Category Archives: Curriculum

Who narrowed the curriculum?

There’s another problem that may be looming in the move across the country for states to adopt to a common set of standards: a narrowing of the curriculum. If you don’t like No Child Left Behind, you should probably not like the common core, which for now, has just mathematics and language arts:

The big problems are that focusing on just two subjects threatens to narrow the curriculum, while dodging essential reading threatens to hollow it out. Do more, though, and Americans might have something of substance to grab onto.

Coming next, perhaps: a national curriculum and national tests. Those may in the abstract be benign ideas. But I’m afraid they would further politicize education, which needs less interference from politicians, more choices for parents, and more freedom for teachers and school leaders.


Massachusetts Think Tank: National Standards Dumb Down Our Own

Are national standards a good thing? Perhaps, though there are many problems with them, as I’ve explained in recent days.

Here’s one other problem I haven’t mentioned: National standards may in some cases be inferior to home-grown, state standards.

Here, for example, is a press release from the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, which has just released a report comparing Massachusetts standards with those of the common core:

Even after multiple drafts, Common Core’s final English language arts (ELA) and mathematics standards don’t compare favorably with those in California and what was until recently in place in Massachusetts, according to a review published jointly by the Pacific Research Institute and Pioneer Institute.

In Common Core’s Standards Still Don’t Make the Grade: Why California and Massachusetts Must Retain Control Over Their Academic Destinies, University of Arkansas Professor Sandra Stotsky and Ze’ev Wurman, a Silicon Valley executive active in developing California’s standards and assessments during the mid-1990s, write that Common Core’s mathematics standards don’t progress rapidly enough to prepare students to take Algebra I, the key to higher math study, by eighth grade.

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to adopt Common Core’s standards on July 21st; California is still considering the national standards.

“Common Core has made strides compared with its earlier drafts,” said Pioneer Institute Executive Director JimStergios. “Its final standards compare favorably with those in a number of states. But Massachusetts is not racing to the top nationally; we’re already there. Adopting the national standards last week slows us in the real competition — the one between Massachusetts and countries with the world’s best education systems.”

“The analyses presented in this White Paper should raise questions about the conclusions drawn by other reviewing organizations—to the effect that Common Core’s standards provide a curriculum framework in mathematics and English language arts that is at least as strong as or stronger than what is provided by the California and Massachusetts standards,” said Lance Izumi, Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

Last year, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers agreed to sponsor the Common Core State Standards Initiative and, with encouragement from the United States Department of Education (USDE) and support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop common mathematics and ELA standards that states could voluntarily adopt. USDE subsequently included adoption of the standards among the criteria for states vying to win federal “Race to the Top” education grant funding.

Common Core has developed both “college- and career-readiness standards” for national high school tests that would assess student preparedness for college-level work, and K-12 math and ELA grade-level standards that are the grade-by-grade translation of the college- and career-readiness standards.

The authors find the gulf between Common Core’s standards and Massachusetts’ or California’s own standards particularly large in the following areas:

  • › Coherent grade-by-grade progressions through high school in both mathematics and English
  • › Expectations embodied in the content of Common Core’s standards for Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II that are less demanding than the standards in California and Massachusetts and reflect a less rigorous definition of “college readiness”
  • › Common Core’s replacement of the traditional Euclidean foundations of geometry with an experimental approach to the study of middle and high school geometry that has neither been widely used elsewhere in the world nor considered effective where it has been tried
  • › Common Core’s aim to teach Algebra I only in high school, at least one year behind the recommendation of the National Mathematics Panel and current practice in both California and our nation’s major international competitors
  • › Specificity of literary cultural content in high school English

Adopting Common Core’s standards will have an expensive ripple effect, requiring new professional development for teachers and textbooks be aligned with the new standards.

“Massachusetts taxpayers have spent nearly $100 billion on school reform since 1993. As a result of investing the money wisely, our students now lead the nation and are internationally competitive,” said Stergios. “But the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education put short-term gain ahead of kids when it voted to ditch our nation-leading academic standards for weaker standards in pursuit of a one-time $250 million federal grant.”

Adopting Common Core’s standards also provides an opening for those who have long sought weaker teacher licensure tests, such as the many Massachusetts teacher educators and union members who advocate for replacing the Commonwealth’s teacher licensure tests with off-the-shelf PRAXIS tests.

Myself, I’m skeptical of efforts to create standards in the political world. But if we are to have school standards created through politics, it’s better to let states take the lead. Harmonizing standards across states runs the risk of spreading mistakes across the nation rather than confining them to one state. Imagine, for example, if a whole-language emphasis, to the exclusion of phonics, had not been contained to California.

You can always get this or that person, meanwhile, to say that the proposed common core standards are superior to those currently in place in most states. In fact, the Thomas Fordham Institute says such a thing. But government targets and goals are subject to revision (just think back to how the KBOE adjusted its timetable for meeting the requirements of No Child Left Behind, to start with). There’s nothing to say that a “good” set of standards today won’t in time become weak or otherwise objectionable.

Should one set of politically-driven standards prevail?

The Commonwealth Foundation, a Pennsylvania-focused group, refutes two notions in a recent blog post: first, that only “libertarian nut-jobs” oppose national standards, and second, that conservatives should embrace national standards.

The whole piece takes only a few words to make its points, so it’s worth a read. But here’s an excerpt: “If there has been ‘little outcry’, is probably because that few voters know this is happening. The ‘Common Core Standards’ was buried in the stimulus legislation, and has since been overshadowed by health care, Wall Street ‘reform,’ unemployment benefits extensions, Cap & Trade, and other policy matters.”

Will National Standards Improve Education?

Writing at the New York Times, Neal McCluskey asks, “Will National Standards Improve Education?”, and answers in the negative.

Here’s the crux of his argument:

Public schooling is a government monopoly, and the people employed by it – those who would be held accountable – are the most motivated and best organized to engage in education politics. The result is that sooner or later they get what they want, and what they naturally want is as little accountability to others as possible.

You may object to the word “monopoly,” but he adds that there is “no meaningful empirical evidence” that national standards improve education.

In fact, national standards–whether imposed from Washington DC on down, or created through state-by-state negotiations–run a significant risk.  It’s one thing for your neighboring states to have standards you don’t like, but what if those standards are  centralized.

Meanwhile, over at Education Week, Rick Hess comments on the debate over standards between Checker Finn, Mike Petrilli (pro-common core) and Jay Green (skeptic).

On the pro-national standards side:

Checker and Mike are absolutely correct that the standards were developed by a state-led partnership, are superior to those in place in most states, and that transparency and market efficiency can benefit dramatically from a clear, rigorous, national standard.

Then again,

there’s a huge chance this will dramatically boost federal control of K-12 schooling, that teacher unions and other status quo interests will make their influence felt, and that state and local control will be undermined.

Hess says that the debate reminds him of the early days of No Child Left Behind.  Given that the common core is in part a response to perceived problems that resulted from NCLB (states watering down their standards to make life easier for schools), that’s not exactly good news for the value of the common core standards.

Common standards = politicized, national standards

There’s a move afoot to create a common set of curriculum standards, spearheaded under the name of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. (Kansas is tentatively on board.)

The Cato Institute’s Neal McClusky points out some downsides of the CCSI in this piece, namely the further centralization of education policy.

CCSI is a project of two more acronyms, the NGA (National Governors Association) and CCSSO (Council of Chief State School Officers).

It’s being marketed as a state-led effort, but don’t buy it, said McClusky: “to hear NGA and CCSSO officials tell it, the standards are the product of completely uncoerced state cooperation. That is at best a half-truth.”


It’s “budgetary blackmail.”

National standards, he continues, will end up being watered down over time, to placate the interests of people who work in schools.

National standards nonsense

Jay P. Greene calls the idea of national standards “nonsense,” in this essay. He writes, “Yes, the national standards may be better than those in some states, but everyone seems to agree that they are also worse than the standards in some states.”

The problem with government-imposed standards, ironically enough, is that they end up serving not the public, but the regulated industry.

The hard reality is that regulation tends to be captured by the regulated industry (unless there are competing, well-organized interests, which in education there are not).  Education regulations, like national standards and assessments, are at least as likely to be captured by the Edublob as the oil industry is to capture off-shore drilling regulations or the banking industry is to capture financial regulations.

Among governments, it’s better for states to be the regulators than the federal government. Not because states are less likely to be capture, but because if a bad set of regulations get imposed in one state, they can’t (by definition) afflict other states. Pure federalism works as a great defense against bad ideas.

The Reading Wars

Charlotte Allen writes a lengthy treatment of the reading wars for the Weekly Standard. One takeaway from the piece is that it’s a pity that the curriculum that a student receives is in some measure a political question, based on the whims of what is popular at the time–and what happens to hold sway in the particular district a child must attend. (“Read it and Weep,” July 16, 2007).

Ni Hao, Kansas

This is interesting.

“The Galena district was one of two in Kansas receiving language instruction grants recently from the U.S. Department of Education, under a program to train more Americans in languages critical to national security and commerce.

Galena will receive $171,684 in the first year of the three-year grant to support its Chinese language initiative. The Emporia district, which is focusing on Spanish, was awarded $161,865 in the first year of a three-year grant.”

Funds come from the National Security Language Initiative.

Why Galena? The article doesn’t say (Galena schools to teach Chinese, Wichita Eagle, July 8) , except to note that the district’s superintendent visited China in 2006.

One School for All Breeds Conflict

The Cato Institute takes an interesting view on the conflicts over schools. Here’s the executive summary of one of their more recent studies:


It is all too often assumed that public education as we typically think of it today—schooling provided and controlled by government—constitutes the “foundation of American democracy.” Such schooling, it is argued, has taken people of immensely varied ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds and molded them into Americans who are both unified and free. Public schooling, it is assumed, has been the gentle flame beneath the great American melting pot.

Unfortunately, the reality is very different from those idealized assumptions. Indeed, rather than bringing people together, public schooling often forces people of disparate backgrounds and beliefs into political combat. This paper tracks almost 150 such incidents in the 2005–06 school year alone. Whether over the teaching of evolution, the content of library books, religious expression in the schools, or several other common points of contention, conflict was constant in American public education last year.

Such conflict, however, is not peculiar to the last school year, nor is it a recent phenomenon. Throughout American history, public schooling has produced political disputes, animosity, and sometimes even bloodshed between diverse people. Such clashes are inevitable in government-run schooling because all Americans are required to support the public schools, but only those with the most political power control them. Political— and sometimes even physical—conflict has thus been an inescapable public schooling reality.

To end the fighting caused by state-run schooling, we should transform our system from one in which government establishes and controls schools, to one in which individual parents are empowered to select schools that share their moral values and educational goals for their children.


You can read the whole report, in PDF, at the Cato web site.

Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict, the Cato Institute, January 23, 2007

Elections, or Personal Choices?

Some lawmakers think that state law needs to be changed to deal with obscenity in the classroom. The school board association thinks that school elections are the answer.

How about an alternative? Give parents greater choices over where they can send their kids. If they think that their kids can profit from a discussion of, say, Toni Morrison, go for it: send them to the government-run schools.

On the other hand, if they would rather that the kids not take a class with such items in the curriculum, then send them to a school that doesn’t include them.

Right now, such disputes turn political, either in the legislature or in school board elections. How about we turn them over to the marketplace of consumer choice?

Source: House bill targets “obscene” materials in schools, Wichita Eagle.

Tick, Tock, Flip, Flop

The Board of Education has changed the standards about science … again.

It would seem that both sides of the controversy are needlessly alarmed. The U.S. has more people who believe in intelligent design than any other industrialized country, and yet it is still a leader in technological innovation and economic power. So it would seem that doom does not necessarily follow from skepticism regarding the standard view of evolution.

On the other hand, despite the fact that evolution is firmly established as standard point of view in academics, the U.S. is more religious than any other industrialized country. So it would seem that fears that evolution in schools will lead to wholesale adoption of irreligion are overplayed as well.

Now that another skirmish in the culture wars has been settled, can we get back to ways of improving student performance?

Standards on Evolution have how much Effect?

From the Topeka Capital-Journal, on the topic of the flip-flopping (and next month, flipping again) of the state standards on science and the topic of evolution:
When it comes down to the heart of the debate — what should children learn in science classrooms — the fight may have little effect.

“It’s such a small part of our science curriculum it really hasn’t had any effect at all on us,” said Mike Mathes, superintendent in Seaman Unified School District 345.

The article quotes several other teachers and advocates on both sides of the question. They come to the same conclusion: tempest in a teapot.

(Source: 2005 Standards had little effect, Topeka Capital-Journal, January 15)

Revising Science Standards Will Take Time

In a demonstration of how long it can take the wheels of bureaucracy to turn, the science standards of the SBOE will change back to an evolution-friendly stance–but not immediately.

While Kansas public schools are likely to get their fifth set of science standards in eight years, the officials who want to ditch the anti-evolution ones now in place aren’t planning to act immediately.”

They say it will take some time to review testimonies and call on experts.

Source: “Returning to Pro-evolution standards could take months,” Wichita Eagle, November 21.

Adapting to Non-English Languages

The Pittsburgh Morning Sun discusses the challenges of teaching non-English speakers. Melinda Kitchen, a teacher in USD  250 Pittsburgh.  The superintendent “learned that Kitchen, who taught first grade, was fluent in Spanish, and asked her to work with the district’s Spanish-speaking children. Seven years after graduating from Pittsburg State, Kitchen now teaches 28-35 English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL students) per year.” In FTE terms, the district now has 3.5 teachers working with ESOL students.

The article mentions that Florida spent $6,525 per student on its ESOL program in 2004-05, though it’s not clear how much of that money is a marginal cost–that is, whether that is the money the state spends on each student (regardless of language) or whether that’s an extra cost of teaching an ESOL student.

Looking elsewhere, the article mentions Grand Island, Nebraska, home of a packing plant that employs many immigrants, whose impact will grow over time. “With more than 700 students in 14 elementary schools, Grand Island’s kindergarten is comprised of 52 percent white students and 48 percent of other ethnic groups.

However, the 12th-grade class at Grand Island Senior High is 75 percent white and only 25 percent other ethnic groups.”

How do schools adapt? Some have used Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., a company that has developed its own way of teaching reading and writing. Others use technology, including software that is customized to the student’s native tongue.  A spokesman for Blackboard Inc., says that “The problem with the classroom is that it’s one time only. The great thing about online is that it’s any time.”

Kansas Gets a C- on Curriculum Standards; Two Fs

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education research group, gives Kansas a C- for curriculum standards. (Click on the map to see the summary.) While science gets all the attention (the group gives Kansas an F), it’s worth pointing out that math didn’t do too well either (F), and English (C) isn’t that good, either.

Wichita USD 259 Embarks on Distance Learning

The Eagle has a short article on USD 259 offering distance learning, though it flippantly calls the practice watching television.

Distance learning is not for everyone, but the use of television, the Internet, and other tools and methods for learning will work for some. USD 259 plans to use it for supplemental classes that would not otherwise be available.

SBOE Guidelines: Much About Nothing?

Medical News Today provides a wrap-up of the school board primary election, focusing on the sex-ed controversy.

Here’s something that jumps out from the story: “The new policy does not penalize school districts if they decline to follow the guidelines.”

If the guidelines have no binding effect, why would anyone on any side of the sex-ed debate be concerned about what the board does?


Should double-dipping be encouraged?

We’re not talking about pensions, but the old 3-Rs.

An AP wire story features a student from Kansas City, Kansas, who took “a double dose of math and English during his freshman year.”

The reason? No Child Left Behind puts a premium on achievement in reading and math.

“Variations of the double-dose approach are being used in districts in such places as Kansas, Missouri, Texas, New Jersey and California.

Is this a bad thing? Some people think so. A spokesman for the teachers union known as the American Federation of Teachers said “We can’t say it’s OK to spend so much time on the basics that we let the broader curriculum slide.”

On the other hand, a student who can’t read well enough is going to have trouble learning “the broader curriculum.”

State Board Race Wrap-Up

The votes have been cast and counted, and the results announced. What happens next?

The race drew the attention of the Washington Post and New York Times, of course. Due to publication schedules, no doubt, the Post didn’t say much. In a pre-election piece emphasizing the science controversy, the Times reminds us of the history board flips: 1998 (“conservatives win”); 2000 (“moderates win”); 2002 (5-5); 2004 (“conservatives win”), and finally, 2006.

USA Today, meanwhile, continues the science theme with the headline “Evolution Opponents Lose Control.”

The Kansas City Star provides percentages for each district. The Lawrence Journal-World offers this lead: “Darwin won.” The comments section is often filled with lots of name-calling all around; this particular day seems to have set a record for comments pulled by the LJW’s staff, suggesting that moderation in tone is in short supply.

SBOE District 7 Highlights Differences in Opinion

The McPherson Sentinel offers up a review of the State Board of Education primary race in district 7, between M.T. Liggett, Donna Viola, and Ken Willard, incumbent.

Among the topics: science standards, sex-ed requirements, department commissioner Bob Corkins, charter schools, and vouchers.

Viola’s opposition to charter school expansion is based on a preference for “local control.” But what could be more “local” than a parent? It’s time for charter schools to have an alternative to the local school board when it comes time to getting an authorization.

You’ll Eat Wonder Bread and You’ll Like It!

The folks at Missouri’s Show-Me Institute have an interesting take on the controversy surrounding evolution, the state board of education, and schools.

Here’s an excerpt that does a good job of looking at it all from a different point of view:

“Imagine you live in a town where you are required to pay several thousand dollars of taxes each year into a public fund that is used to buy food for the entire community. There is a publicly elected “Menu Board” that determines each year’s offerings. You wanted rye this year? Sorry! The Board voted for Wonder Bread. Again! You could, in principle, opt out of the public food system and buy rye, pumpernickel, or seven grain oat-nut crunch at a fancy private store. But you’ve already paid thousands in taxes, and can’t afford to pay twice for everything you eat. The Menu Board picks it. You eat it.”

More on the Elections

The Hutchinson News comments on the district 5 race between incumbent Connie Morris of Saint Francis faces and primary challenger Sally Cauble. Topics included evolution and the education of illegal immigrants.

Morris endorsed English language immersion over bilingual education. The News doesn’t say what Cauble would favor. Too bad, for thoughtful people can disagree, and it’s a topic that merits more attention.

Meanwhile, the Southwest Daily News runs with a profile of Morris. As you might expect, the science standards get heavy play.

All this reminds us of the silliness that sometimes obtains when decisions about schooling are made by politicians rather than parents.

Science standards subject of new campaign

A Seattle-based group is launching a campaign to defend the standards on science set down by the State Board of Education. This comes six months after the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a national group from Washington, D.C., gave Kansas an F for its standards.

All of this illustrates the fact that the more centralized the decisions on education are, the more politically heated disagreements will be.

Democratic Challenger in SBOE Contest

The Lawrence Journal-World has a story on Jesse Hall, who is running against Janet Waugh for the State Board of Education in the Democratic Party primary. As usual, curriculum takes center stage.

NCLB Drives Back to Basics. Good, Bad? Discuss

Some school districts are engaging in double-blocking; that is, enrolling some students in two daily sessions of math, reading, or both. Some people criticize the move, saying that it deprives students the opportunities to take electives.

That may happen to some students. Then again, if you’re unskilled in math, and especially in reading, your ability to learn other skills, including (to use two subjects mentioned in the article) music and woodworking is going to suffer.

The practice may be an unfortunate but necessary step for some students. While we’re no fans of No Child Left Behind (which is being credited–or blamed, if you wish–for the move), we are, on the whole, glad to know that students are actually learning to read.