Against a national curriculum

A national curriculum backed by national tests will stifle innovation, freeze the status quo into place, end state and local control of schooling  and “impose a one-size-fits-all model on America’s students,” argues Closing the Door on Innovation, signed by 100 education and public policy leaders.

The U.S. Education Department is funding two groups that are developing assessment systems to match Common Core Standards. A manifesto organized by the Shanker Institute has called for a national K-12 curriculum.

Common Core Standards aren’t good enough to be the national standard, the anti-Shanker manifesto argues.  The highest-performing countries and states set higher standards.

Furthermore, there is no one “best” curriculum design.

The Shanker Manifesto assumes we can use “the best of what is known” about how to structure curriculum. Yet which curriculum would be best is exactly what we do not know, if in fact all high school students should follow one curriculum.

. . . A single set of curriculum guidelines, models, or frameworks cannot be justified at the high school level, given the diversity of interests, talents and pedagogical needs among adolescents. . . . Other countries offer adolescents a choice of curricula; Finland, for example, offers all students leaving grade 9 the option of attending a three-year general studies high school or a three-year vocational high school, with about 50% of each age cohort enrolling in each type of high school.

. . . A one-size-fits-all model not only assumes that we already know the one best curriculum for all students; it assumes that one best way for all students exists. We see no grounds for carving that assumption in stone.

The manifesto was organized by Bill Evers, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; Greg Forster, senior fellow at the Foundation for Education Choice; Jay Greene and Sandra Stotsky, professors at the University of Arkansas; and Ze’ev Wurman, executive at a Silicon Valley start-up. Signers are listed here.

Update:  A national curriculum is in the works, Eduflack points out.  The Gates Foundation is working with the Pearson Foundation to write online curricula for 24 courses.

Robert Slavin believes the boffins can create one best algebra curriculum.

Shanker called for common content, not a national curriculum, responds Randi Weingarten, the American Federation of Teachers president.

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  1. I can be philosophically sympathetic to libertarian/small government arguments against a common curriculum, but I don’t really understand those who complain about loss of flexibility or stifling of innovation. I’m planning homeschool using Hirsch’s core knowledge sequence as a guide (I understand that it’s different from common core, but any core sequence could work) and what I like is the flexibility.

    For example, in geography the students learn the continents and locate them on a map. We can choose to add discussion of climate, animals, food, music, etc, all within the framework of discussing continents.

    In my paying job, our CC gives us a common syllabus and text for the intro classes since they’re prerequisites. I’ve seen tests from other classes and they don’t look like mine, despite covering the same topics. There is plenty of flexibility to add extras and examples while still addressing the same basic information.

  2. I do not have a problem with setting a core sequence of topics to be covered some time during each stage of schooling (primary, elementary, jr. high, and sr. high). What I do have a problem with is the “if it’s Monday of the 26th week of school, you *WILL* be teaching X, Y, and Z” approach. Having state standards has led to heavy-handed administrators micromanaging teachers and establishing national standards would only make the problem worse.

    It’s the educational equivalent of chain restaurants. Taking away the flexibility of chefs to devise their own menus may bring up the quality of certain restaurants, but it hurts the quality of others.

  3. As Catherine Gewertz has pointed out, people have quite different definitions of “curriculum,” and this affects the controversy. Like Crimson Wife, I see curriculum as a core sequence of topics. Such a curriculum leaves plenty of room for variation and additional topics. At the high school level it should leave even more room than at the elementary and middle school levels.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The sort of high school “core curriculum” I’d be in favor of wouldn’t take more than 5 pages.

    For every subject. Together.

  5. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    As a teacher, I understand the pros and cons of a common core curriculum. The common core standards should be “big picture” items, ie. all 5th graders should study the American Revolution and the foundations of U.S. Government, should know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide whole numbers and fractions, etc., There is a canon of knowledge that needs to be prioritized in every grade level, and across all 50 states. Of course, I live in California, which was an educational leader until its school systems were taken over by the Left in the late 60s. Where once upon a time, the study of Shakespeare, Twain and Joyce in high school English classes was a given, it was replaced by the “poetry” of Tupac Shakur , lest “disadvantaged” minority students would be “turned off” because reading works by “dead white males” was “not culturally relevant”. Ditto to most U.S. History high school teachers now not teaching about the Federalist Papers in lieu of a Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky book on the proctological view of American history, The desire for a unifying teaching framework–common standards– comes out of simply getting back to teaching fundamentals and true critical thought. Good teachers know how to inspire discussion and debate where appropriate, without propaganda or polemics–and they use excellent, substantive material that stands the test of time.


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