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Implementing Common Core: Curriculum Part 3

This post is the third and final segment on implementing curriculum aligned with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  It focuses on how curriculum is shaped in schools and classrooms.  Previous posts described curriculum implementation at the national, state, and district levels.  Future posts in this series will examine the role of instruction, assessment, and accountability in implementing the Common Core.

I have previously defined curriculum as the “stuff” of learning, the content of what is taught in school—especially as embodied in the materials used in instruction.  You will notice below that when classroom activities are examined, the distinction between curriculum and instruction can become blurred.  The “what” of teaching and the “how” of teaching are often intertwined.

Three school and classroom forces are especially important in molding the curriculum.  We can expect them to influence curriculum adopted to implement CCSS.


Common Core’s champions argue that the standards embrace more rigorous learning objectives than current state standards.  If that is true—and barring any huge leap forward in productivity—additional time may be needed for both reading and mathematics instruction. 

In secondary education, the allocation of time to disciplinary subject is fixed by the class schedule.  Middle and high schools divide the day into periods of instruction, with students moving among the classes during “passing periods” that separate the end of one class from the beginning of the next.  A typical day is divided into six or seven periods of 45 to 55 minutes, with five to seven minutes per passing period.  Some schools employ “block scheduling,” in which two or three periods are combined into a single period so that instruction may be delivered in larger chunks.  The practice was a popular (some would say faddish) innovation in the 1990s, and the 1998 NAEP reported 40% of high schools scheduled at least some courses into blocks.[1]

Elementary classrooms are usually “self-contained,” meaning that the same teacher teaches all subjects.  That gives elementary teachers more control than their secondary counterparts over how much time is spent on each subject.  Several studies have documented significant between-class variation in elementary grades’ instructional time.  On the 2013 NAEP, for example, about half of fourth grade teachers (48%) reported spending 10 hours or more per week on language arts, which includes reading, writing, literature, and related topics.  But more than one in five (22%) said they devoted less than seven hours per week on the same subjects, a huge difference when compounded over a full school year.   A 2002 study of time diaries kept by elementary school teachers discovered time differences of about two and a half hours per week—or 87 hours per year—on core subjects.

Some states mandate a minimum amount of daily instruction devoted to reading.  Districts also offer guidelines.  Chicago Public Schools extended the school day in 2012-2013 and simultaneously issued minimum guidelines for all academic subjects, including at least two hours daily on reading and writing.  The district claimed that this was the first time such guidelines had been issued, justifying the policy by explaining “In the past, there has been little consistency from school to school in time spent on core subjects.”[2]

No real way exists for states or districts to enforce time guidelines.  What happens if insufficient time is allotted?  Interestingly, Chicago was the site of an early 1980s study of elementary school reading instruction that bears on the question.  In a citywide study, Robert Dreeben and Adam Gamoran found that first graders learn how to read in classrooms that optimally balance two crucial inputs: curriculum coverage and instructional time.[3] Adopting more rigorous curricula is not enough.  They singled out a particular Chicago school that “used relatively difficult materials, but did not succeed in covering very much of them, even with the group that had the highest mean aptitude in the whole sample.  This was caused in part by an insufficiency of time set aside by the teachers and by the school administration for basal reading instruction.”  A more recent study decomposed the influence of districts, schools, and teachers and estimated that 80% to 95% of variation in content coverage results from different time allocations by individual teachers.[4]

Ordering topics

Much has been made that the CCSS mathematics standards are focused and coherent, qualities that previous state standards lacked.  Focus and coherence are related to the ordering of math topics so that knowledge and skills build in a logical manner.  The CCSS organize topics by grade.  Any substantive benefit they may provide in terms of focus and coherence will be due to better organization of topics among grades—and especially between adjacent grades.  But within grades, the CCSS are silent on ordering topics.  That discretion is left up to local educators and will undoubtedly be influenced by the textbook program they choose.      


Two controversies have erupted regarding what teachers will emphasize during English Language Arts instruction.  The first popped up in 2012 and involved the amount of non-fiction and fiction taught in classrooms.[5] A 50-50 balance is recommended by CCSS for grades K-5.  A shift towards more reading of non-fiction is urged for later grades.  The Common Core State Standards Initiative for English Language Arts cites NAEP as licensing the recommended distribution, stating that the standards “follow NAEP’s lead in balancing the reading of literature with the reading of informational texts.”  A breakdown of the distribution of literary and informational passages by grade level on NAEP is provided:  50% literary and 50% informational in 4th grade, 45%-55% in 8th grade, and 30%-70% in 12th grade.  The CCSS Initiative states, “The Standards aim to align instruction with this framework so that many more students at present can meet the requirements of college and career readiness.” 


Fiction has a hallowed place in the ELA curriculum, whether it’s the simple stories found in elementary school basal texts or the classic novels taught in high school.  Veteran teachers are unlikely to willingly abandon instructional units, some of which they may have spent years refining based on classroom experiences.  That is especially true with great fiction that they also happen to enjoy teaching.  Defenders of the CCSS reassure teachers that the non-fiction/fiction distributional guidelines are for the amount of reading expected of students across all school subjects, not only in ELA classes, allowing the ELA curriculum to continue with a heavy dose of fiction.  

That leaves the issue in a bit of a muddle.  Does the balance of fiction and non-fiction matter?  As Sandra Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein have pointed out, there is no evidence that reading nonfiction is more effective in teaching critical thinking than reading fiction, or that reading informational texts instead of fiction enhances college and career readiness.[6] What reading informational texts can offer, however, is background knowledge that makes all kinds of reading more accessible to the reader.  That raises the second controversy.

The Common Core State Standards advocate “close reading” of texts.  Because the meaning of any text originates in the words themselves, understanding what an author means requires students to read and re-read text for its essence.  In 2013, a teaching guide was published on how the Gettysburg Address could be taught consistent with the CCSS’s notion of close reading.  The guide was created by Student Achievement Partners, an organization founded by David Coleman, Susan Pimentel, and Jason Zimba, lead authors of the CCSS.  It was also posted on EngageNY, a website established and maintained by the New York State Department of Education to provide guidance on implementing CCSS-aligned materials in the classroom.

The guide consists of several lessons on the Gettysburg Address that take three to six days to complete.  The first lesson has the students reading the text of the speech cold, with no background material on the Civil War or the significance of the Battle at Gettysburg or of the occasion that brought Lincoln to give the speech.  Nothing at all.  The stated reason for this strategy is to get students accustomed to the idea of analyzing text on its own.  Providing historical context or other preparatory information (often called pre-reading activities) leads students away from the text.  Moreover, the guide asserts that the recommendation promotes equity: “This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.”

Such an extreme application of close reading has been met with sharp criticism.  Dan Willingham has described as “a bit crazy” the notion that: “we will read the text as though we know nothing about the subject at hand; the author’s words will be not only necessary for our interpretation, we’ll consider them sufficient.” Many adherents of E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge believe that the Common Core bolsters the chance of students reading broadly across disciplines.  It’s hard to see that happening if teachers aren’t even supposed to help students understand the historical context of an important speech before they read it.  Moreover, it is difficult to resolve the glaring contradiction of urging more informational reading but not wanting students to put that knowledge to use when encountering a particular text for the first time, even debasing it in order to “level the playing field.”


As I mentioned above, the lines separating curriculum and instruction often become blurred, and this is precisely such a case.  Most of the debate about the Gettysburg lessons has been about pedagogy, whether this is a good or bad way of teaching.  But I present the controversy here to make a point about curriculum.  Teachers currently vary in how they prepare students for reading particular texts, in particular, how much historical background information they provide when tackling historical texts.  They will continue to do so.  Those choices, made countless times every day in classrooms across the country, mean that students encounter very different curricula—even when studying the same topic.

Imagine a student whose teacher, as complimentary materials to studying the Gettysburg Address, assigns excerpts from Gary Wills’s Lincoln at Gettysburg, shows the Gettysburg episode from the Ken Burns Civil War series, and gives a brief lecture on famous eulogies and memorials (perhaps starting with Pericles).  Compare that content to a student who receives the close reading lessons described above.  The two students will both have studied the Gettysburg Address, but they will take away completely different knowledge from the lessons.  They will learn different content because they studied different curricula.  It is also almost impossible to think of an assessment that could measure these two students’ new learning in a fair and accurate way.

The debate over pre-reading, like the debate over non-fiction and fiction, has done very little to clarify the CCSS in regards to curriculum.  How a CCSS curriculum emerges will depend on what Richard Elmore calls “the power of the bottom over the top” when education policy is implemented.[7] The decisions local educators make in allocating time, ordering curricular topics, and emphasizing some CCSS skills and knowledge over others will determine how the CCSS is realized in schools and classrooms. 

[1] All statistics attributed to NAEP are from data retrieved from NAEP Data Explorer ( High school scores are from 12th grade.

[3] Robert Dreeben and Adam Gamoran (1986).  “Race Instruction, and Learning,” American Sociological Review, vol 51: October, 660-669. 

[4] William H. Schmidt and Curtis C. McKnight (2012).  Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools.

[5] See Jay Mathews, “Fiction vs. nonfiction smackdown,” Washington Post, 10/17/2012.

[6] Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky (2012). “How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk.” A Pioneer Institute White Paper.

[7] Richard Elmore (1983).  “Complexity and Control: What Legislators and Administrators Can Do about Implementing Policy,” in Handbook of Teaching and Policy (L. Shulman and G. Sykes, Eds).

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