March Madness and a Common Curriculum

Imagine a March Madness in which the coaches, umpires, parents and players gathered at the appointed regional stadiums at the appointed times, argued about the rules of the game for a couple of weeks and then went home. Same thing the following year. No games ever got played. No doubt, ratings would slump. But no one would be kidded: it's not basketball unless you play it.

It's not much of an exaggeration to say this is the state of American education: we keep talking about playing the game, how to score it, what size the ball should be, the dimensions of the court, the height of the basket, the uniform colors of the referees -- but we don't play the game. We don't put it all together and tell the kids, go play your hearts out. Not really. Not on a national tournament, not in a way that really measures what kids know at the highest levels. Our current public education system is like a collection of pick-up games. We have no curriculum.

If you are not a basketball fan and prefer another metaphor, doing education without a curriculum is like building a house without the lumber. John Merrow has an excellent essay about house building and education. Or, there's the body image. As Judy Zimny of ASCD told education writers at a recent conference on teacher quality at the Carnegie Corporation, curriculum is "the backbone" of the educational process. Okay, you jellyfish, stand up!

No doubt we have made great strides in moving our schools toward more academic rigor -- and my colleagues at the Thomas Fordham Institute have provided a wonderful service to our states by holding a high-beam flashlight on state learning standards. They must continue to do so. But when do we get to the meat? Where, as the old TV commercial had it, is the beef?

The good news is that we have also begun to overcome our fears of curriculum. The Albert Shanker Institute, named after the great teacher and labor leader, recently published a manifesto, signed by hundreds of policymakers, academics, labor leaders and educators, including Chester Finn, Jr. of Fordham, calling for a "coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the content knowledge and skills that all students are expected to learn, over time, in a thoughtful progression across the grades." And to make it clear they really want to start playing ball, they say, "we do not mean performance standards, textbook offerings, daily lesson plans, or rigid pedagogical prescriptions."

But we have some bad news this week, as Catherine Gewertz reports in Education Week that the forces of localism are conspiring with those whose ideas of knowledge relegate facts and content to a bleacher seat in the arena. Well, perhaps it's not a conspiracy, but it is an unfortunate coincidence.

"Calls for shared curriculum for the common standards have triggered renewed debates about who decides what students learn, and even about varied meanings of the word "curriculum," adding layers of complexity to the job of translating the broad learning goals into classroom teaching," writes Gewertz. "Scholars, bloggers, and activists are exchanging fire about whether shared curriculum means lessons dictated from afar. They're worrying that the public could lose a voice in shaping what children learn, and asking whether the federal government is overstepping by funding curriculum development."

No doubt, as Gewertz demonstrates in this must-read summary of the debate, there is confusion about what a curriculum is, but it is too often a willed ignorance. And what gets lost in this kind of food fight is the enormous value of a rigorous, aligned and content-rich course of study, whether it's national, state or local. Too many of the critics of a national curriculum, even a voluntary one, don't like any kind of curriculum. The myths of teacher autonomy and child-centered learning -- as they pertain to curriculum not pedagogy or instructional methods -- have combined in a death-grip on our school's academic jugular. We need to keep our eyes on the prize and not allow the game to be held hostage by rules-writing teams.

And here, I must give the last word to Chester Finn:
"For Pete's sake, people, this is an effort to help teachers do a better job of getting their pupils to a higher standard of achievement in English and math, not to repeal local control, eliminate autonomy and choice, or impose the federal government on state and local education agencies."

Let's let the kids play ball. But could someone please tell the NCAA that it's April.