School standards, curricula aren't the same

Fanning the firestorm over Common Core State Standards is the fear that by adopting common standards, states are signing onto a national curriculum and thus undermining the decisions of local school boards and educators.
But before going too far down that road, an important distinction needs to be made between standards — which outline what students should know and be able to do at each grade level — and curriculum — which is what happens day to day and week to week in classrooms.
Standards remain constant, but curriculum can be altered year to year or classroom to classroom to ensure students are meeting the learning goals.
Let me illustrate with examples from three high-performing, high-poverty schools in three states.
I asked them to share with me lessons they had developed to meet three of Common Core's reading and language arts standards, which say that fifth-graders should know how to: use a dictionary and other reference materials; identify the main ideas and supporting details of a text; and cite evidence to support an answer.
The first lesson, from George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Ala., is on the human circulatory system, part of a larger unit on major body systems. During the lesson, the teacher introduced particular terms the students would encounter in their reading and asked the students to look up and record the definition of those terms in their science journals. Students then read “The Circulatory System,” the fictional “A Journey through the Digestive System with Max Axiom,” and consulted other nonfiction books. At the end of the lesson, students were asked to briefly describe the function of the circulatory system, citing evidence from the texts.
The second, from Finlay Elementary in Miami, is part of a three-week literature unit on “Hatchet,” a wilderness survival story. The teacher discussed the genre of realistic fiction with the students and introduced vocabulary words such as hatchet, vibration and rudder. Students read along as the teacher read aloud, modeling fluent and expressive reading. This unit was paired with an environmental unit that culminated with a field trip to Biscayne Bay, where students learned about the kind of conditions in which the “Hatchet” protagonist found himself.
The third is from De Queen Elementary in southwestern Arkansas and is part of an English and science unit on the environment that has as its core question, “Why is it important to protect and preserve the Earth?” Before the students read “The River Ran Wild” by Lynne Cherry, a nonfiction account of the pollution and subsequent restoration of the Nashua River, teachers introduced vocabulary that students would encounter. After reading the book, they read about the Dust Bowl, which helped bring about the Great Depression, and other environmental effects of industry and farming. Students were then asked to write essays using complex sentences about Marion Stoddart, the woman who sparked the restoration of the Northeast's Nashua River in the 1960s.
The idea behind the standards, which are in place in 43 states, is that no matter where students live or what their life circumstances may be, they should all have to meet the same expectations for learning — such as being able to use a dictionary and cite evidence from a text. By having a common set of expectations to measure their decisions against, school boards and educators will have a lot more information about how well they are serving all their students. That doesn't undermine them; it supports them.
Karin Chenoweth is writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, a national education advocacy organization.