Good standards aren’t prescriptive, but they’re not agnostic, either

In the debate over Common Core, there may be only one certainty: Both advocates and opponents spend inordinate amounts of time trying to undermine their opponents by pointing to the perceived underhanded and manipulative actions of their foes. The hope, I suppose, is that if you can undermine the credibility of your opponents, you can win the day—facts be damned.

Unfortunately, by trying to make the conversation about intentions rather than about facts, important debates can be easily overlooked or obscured.

Take Jay Greene’s latest blog post, “Fordham and CC Backers Need To Get Their Stories Straight.” In it, Greene argues that we at Fordham were being inconsistent—perhaps even disingenuous—in our description of what Common Core standards are and are not. On the one hand, Greene argues, we’ve said that Common Core do not prescribe curriculum. But, he goes on,

“[those were] the promises the Fordham folks made when they were courting us on adopting Common Core, but now that we’re married, they’ve changed their tune … No longer do they bring us flowers, write love-poems, or assure us that Common Core in no way dictates how schools should teach or what they should teach—their pedagogy and curriculum.”

It's an odd line of argument, particularly given the simple and straightforward position Fordham has taken on this subject from before the existence of the Common Core. In short, we have always said that the only way for rigorous standards to lead to higher achievement is for state and local districts to align local curriculum and instruction to the standards and assessments. In our 2010 report The State of State Standards—and the Common Core—in 2010, we made this point explicitly, arguing that standards should

…guide state assessments and accountability systems; inform teacher preparation, licensure, and professional development; and give shape to curricula, textbooks, software programs, and more.

But more than that, the thinly veiled attack on our motives obscures a larger and far more important question. Namely, is the difference between standards and curriculum merely semantics?

The answer, like most things in the complicated world of the Common Core, is complicated. No, the difference between standards and curriculum is not merely semantics, nor is there a clear wall of separation between the two. That’s exactly why understanding the difference between the two has important implications that are important for policymakers, teachers, and parents to understand.

From our perspective, in order to understand the difference between setting standards and “mandating curriculum,” it’s important to establish what we at Fordham mean by standards. In short, as we’ve clarified in just about every standards report we’ve published, standards should set the target—in simple terms, they should define what students should know and be able to do by the end of each grade, K through 12.

Local leaders—teachers, principals, school boards, etc.—are then charged with selecting or developing curricula and instructional strategies aimed at helping students meet those targets. By curricula, we mean selecting the programs, setting the scope and sequence, and determining the instructional strategies that teachers will use to help students meet the expectations.

With any set of standards, there are always any number of different paths a teacher could take as she works to help her students master the knowledge and skills they need. While it is true that a teacher in a standards environment would have a difficult time justifying teaching hieroglyphics instead of English (or, in a less dramatic way, justifying the use of a program that allows students to demonstrate mastery of basic math facts only with the use of a calculator)—the standards do provide some shape to curriculum and instruction, as we’ve have long acknowledged—local leaders have pretty broad flexibility.

There are many things that impact and influence school- and district-level curriculum and instruction. Schools and teachers might choose different programs depending on the strengths and struggles of their students, depending on their own instructional philosophy or the instructional philosophy of the school or district, depending on class size, depending on resource availability, and on. That is to say, even when standards are set by the state, there are very real and very important decisions that educators have to make to ensure that they best meet the needs of the students they serve.

In the case of the Common Core, the standards say, for instance, that fourth-grade students should “determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text” and that second graders should “estimate lengths using units of inches, feet, centimeters, and meters.”

These are outcomes—outcomes that demonstrate no preference for traditional pedagogy over constructivism, even if we at Fordham have our own preferences. They are outcomes that do not indicate how long you spend on particular topics, what order they should be taught, and on. Nor do the standards provide sample practice items or guidance about how to introduce or reinforce the concepts and content behind these expectations.

And so, when we say that Common Core do not prescribe curriculum, we mean very simply that those decisions—decisions about what books will be taught, about what writing assignments students will do, about how to introduce concepts, about how to build knowledge, about whether to use discovery learning or traditional methods—are made by local leaders and teachers.

To put an even finer point on it: In English language arts, the Common Core literacy standards encourage regular practice with appropriately complex texts. That doesn’t even begin to describe how a teacher might organize planning and instruction to meet that goal. The Common Core do not give grade-specific required readings, nor do they explain how you would teach a particular book (using small-group or whole-group instruction, and on).

On the math side, the Common Core asks all students to demonstrate fluency with basic math facts. They do not say how best to do that. A curriculum or program—like Saxon or Singapore Math—goes much, much further. It prescribes the sequence of material, it provides sample questions and practice material, it often even gives sample instructional scripts to help teachers teach specific content. More than that, it’s because the decision to adopt or use particular resources or programs is made at the local level, schools are free to use programs that we may think are poorly conceived or misaligned to the Common Core. We wish they wouldn’t, but wishes and hopes do not mandates make.

Of course, it is possible to define “curriculum” differently. If your definition of “curriculum” is indistinguishable from your definition of “standards,” then I suppose adopting any set of state standards is tantamount to prescribing a state curriculum. However, if you are drawing the distinction between setting a target versus charting the course, than the difference between the two is more than mere semantics.

It may not be flowers but hopefully Jay will find some pleasure in our bouquet of facts. 

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