An American Revolution: A Common Curriculum

Under Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997, the AFT was one of the earliest advocates for high-quality, rigorous academic standards. In his weekly New York Times column, Shanker often explained the benefits of getting the standards and accountability movement right. This excerpt from his February 24, 1991, column highlights the benefits of a common curriculum.


By Albert Shanker

In most countries with a common curriculum, linkage of curriculum, assessment, and teacher education is tight. Once you have a curriculum on which everyone agrees, you have an answer to the question of how to train teachers. They have to be able to teach the common curriculum. And you have an answer to the question about the level of understanding and skill student assessments should call for because you can base assessments on the common curriculum.

In the U.S., we have no such agreement about curriculum—and there is little connection between what students are supposed to learn, the knowledge on which they are assessed, and what we expect our teachers to know. Each of our 15,000 school districts and 50 states has some rights in establishing curriculum. (And this is a nation where people move more often than in any other country in the world.)

In most countries with a national curriculum, tests usually consist of writing essays or solving problems based on what the students are supposed to know. And when youngsters, with the help of their teachers, prepare for these tests by answering questions that were on previous tests, it's a worthwhile educational experience. Writing an essay on the causes of World War I or presenting the arguments for and against imperialism is a good exercise in learning substance and in learning how to organize your thoughts. And the quality of the essay really shows how well the student has mastered the material.

In the U.S., we use multiple-choice tests to test little bits of knowledge that are not directly related to the curriculum. (In fact, because curricula vary by state or even school district, companies that design standardized, multiple-choice tests pride themselves on divorcing their tests from curriculum.) Since the tests are supposed to be a surprise, going over questions from previous tests is almost like cheating. It's also a waste of time. Whatever little bits of information the kids do learn have no context, so they'll be forgotten in a hurry. And a person looking at the test results will have no idea what they represent in terms of what the students know or can do.

Another disadvantage of not having a common curriculum is that we don't have any agreement on what teachers need to know. Colleges and universities can't train teachers on the basis of the curriculum they are going to teach, or assess them on how well they know it, because their students will end up teaching in many different school districts and many different states. What these students get instead are abstract courses that most teachers say were not even helpful in teaching them how to teach.

An archive of Albert Shanker's weekly column in the New York Times is available at

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