The Common Core, part 1: Standards vs. Curriculum

I’ve been reading and hearing a lot of discussion recently about the new common academic standards that most states are adopting; much of the discussion appears to be based on misunderstanding. I try to avoid blogging about politics here— this blog is mostly about education and music, plus too much information about my personal life— but sometimes education and politics cross paths so I’m going to take a look at the education and politics of the Common Core. I’ll try to be fair, and if you disagree with what I say I’d be happy to hear from you. If your comments are germane, articulate, and concise I will include them.

First, we need be clear about the difference between standards and curriculum. When we adopt standards in education we are agreeing upon an organized list of what we expect our students to know, understand, and be able to do at each grade level for each subject. For example, here is a PDF of the standards for Math we used in California before the Common Core came along. You don’t have to read the whole thing, but if you scroll down through it (the actual standards begin about page 9) you’ll see that for each grade level there is a clear, concise list of skills the students are expected to master.

Please note that there is little or no guidance about how to teach the skills described. This is by intent: standards are supposed to tell us WHAT to teach, not HOW to teach them. We want teachers, content providers (including this web site), and local administrators to be free to bring their creativity, judgement, and passion to the task of educating their students. The whole realm of how we teach is what we call curriculum. Textbooks, novels, educational videos, homework assignments, school gardens, science fairs, and the educational music on this site are all different kinds of curriculum.

So, for purposes of this discussion: standards are a list of what the kids need to know/do/understand at each grade level for each subject. Curriculum is all the stuff we do to help them get there.

Now I will give you my opinion: there are some very good reasons for having standards. When I started teaching third grade in Los Angeles in 1993, California had officially adopted standards but they were not being applied with any consistency, at least not where I was teaching. So there I was with my teaching credential and no real guidance about what to teach my students. It was clear that the three second grade teachers sending kids to me each had their own opinions. Kids from one second grade class came to me for third grade knowing how to write a simple paragraph while the others had never heard of a paragraph. Kids from another teacher had done a lot of work on multiplication, but the others had never touched the stuff. All three teachers were good at what they did, but they had three different visions of what a successful second grader should be able to do. This meant that in third grade I had to either teach lessons that were a waste of time for students who knew this stuff or hurry through skills and leave some students behind. Then I asked the fourth grade teachers what they wanted me to teach the kids before they got to fourth grade; again, each of them came up with different answers. Multiply this problem by every subject we teach and you can imagine how difficult it was for me to plan good lessons.

Then came the parent conferences. Imagine being a new teacher and telling a parent that their kid needs to repeat third grade… based on your five whole months of professional experience. Clear written standards give you something more than just a gut feeling about whether a student is ready to move on or not.

Standardized testing was another issue. You want to evaluate my teaching based on my students’ test scores? Okay, but will you please tell me what sort of things you’re going to ask my students to do? Yeah, that would help me plan my year, thanks.

So here’s what I think: using academic standards makes our schools better. Just as basketball players will perform better once they all agree that the way to win is to PUT THIS BALL INTO THAT HOOP OVER THERE, standards help us succeed by defining what success looks like. If you don’t think we are doing a good enough job in education in the United States then I agree with you, but before we can make a realistic plan for improving things we first need to agree on exactly what we want our schools to do.

Do standards solve every problem in our schools? Of course not. We have some serious issues to deal with (did you know Vietnam just passed the U.S. in math scores?), and maybe we’ll get into some of them here another day. But if you think your kid has too much math homework or too little; if you don’t like the particular books your child has been told to read; or if you think your kid’s social studies assignment has socialist/anarchist/statist/fundamentalist/atheist overtones; then you want to discuss curriculum, not standards.

Which brings us to the Common Core. Let’s save that can of worms for next week.

Full disclosure: Griffin Education Solutions has no official position on anything except that learning should be fun; opinions expressed in this blog are mine alone and are based on my experience from 18 years of full-time teaching in grades K-5, 12 years as a dad and volunteer at a public school, and as a continuing mathletics coach and educational writer/performer. If your opinion differs from mine, I am eager to hear from you.