Tuesday, November 1, 2011

We need curriculum reform but we need to do it right

Dana Goldstein is arguably our best education writer and I have long argued that we need curriculum reform, but this post makes me nervous as hell:
Past attempts to develop national curriculum guidelines became mired in culture war controversy, but this latest effort--led by the states, not the federal government--has a real shot at influencing teaching and learning at the classroom level, and hopefully fostering a more rigorous academic culture in American public schools. If administrators and teachers implement the new standards faithfully, how will the curriculum evolve? Let's first look at math.
Currently, American students are taught just a little bit about a whole lot of mathematical topics each year; we have a curriculum with tons of breadth, but not much depth. Check out this chart Coleman showed us from education researcher Bill Schmidt. It demonstrates that while typical first-graders in high-achieving Western European and Asian countries learn just three concepts--quantity, measurement, and addition/subtraction of whole numbers--American first-graders must learn 14 topics, including polygons, circles, how to use a compass, and how to estimate.

The American curriculum may appear more rigorous, but our six-year olds are actually being denied the opportunity to master the foundational skills upon which the rest of their mathematical education will be based. The problem, according to Coleman, is that American curriculum standards have traditionally been written by committees whose members advocate for their pet pedagogical theories, such as traditional vs. reform math. "The only way to end a committee meeting is to let everyone get their stuff in," Coleman said. The result is that teachers feel rushed each year to move through an enormous list of standards. "Students and teachers bear all the weight of this," Coleman pointed out. "The standard writers are removed from this." The goal of the Common Core is, for the first time, to move American math standards in the simplified direction of our international peers.


Before closing out, a few words on the nuts and bolts of the effort to implement the Common Core. The project is a partnership between a number of organizations, including the National Governor's Association; the Council of Chief State School Officers; Achieve, a non-profit testing group created by the governors; the ACT; the College Board; the State Higher Education Executive Officers; the American Association of School Administrators; and the Business Roundtable. The federal government is supporting the Common Core with about $350 million, most of which is dedicated to developing and implementing tests based on the new standards. Federal funds are also being used to create instructional materials and professional development sessions for teachers who will use the new curricula.

The other major supportor of the Common Core is the Gates Foundation, which expects to spend a total of $250 million "to develop next-generation instructional tools and assessments that will help states and school districts implement the standards."
Before I wade into the red flags, the suggestion that the curriculum needs to be greatly pared down is dead on. We do try to cover a ludicrous amount of material, much of it of little value. The explanation given here is too tidy (there are plenty of ways for undeserving concepts find their way into the standards), but it is, at least partially true.

Now the parts that make me apprehensive:

If you take on the paring without some serious thought, you can do more damage than good, and this example seems exactly the sort of thing that someone who hadn't given the subject much thought and who didn't know much about math might come up with;

And on the subject of the people behind the initiative, the list of partners seems rather light on mathematicians and scientists;

The emphasis here on elementary school is troubling. Historically, I believe it's the upper grades where we start to fall behind on international tests. Are we possibly fixing the part that works? This may be a small point but we've seen a long string of solutions that mainly affected areas which weren't actually affected by the problem. This does not inspire confidence;

The focus on international rankings is an even more troubling sign. TIMSS and PISA are too big a subject to go into this late in the evening, but there are a lot of reasons to worry about role that international tests play here. Just for a a brief overview, there are questions about
-- what these tests are really measuring,
-- where the problems with American scores are coming from,
-- what techniques really drove the successes in highly ranked countries,
-- whether those techniques would carry over to other cultures,
-- and finally the one closest to my heart, is there a possible downside to a country that built the world's greatest economy largely on creativity and unconventional problem solving suddenly doubling down on rote learning and regurgitation?;

Nor does the make up of the list of partners reassure me. I've already mentioned the lack of math and science people. As for the rest, the combination of politicians, administrators and businessmen seems awfully like the assortment that got us in this mess to begin with.

Curriculum reform is important but it's also difficult and I've grown rather cynical about the willingness and ability of most reformers to do the hard work and lay a solid foundation to support the big talk when it comes to difficult problems. Perhaps I judge these things too harshly but I haven't read anything here that makes me optimistic.


  1. We spent a year on sabbatical in France, and one thing I liked about the public schools there was the uniform national curriculum. It was completely clear what was being covered each year, you could go to a bookstore and get a book such as "L'Année de CP" which had exercises covering the whole year ("CP" is first grade), you could see what was coming next, etc. I liked this transparency. Maybe it wouldn't work so well in the higher grades but I liked it for elementary school.

  2. I see some real potential advantages to a national curriculum (though given our size, I don't see a problem with having, say, four or five to choose from). What I have a problem with is a national curriculum that isn't very good.