A National Curriculum

by Mike at the Big Stick

I am a conservative, so many of my views on education are, well, conservative. But I’ve also been involved with public education for a long time through my work with various historical sites and museums and the result has been that on some issues I diverge from mainstream conservative thought towards what many would probably describe as liberal territory.

The issue that I am most passionate about right now is the idea of a national curriculum.

The Department of Education has been a whipping boy for conservatives for a long time, often for good reason. I won’t provide a list of conservative grievances here, though I think they can best be summed up by saying that centralized power can be extremely corrupt. What I have come to believe, though, is that a national curriculum is one of the few positive things that could come from the federal government on education.

The most obvious benefit is the standardization of curriculum. What I am talking about is not a federally-provided lesson plan that would remove flexibility and creativity from the classroom. Rather, I advocate a national curriculum that acts as a sort of map, providing landmarks that teachers must visit throughout a given school year.

A national curriculum might mandate that all students study the First and Second Continental Congresses in their 8th grade year, or require all students to take Physics their junior year of high school and provide certain topics that must be covered throughout the year like gravity, force, energy, etc. Teachers would actually have more flexibility with a landmark-based strategy than with the current district-provided plans that micro-manage their teaching.

A standardized curriculum also provides both students and parents with a higher degree of mobility. Parents could move to another state to take a new job with less fear of damaging their children’s educational progress. Kids could transfer from one school district to another within the same state and have a fairly seamless experience academically. The mobility provided to parents has an economic impact and the mobility provided to students has an academic impact. It’s a win – win.

This is ‘school choice’ taken to an even further goalpost than currently advocated by even the staunchest conservatives.

For teachers, a landmark-based national curriculum would give them flexibility by building in elective blocks during every school year. Teachers would be encouraged to find creative transitions between one landmark and another. They could augment the national-mandated curriculum with regionally specific curriculum during their elective blocks. A biology teacher could create a small learning module about the ecosystems in their state with accompanying projects, field trips, etc. A history teacher could create a module about their city’s founding or how WWII affected their town.

This leads me to the next area where a national curriculum could be very effective. A national curriculum would help facilitate a wide-array of public education opportunities. While museums and other cultural institutions have been around for a long time, the concept of public education as a defined goal of these institutions is relatively new. What I mean by that is that they have always shared their knowledge with the public but not in an education-minded way.

This changed with the Archaeology in Annapolis Project created by Paul Shackel in the early 1990’s.

Shackel’s program has conducted a series of archaeological excavations in and around Annapolis with a major component being the involvement of the public in the actual work and in regularly scheduled public days where they can visit, ask questions, etc. Shackel’s work was documented in his book Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology which is now required reading in most historical archaeology programs. I was fortunate enough to attend one of his seminars at a conference several years ago and became convinced that the potential of these types of programs is nearly limitless and since then I have been fortunate enough to help implement similar programs here in Kentucky.

These programs are also a two-way street, with the flow of information going both ways. Part of Archaeology in Annapolis’ mission statement reads:

A long-standing part of Archaeology in Annapolis’ commitment to public archaeology has been our belief that people should be encouraged to critique, respond to, and challenge our motives for interpreting the past. This process serves as a cornerstone for the premise that through active and critical discourse social change can be wrought.

Public archaeology is part of a larger field of public education where various institutions are recognizing their usefulness as a supplement to the traditional educational structure. Museums realize that they can help provide context and visual stimulation for the study of history. Scientific institutions are able to provide a place where science can be observed in action instead of simply read about. Nature preserves are providing spaces where the natural world can be observed, studied and hands-on learning can take place. All of this might sound somewhat elementary, but what is new is that they are not just opening their doors but attempting to create curriculum specific programs that aid teachers in their work.

To put it simply, these institutions are hungry for collaboration.

Admittedly these institutions have dual motives. On the one hand, public education is their primary mission, but a bonus is that this increases revenues and allows students to serve as their ambassadors to the rest of the community. And as wonderful as these programs can be, the greatest challenge facing public education efforts is non-standardized curriculum.

An institution could create programs, but in an effort to meet curriculum guidelines in their local school districts the institution must limit it’s offerings to 3-4 school districts at most. Yes, kids from other districts can come visit on field trips and maybe get some generic programs, but they miss out on the true collaborative opportunities that come from tailored programs.

Back in June E.D. Kain posted a piece on bringing schools back into our communities as a sort of educational localism (my term, not his). I am on the fence on this idea but one of his comments struck me as particularly relevant to the issue of a national curriculum.

I’d like to see some open-source text-book programs take off so that small schools in various localities could team up to provide really great, cheap material. No reason why all these small schools couldn’t be constantly working together – and not just within each other’s districts. Connectivity has become much cheaper, faster, and more important than ever before. Schools need to use it, or else autonomy becomes a stagnating force rather than a force for creativity.

A national curriculum would also mean that kids in poorer districts could still visit places in more cost-effective ways. With the increasingly robust communication tools available through the internet, you could also create ‘virtual field trips’ where a classroom logs into a website and takes a trip to some place on the other side of the country. Place a big screen in a school auditorium and your entire 6th grade could visit the Smithsonian for a couple of hours along with kids from other states and all of them would be getting a curriculum-specific program.

Imagine a national curriculum that allowed not just museums and historic sites but also hospitals, universities, scientific institutions, banks, government departments, police departments and even the military to create programs that any teacher in the U.S. could use with their kids and know it would fit their curriculum needs exactly. This is where the really exciting ideas start to flow.

College science departments could work with kids on science projects and provide grad student mentors. High school students could visit college campuses as part of this program and get a taste of college life which might help them plan their futures. State legislatures could create programs that allow kids from all over the state to visit for a day and satisfy parts of their yearly curriculum.

The possibilities really are endless.

There’s also, of course the idea of collaborations between teachers in different school systems. Even within small states there is often a lack of understanding between different regions. A national curriculum might break down some of those barriers as students and teachers can learn together following the same landmark-based teaching plan I described above.

Ultimately, the idea of a national curriculum is a way of promoting efficiency and high standards. If the Department of Education could resist the urge to micro-manage and instead use a broad framework with built-in flexibility for educators, I think it could be a serious improvement over our current structure. A national curriculum would also link up with national testing, which doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. It also removes some of the excuses teachers’ unions offer for under-performing educators. In these ways a national curriculum should appeal to conservatives and liberals alike. At the end of the day, as counter-intuitive as it might sound to many conservatives, a national curriculum may just be one of the best way to solve a lot of problems at once.

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61 thoughts on “A National Curriculum

    • They wouldn’t need to. They could just withhold funds from schools who failed to adopt the national curriculum.

      Two things:

      1st) I wouldn’t be against a nationally suggested curriculum. Schools could choose to adopt it or not; could use it as a guideline, etc. And I totally dig the idea of national cooperation, so long as it’s organic.

      2nd) Curriculum worries me like food supply worries me. You’ve got a food supply that is national – say milk – and is delivered from a central location all across the USA. Contamination therefore travels far afield in very short order. Well, what if the national curriculum suffers similar contamination? What if lobbyists determine that this or that subject is more important than another; that this or that history is more vital than another. Suppose – just hypothetically – that somehow a law is passed that creationism needs to be taught in this national curriculum.

      Then what?

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      • Ah, the old “withholding funds” gambit. Sneaky, sneaky. The downside to funded mandates.

        Okay, now that we have established the… what would we call it? “The Wallet of Damocles”?, we can get into issues of whether a Our Nation’s Children are really going to be particularly well-served by a one-size fits all curriculum.

        When I went to school in New York (FOX LANE ROX!), we had three groups of students. The “General Studies”, the “Regents”, and “Honors”. We had to have three different curriculae in one school.

        Would we have something like that for the nation as well?

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      • One component I didn’t mention in the post is that I would like to see a very diverse group of people overseeing this curriculum, a lot of them not actually being teachers. I’d like to see NASA help with an astronomy curriculae. I’d like to see David McCullough help with the history curriculum. Etc, etc.

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          • I think 3 would be completely reasonable and curriculum could address that.

            It’s also not so much a matter of what is taught, as to the speed for a lot of kids. It’s not like slower kids can’t comprehend astronomy or physics, they usually just need it to be at a slower pace.

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            • Meta-question: Why are we educating them? What is our intention?

              Is it that we are hoping to train them to sit quietly for 50 minutes at a time then take 10 minute breaks?

              Is it that we are hoping to wind up with socialized people who can balance a checkbook, fry an egg, drive a car, say no to drugs, rattle off the 10 Amendments of the Bill of rights, change a diaper, shoot a rifle, summarize a novel, and sing a song?

              Were we better at it at some time in the past or are we better at it today than at any point in time?

              If we were better at it in the past, will your plan bring us closer to how stuff was when we were better at it?

              If we’re better at it today than we ever were, is your plan a deviation from the direction we’re going now or its fulfillment?

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              • I think our goal is roughly in-line with your second description. In short, well-rounded, good citizens.

                A national curriculum is meant to address a few needs:

                1) A basic standardization of what is taught to facilitate student mobility and to encourage cooperative education.

                2) To raise the standards nationally for subjects and create a educational outcome that is more about how hard you worked than what school district you lived in.

                3) To dovetail with national testing to facilitate improvements in teaching methods and to hold school systems, administrators and teachers accountable for the success of their students.

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                  • I would say both. In the past kids were much more well-rounded and had a beter basic knowledge of a a variety of subjects. Civics and goegraphy received much better coverage than they do no, for example.

                    In other areas we are doing better. Kids today are well-versed on computers and have access to better technology. Also, there is a better understanding of learning abilities and some allowances are made for that.

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                    • Are you going to be trying something that has worked elsewhere in the world?

                      Because, at this point, it seems to be “we should try this thing on all of The Children in the country at once”. (I hate using “The Children” as a counter-argument but this is a discussion about experimenting with education…)

                      Why do you think that this will work? It works well in theory? Are there any states that have a State-Wide curriculum? Do they do better on average or worse on average than states without?

                      An anecdote from an acquaintance who teaches math in BFE Pennsylvania: When he makes story problems for his students, they have to fit a very particular template. He’s not allowed to assume city-living story problems and he’s not allowed to assume country-living story problems. His story problems are supposed to be as generic as possible so as to avoid discrimination against the lifestyles of any students anywhere in the state. So, like, a story problem that opens with “John rode his bike” would be automatically disqualified because some students might not be able to afford bikes. That sort of thing.

                      This strikes me as monumentally wasteful and meddling… but it’s an example of the (alleged, I didn’t fact-check the guy) perils of central control. One would think that a math teacher might be able to tailor story problems to his or her class.

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                    • Let me share a quote from the post above:

                      What I am talking about is not a federally-provided lesson plan that would remove flexibility and creativity from the classroom. Rather, I advocate a national curriculum that acts as a sort of map, providing landmarks that teachers must visit throughout a given school year.

                      I’m not advocating we tell teachers how to teach. That can be done at the local level with inevitably mixed results. I’m saying we need to give them a broad outline for what they will teach in a given school year so that a kid can leave a school in Nebraska and move to a school in California and not miss a beat..and so a cultural institution can share it’s collections with kids all over the country. I’m also suggesting that by creating broad markers instead of micro markers for education, maybe the complaint of ‘teaching for the test’ will go away.

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                    • There are states that have them. There are states that don’t (I would put “still working on them” in the “don’t” category).

                      Are the states that don’t at the bottom of the list? You, know… California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Washington DC, Mississippi… and the ones that do at the top? Kansas, North Dakota, Washington, Massachusetts?

                      Or are they sprinkled around?

                      If they’re sprinkled around, would it be fair for me to wonder if standardization across the state really, at the end of the day, not that much of a player in whether students is learning good?

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  1. Fascinating idea. My first reaction is to wonder about the possibility of juking the stats–right now, many states have incredibly low “standards”, so that politicians can run on test scores. Do you think that a national curriculum would fall prey to this? On the other hand, it might not be as big a problem, just because national politicians aren’t judged as heavily on education as local pols are.

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  2. In my opinion, this makes the mistake that it is often made when people look for easy solutions to school reform: it overemphasizes the importance of content. Schools don’t underperform because they don’t know what to teach. They underperform because they aren’t good at teaching it, because school administrators aren’t good at managing budgets and making strategic investments, because the funding system diverts too much attention to money issues, and because teachers and administrators aren’t skillful enough in managing the context and social system surrounding learning. We need better people in the education system (teachers, administrators, and support staff), better management processes, and better partnerships between schools and communities.

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    • Good point, willy. I also think national standards/curriculum limit autonomy in deciding how best to actually teach – how to mix up the subjects, think outside the proverbial box, use creative and targeted approaches to teaching, etc. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but usually when the behemoth federal government gets involved you see a decline in creative thinking.

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      • Indeed. I’d further suggest that especially right now, when people aren’t really sure what sort of curriculum makes sense for training good thinkers and citizens given Google and the internets in general, more creative thinking is needed than ever. We should be promoting systematic experimentation to help schools learn from one another, not standardization.
        This TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson is worth watching for stimulating some thinking about that.
        http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

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      • I would point out that a national curriculum would not be designed to tell people how to teach. It would simply say, all students at this level are going to study these specific subjects in the course of the year…and maybe throw in a test at the end to see how well they understood things. So teaching methods are still subject to scrutiny at the school, district, state or national level. If students were taught all about basic algebra in 5th grade, and they can’t pass a test designed to cover exactly what they were taught…then obviously someone needs to ask why.

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        • Yes, I understood that, and that’s where I find fault in the argument. The problems schools face have to do with how to teach, while your proposal addresses what to teach. So I think at best standardizing a curriculum doesn’t help the important problems, while running the risk that it actually introduces new problems by standardizing at a time when views on what needs to be learned are greatly in flux.

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          • Are they realy in flux? Aren’t they primarily ‘in flux’ because no one is bothering to standardize them?

            And I don’t know that I agree completely with you that the teaching methods are the culprit for failing schools. I would point much more to factors at home, socio-economic issues, a lack of exclusivity, etc.

            But suppose you are corect and teachign methods are to blame. A national curriculum could in fact change those methods by giving teachers more flexibility and a more simple format to follow.

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            • See my earlier comments in this thread. I’m not saying it’s entirely teaching methods to blame, but the difficulty teachers and administrators have in skillfully controlling the social and economic contexts that affect teaching.

              And, yes, we do have a declining consensus on what exactly should be taught to children. See that TED talk as an example of one such argument for a more diverse curriculum that includes dance, drama, etc. I’ve just spent time designing new curricula for two different graduate institutions — one a business school and one an art school — and at both ends of that spectrum everyone agrees that a) it’s really difficult to predict what skills will be most relevant to success in the future; b) nevertheless they are pretty sure it isn’t more of the same things we’ve prioritized up until now since creative and conceptual abilities become more important than factual knowledge and pure analytic skills relative to today; and c) students entering these graduate programs aren’t nearly as prepared by the education they’ve had to date to grapple with these requirements.

              What that means for primary and secondary school education still needs to be worked out. But just try proposing that something that sounds even slightly like math and science shouldn’t form the dominant basis of any curriculum and see what an uproar that causes.

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              • I don’t like the idea of math and science being the base. I prefer a traditional curriculum with a few electives. I think you operate under the assumption that everyone will go to college and create a basic college prep program. If kids don’t go to college, they still have a good foundation of skills.

                I guess also with a national curriculum, I’m less worried about what subjects are taught than I am about making sure those classes cover the same basic material.

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                • I’ve made no such assumption about people going to college. I’m saying that educators agree less today than they did 20 or 50 years ago on what skills are important for productive adults to have, in most or all sectors of the economy and in every segment of educational attainment.

                  And I’m saying that making sure classes cover the same basic material would be the wrong goal, as well as difficult to achieve in practice. We ought to be focused on improving the quality of outputs, not standardizing the inputs. Since we don’t yet know how to reckon with the increasing realization that the product we need to output for tomorrow is probably different than the product output we needed yesterday, how on earth can we define a one size fits all set of inputs today? As GM is trying to figure out what kind of cars they need to make in order to successfully sell at volume, they aren’t going to find the answer in further consolidating their supply chain to reduce the number of bolts suppliers and using a single fender design.

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                  • ** That was a generic ‘you’ and bad grammar on my part. It should have read, “I think we should operate under the assumption that everyone will go to college…”

                    How can you focus on improving teaching methods when everyone is teaching completely different things? The problem is that curriculums differ so much from sitrict to district it’s extremely hard to find solutions that can be broadly applied.

                    I think that a traditional curriculum is going to prepare students for just about anything the world throws at them. Most people would agree that most job-specific knowledge is acquired through work, not through study.

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                    • How can you improve teaching methods when everyone is teaching completely different things?
                      Well, first off, not everyone is teaching completely different things. Secondly, some variety ought to be encouraged rather than discouraged. It allows for experimentation, tailoring, and faster learning about the relationship between what’s taught and how and how students do as a result. Lastly, such variety puts the power in to decide “what content works” in the hands of the local experts who know their constituents and communities better than centralized experts are likely to.

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                    • So, according to you, we need to not focus on what is taught but instead focus on how it is taught. And the way to do that is to let all the various school districts try whatever they think works best and then it will work because they know their students.

                      Again, there’s plenty of potential for flexibility within a national curriculum. Mandating that all kids learn about the Constitution in 5th grade or how to balance a checkbook in 7th grade doesn’t effect teaching methods at all. It just means that graduates from two separate school systems should have the same basic knowledge base.

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  3. I tend to think that decentralized control of schools tends to be a problem. It diffuses responsibility and makes accountability more difficult than a top-down system. Then again, it’s not like that system would necessarily be incredibly responsive, either.

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  4. Willybobo,
    My mom retired after a very successful 22 year teaching career in Louisiana public schools not because she didn’t know how to teach; but because there were too many people trying to tell her how to teach. Some of them knew – they were educators. Others, like parents, just didn’t want certain subject taught because they disagreed with the subject. Still others, like many of the so-called reformers, had never actually taught at all, and os they were telling her to do things she knew wouldn’t work.

    None of that had to do, however, with her system’s bureaucrats, her principal, strategic funds decisions, or any of the other things you cite as hinderences to educational success. And the money thing is a strawman I’d love to see go away. In many school sysytems, principals ar enot given full control ove rthe funds that support their schools, so they can not make strategic decisions. Likewise, they don’t have full hiring authority, so bad teahcers are hard to replace once they are in the system. And since no one seems to want to tackle these issues, curriculum is the only place left to try and improve school success.

    That said, here’s my other pet peeve – referring to students, and education in general using the language of business (inputs, outputs, outcomes, metrics) is just non-sensical. we’re talking about peopl ehere – people who need guidance, people who need knowledge, and people who need to internalize processes, all to function as members of a complex society when they reach adulthood. Talking about those people, an dthe process of education they need to go throguh, as if you are building a John Deere tractor is, IMHO, demeaning to everyone involved.

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    • Yes, I cringed a bit when I wrote that as well, as it does sound de-humanizing. But I was searching for analogies because I think Mike Big Stick is barking up the wrong tree focusing on curriculum standardization. In that sense, yucky sounding as it is I do think the analogy holds, though I wish I could think of a better one that doesn’t invoke corporations.

      On the rest of your point, I think we’re largely in agreement. The fact that principals aren’t given control over the funds is one of the points I’m making. They aren’t put in position to exercise their own judgement about what works best and what doesn’t, something only exacerbated by Mike’s proposal rather than alleviated. I think people like your Mom should be encouraged and supported in taking more responsibility and exercising more of her own judgement in developing her students.

      I think we need to develop better capabilities for schools that people like her work in to successfully support her — they need to be better at knowing how to manage parents expectations and communications so that she can focus on teaching what’s best; they need to work out better budget allocation processes so that your mom gets more (but not total) say so in how money for her students gets spent; they need better processes for identifying your mom as an excellent teacher who’s methods are working as distinct from other teachers who’s methods aren’t working as well. Those are the problems we should be spending time and money trying to address. Curriculum standardization is a diversion of attention away from the real issues and opportunities.

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        • I don’t have an especially strong vision for this as much as aversion to things I think wouldn’t work (which is typical of conservatives, I think…). But if I were to venture a proposal, I’d say we should focus on a few things:

          1. Improving capacity for innovation within our educational system. This would mean many things, among them building some R&D capacity in the education system (today less than 1/4 of 1% of ed. dollars are spent on research & development): building better local problem-solving capabilities for districts to address critical deficiencies in budgets, curricula, staffing, etc; rapid prototyping abilities to design and test new educational material; and developing infrastructure for better community engagement (eg, how to work with/manage parental expectations; how to partner with/tap into learning resources outside of the formal education system; and how to interact with political organizations that impact the education process)

          2. Establishing knowledge-sharing networks. Schools could experiment with different approaches to curriculum, to common problems, to hiring, etc. and teach/learn from one another about what works.

          3. Building/articulating clearer expectations for measuring students. We need to better agree on what a good outcome of the education system is — is it graduating from high school? getting into college? knowing certain things? having certain skills? We should have a certain amount of specificity in what a successful outcome looks like so that we can continually assess how we’re doing in achieving those outcomes. (Note that there’s a difference in specifying these outcomes — what students should be able to do — versus specifying the means that ought be used to achieve those outcomes — the curriculum.)

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          • I’ve always thought that schools do a terrible job preparing people who don’t want to go to college. We’ve become so one-mindedly focused on increasing levels of college education (by itself, no means a bad thing) that we’ve forgotten that many students don’t want to go to college.

            Of course, the other problem is that we’ve lost many of the skilled labor jobs that used to provide non-college-educated people with a decent career option.

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            • I think a decent college prep program is going to prepare kids for a life in or out of college. For skilled labor you still need some training. That’s where trade schools verses college comes in.

              I don’t like the idea of vocational training in high school because it commits the kids to a certain career trajectory at an age when many aren’t wise enough to make that kind of decision.

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              • Again, what does a decent college prep program look like when colleges are currently asking big questions about the type of skills incoming students should have? Who gets to be on the curriculum committee and how do we decide? How often does the committee turn over? How regularly do we check to make sure the curriculum is in fact the best curriculum for preparing students for college, and how exactly do we do that checking?

                Do we prepare students for a college with a rigorous, liberal core curriculum, or for colleges where students pick fairly specialized majors early on? Are we preparing students to be more critical thinkers, or to be better equipped to deal with the evolving norms of society? To what degree do we bias knowing certain facts to graduate, or the ability to interpret facts analytically, or the ability to create things? Who’s standards for these do we use? Do the students get any say in what they want to be prepared for? How about their parents?

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      • Willyboo,
        I don’t think I agree. Standardizing curriculum, IMHO, means teachers all start from teh same place, so that the general outline doesn’t become an influencing factor in performance. A standard curriculum is about the subject,not the delivery method. And given today’s complex world, and the human tendency to ignor our own history, I think its entirely appropriate.

        As to my mom, once she had 25 sets of parents demanding 25 different teaching methods in her classroom for each of their kids, she knew it was time to hang it up. That is a systemic fal, and not entirely curriculum related, but I believe that if Mom had been able to point to a national standard curriculum, and say “I appreciate your view point, but if i do that Jane will miss all these important things” it might well have backed a few people off.

        Travis:
        I agree that post-high school technical learning has fallen ove rthe last two decades, but disagree about the economic outcome you allude to. Manufacturing is still the second biggest industry in America (based on gross receipts), according to the Census Bureau’s every 5 year economic census, and last time I checked you didn’t need a Ph.D. to runn an assembly line.

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        • but I believe that if Mom had been able to point to a national standard curriculum, and say “I appreciate your view point, but if i do that Jane will miss all these important things” it might well have backed a few people off.

          Yes, well that’s the question Jean-Paul Sartre built his career on, is it? In the end the teacher’s always responsible for what gets taught, just as none of us can escape the choices we hae to make for ourselves. But that bearing that responsibility is awful. It’s too hard. It makes teachers spend too much time justifying their decisions, doesn’t it? So we all look for some authority figure somewhere — cultural conventions, God, the Central Curriculum Committee — to absorb that responsibility on our behalf so that we aren’t continually crushed under its weight.

          No, I don’t think the answer to parents not trusting teachers is to create a central authority that they have to trust instead. Instead, I think a better answer is more choice. If parents had more options for where their children study, for who teaches them and for the type of curriculum their children study, then your mom has an entirely different answer, which is to say, “If you don’t believe in what I’m teaching or the methods I use, take your children elsewhere.” Just as when you don’t like your bank, or you don’t like your pastor, or you don’t like your bartender you can find a new bank, church, or bar.

          The more explicitly we move the choices into the hands of parents, students, and teachers, the more teacher-student-parent relationship becomes the defining one. The more we can trust that students are learning as they do because they, their parents, and their teachers have specifically decided that’s what’s best for them, the stronger those relationships can be.

          Conversely, the further we push the decisions off to some third party removed from that relationship — the more the blame can get passed to a faceless entity in Washington or wherever — the more we’ve undermined the trust in the teacher-parent-student relationship. And since relationships are built on trust, well, that relationship will be less successful.

          So, how do we get to that place where parents and students and teachers have a choice in what’s learned and how? I don’t know of course. But I do know it means creating more options, not fewer. More variety to appeal to different people’s criteria and preferences and styles. A nationalized curriculum restricts the marketplace of ideas. And unrestricted markets perform better.

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  5. I actually don’t think local control is a conservative or liberal principle. It’s just what we do. I agree with E.D. that federal guidelines might be appropritate, but they should in no way be mandated. I think it would degrade local authorities’ responsibility for seeing that their kids get a sufficient education. Also, even with merely suggestive standards (assuming they don’t already exist, which they might), can you imagine the political fight involved in drawing them up? The ID debate writ large, what to focus on in history, which books must be read… Nightmare.

    And here’s the thing Mike (and I do appreciate your bringing attention back to the topic of education regardless): would you still be for a mandated curriculum of some sort if it came out of that sausage grinder looking utterly unlike what you had in mind for it? it’s always important to strike from any policy proposal any vestige of a of subconscious “myself-as-dictator” assumption in its application. I still applaud the effort.

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    • Part of what got me interested in a national curriculum, besides my experience in public education, was talking to a couple of co-workers who grew up in very rural, very economically depressed parts of my state of Kentucky. The lack of oversight in those districts, the lack of importance placed on education, etc. It was appalling. When we start talking about letting all the decision-making happen at the district level we are making kids victims of their geography.

      All we’re talking about here is certain academic landmarks that dovetail with national testing. We’re not talking about federally-provided lesson plans. I think a lot of the commentors are assuming this is a suggestion to have the federal government control every classroom at the micro level.

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      • I understand that it’s envisioned to be general. The question is whether you are proposing “teeth” of any kind. Did you have in mind E.D.’s notion of hanging some funding on compliance? At that point, the politics of determining what these markers will be get very live very fast.

        As an aside — while what you envision (districts determining specific content, feds setting general guidelines) is not currently in place at the federal level, that is exactly the structure that is in place in each state, with thew state DPI’s standing in for the feds. In that way, the content-battles get somewhat defused, as they are staged on the state level, where I think the players have a better sense of the state of play on those questions (creationism, key historical figures, canon, etc.) That does to some extent leave the children of Kansas (to take one famous example) somewhat vulnerable, but not totally vulnerable to the whims of their immediate communities. I think it’s a good balance that acknowledges the huge cultural differences across regions that are definitional to our identity as a nation, while also providing an important checkpoint for accountability on behalf of the learners.

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  6. Yay, an education post…and of course, I’m at the beach all day when there are comments to be made/responded to.

    If I can remember them all, I think have five points to respond to/make.

    1.) You lead with the benefit of interoperability that a national curriculum would provide for parents/students, easing mobility. Yet maintain that somehow this is choice and allows for rough flexibility (e.g. all students study the First and Second Continental Congresses in their 8th grade year)

    Umm…mutually exclusive much?

    If School A 8th grade, teaches their Congress unit in the fall and then School B 8th grade does that unit in the spring, that’s flexible but it certainly isn’t interoperable in the way you describe/hope. Conversely, for a parent to move a child and expect as little disruption as you suggest, the flexibility of when and what is taught would have to be thrown out the window. Moreover, to have the choice of the same curriculum at any number of the tens of thousands of public schools in this country is no choice at all.

    That’s like saying I have more choice than I could ever dream of because there’s a starbucks on every corner. Sure, the location is different but the menu is the same so it’s the exact opposite of the what the staunchest pro-school choice advocates are saying.

    2.) Many opportunities for public education to link up with corporate entities (gov, business, non-profit) currently exist and that’s only growing. I see nothing the suggest that such programs would explode under a national curriculum in a way that doesn’t already exist. In fact, if anything, I think a national curriculum would promote the creation of “official” partners rather than a more decentralized network of local, state, and national partners that schools can choose to work with.

    3.) I really don’t see how a national curriculum would make it more cost-effective for poor schools to go on field trips. A virtual field trip isn’t a field trip and I’m not entirely sure a 6th grade class would get more out of a “virtual” field trip to the Smithsonian than they would screening National Treasure and discussing the movie with their teacher.

    4.) We don’t have national testing. We probably should, but we don’t.

    5.) “removes some of the excuses teachers’ unions offer for under-performing educators” – I just don’t get this one at all. The unions say educators under-perform, if they admit it at all, because of stifling restrictions on their ability to teach in the class room and insufficient resources. Adding more requirements for teachers plays right into what the unions think and say contributes to poor performance while not addressing the second concern of insufficient resources at all.

    If anything, it seems far, far, far more likely the the teachers’ unions would torpedo national standards or barring that successfully lobby to weaken them beyond any measure of effectiveness.

    I’ve been using curriculum and standards interchangeably but I shouldn’t. What you’re describing, Mike, would be more appropriately labelled standards and not curriculum. Incidentally, we already have voluntary national standards.

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    • Kyle,

      1) The reason I said that this amplifies the notion of ‘choice’ is because parents would have more mobility to move from school to school and district to district without fear of transplant shock (to borrow an agricultural term). As I outlined above, a national curriculum would not be designed to dictate teaching methods, it would be designed to standardize the information covered. And because it would dovetail well with national testing, parents could easily compare schools and districts. As it stands now it’s sometimes like comparing apples and oranges because the two districts have such radically different curriculums.

      I guess my point is that when parents are talking about ‘choice’ they are mostly talking about being able to choose a school that obviously does better at teaching than another one. Yes, sometimes curriculum plays a factor, so adopting a national curriculum removes that variable from the equation.

      3) I disagree immensley I’m going to say my experience with public education completely contradicts your point. Public education programs are becoming better and better all the time and comparing them to a movie screening is a bit bizarre in my opinion.

      4) We should and a national curriculum would facilitate that.

      5) My notion of a national curriculum gives teachers MORE flexibility, not less. If you’ve ever seen a state curriculum, they practicallyhave every day charted out for them. I’m just proposing at most periodic benchmarks, say, every 4-6 weeks.

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      • Has this been done in any given state?

        It would allow, for example, a laid-off autoworker in Detroit to move to, say, Grand Rapids without disrupting his (or her) childrens’ education. Now, I don’t know that Michigan, in fact, did this… but are there any states that did? Can you point to a state and say “look at (state)! They did this and now children are performing better!”?

        Is this, instead, something that needs to be done nationwide for us to see exactly how good for children it is?

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      • 1.) Again, what you’re describing would be national standards…which we already have. They’re voluntary and recently 46 states agreed to voluntarily move towards more uniform, national standards. So if that’s the case, I think you’ve yet to address why – if there are so many benefits to a national standard – the states didn’t choose them until bribed by stimulus money.

        I think you’re understating the degree to which curricular differences and teaching approaches matter when it comes to parents choosing schools. Which is why I maintain that any kind of mandatory framework would result in less choice rather than more.

        3.) Eh, my point was that an entire 6th grade class sitting in a cafeteria and participating in a video conference with other students is more like watching a movie than actually visiting the Smithsonian. Moreover, my experience with assemblies and sixth grade classes leads me to believe that very little actual learning would occur under said situation.

        5.) Your response brings me back to terminology. You’re comparing apples and oranges when you compare standards to curriculum. The point of the latter IS to spell out what needs to be done and when. The point of the former is to broadly set benchmarks for student learning.

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        • 1) I would provide textbooks at the National level, set a specific schedule at the national level, set topics to be discussed at the national level. At best/worst (depending on your view) that’s a hybrid approach.

          As for how to get states to go along, it would of course be linked to federal education dollars. That’s how the federal gets states to go along with most things.

          3) I’m talking about video conferencing and an interactive experience. If it’s easier to do that as a classroom verses an assembly, so be it.

          5) It’s still ‘curriculum’. It’s just more loosely structured than under the state models.

          Maybe it would be useful for you to explain your notion of standards verses curriculum. In my opinion standards mean, “Your kids should know this at the end of the year.” Curriculum means, “This is what you will teach in this timeframe.”

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          • I think that’s a fair literal definition of the two. However, I don’t think its a fair functional definition, as standards build upon one another. So if you have an ordered set of benchmarks that must be met by years end and divide that by how many weeks are in the year (testing excepted) you’d get a rough outline of what you should be teaching and when.

            E.g. 5th grade social studies standards in CA read:

            5.5 Students explain the causes of the American Revolution.
            5.6 Students understand the course and consequences of the American Revolution.

            5.7 deals with the Constitution and so on. So again, I’m not seeing how your proposal is anything particularly different from what we have currently or for that matter flexible enough/at all for teachers and students who need less or more time for subjects.

            I can’t really speak to the success or lack thereof of video conferencing in the classroom, but with so many other funding priorities – particularly in the schools we’re talking about, I’m not sure buying the equipment needed for such a set up is a better allocation of funds than building repairs, class size reduction, and after/before school programs.

            5.) It may be more loosely structured curriculum, but surely what we’re talking about would be a national minimum curriculum level, so there’s little to support the idea that the states with more structured curriculum would abandon that.

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  7. My previous challenges to your various points aside, here are a couple of more positive thoughts to add.

    I think we could look at standards and curriculum as supporting each other and to see where differences matter and where they don’t. For example, most states have decently strong standards and defer to local schools/districts for curricular choices. It’s a framework that allows the students of a school system to all end up in the same place, theoretically, while taking different paths to get there. By and large its a system that works pretty well. Standards can be changed but rare is the statewide consensus on changes, while parents can be involved in curricular decisions made by districts and schools.

    So what could federal involvement add to the process? I think it’s perfectly legitimate to ask that a high school diploma issued in Florida means something comparable to one issued in Arkansas. Moreover, there isn’t such a thing as Maryland Math or Iowa English, so in the core subjects, at least, standards are easier to align and far less controversial.

    However, when you get into Social Science and Science, there are legitimate differences between California’s seismic activity (geology) and Alaska’s environment (biology). Moreover, as persistent as it is the North and South view the Civil War differently and the contributions of the Spanish weigh differently in the Southwest than they do in the Northeast. Finding and forcing some degree of conformity here is a dangerous and fractious path.

    So – maybe typically – I would propose a middle path. Inducement to align the states to federal standards in the core subjects and in the spirit of the 10th amendment, reserve to the states their standards in other subjects.

    It gives states and localities the flexibility they need to address their own problems, after all why force all high school juniors to take Physics, if the suburbs have students who can and would take it earlier and then take Biology junior year. Or arrange their sciences to complement other electives.

    National standards don’t have to be all encompassing, they can be tailored to issues of national consensus. I would even argue that – for Language Arts and Math – there is almost a federal obligation to ensure a uniform minimal level of proficiency. I’d say the ability to read and understand directions and perform basic calculations is just as crucial to the security of a Free State and any militia as my right to bear arms.

    All in all I think there is a role that ED can play in supporting state and local curricular choices but I don’t think it has to be all or nothing. I think, in this case at least, there’s a legit middle ground.

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    • From Kyle:

      However, when you get into Social Science and Science, there are legitimate differences between California’s seismic activity (geology) and Alaska’s environment (biology). Moreover, as persistent as it is the North and South view the Civil War differently and the contributions of the Spanish weigh differently in the Southwest than they do in the Northeast. Finding and forcing some degree of conformity here is a dangerous and fractious path.

      I’m starting to think my post was poorly written or at least needs some kind of Part II for clarification. Because several people have made a similar comment. So here is what I said above:

      “Teachers would be encouraged to find creative transitions between one landmark and another. They could augment the national-mandated curriculum with regionally specific curriculum during their elective blocks. A biology teacher could create a small learning module about the ecosystems in their state with accompanying projects, field trips, etc. A history teacher could create a module about their city’s founding or how WWII affected their town.”

      I recognize that there is a great deal of difference from region to region and of course we would want to address that diversity. My only concern would be that ‘cultural’ influences might create problems in that area, such as some states teaching ID or southern states under-emphasizing the realities of slavery.

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      • There’s a point at which this becomes so broad as to not be a useful guideline.

        A super-duper majority agrees that kids need to learn the three Rs, a little bit of science, and a little bit of history.

        How would it be possible for the curriculae to both be uniform enough to allow a family to move from Bangor to Atlanta, or from Richmond to San Francisco without impact on the kids while allowing as much freedom as you are saying, of course!, the teachers ought to have?

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      • Reading your response to the regional differences aspect, maybe this is just me, but I don’t see how that’s any different from what we have currently?

        Currently all of the states have standards and curricular review and I think allowing the democratic process to work itself out that way allows parents and professionals more say in making sure that ID isn’t taught in their schools than at the national level where institutional lobbyists have far more sway and education is far less of a governmental priority. Finally, who decides what the appropriate level of emphasis is on slavery? After all doesn’t South Carolina have more of a need to discuss it than say Montana? Montana which might need to spend that time on say Native American history.

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  8. (Generic Disclaimer: Excellent, thoughtful post. If it were not, I certainly would not be generating (multiple!) questions that I would like to see answers for.)

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