to bring out what excites and drives children? To some extent I support standard-based learning, because I think kids need context in order to sort through the avalanche of information available to them, and tell sense from nonsense. But I am also a huge fan of Kathleen Cushman and her What Kids Can Do project, as well as all sorts of approaches to passion-based learning.

    For the first five years of a child’s life, play is learning and babies and young kids go after it with a zeal that is wonderful to see. It takes 12 years of public school to knock that zeal out of them. Why? Because they are entering a system that institutionally does not care about these same passions that kept them learning at an amazing pace for those beginning years.

    I don’t know what to say to those who panic that if kids are left to pursue what they want, the whole thing will go to hell in a handbasket. The mistrust for the motivations of kids as well as the abilities of teachers is manifest here. Disaster!

    Kids loving what they are doing! Run away, run away!

  31. Michael E. Lopez says:

    E-P Saith:

    Is there enough room in history for some schools to teach that many of the important figures in European history were black Africans?

    I’m confused. What exactly does not teaching falsehoods have to do with the presence or absence of a core curriculum? Is the idea that merely by virtue of being centralized and standardized, a core curriculum is always going to be filled with only true things? Because history shows us not only that such a premise is not true, but that the more vociferously a core curriculum is defended, the more likely it is to be false. (Think geocentrism.)

    If you will pardon me for saying so, that is part of the problem. These people are like the surfeit of doctors in some metropolitan areas, who generate demand for medical procedures but produce no improvement in health. In the case of educational “innovations”, they are actively harmful.

    Oh there’s nothing to pardon — it’s an interesting idea. I’m a little confused though: most of the “innovations” aren’t coming from unemployed English ABD’s. They’re coming from actually employed Education EdD’s. Or am I just wrong about the facts here?

    I don’t think it’s controversial for me to say that someone with 3+ post-bachaelor years of college studying nothing but literature, say, is fully capable of being plugged into a classroom and given the autonomy to design a high-school level English syllabus.

    It’s doubtful that anyone wants their high school student to learn more than that teacher knows about the subject. So if such a teacher were simply to transmit everything he or she knows, people should be happy.

    Unfortunately, the same is NOT true of many merely-bachelor’s qualified teachers. In many cases we want our high school graduates to know more about their subjects than their teachers do. This is hard situation to navigate, because in the absence of continuing subject-matter education (which isn’t what teacher professional development is all about by any stretch of the imagination) a class is going to be limited by the teacher’s knowledge base.

    We could reduce the harm by controlling the number of PhD candidates and the schools allowed to accept them.


  32. I’m asking, Lisa, because the work that I do today is a direct result (or reaction to, more to the point) of teaching for several years in a school where all reading and writing was student directed and “authentic.” It was also, in my opinion, disastrous. My low-income fifth graders in the South Bronx, I believe, were done a tremendous disservice; we denied them access to the intellectual capital and language that would enable them to succeed in life. While their more privileged peers were extending their gaze outward — through directed study of literature, history, science, art and music — my students were encouraged to look within, and nowhere else. Their self-directed writing about visiting grandma in the hospital, a trip to the mall, professional wrestling, or a favorite video games might have been occasionally charming. But the primary purpose it served was to allow we enlightened teachers to congratulate ourselves for honoring our student’s lives and helping them capture their authentic voices. What did content matter? Engagement was all. And if the world would someday judge these children harshly, considering them somehow intellectually inferior because they simply lacked the common knowledge that “better educated” people have, well shame on them, right? We honorable teachers, in our enlightened state, are far better judges of what our students need than those who might someday offer them acceptance to college, a job, or some other other opportunity.

    My views on education are formed by my experience. Still, I have long acknowledged that the failure of this particular approach may have been my failure and mine alone. Thus I am always curious to learn from the experience of others who have made student-directed approaches work. I have no doubt that for children who come to school with a high degree of social and intellectual capital, it can be intensely liberating and fulfilling. For “school dependent” learning, it is something less. Far less.

  33. Make that “school dependent learners” (i.e. those whose access to language and knowledge occurs principally in school, as contrasted with more affluent children who travel, visit museum and engage in rich dinner table conversation with educated parents).

  34. You are very contemptuous of those efforts. I read that loud and clear. Your conclusion is that there is an “all or nothing” proposition here. There is no way a good education can come about if we regard children as anything more than incomplete people. Not even people. People-in-training. By us. In the way we prescribe.

    Is it possible for you to address the issue of respect? Thanks for the information, it’s very interesting I’m sure, but I’m talking about establishing a trusting relationship between adults and children. I have had no indication that you feel that children and their ideas deserve your respect, and that respect is even in the equation.

  35. “There is no way a good education can come about if we regard children as anything more than incomplete people”

    Children are barbarians that need to be civilized, something society has been failing at for the last 50 years.

  36. Diana Senechal says:


    At the high school level, there should be room for good electives, designed by teachers, provided the school has the resources for them. I don’t think this precludes a core curriculum.

    I love the idea of giving high school teachers the opportunity to create syllabi for their courses. But for that to work, there has to be some common understanding among the faculty about what students will learn over the course of high school. And there should be some core requirements–within the electives themselves and in the common courses.

    First-rate public and private schools often have this combination: core requirements and well-coordinated electives. A curriculum can accommodate both.

    A common curriculum (as I understand it) would only account for about half of what the school taught. Moreover, the material in it could be distributed in various ways among courses. You could have Macbeth in a Shakespeare course, a course on tragedy, a course on fate and prophecy in literature, a course on Renaissance literature, and many more.

  37. With few exceptions, I think that the k-8 curriculum should not have electives; the focus should be on the building of the knowledge and skill base across the disciplines that provides the foundation for higher-level work. Even those who do not wish further academic work (heresy alert) should have this foundation. Even within a solid core curriculum (like Core Knowlege or the classical), there is room for kids to choose some work of particular interest to them. Those kids who are academically prepared and motivated should be challenged with more/deeper work (not “enrichment” busywork) and/or acceleration. Some of this latter group, being capable of mastering material at a faster pace, could benefit from electives, such as making an early start on a foreign language. Overall, I feel that the k-12 years should not have a specialty focus beyond choosing among various path/track options at the HS level. Kids are free to pursue many things of interest to them outside of school; they’re called hobbies.

  38. Absolutely agree, momof4. And then we don’t need that much time to spend in school, either. (I had 10 years, with the last 2 optional – for those who were going to college right after school. My husband did the required 8, and went to a technical school, and only much later went to a university).

  39. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:


    Yes, I take what you mean. But the idea that every child should read MacBeth is just silly. That would require that every teacher know MacBeth.

    Which is silly.

    I mean…. *I* know MacBeth, and most of the people I know know MacBeth to some degree or another…. but that’s merely because most of our teachers knew it. And that’s because most of their teachers knew it.

    But it seems to me that one could be a perfectly good English teacher teaching a perfectly good English class and decide to focus, say, on King Lear instead of MacBeth, or on Milton instead of Shakespeare.

  40. I think there’s a lot to be said for a basic core in HS as well. But then, when I talk to my friends, it seems that, at least 20 years ago, there WAS at least some core.

    We all did American Lit in 11th grade and Emglish/European Lit in 12th. We all learned American History, Government, And European History. We all read some Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Dunne, Austen, Shakespeare, Faulkner….

    You get the idea. However, I’ve noticed that this core only holds true for those of us who were on the “College prep” track. The other kids learned all sorts of randome things, and read books that were ‘engaging.’ The ‘non-prep’ track was basically a list of books about teenagers who hated school. They did personal essays, as Rob pointed out, while we were writing papers analyzing the imagery in Keats. They did keyboarding while we did programming. They took “earth science” while we took chemistry.

    So, the college prep kids from families who had some idea what it took to get ahead took classes that constituted a core. We were scattered across the country, rural, urban and suburban, yet somehow we arrived at college with similar, if not identical educational backgrounds.

    What happened to the other kids? Well, they were allowed to take “business math” and “Teen novels” and other such things. And then when they decided that they needed a degree to meet their career goals, they went to the local community college and found out that they didn’t have the basic level of skill needed to succeed.

    It’s easy to be blase about a core for rich white kids — their parents will make sure they get ‘the basics’ one way or another, because they know what the basics ARE. Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have this occult knowledge. They don’t realize that certain books and historical events act as signals for ‘intelligent and capable.” They’re the ones who get hurt without a core.

  41. Michael E. Lopez says:

    So you might think something like this…

    Let’s have a common core of, say, literature. But instead of having a list of books to be taught, here’s a list of, say, 200 books. 75%, maybe 80% of your curriculum needs to come from these 200 books.

    When I was in high school we did something 42 books in 4 years (I’m counting Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone as three separate books and I’m not counting short plays like the Glass Menagerie.) That would mean that, say, 34 books would have been from the list of the Holy 200.

    I think I’m fine with something like that.

    But giving out titles of books is easy. Telling teachers what to do with them is harder. Things get even harder with history. You could very easily and plausibly think that history is a subject for which it is really hard to develop a “core curriculum.” What are you going to do — mandate facts? Mandate events? Mandate relations? Theories?

    It’s one thing to say “Study the Civil War.” It’s another to say “Study the Civil War and make sure you cover the economic disparities between the sides.” It’s quite another to say “Make sure you teach the following theories about the economic disparities between the sides” (There are more than a couple different theories).

    You can teach Rome as the glorious genesis of organized civilization, as a barbaric tyranny, as the first example of cultural colonialism, as the result of a certain blend of warfare and language, as a combination of many disparate cultural events, or as some combination of any of the above. You can teach Rome primarily as an issue of political power, primarily an issue of economic structure, or primarily an issue of cultural values.

    You can do LOTS and LOTS of different things with Rome. Where are you going to draw the “common core” lessons about Rome? Just brute facts? Which facts? I never studied Sextus Tarquinius or the Rape of Lucretia in the high school unit on Rome, but indeed that story is REALLY FRACKIN’ IMPORTANT to understanding how Rome came to be, well… Rome. I felt totally cheated when I learned that story in my graduate program because what I learned of Rome in HS would have been immeasurably enriched by that story.

    Anyway, this is all to say that I’m skeptical of the ability of a common core curriculum to be really useful at anything other than the (relatively useless) “Study Rome” level of description. Indeed, at narrower levels of description mandating certain approaches and theories it might actively harm the ability of teachers to teach their subjects.

  42. Mark Roulo says:

    “You could very easily and plausibly think that history is a subject for which it is really hard to develop a ‘core curriculum.’ “

    I do think it would be really hard. Especially because the subject is so politicized.

    Having said *that*, I think that Larry Gonick’s “Cartoon History of the Universe” series would make an excellent starting point.


  43. Eva Wagner says:

    O.k. O.k I have to weigh in here. As the teacher of one of Lisa’s children… You must realize that she did not have to bait her children with American girl doll books and use phonics over princess movies or blah, blah, blah, blah (no disrespect intended)….because it was obvious from her children’s interests, discussions, etc. they lived in a house full of discussion, debate, books read aloud, read on tape. Her child was one every teacher dreams of and every teacher fears for. Fears for because he is surrounded by students raised on sugar and video games, whose only connection to literature are their teachers. How, I wondered, could this boy be so nice, patient, able to to work with others, able to be flexible….when he was like Darwin surrounded by well….unDarwin-like others….for lack of a better word. He was interested in the solar system, black holes…he even enjoyed fiction, though he never admitted at the time! So with all due respect Lisa, yours are different, very different from the masses. Though I will not say that I disagree with you. In fact I found a very persuasive letter recently from another not so motivated student who asked just what you are asking…why can’t we study what we are interested in? So I understand both sides and like everything else, I think we will and should end up meeting somewhere in the middle.

  44. Amy in Texas says:

    Eva is correct- many, many of the high school students I teach HAVE no interests. Honestly, they don’t even know how to answer that question when I answer it. It would seem that their life consists of eating junk food, watching TV and hanging out with similar peers.

  45. One note on baiting my daughter with phonics —

    It’s not that she doesn’t have a rich literary life– it’s just that she didn’t see the POINT of learning to read, which is hard, when she could just have her parents read TO her (which is easy.)

    So, refusing to read ‘character books’ and tying her 15 minutes of computer time a day to successful completion of phonics gave her the external motivation she needed to do something HARD (read an American Girl book by herself) instead of EASY (Ask mom to read her National Geographic and Charlotte’s Web.)

    But, this is a very HUMAN thing. I had to WANT to read Greek in order to memorize my third declension. If I could have magically read Greek without the declension, I would have blown it off.

    People don’t walk on treadmills because they love treadmills, they do it because they have an external reward (weight loss–or looking better to attract a mate.)

    Kids have a much shorter “gratification horizon.” So, saying “learn math facts because you want to be a robotics engineer, and robotics engineers do math” won;t get them to practice TODAY. Heck, they can always learn them later, right?

    But “Practice math facts today or you won’t get to play a video game” DOES work.
    (I honestly GIVE the kids TV and video games so I have something to punish them with! Otherwise, I’d be stuck taking outside time and crayons and books… all things I DON’T want to deny them.)

    So, yes, there has to be some coercisve means available. Frankly, I think the LACK of means available to teachers are why kids are doing so poorly— Teachers can’t take away a kid’s video games or turn off the TV or ground him. It’s the parents lack of will at home that causes such problems at home. (And this is why, I think, comparisons to Finnish/Asian schools are meaningless— the big problem is a total lack of discipline and consequences in US schools, and the SCHOOLS cannot fix that–it has to start at home.)

    In terms of core curriculums, then, the idea is that there are certain things that are good for everyone to know, no matter where they end up in life. As someone commented up thread, this is pretty easy for Math and Science. For other disciplines, I think first we need a clear idea of the END goal, so that we can figure out what steps a kid needs to get there.

    For instance, do we want everyone in the US to be able to read and understand a Google News Feed? Well, in that case, phonics, vocabulary, geography and a general historical framework could be helpful. (Yes, you CAN just look everything up in Wikipedia, but it’s time consuming. More background knowledge saves time and energy later on.)

    Do we want all cirtizens to be able to follow an election campaign and have some understanding of the issues?

    Do we want people to be able to understand the historical/literary references in our every day speech?

    We can’t really have a core until we have goals. And, as I said earlier, the core isn’t really for the college-prep-children-or-college-prep-parents. We have a good sense of what our kids need, and the resources to give it to them (Which is why I homeschool!)

    BUT, for everyone else, we need to figure out what the basic level of knowledge is for a person to be able to support their family, raise their kids, and have the tools to self-educate later. (After all, in past generations, many high-school drop outs went on to work their way through Brittanica and the Great Books. Our CURRENT HS dropouts don’t have the basic skills to teach themselves later on….)

    Finally, a note on “respecting children”— We’re not raising children, we’re raising future-adults. So respecting our child does not JUST mean respecting her present self –it means respecting her future self too. As adults, we have a more realistic idea of what skills will be necessary to that future self. For instance, if our daughter wants to be a doplhin trainer, we’d do her a huge disservice if we didn’t make sure she learned to swim. But swimming well enough to train dolphins means first going to the YMCA and swimming boring laps, even when you don’t feel like it.

    As I said, maybe my kids are just unusually distractible and challenge adverse (we are a family of ADHD folk….), but self-discipline and perseverence does not come naturally to them. (Of course, as a Catholic and a firm believer in ‘original sin’ and the ‘age of reason,’ I’d argue that there are very few people who are NATURALLY self-disciplined. One thing I try to emphasize to my kids is that even the people who LOOK like they don’t have to struggle DO…they’re just better at keeping the struggle inside…….

  46. Oh! one last thing. I think it’s disingenious to suggest that there’s such a thing as a totally self-actualized kid. For instance, I know some kids that will do difficult things not because they’re afraid of losing 15 minutes of video games, but because they’re afraid that by failing, they’ll lose the love of the adults around them

    Unfortunately, I have kids who are convinced that everyone would STILL love them if they went on a tri-state killing spree. On the other hand, they’re fairly sure that if they ever go on a killing spree they will never EVER see another Disney Princess Movie as long as they live. Also, they’d probably lose chocolate. And get a really long, boring time out.

    But, if you think your kid needs NO eternal motivation, you probably just haven’t figured out WHAT that motivation is.

  47. Eva Wagner says:

    Deidre, I was hoping you would not take my comments personally. I think you seem to be a committed, caring parent who probably has wonderful children.

    I actually though, purposely take away books at bedtime as a punishment because I want that to be the thing my children value most. Fortunately I don’t go there often, usually the threat is enough to straighten them out! ( I have on occasion let them earn them back with good behavior because it is just too heartbreaking for me!) If all parents were like the parents on this debate, well we may not be having this debate.

    I think there are standards our children need to know in order to function in society. I think there is a lot of flexibility in how children get there. I think that may be the place Lisa is coming from. A student for instance could learn to read, write, compute, correlate, analyze, research, collaborate, communicate etc. while pursuing a passion. I think following one’s interests gives students a purpose for learning that holding carrots over their heads never can. I believe good teachers can integrate student interests within a curriculum.

    If our schools were set up with standards based curriculum I could see students being able to choose a subject matter or class that satisfied certain core standards. For instance auto mechanics may help a student compete one science, one writing, two math, and one language arts standard. Or astronomy would count for one science, one math, one writing and one language arts. The faculty would be in charge of aligning the curriculum to the standard and presenting the assessments and measures so that students understood the expectations. Perhaps a student could complete the class and still not complete one or two of the standards (they still need more work) they get credit for the class but still may need to fulfill the standard, so they can take another class that interests them that allows them to try again to meet the standard. If they are weak in writing say, this allows them more practice, in another area to complete that standard.

    For the independently minded and motivated student they can create independent studies for credit. As in a college setting these students must earn the right to take independent studies through pre-requisites and instructor permission. The student usually needs to have proven him or herself in order for this to occur. Most teachers would welcome a fired up student who is ready to work and would be more than happy to help a student realize their dream (no slackers need apply). That brings us to the average kid. The less than motivated one. They would have choices too. They would need to meet the standards, just like everyone else, and they would need to decide (perhaps with a guidance counselor or homeroom teacher) how to do that. Perhaps they would become interested in something in the process, perhaps not, at least we wouldn’t be any worse off than we are now!

  48. Eva Wagner says:

    Our school would be adopting the common core standards which have already been written and adopted in many states, so no need to reinvent the wheel or decide what should be left in or out of the curriculum.

    I disagree with the statement that rich kids with the right parental background were the only one’s prepared for college. I knew many foreign students, students who transferred from community colleges, students who came from disadvantaged backgrounds (who never studied Macbeth) who succeeded in college and are very successful adults. I think there have been many studies that have proven that in order to succeed in college and life it takes the ability to work hard, be flexible, and work together. Brains, background, money etc. do not factor into the equation as much as people think. My parents never attended college and their parents were Irish immigrants, my father passed away when I was eight and we moved several times afterward. We were low income and I hated Shakespeare as a teenager. I rather enjoy Shakespeare as an adult and I feel successful, well-educated and well-compensated for my work. The main problem Americans have in my opinion, is not laziness, or out of control kids – it is a skewed view of the world and what success means.

  49. (Exo): “Speaking of why t’s the job of the state… Parents who have the means, have their choices – parochial, private, homeschooling. But the minimum core knowledge is needed for everyone.

    We disagree, here, but let that pass for now.

    (Exo): “ At this moment, as a parent of a child in a public school, I still have to control that my son receives the core knowledge (and if he doesn’t, to make up for it at home). I should not do it.

    Why not?

    (Exo): “The roles now are reversed. The schools focus on ‘perks’ in expense of essential. Having the district, school, or even a teacher write their own curriculum leaves to much to a chance.

    I do not understand your point. You claim that government schools sometimes fail to do their job therefore the government should have this responsibility? This argument is missing a few steps, seems to me.

    Inevitably, for each child, somebody or some body determines which curriculum, method of instruction, and pace of instruction to apply to that child. What does society gain by taking control over these decisions away from individual parents?

  50. Malcolm,
    Do you think that not all people living in a society should be able to read, calculate, write and speak grammatically? Or know the basic physics laws?
    I went to a school in the Soviet Union – centralized curriculum, same textbooks, same uniforms etc. for the whole country. Neither my parents nor those of my classmates bothered with if the schools taught the basics. The parents were making sure that we have extracurriculars – which were available for free at the places other than school. But not whether we were taught rules of Russian language and sentence structure etc.In addition, that curriculum was widely available and known to everyone – so the colleges could make the entrance exams based on what the schools were supposed to teach.

    I am a working mother, and there is just so many hours in a day. I can provide extras, but I should not monitor every single lesson and compensate for missing steps and missing logic.

    If the common curriculum, logically sequenced for every single core subject was created on the federal level, along with carefully sequenced textbooks for each grade, and all schools were required to implement it, adding only “local” variations – this would eliminate many problems for parents, students, and teachers. (In addition, teacher colleges would finally know WHAT to teach future teachers instead of hogposh of interdisciplinary classrooms etc.)
    This is

  51. (Exo): “Do you think that not all people living in a society should be able to read, calculate, write and speak grammatically? Or know the basic physics laws?
    I think that the risks of State-imposed intellectual uniformity greatly exceed the benefits. Furthermore, it does not take 12 years at $12,000 dollars per pupil-year to teach a normal child to read and compute.

    (Exo): “I went to a school in the Soviet Union – centralized curriculum, same textbooks, same uniforms etc. for the whole country.
    Including the official history and the official economics. See the problem?

    (Exo): “I am a working mother, and there is just so many hours in a day.“Maybe more mothers could mind their children if the State-monopoly K-PhD school system did not consume $720 billion per year of tax money.

    There is almost nothing that everyone needs to know (how did Cro-Magnon man survive?). The K-12 English sequence is an employment program for people who otherwise woule be washing dishes.