National Curriculum: An Even Learning Field?

by Gary Gordon, EdD
Global Practice Leader, Education Division

This column is the second of a two-part series.

Two-thirds of Americans currently back a standardized national test and curriculum for school children throughout the United States -- a level of support that has remained virtually unchanged since 1981*. Last week's column looked at various forces that tend to homogenize American curricula anyway. This week, I address the question of why a national curriculum and test seem so appealing, and some of the potential consequences of this approach for American education.

The Appeal of a National Curriculum

For parents of college-bound students, the appeal is simple: a national curriculum would provide consistent academic objectives for students across geographical areas making it more likely they will perform well on ACT/SAT tests and be able to gain admission to a broader range of universities nationwide.

A national curriculum would also provide parents served by underperforming schools with the confidence that at least the curricular content of their child's school is comparable to that taught in high-performing schools. The idea of putting schools and school districts across the country on the same curricular playing field may explain, in part, why more than three-fourths (77%) of nonwhites say they favor a national curriculum. According to recent data from Gallup's annual survey for the education association Phi Delta Kappa, nonwhites are more likely than whites to blame education quality factors for the ongoing academic achievement gap between white and minority students.

The Consequences -- Intended or Unintended

But even as they endorse a national curriculum and testing program in the context of NCLB, many Americans may not understand its potential consequences, since thus far the issue has generated little public discussion.

Loss of Local Control

A true national curriculum would result in a loss of control for local school districts, which serve as one of the few arenas in which community members can have their voices heard on educational issues. Whether or not the adopted national curriculum differs substantively from those developed locally, the loss of local control over what is taught will result in an emotional reaction. With a national curriculum, national political leaders (rather than state or local leaders) would be dealing with divisive issues such as teaching evolution or creationism in schools. These decisions would then have nationwide consequences and are likely to "fit" some communities much better than others.

National Testing

Criticism of standards and testing would intensify with the establishment of a national curriculum. The tendency to "teach to the test" is already a contentious issue at the local and state levels, and criticism would grow even stronger at the national level. Can a national curriculum encompass the needs of every state and school district? As discussed in this week's accompanying article, a national curriculum significantly narrows what is taught in order to focus on boosting test scores. The result: more students are exposed to less content, and teachers are restrained from allowing students to explore educational "side streets" about which they might be particularly curious.

A national curriculum may in fact set a ceiling for performance rather than a floor. Should the curriculum be geared toward lower-achieving students, or those who show promise of being college bound? In European countries, where national curricula already exist, serious decisions about a student's future are made in seventh grade.

High-stakes national testing would create two other potential problems. At present, five states are downgrading their standardized tests because poor results have marked a large number of schools as "failing." What if such standard reduction occurred at the national level? And with the pressure of rewards and punishments for student performance on national tests, educators would inevitably be tempted to "cook the books" in WorldCom fashion.

Meeting the Needs of Every Child

Would a national curriculum create the kind of environment in which every child learns? It seems that schools should be catering more to the needs of individual students, not less. We all agree that students should learn the mathematical skills and concepts for beginning algebra. Our failure may come from expecting all students to achieve that understanding in the same way and in the same time period. Rather than establishing a one-size-fits-all approach, we should find more ways for students to learn and demonstrate their understanding. Our current decentralized system has not resulted in sufficient individualization for students -- but achieving that with a national curriculum is an even more remote prospect.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,000 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 5-26, 2002. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3%. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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