What is the role of standardized curriculum?


One of the questions that I have been struggling with over the past year in terms of thinking about our schools is —

— what is the role of a standardized curriculum in preparing our children to be good global citizens, responsible and compassionate adults, adept and ethical workers, curious and knowledgeable life-long learners?

A standardized curriculum has different layers: there are the standards that the state sets that identify specific content and skills that children are expected to have acquired by a certain grade: fractions in 4th-5th grade, Minnesota history in 6th grade, etc. At the local level, a standardized curriculum takes on an even more specific meaning in that curriculum is set and resources are purchased at the district level. Although this sort of centralized curriculum and instruction piece has not been followed well over the past few years, it has been policy to a certain extent. The clearest articulation of an invigorated centralized CI program is the recent adoption of the math curriculum for HS and the current review going on for the K8 adoption. It is also clear that the Green administration will be more aggressive in setting a central curriculum with the standard professional respect of teachers and their need for a certain amount of flexibility, autonomy and creativity.

What I am curious about is hearing from other parents about whether or not you value a centralized curriculum?

What I see as the pros of a centralized curriculum:

1) Curriculum development is very costly. Curriculum development that is research-based is costly and somewhat rare. And, therefore, there are not that many choices of quality textbooks and supporting materials available. If one is deemed to be better than the rest then there should be some standardization.

2) Centralized curriculum allows for continuity across schools and across grades as teachers will know what children were supposed to cover in elementary when they hit middle school, for instance. This standardization also provides a means of holding people accountable for teaching as all involved should – presumably – share some basics about how the scope and sequence should be followed.

3) Centralized curriculum allows the district to achieve some financial pull with publishers because of bulk purchasing. Although districts do not use their power of the purse aggressively enough, this is one very important factor.

4) District offices can do some real work in terms of parent involvement on curricular issues if there is a centralized curriculum. Parent involvement is a lot of work and if there were pieces that could be done centrally that would be a benefit.

5) There is the Ed Hirsch argument that there is a body of common knowledge that everyone needs to know in order to be deemed literate in a broader sense than just being able to read. For instance, one would hope that every child with a high school degree would be able to describe why the US has three branches of government, what they are, and how the current system of checks and balances is working. Whether or not they remember that James Madison was the chief architect of our constitutional system is less important than that they understand his broader ideas. But each student could not escape hearing about James Madison if they were to read and understand the history of the US Constitution and, thus, understand the separation of powers … so, at least, recognizing Madison as a founding father is important. And, thus, Hirsch’s argument.

The cons of a centralized curriculum:

1) Teachers must be passionate about what they teach in order to be effective. They need to be in control of their material and they must have a clear sense of how children will learn about math or history through their use of that material. To force a curriculum on a teacher is very difficult and I am not sure that this ends up to be in the best interest of anybody: I think this is what is at the heart of the math wars. Some people are more right brain and some are more left brain and some curriculum fits better with some learning styles than others. Can we afford this diversity? Can we afford not to afford this diversity?

2) The benefits of a centralized curriculum can only be achieved in some ways if the benefits are cashed in on. The economies of scale that can be achieved through a centralized curriculum in terms of the owner of the purse, parent involvement, professional development are meaningless if they are not realized. Does the district office have the capacity to realize these gains? Given that we have classroom-only textbooks and a non-existent parent-portal, I don’t think we can say that we do. (I am sure there are more but I am running out of the time that I have allotted myself for this post.)

A note: I have not discussed academic freedom here not because I think it’s a non-issue but I think such a discussion could end up in the culture wars trash bin, just where the math wars lead us. I think that there are broader, more urgent concerns to address at this point. I also, ultimately, do think that a well-taught US government class will give most students the tools they need to fight most incursions on personal liberty. Albeit courses in comparative economics and comparative religions would also help, but that’s a post for another day.

Anyway, I’m interested in what people think about a standardized curriculum. And – as we are going to have one in MPS – what do we need to do to get the most bang for our buck?

For more on education, go to:

Carla’s blog and
the Minneapolis education forum.