Guest Column

Getting Curriculum Reform Right

by THOMAS R. GUSKEY

My American history teacher in high school loved the Civil War. More precisely, he was a Civil War addict.

To him, all of American history revolved around that singular event. So in his class, we covered American history from the year 1490 to 1860 in the first two weeks of school. (Apparently, the time before Columbus’ voyage was insignificant.) The period from 1860 to 1865 took us the next 20 weeks.

The class was a joke, and we treated it that way. We would take turns each evening looking up trivial snippets about the Civil War. Before class began the next day, the student whose turn it was would raise her hand and ask her a trivial question. “Now that is an interesting point,” our teacher would respond. He would then wax eloquently for the next 45 minutes about that trivial point — and we had a free class.

In essence, as students we were cheated. We did not recognize it at the time, but indeed we were. The class was not an American history class. It was a Civil War class. And it was not a very good Civil War class at that.

This is the reason that standards are important. Had standards for student learning been developed for the class, that situation could have been avoided. Standards define what students should know and be able to do as a result of their learning experiences in a class or at a grade level. Developed by teachers and subject-area experts, standards clarify the expectations for student learning and establish criteria for judging the adequacy of student performance.

This is the basis of the Common Core States Standards Initiative led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Because every state has its own set of academic standards, expectations for students’ learning vary depending on where they live. The standards initiative provides a chance for states to collectively develop a core set of academic standards in mathematics and English language arts, perhaps followed by science and social studies.

Clear standards help students understand what is expected and allow them to be more self-directed in their learning. They help parents understand what students need to know and be able to do. Standards help educators focus instruction and align it with assessments of student learning. A set of common standards also provides a basis for comparing and evaluating policies and practices across states.

Skeletal Structure
We must keep in mind, however, the best standards represent a curriculum skeleton. They describe only the core of a subject area or course. They set forth the essential elements that teachers and subject-area authorities jointly agree should be provided to every student, regardless of the individual teacher or the location of the school. But providing that skeleton alone is clearly not enough.

Every teacher’s responsibility is to fashion a body around that skeleton. Teachers bring the skeleton to life by building on those core elements. Through sharing their excitement for the subject, teachers give the skeleton a heart and other vital organs. By providing students with their special insights and unique understandings, teachers build the muscles and tissue that hold the skeleton together. Their efforts to help students make sense of a subject and develop personal meaning from it help that subject area or course come alive.

While every student’s curriculum skeleton will look much the same, the bodies fashioned by individual teachers and individual students might look different. And that is how it should be. That is part of the beauty of the special interaction between teachers and their students. It is that beauty that brought most teachers to the profession in the first place.

Teachers who provide students with only the skeleton are remiss in their duties. A skeleton by itself is dead. But no student should leave a classroom without that essential skeleton on which all of the other body parts must rely.

Clarifying Processes
This means that when teachers and subject-area experts define standards, they must be sure to identify the essential skeleton core only. They must distinguish those elements most crucial to students’ understanding in that subject area or course. To overspecify standards confines teaching to a mechanistic process devoid of any excitement for teachers or their students. It also lessens teachers’ capacity to make learning interesting and fun.

For their part, teachers must do their best to help all students learn those core elements well. No student should leave a class lacking a curriculum arm or leg. From that essential foundation, teachers then must add to the skeleton, building with their special insights, their passions and their excitement. They also must use that core as a basis for helping students develop their own insights and passions for the subject.

The challenge for education leaders when reforming any curriculum is to find that crucial balance. Standards that define a curriculum skeleton of essential core elements are indispensable. They help to ensure no students are cheated, regardless of where they go to school or who their teacher might be.

But those standards also must not be overspecified or be so many in number that they contract or restrict teaching. To do so is to lose the beauty and exhilaration that make teaching and learning so valuable and so much fun for teachers and students alike.

Success in curriculum reform will lie with those leaders who achieve that crucial balance, those who ensure the standards for every subject and grade level set forth a basic curriculum skeleton without attempting to prescribe the entire body of learning outcomes.

Thomas Guskey is professor of educational psychology at University of Kentucky in Lexington, Ky. E-mail: guskey@uky.edu