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The Cascading Benefits of a Common, Coherent Curriculum

The Massachusetts teachers described in "Lost at Sea" are not alone. Across the country, teachers have very little support in their effort to prepare students to meet new, high standards and demonstrate their knowledge and skills on rigorous (or not-so-rigorous) tests. According to Making Standards Matter 2001, AFT's annual report on standards-based reform, no state has a fully developed curriculum (including how topics within a sequence relate to each other, recommended instructional resources and ideas, and sample performance levels) in English, mathematics, social studies, and science. In fact, only nine states have at least half of these curriculum components fully developed. In New York City, where students take consequential tests sponsored by the state and district, the curriculum vacuum is so severe that the local union, the 140,000-member United Federation of Teachers, is developing a curriculum on its own—filling a gap that the city and state should have addressed.

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At its best, a formal, specific curriculum represents a kind of distilled wisdom about how best to help students reach specific academic goals. Such a curriculum—which indicates what is to be taught at each grade, suggests a sequence of topics within each grade, and offers instructional ideas and insights—can offer direct guidance to teachers.

But more importantly, when such a curriculum is commonly taught to students across districts and states (in contrast to American practice in which the actual, taught curriculum varies enormously across schools and districts—and even between classrooms within a school!), a cascade of additional benefits can follow. Teachers know exactly what students must learn to be well prepared for the next grade; teachers need not guess the meaning of vague standards—or pick and choose what to teach from among an excessive number of specific standards; textbooks can be tightly focused on these curricular goals; students who are behind can be easily identified and provided special assistance; and each fall, teachers know what their new students have already been exposed to and can move immediately to build on that knowledge. Further, preservice education and professional development can prepare teachers to know and understand the curriculum they'll be teaching and how to teach it.

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These benefits characterize education in the highest-achieving countries in the world. This kind of coordinated educational system, pegged to high standards, is what America and its leaders envisioned when they embraced—in many national reports and educational summits—what has become known as standards-based reform. It was this kind of alignment, culminating in high quality assessments that could elicit student effort and greater accountability, that we all believed could help American students achieve at world-class levels. Unfortunately, as states have worked to realize this vision, curriculum has too often been neglected. The result can be the perversion of standards-based reform. Where there are high-stakes assessments but no curriculum, teachers are often pushed to peruse previous tests and slavishly "teach to" them. In effect, the assessment works to narrow teachers' instruction—the reverse of what standards-based reform intended.

American Educator devotes this special section to the importance of a common, coherent curriculum, the cascading benefits it can provide, and catalyzing action on its behalf.

–Editor