January 2013 • Volume 44 • Number 3 • Page 5
In Search of Middle Level Curriculum Leadership
Q: Will the Common Core State Standards keep local teachers from deciding what or how to teach?
A: No. The Common Core State Standards are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. … Local teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards will continue to make decisions about curriculum and how their school systems are operated. (Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/frequently-asked-questions, emphasis added)
Standards may be here to stay, and standards that set common expectations for all learners can be a good thing if they help increase equity and quality in public education. However, academic standards undermine certain fundamental democratic principles when they lead to the wholesale standardization of education and foster heavy-handed, top-down decision making.
As the excerpt from the Common Core State Standards Initiative website affirms, the new standards are not designed to be the curriculum. However, as James Beane argues in the lead article of this issue, the Common Core State Standards are likely "to become pretty much the whole curriculum" (p. 9) because of the ways in which standards have, in recent decades, led to the standardization of testing systems, materials development and, ultimately, curriculum and instruction.
Too often, the people with the greatest stake in education—teachers, students, and parents—do not have a leadership role in developing curriculum from standards frameworks. They are not included in the process or they abdicate their responsibility for curriculum development, leaving it to state-level bureaucrats, professional development providers, textbook publishers, test developers, and other "experts."
Where might these experts look for important concepts and questions to frame the curriculum? Two types of conversations take place when committees of experts meet to develop curriculum frameworks or testing programs. For 15 or 20 minutes before the meeting begins, committee members chat about family, work, and other matters of common personal interest. When the doors to the meeting room close and the "small talk" ends, the conversation focuses on determining the things that are most important for young people to learn so they can succeed in life. This is ironic, because the committee had already talked about things that really matter to people in their informal, so-called "small talk" before the meeting began.
The things that really matter to mature people—health, finances, the future, relationships—are the things that matter to young people too. For at least half a century, a handful of middle level scholars (e.g., Beane, Lounsbury, Vars) have championed the idea of planning curriculum with young people, using their questions and concerns as the organizing centers for curriculum development. A rich body of literature provides a clear, compelling rationale for this work and highlights positive outcomes for students in all areas of their development.
At the AMLE conference in November, James Beane, Sherrel Bergmann, Barbara Brodhagen, and Judith Brough led The Gordon Vars Curriculum Symposium, a forum in which participants reflected upon Vars’s scholarly work and reinvigorated his vision of a democratic core curriculum. Noticeably absent from the conversation were voices from the trenches, particularly early-career classroom teachers and school-based personnel. The field of middle level education has a critical need for curriculum leadership at the grassroots level. I know many teachers and principals who embrace the vision of a democratic, person-centered curriculum, but they work on the fringes and, often, alone. As a professional community, we need to reposition their good work from the margins to the middle and promote the idea that the public school curriculum in a democratic society does not belong to school boards, state departments of education, or testing companies. It belongs to the people, regardless of who they are, where they live, or how old they are.
Copyright © 2013 Association for Middle Level Education