On Standardized Curriculum

Curriculum (what teachers are supposed to teach) is an interesting part of school design. Ostensibly, there are things that each seventh-grade student (for example) should know, but it is very difficult to define “what students should know” outside of the context of school. The statement, “the book is written at and eight grade reading level” is best interpreted as “most students who are about 14 years old can understand this book.” Curriculum is also divided into subjects that are artificial as well. In the real world, one encounters problems that necessitate understanding many concepts that are treated in isolation in schools. 

In the last few years of the 20th century, professional organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) began publishing “standards” which were their version of what comprises appropriate curriculum. In the decades since, the number of organizations publishing standards has increased to the point where teachers cannot reasonably expect to teach all of them. Since about 2010, the Common Core State Standards have been widely (although not universally adopted) across the United States. Exactly what is meant by “adopted by” varies. In general, adoption means the state educational agency has mandated schools administer tests they specify, and the test is aligned with the Common Core State Standards.  

When this book was drafted in early 2022, the Common Core State Standards had fallen out of favor (which is the fate of every such initiative). While education leaders where not referring to the Common Core to the degree they had a decade earlier, the testing mandates, which had begun under the No Child Left Behind initiative around 2000 and had continued as that law was replaced were still in place.  No Child Left Behind and the Common Core State Standards illustrate how education has become politicized in the United States, and many decisions and actions are made to achieve goals that are not necessarily aligned with the needs of learners.  

Some educators have criticized all aspects of standards-based education. They question: 

  • Do the standards accurately reflect what students should learn? It has been pointed out that employers and higher education are more concerned about graduates “soft skills” than they are about the knowledge of graduates, yet standards-based initiatives tend to focus on content. 
  • Do the tests accurately measure what they claim? Because the tests are written and administered by publishers who were awarded contracts by departments of education in states, they are propriety, so independent review of them cannot be undertaken to verify the validity and reliability of them. 
  • Do the tests predict “success?” The purpose of many tests is to predict the degree to which students will be successful (whatever that means) once they graduate. “Career and college ready” was the mantra of the Common Core State Standards initiatives, but that is a weak concept, and the claims were made even before graduates were in their careers or college.   

The exact standards that teachers are expected to follow when designing their courses and lessons varies depending on the priorities of the school leaders, the expectations of local agencies, and other factors. In many cases, the priorities change. For example, a series of low scores on math assessments may lead to a renewed focus on teaching math. In other cases, high-profile public events will lead to demands that certain curriculum areas be given higher priority.