The idea of common curriculum is something I find myself talking about a lot these days. It’s been a popular topic of discussion with both educators and non-educators that I spend time with. The Race to the Top requirement that participating states adopt the Common Core standards has raised the profile of this issue. Nonetheless, I’m not sure how I feel about it.
When I wrote about this previously, I was similarly unsure of where I stood on the issue of a national curriculum. Some recent news, however, has pushed me away from supporting such an idea.
Part of my concern is one of semantics, and follows along the lines of Tom Vander Ark’s piece in the Huffington Post earlier this month. He points out that even those who talk about a unified curriculum sometimes don’t agree on what exactly this means. To some, the standards of mastery should be aligned. For others, this requires an alignment of the actual teaching materials and lesson pacing.
Resolving this confusion is only the first issue. In general, the more standardized a curriculum becomes, the less freedom exists for a teacher to innovate and customize his teaching to the needs of his students. A great example of the opposite extreme is the “School of One” concept being piloted in New York City. Obviously, a system like this one, which creates a unique learning plan for each middle school math student, is time- and resource-intensive. But, I think that we can learn a lot from it.
On the other hand, a common set of standards that require every child to be measured against the same benchmark can be highly effective in raising the level of achievement for all American students. Some states have been criticized in the past for using assessments that inflate the achievement level of their students. A common curriculum would address this concern, but at what cost?
A key element in the School of One concept is the focus on individual student improvement or growth. With limited resources, however, customizing (in education parlance, “differentiating”) the curriculum to meet the prior knowledge and skills of each individual child is not only impossible, it’s laughable.
In the end, I guess I still don’t know how I feel about national standards. I want the freedom to be creative and innovative in the classroom, but I want American children to all learn the concepts and facts that will help them be effective citizens. Is there a middle ground?