A+ Commentary: Complaints About Curriculum are Misdirected

Public discourse is important and necessary for good government, and lately there has been no shortage of it surrounding Alabama’s College and Career Ready Standards. Critics of the standards demanded that the Legislature overrule the State Board of Education’s 2010 adoption of the standards. But, while these critics are to be admired for their passion, their ire is misdirected.

Virtually all complaints directed toward Alabama’s state academic standards relate to disagreements over potential local decisions, not policies set by anyone in state government. The loudest complaints focused on books and other learning materials, or a so-called “Common Core curriculum.” However, no such curriculum exists.

Alabama’s College and Career Ready Standards are academic standards for math and English. They are the latest version of academic standards that our State Board of Education has set for decades through its educator-created courses of study. The current courses of study can be read here: http://alex.state.al.us/ccrs/.

Standards are benchmarks for what students are expected to know and be able to do at certain points in their academic careers. The standards serve as a framework upon which teachers and schools build lesson plans and curricula. Decisions about literature and other materials are rightly left up to those at the local level, and this has always been true. One classroom’s curriculum will differ from another, because the standards do not create a “de facto curriculum” for all students.

For example, one 10th grade reading standard in Alabama requires students to “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” To teach this, a teacher in Huntsville might choose to have students read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Students could use the text of the classic novel to cite evidence supporting their analyses of what Steinbeck infers throughout the Joads’ journey. However, a Birmingham teacher may opt to teach the same standard with Monroeville native Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird—a novel chock-full of its own inferences. (Of course, most students will encounter both of these classics and others before they graduate.) In math, an Elmore County school may choose one textbook, but a Tuscaloosa County school may choose a different one for the same grade level.

It’s important for Alabama to set standards for what students need to be able to do—like citing evidence to build an argument—because that’s how we ensure schools meet our expectations as taxpayers. And, it’s part of how parents can trust that their children are on track to learn what they need to succeed. Standards allow us to know how well schools and districts are preparing their students for life after graduation, and which schools need more help to best serve them.

When it comes to curriculum, there are always going to be differing opinions about how best to teach students and which materials to use. Children learn in different ways through different methods, and it would be counterproductive to try and teach all students in Alabama the same way. That’s why the College and Career Ready Standards set a high bar for Alabama students—but stop there. Teachers and other educators who know students best determine how to help them rise to the challenge of meeting their goals, and they select materials accordingly.

There is no mandated “Common Core curriculum,” because districts, schools, and teachers choose how to teach to the standards based on their students’ needs. There is no state or national reading list, nor a mandated set of lesson plans. Teachers have options when deciding how to teach the standards, because the focus needs to be on student learning—and teaching methods should match students’ learning needs. Any questions about how they choose to do that should be addressed at the local level, not in the state Legislature.

Thomas Rains is Policy Director at A+ Education Partnership and can be reached at [email protected].

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