Where Al Shanker Stood: Common Content

The recent, breathless opposition to the idea of common curricular content led us to reflect on just how long educators have been asking for this practical tool for better schooling - only to be rebuffed by those more interested in playing politics. It’s been generations. More than 20 years ago, Al Shanker waded into the fray. The following, entitled “An American Revolution in Education: Developing a Common Core," was published by Al in his weekly Where We Stand column on Feb. 24, 1991.

If anyone had talked about a common curriculum for US schools a few years ago, people would have said he was crazy. Sure, that's the way they do it in most other industrialized countries; and, sure, their students achieve at a much higher level than ours. But the education system in those countries are under the control of their central governments, and the idea of our federal government dictating what children learn in schools was out of the question. Now, we have begun to understand the price we pay for our fragmented curriculum. We've also begun to find ways of building a common curriculum in a typically American way — through voluntary effort rather than government intervention.

Why should we be so eager for a common curriculum? Exactly what difference does it make in an education system — and, ultimately in what children learn?

A common curriculum means that there is agreement about what students ought to know and be able to do and, often, about the age or grade at which they should be able to accomplish these goals. So, at any given time, an educator could tell you, "Here is what we expect of youngsters in mathematics or biology or composition."

In most countries with a common curriculum, linkage of curriculum, assessment and teacher education is tight. Once you have a curriculum on which everyone agrees, you have an answer to the question of how to train teachers: They have to be able to teach the common curriculum. And you have an answer to the question about the level of understanding and skill student assessments should call for because you can base assessments on the common curriculum.

In the US, we have no such agreement about curriculum — and there is little connection between what students are supposed to learn, the knowledge on which they are assessed, and what we expect our teachers to know. Each of our 15,000 school districts and 50 states has some rights in establishing curriculum. (And this in a nation where people move more often than in any other country in the world.)

In most countries with a national curriculum, tests usually consist of writing essays or solving problems based on what the students are supposed to know. And when youngsters, with the help of their teachers, prepare for these tests by answering questions that were on previous tests, it's a worthwhile educational experience. Writing an essay on the causes of World War I or presenting the arguments for and against imperialism is a good exercise in learning substance and in learning how to organize your thoughts. And the quality of the essay really shows how well the student has mastered the material.

In the US, we use multiple-choice tests to test little bits of knowledge that are not directly related to the curriculum. (In fact, because curriculums vary by state or even school district, companies that design standardized, multiple-choice tests pride themselves on divorcing their tests from curriculum.) Since the tests are supposed to be a surprise, going over questions from previous tests is almost like cheating. It's also a waste of time. Whatever little bits of information the kids do learn have no context, so they'll be forgotten in a hurry. And a person looking at the test results will have no idea what they represent in terms of what the students know or can do.

Another disadvantage of not having a common curriculum is that we don't have any agreement on what teachers need to know. Colleges and universities can't train teachers on the basis of the curriculum they are going to teach, or assess them on how well they know it, because their students will end up teaching in many different school districts and many different states. What these students get instead are abstract courses that most teachers say were not even helpful in teaching them how to teach.

Is it possible to get the benefits of a common curriculum that connects what we expect our students to know with assessment and teacher training without turning over the control of our schools to the federal government? In fact, there are signs that we are beginning to develop a common curriculum through voluntary efforts outside the government.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has already put together a national curriculum framework for mathematics that has won widespread support, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science is far along on its Project 2061, which will do the same for science.  Teachers and scholars in each field need to follow the lead of these groups and get together to define, with input from the public, what their students ought to know and be able to do.  This does not mean devising a single curriculum that prescribes what everybody will learn and how.  It means setting standards and context frameworks that can be adapted by states, districts, schools and teachers to suit their needs.

This process is just beginning, but it looks promising. If it succeeds, we'll have the strength of a common curriculum without rendering the freedom to make important choices on the state and local levels. And we'll have a revolutionary development in American education carried out in a uniquely American way — through voluntary efforts.