One Nation, Indivisible, With Education For All

What exactly are the pros and cons of a national curriculum? Here is the opinion of one academic. In short, I believe that a national curriculum is a great necessity; however, I do not think it will ever exist.

Pros:

(1) Consistency. In this day and age, most school-children switch states at some point in their pre-college lives; however, for many that becomes a deadly move, academically speaking. Why should a move from Connecticut to Georgia grossly impact the future academic performance of an individual student? It shouldn’t. Why should a student end up having to read “The Giver” three times in five years? He shouldn’t. Having a common core among all states would eliminate this problem completely. No ifs, ands, or buts.

(2) Isn’t the goal the same? Students leave high school with one of two goals: (1) go to college (2) go into some kind of trade work. I don’t know much about option (2), but for option (1) things are pretty standardized: you either take the SAT or the ACT (i.e., ONE TEST), you write an essay, and you pray. Hell, many colleges are now using a common application. If the requirements for entry into higher education are all standardized and common, why shouldn’t the expectations and requirements of the pre-higher-education institutions be common and standardized?

(3) It may actually work. Every country that at least is currently out-math-ing the United States has a common core–i.e., no state-by-state requirements, just national ones. Perhaps we should take a suggestion from our competition.

Why a common curriculum will never happen:

(1) Creation of curriculum. Most of what is touted in colleges of education nowadays is “discovery learning is great,” and “students need to develop critical thinking skills” (though I have never seen ‘critical thinking skill’ defined in any article, textbook, or class I have taken). Coming up with a list of common “facts” to know, and common teaching methods and common assessment methods is going to necessarily go against those ideals. There’s something even more basic that will be at odds, though: the more specific a list of topics becomes the more opposition that list will inevitably face. The only real attempt–prior to the Common Core (which already is “failing”)–at a national curriculum were the NCTM standards, published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 41 out of 50 states adapted their state math-standards to the NCTM standards; however, these standards are so vague they cannot be of any value to any education. It is the vagueness, however, that makes these “standards” so long-lasting (from an education perspective).

(2) More mediocrity. This is presuming that a consensus as to what should be covered at what grade and in what way can be reached. My theory is that the curriculum will be made to satisfy the “mythical mean”, the non-existant “average” student. Surely we cannot set the curriculum to fit the above-average student–too many kids will struggle and too many teachers will give up. Of course teaching to an “average” student may help the struggling students and struggling states, but what about the states already excelling? By putting an emphasis on a LOWER standard, there will be fewer and fewer “smart” kids and more and more “mediocre” kids. Essentially, by teaching to the “non-existant norm,” the smart kids will get dumber and the dumber kids will only MAYBE get smarter.

(3) Enforcement. One of the biggest reasons why the NCTM standards are still so “popular” and the Common Core already is not popular involves assessment and enforcement. That is, all the NCTM did was “suggest”; there were no consequences for failure to implement their recommended curriculum in their recommended ways. This leads to the general question of how are given curricula enforced? In this country the answer is simple: standardized tests. The emphasis of testing is only going to become more great should a common curriculum be enforced. And until a paradigm shift occurs in the thoughts of Americans, this is not going to work. Teachers are going to just teach to tests; there will be cheating scandals; students will only be circling answers without understanding why the answer is correct. Now, maybe we could get around this by writing better tests; because when it comes down to it, multiple-choice tests result from LAZINESS. They are easy to administer and easy to grade; moreover, kids can easily be coached into taking a multiple choice test, turning the entire assessment into a probability game (that’s how Kaplan and Barron have made their SAT-prep money, at least…). But using any format beyond multiple-choice requires (1) intense subject knowledge of the grader (2) a LOT of time. Not happening any time soon. And if phrases like “student should be able to communicate mathematics” and “students should acquire critical thinking skills,” multiple-choice tests are not going to accurately assess the given curriculum.

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