Mike Schmoker - School and District Improvement, Assessment, Curriculum and Staff Development and Consultation

Phi Delta Kappan - The Professional Journal for Education
November 2011 (Vol. 93, #3, p. 70-71)

Curriculum NOW

Curriculum brings coherence to the whole educational endeavor.


Editors of the American Educator  

If we knew—really knew--what could have the largest impact on learning and the achievement gap, would we implement it? 

Because we do know.  Curriculum--what we actually teach—may be the single largest school factor that affects learning, intellectual development and college and career readiness.

If we are serious about improving schools, this is the place to start. Until we have built a clear, coherent curriculum for every course,we will only have a superficial impact on learning or achievement. To be clear: a good working curriculum consists of a thoughtfully-selected sequence of common content topics, essential intellectual skills, and—if we’re smart—an accompanying set of adequately complex, quality core and optional texts (poems, books, selected textbook readings etc.).  It must also include specifications for a sufficient number of writing assignments for each course. It need not be a national or even district curriculum, and shouldn’t be airtight; it should give teachers some room to teach some of their own favorite topics and readings. And it doesn’t have to be perfect; even decent curriculum—if serviceably taught—would have a game-changing impact on outcomes and equity. 

A remarkable convergence of research affirms this.  argues for the primacy of a coherent, content-rich curriculum, which abounds in opportunities for reading, writing and discussion in every subject area. Such curriculum would have more impact on reading ability, higher-order comprehension and test scores than any other factor (Hirsch 2008; Willingham 2009).  It is the basis for success in college and careers (Conley 2006).  According to Robert Marzano, the actual, taught (vs. merely “written”) curriculum will have more impact on learning than any other in-school factor (2003). 

Is it any surprise, then, that a coherent, liberal arts curriculum is the common denominator in the success of the highest-achieving countries on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment; Munson 2011)?  Of course, effective instruction—“how we teach” is profoundly important (and the subject of the next column).  But even the best pedagogy can’t overcome the negative effects of incoherent curriculum, just as the best exercise regimen can’t overcome the damage done by a diet of fast food.     

Finally, as Judith Little, Rick DuFour and others have written for decades, common curriculum is the essential pre-condition for productive professional learning communities, and the common assessments that are the essential engine of continuous improvement. For these conversations to have their intended effect on achievement goals, they must be rooted in common curriculum (I can’t tell you how many frustrated, so-called “PLCs” I have seen, who still can’t see the root cause of their arrested development: the absence of coherent curriculum). 

All this makes the current moment immensely propitious. Because, right now, only a tiny fraction of our schools own and operate a clear, coherent, literacy-rich curriculum (though many schools do implement a “test-prep” curriculum--a content-poor corruption of real curriculum).   

How can this be?  We’ve invested billions in standards documents, curriculum revisions, maps and “scope and sequence” guides.  But these were, in the end, only paper exercises.  The actual, taught “curriculum” continues to depend, more than anything, on which teacher a student happens to get (Rotherham, Marzano, Schmidt and others in Schmoker 2011).  

Why haven’t we addressed this urgent priority? Because we’ve been too busy “dabbling in pedagogical, management and accountability fads” (American Educator 2010/11).  It is time that we realized that trying to improve schools in the absence of decent curriculum is like trying to dig the Erie Canal—with spoons.

What, then, should we do?  Our task is fairly simple—drop nearly everything, however seductive, and build such curriculum for every course.  Recent developments from the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) provide critical support for this effort.  Two writers, on behalf of the CCSS, are now acknowledging that the bewildering lists of standards provided for the English Language Arts are too numerous and confusing to be useful as guides, or as the basis for curriculum. Their advice is to “focus on the cornerstones” instead of the overly-parsed array of grade-by-grade ELA skills and standards (Gewertz 2011 p. 1).  

Focus on the cornerstones.  That is, build curriculum around a “coherent selection and sequence of texts” within and across each course and grade level.  Then ensure that students have abundant opportunities to closely read, discuss and write about these texts in direct response to high quality questions about these increasingly complex texts:  essays, speeches, opinion pieces, newspaper and magazine articles. The predominant mode for such close reading, discussion and writing should be some form of argument, i.e.—to have students “support claims with evidence” as they analyze, explain and conduct research on the topics they are reading about.  Only this will ensure that they are “college and career ready” (Coleman and Pimentel 2011, pp. 4 and 5).    

But the writers go an important step further.  They have begun to provide specifications regarding the amount and frequency of such work.  They strongly suggest, for instance, that at least one week per grading period be devoted to helping students complete a short research paper.  Additional specificity now comes from PARCC (The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, charged with creating assessments for the CCSS).  They have published clear guidelines for the number of books and other challenging texts to be read in each subject and grade-level. David Conley has recommended this as the only solution to the anemic reading and writing diet so many students receive in our classrooms (2006). 

There are real schools which already own and operate just such curriculums.  Other come close (see chapter 4 in Schmoker 2011).  I will be writing about them in upcoming columns.   

But again: Do we really want better schools? Then it’s time we made this our highest, near-exclusive priority.  Start this week: have teams reduce and identify the most essential content standards and topics for each course and arrange them by grading period.  Then have them begin to collect and assemble interesting, content-rich texts for the content taught in the first grading period (they can finish this work at subsequent team meetings).  Set deadlines; continuously share the best work and texts with other teams and schools.  And don’t worry about “perfect” curriculum; there’s no such thing.  Even rough, conscientious efforts here will result in more coherence and an invaluable selection of quality texts for most courses.            

As the editors of American Educator tell us “we have been pursuing the peripheral,” while the best schools in the world “have been pursuing the fundamental…and that has made all the difference” (American Educator 2010/11, p. 2).  Let’s start building curriculum. Right now. 




American Educator (Editors).  “Common Core Curriculum: An idea whose time has come.” American Educator 34, no. 4 (Winter 2010/2011): p. 2.

Conley, David. College Knowledge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.

Gewertz, Catherine. “Common-Core Writers Craft Curriculum Criteria.”  Education Week.  www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/07/21/37curriculum.h30.html, 2011: 1-5
Hirsch, E.D. “An Epoch-Making Report, but What about the Early Grades?” Education Week 27, no. 34. (April 23, 2008): 30-31, 40.

Marzano, Robert J. What Works in Schools? Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2003.

Munson, Lynne. “What Students Really Need to Learn.” Educational Leadership 68, no. 6  (March 2011): 10-14.

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).
Draft Model Content Frameworks for English Language Arts/Literacy.  August 3, 2011; http://www.parcconline.org/sites/parcc/files/PARCC_Draft_ModelContentFrameworksForELA-Literacy_0.pdf


Rotherham, Andrew J.  “21st Century Skills are not a new education trend but could be a Fad.” US News and World Report December 15, 2008. http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2008/12/15/21st-century-skills-are-not-a-new-education-trend-but-could-be-a-fad: 1-2.

Schmoker, Mike.  Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Teaching and Learning.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2011.

Willingham, Daniel.  Why Don’t Students Like School? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

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