Standards, Curriculum & Instruction — Part 2: Curriculum

DISCLAIMER: This blog is the second in a series designed to educate and inform readers on the differences between standards, curriculum, and instruction. These blogs are not an endorsement of Common Core State Standards.

In our previous article we defined educational standards. In this article we show the relationship between standards and curriculum and why it is necessary for a school district to have curriculum to meet the educational standards. Consider the following:

  • Does it make sense to teach World War I before World War II?
  • Should a teacher conduct a lesson on area before showing her students what a square looks like?
  • How many different ways are there to teach multiplication? When should it be taught?

The three examples above are all expectations derived from our state standards that Texas students are required to learn. Educational standards, like the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), are goals. These goals inform educators and parents about the content and skills their students are to master in a given school year. Unfortunately, these goals don’t come with a plan. We want our students to know and understand concepts from World War II but much of that lesson will be lost if World War I wasn’t covered first.  It would be impossible to measure area unless we know what the square looks like. And multiplication can be taught in multiple ways for visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners.

Below, is a real example from the Texas standards (TEKS). Each of the four standards are exactly the same at the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade:

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Common sense would tell you that a teacher would not teach these concepts exactly the same at the third grade level as she would at the sixth grade level. But, teachers need a plan to know what should be mastered at the 3rd grade level to be prepare for the 4th grade level and so on. This is why school districts need curriculum. While standards are goals, curriculum is the plan to meet the goals. Curriculum is a detailed description of how students and teachers interact with specific content in a specific sequence over a school year to meet the educational standards. The execution of the curriculum, or plan, is the instruction.

Standards are typically written in a plain, straightforward language and are designed to simply state a student expectation of learning. However, the standard does not explain HOW to teach the student expectation or WHAT materials to use to allow the student to demonstrate mastery on the standard. Standards are goals and do not specify curriculum, textbooks, workbooks, or lesson plans, all of these things are at the discretion of the district. It is good that the districts have this discretion. They each have different needs and require the ability to determine which curriculum would best meet those needs.

Research has shown that one of the most effective tools in successful schools is a guaranteed, viable curriculum. A guaranteed and viable curriculum is one that guarantees equal opportunity for learning for all students and adequate time for teachers to teach content and for students to learn it. District curriculum is a large body of work and it takes trained educators to ensure the that a curriculum is guaranteed and viable. Educators who write curriculum must be familiar with the state standards, understand the conceptual development of subject matter over several grade spans, and have adequate time to plan and write the curriculum.  Often, the process includes master teachers who meet over the summertime, evaluate the current curriculum, suggest changes based on data, and then train colleagues on the new curriculum when school begins. Unfortunately, many of the districts in Texas do not have the resources to write their own curriculum.

Another struggle for school districts in Texas is the ever changing nature of our standards. Every time the TEKS are changed, districts have to rewrite their curriculum. The same is true for the timing of the state assessments (STAAR/EOC). The assessments are the means for the state to determine if students have met the goals (standards). For a curriculum to be guaranteed and viable, a district has to have a curriculum (plan) to make sure all of the content and skills are mastered at the time of assessment. Everytime the date of an assessment changes, the district has to update the curriculum to ensure there is adequate time for teachers to teach content and for students to learn it. In other words, curriculum is a very necessary,  never ending process and expense for school districts.

What are these districts to do? Some districts have joined together to write curriculum. Some use the curriculum of larger districts that have the resources to write their own curriculum. Many have purchased curriculum for their districts. There are several curricula available for schools in Texas. One very popular curriculum is the TEKS Resource System (TRS) curriculum, formerly known as CSCOPE. Once plagued by controversy over a few lessons created for instruction (not curriculum), the TRS is now just a curriculum built to be guaranteed and viable for Texas school districts.

There are other curricula used in Texas schools. For example, if a student is in an Advanced Placement course, the instructor is required to use the AP curriculum. When Texas was one of the largest consumers of national curriculum, publishing companies used to write curriculum to meet the Texas standards. However, with the adoption of the Common Core standards in 43 states, we are no longer a top priority for these publishing companies. Therefore, most the curriculum published is aligned with the Common Core. Publishing companies haven’t forgotten the Lone Star state. They now retrofit the curricula written for Common Core to meet the TEKS. As a result, much of what we see in Texas, created at a national level, will be considered aligned with the Common Core.

The national organizations who write these curriculum follow a process to develop their content. The writers collect and analyze standards from all 50 states and attempt to align similar standards found in each state.  It is common to find standards in some states that are not found in others.

All of this begs the question: How do we ensure that our districts are not using Common Core standards? The answer has already been given. The goal for all of our educators in Texas is to meet the standards given to us by the state of Texas, the TEKS. The plan is to have a curriculum that is guaranteed and viable to meet this goal. Teachers will execute this plan with high quality instruction based on their curriculum.

Since a variety of instructional materials are frequently used by teachers to meet their standards, one could expect to see a worksheet, lesson plan, workbook, or instructional guide with the words “Common Core Aligned” printed on the material; especially since 41 states (40 as of Thursday, June 5, as Oklahoma has dropped CCSS) have adopted CCSS and Internet resources with a “Common Core” label are easily found. This simply means that the curriculum writer who developed that content went through a process of aligning similar standards from a particular state with the Common Core Standards.

In fact, if a district has adopted a national curriculum to meet the state standards, teachers may have to use instructional materials that are “aligned” with the Common Core. Consider this, humans share 92% of their DNA with mice. But, mice and humans look nothing alike. The TEKS share 68% of their standards with Common Core. The curriculum and instruction in Texas classrooms will look nothing like Common Core, or we won’t meet our goal. In part three of our series, we will examine classroom instruction and the variety of instructional techniques teachers can use to process both standards and curriculum.