The Making of a National Curriculum: Setting Standards

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Updated on Oct 16, 2009

In striving for more accountability in schools, policy-makers keep bumping up against the same problem: a lack of consistency between what we expect children to learn from state to state. If there is no nationally accepted curriculum, then there can be no national standards by which to measure student learning. A new project called the Common Core State Standards Initiative is out to change all that, with a set of proposed standards in math and language arts for kindergarten through grade 12. The goal of these standards is to establish more uniform expectations for students across the nation, in order to make them more college and career ready. Forty-eight states are involved in the effort, led by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, the Council of Chief State School Officers, Achieve, ACT, and the College Board.

This is the first step in what will be a long process to reach an agreed upon set of national standards, but, according to the Parent Teacher Association, it's a step in the right direction. “The great benefit of the standards is that they will ensure a level playing field among states, school districts, and schools that will give all students the opportunity to be ready for their college and career,” said PTA President Charles J. Saylors.

Some believe that this will lead to greater access for parents. “Right now, parents are informed of progress, but not part of the instructional conversation,” said Mark Luetzelschwab, PhD, the senior vice president of product development and marketing at BrainHoney, an organization that assists teachers in organizing lesson plans, tracking student progress, and ensuring they’re teaching to state standards. "Having access to these standards makes it easier for you to be part of the instructional conversation. If you knew what objectives your child is covering this week, and were provided relevant information for these objectives, you could be significantly more involved in your child’s learning," said Luetzelschwab.

What would these proposed standards mean for your child? In language arts, your child would be expected to show mastery in reading, writing, speaking and listening – interrelated skills needed for success not just in college, but also in the workplace. Students must read and evaluate literature; the document cites the novel Pride and Prejudice as an “illustrative text,” or an example of material that shows the level of complexity your child must tackle when she reads. (The document authors chose the Jane Austen novel as exemplary material because of its multiple plotlines, style and word choice particular to a time period, and subtleties in the characters’ relationships.) Other illustrative texts include a Walt Whitman passage, a sample business memo, nonfiction (or “informational text”), and multimedia sources, such as a web version of the front page of the New York Times.

“Text analysis is a critical skill, and these are all valid examples of text that need to be analyzed in college and the workplace,” said Luetzelschwab. Other material he suggests for textual analysis includes “threaded” discussions, email chains, and disconnected conversations – day-to-day correspondence your child will encounter in college and in the 21st-century workplace.

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