The Common Core Conflation Syndrome: Standards & Curriculum

As a veteran reporter I have always believed that facts counted; as a writer, that words mattered. Then I was introduced to education policy. And in the fifteen-plus years I have been writing about it, I have learned that facts and words often inhabit a netherworld of political self interest and intellectual delusion.  Myths and misreading abound; some of them more willful than others.

This problem is no more apparent than in the current debate about the Common Core State Standards. “Common Core: The Rorschach Test of Education Policy” writes one teacher blogger.  The psychological society meets the education policy world.

At the recent launch event for the CUNY Institute for Education Policy, David Coleman, now known as the “architect” of the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards, was asked by a member of the audience why a teacher, who cited the Common Core standards emphasis on “informational texts,” would claim that she was told to “put away her literature books and photocopy microwave instructions” for her eighth-grade students. (See here or , at 1:35:25).  Coleman was polite in his reply.  “The ability to misread is widespread in our society,” he said.  “But in terms of what is in the Core Standards they could not be more rigorous or clear. The demand is to read high quality fiction and high quality literary nonfiction…. All the exemplars are listed and you can look at them.”

This is a scary start for what Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus described in last Sunday’s New York Times as perhaps “the most far-reaching experiment in American educational history.”

And though Hacker and Dreifus, a former Queens College political science professor (and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books) and a veteran science reporter and editor, respectively, turn in what appears to be a useful essay about the challenges ahead for the CCSS, Peter Cunningham, a former assistant secretary of education, says that Hacker and Dreifus themselves “contribute greatly to the confusion and misinformation surrounding the issue of learning standards.”

Is it Rorschach or Picasso?

Cunningham lists a number of problems with the Hacker and Dreifus report – suggestions that most of the CCSS appeal is uniformity not “richness and rigor,” that the Tea Party objects to CC’s “radical curriculum,” that the standards will contribute to the dropout problem, that it confuses assessments and accountability, that the “state standards” are really federal standards in disguise, that the folks who concocted the standards are part of “an invisible empire,” a not-so-sly reference to the Ku Klux Klan.

It’s a long list.  But the most important of the Hacker and Dreifus misperceptions may very well be hidden in Cunningham’s “radical curriculum” complaint; not the first word of the phrase but the second. In fact, there is no Common Core curriculum, radical or otherwise. Words matter. The Times essay, Cunningham says, “conflates standards, which are agreed-upon expectations for what children should know in certain subjects by certain ages, with curricula, which are the materials and the approaches that teachers use to help kids learn.”  There is no such thing as a “radical curriculum” because there is no such thing as a common core curriculum.

This is not a minor point, in part because it is such an obvious mistake.  As Lisa Hansel of the Core Knowledge Foundation notes in the first sentence of her recent Education Week commentary, “The Common Core Needs a Common Curriculum,” the CCSS themselves clearly warn against this conflation (here): “[W]hile the standards make references to some particular forms of content, … they do not … enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.” [Emphasis added.]

Indeed, the CCSS in English Language Arts do emphasize “informational texts,” do provide recommendations of the kinds of texts that should be read, and are a cut above most state standards on the rigor and content front. But they are not a curriculum.

It is not a small distinction, since standards provide goals and a curriculum provides the day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year road map for reaching those goals. As Cunningham says, “The standard is the bar that students must jump over to be competitive. The curriculum is the training program coaches use to help students get over the bar.” If we don’t understand that distinction, we encourage all kinds of mischief in what is so far a laudable effort to improve the chances of American students to succeed in the new world economy.  Without a curriculum we send students willy-nilly, untutored and unpracticed, toward the bar; it won’t matter how high it is.

Unfortunately, it’s not the first time that the Times has made the conflation mistake. In an editorial barely a week earlier, called “Caution and the Common Core,” the newspaper of record refers to curriculum four times, using the term as if it were the same as “standards.” In three of the four mentions it refers to “the new curriculum,” even though no such curriculum has been written and despite the fact that the CCSS explicitly state that the standards “must” be “complemented” by a curriculum. This is more than a quibble; it’s a serious factual error, with pedagogical and political implications.

Pedagogically, if states and districts don’t write a curriculum, as CCSS recommends, they fail to provide students the necessary “training program” to achieve the goals the standards set.

Politically, the failure to appreciate the difference between standards and curriculum is a ticking time bomb. As my colleague at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute Terry Ryan noted in an email he recently sent me, “This issue of conflating standards and curriculum is so prevalent it could kill the Common Core standards. We see it all the time here [in Ohio, where Terry is Vice President for TBFI Programs & Policy], in newspapers and among lawmakers and it matters big time because curricular decisions are statutorily the responsibility of districts and confusion around this raises all kinds of issues for local control Republicans.”

Thus, from both a pedagogical and political point of view, it is crucial to keep the distinction between standards and curriculum clean and clear. But, most importantly, we need to try as hard as we can to get the facts straight.

-Peter Meyer

This first appeared on IdeaLab, the blog of the CUNY Institute for Education Policy.

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