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What Would a Common Curriculum Mean for Teachers and Students?

Mar 21, 2011

A group of education professionals is pushing for a common curriculum to be adopted by states in the U.S. This move has bipartisan support, but its implementation is no guarantee. What could a common curriculum do for pubic education in the United States?

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By Sarah Wright

What Is a Common Curriculum?

Though there is a Federal Department of Education, and the U.S. government takes some measures to oversee public education in the United Sates, most of what goes on in the classroom is the responsibility of individual states. The course of study for different subjects and grade levels can differ among states because officials at that level of government determine what students need to learn. This means that a student graduating from high school in, say, Maine, may have a knowledge and skill set that differs from a high school graduate in Georgia.

The idea of a common curriculum is to eliminate educational disparities in students from different states by implementing a single set of standards across the nation. The goal is that certain educational standards will be met regardless of where a student attends public school. There are several ways to go about this, but a teachers' group, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has developed a plan that has bipartisan support. Though some advocates of strong local governments and less federal oversight are wary of moves toward common curricula, business leaders worried about the country's future economic prospects are widely supportive.

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A Prior Model of Success

Many countries across Europe and Asia have already adopted a national educational standard. And even in the United States, the common curriculum is not a totally radical or new idea. In 2010, a set of common standards in math and English, called the Common Core State Standards, was taken up in 40 states, including such culturally and politically varied states as South Carolina, Massachusetts, California, Oregon and Oklahoma. These standards have also been adopted in U.S. territories like the U.S. Virgin Islands, though other territories, including Guam and Puerto Rico, have not opted in.

For supporters of the common curriculum, the Common Core State Standards are a step in the right direction, but they do not go far enough. The already-adopted standards are intended to help ensure that all students in public schools are adequately prepared for college and the job market. Standardizing educational benchmarks in just two subjects, though they are very important core subjects, doesn't fully satisfy some education professionals.

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What It Would Mean

Like the Common Core State Standards that were widely adopted in 2010, the AFT's proposed common curriculum would be voluntarily adopted on a state-by-state basis. This aspect of the plan may assuage fears of state and local government's rights advocates who worry about too much educational control from the Federal Government. If states choose not to adopt the standards, they would continue to develop their own curricula as they have done for decades.

For states that choose to opt-in, certain elements of curriculum development would be standardized. The main focus of the AFT's plan is on content knowledge that should be acquired for all students in specific subjects and grades, rather than on rigid guidelines for pedagogical technique and textbook selection. Perhaps this is the element of the plan that helped it earn bipartisan support, gaining signatures from former education secretaries under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Supporters of the common curriculum argue that, if such a plan were implemented, it would ensure a high quality of knowledge and abilities for public school students across the nation.

Do you want to know more about education reform in the U.S.? Check out a feature on reform advocate Michelle Rhee, a former Chancellor of Public Schools in the District of Columbia.

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