Professional Learning

Common Core Big Idea Series 2: The Standards Are Not Curriculum

December 4, 2012
Photo credit: iStockPhoto

Editor's note: This is the second post in a five-part series which takes a look at five big ideas for implementation of the Common Core State Standards, authored by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins

The Introduction to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Mathematics makes a noteworthy point: “These Standards do not dictate curriculum or teaching methods.” (p 5). A similar point is offered by the ELA Standards:

Indeed, these statements highlight the intent of any set of standards; i.e., they focus on outcomes, not curriculum or instruction. The implication is clear -- educators must translate the CCSS into an engaging and effective curriculum. So, what is the relationship between the Standards and curriculum? Consider another analogy with home building and renovation: The standards are like the building code. Architects and builders must attend to them but they are not the purpose of the design. The house to be built or renovated is designed to meet the needs of the client in a functional and pleasing manner -- while also meeting the building code along the way.

Similarly, while curriculum and instruction must address established standards, we always want to keep the long-term educational ends in mind -- the development of important capabilities in the learner. In other words, a curriculum works with the CCSS to frame optimal learning experiences. To shift analogies, these standards are more like the ingredients in a recipe than the final meal; they are more like the rules of the game instead of strategy for succeeding at the game.

So then, what is a curriculum? In research for our book, Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 1997), we uncovered 83 different definitions or connotations for the word, curriculum, in the educational literature! Such a variety of meanings confer an unhelpful ambiguity on the challenge of moving from standards to curriculum. Worse, most definitions focus on inputs, not outputs -- what will be “covered” rather than a plan for what learners should be able to accomplish with learned content. This is a core misunderstanding in our field. Marching through a list of topics or skills cannot be a “guaranteed and viable” way to ever yield the sophisticated outcomes that the CCSS envision.

The ELA Standards make this point clearly by framing everything around “anchor standards,” all of which highlight complex abilities and performances that students should master for college and workplace readiness. The Mathematics Standards’ emphasis on the need to weave the Content and Practice Standards together in a curriculum makes the same point.

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