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Cross-posted from Education Week

Does it make sense to say that the state will set the standards and the assessments, but leave the decisions about curriculum and instruction up to schools and teachers?  I asked this question of Jim Pellegrino, Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Marc Tucker: The general view in the United States seems to be that states should be setting the standards and the assessments, but they should leave it up to teachers, schools and local school districts to develop their own curriculum and use their own preferred styles of instruction.  But I have heard you say that it is the curriculum that really defines what the standards mean. Isn’t that why the top-performing countries have based their assessments on an explicit curriculum and provided strong guidance on instruction?
Jim Pellegrino: When the initial standards development work was done for mathematics and science in the United States in the late 80s and early 90s, the groups doing the work did not want to be seen as prescribing a curriculum.  The National Science Foundation funded independent development groups to use the national standards to create new curricula in the 1990s.  But each group interpreted the standards in different ways, which was not surprising, because the standards were written in language that allowed interpretation as to what they meant. The standards said that kids are supposed to understand and know linear relations for algebra.  But that could mean they have a deep understanding of functions or it could mean solving linear equations by executing procedures.  We have learned from research on student learning in math—and this is also true for English and science—that what kids struggle with is developing forms of understanding that will facilitate progress as they move from lower to higher levels in a discipline.  You can teach arithmetic by simply teaching the most efficient computational algorithms or you can teach it in a way that greatly facilitates the understanding number and the learning of algebra – so you understand the idea of equivalence and the use of expressions, not just what you need to do to execute procedures.  You can, in fact, teach arithmetic in such a way that students can easily see later that algebra is a system representing relationships among quantities and focuses on variables instead of constants.  Research shows what kids understand and what they don’t understand depends very much on how we teach the material.

MT: So what the standards actually mean in practice depends on how they are interpreted in the curriculum that is taught and also depends on the nature of the instruction they get.  This idea that the standards can be fixed but teachers can have wide latitude in the way they construct the curriculum and the way they choose to do instruction is, I take it, a bit misleading.
JP: I’m afraid so.  Our teachers have often taught arithmetic by building their curriculum around the algorithms first developed by the 17th century counting houses to do commerce. That was fine for many years because algebra was for a very long time needed only by a few.  But now, if they use their traditional curriculum and instructional methods to implement the new standards, the new standards will not really be mastered at all.

MT: Many people seem to think that curriculum is one thing and instruction is another, that curriculum is what is in the text and the instruction is what the teacher does—what is in the text can be taught in a wide variety of ways, all of them effective.  But this discussion suggests that the relationship between curriculum and instruction might be tighter than that, if instruction is going to be consistent with the standards.
JP: It is true that what is in the curriculum implies certain modes of instruction. Curriculum is often not instruction neutral, or at least ought not to be.

MT: Earlier in this conversation, we established that one does not really understand what the standards mean unless you have a conception of the curriculum that can implement them.  Then we established that the instructional methods used need to be tied to the curriculum.  So talk, if you will, about how standards, curriculum and instruction are connected to assessment.
JP: To properly implement a good set of standards, you have to have a conception of the curriculum, the ways instruction is going to unfold, how kids will engage with materials and activities, and how the assessments are based on the curriculum.  That is because the assessments used, the tasks that kids are asked to perform in an examination, in a good system, become the operational definition of what kids need to know and be able to do.  There is a sense, obviously, in which the assessments are derived from the standards.  But it is just as true that the tests, on which both student and teacher are focused, define what the standards really mean in practice.  If the system is to make any sense at all, the tasks that students are asked to do in their courses—the curriculum—should bear a very close relationship to the tasks they are asked to do in their summative assessments.

MT: It sounds as though standards are incomplete unless they are tied closely to curriculum, instruction and assessment, as is generally the case in the top-performing countries. But we began the conversation by noting the great resistance in the United States to state or national government prescribing curriculum or instructional methods.  So what do you think is likely to happen here? Will we get the results people are hoping for if we don’t tie standards closely to curriculum, instruction and assessment?
JP: Well, there will be more room for interpretation here than in other countries. But I still hope we can achieve a good balance between procedural and conceptual understanding.  I hope we can focus on building curriculum that will facilitate the development of deeper understanding and the capacity to apply what is learned in one domain to the problems we encounter in another.  I hope we can help young people adapt to new situations and challenges, learning what they need to learn more quickly.  I especially hope that we will find a way to help all kids develop the kind of advanced thinking and coping skills that we have always provided to the elites.