Standards and Curriculum—You Can’t Have One Without the Other

(Guest Post by James Shuls)

In a recent Education Next blog post, Peter Meyer wrote about the tendency of Common Core opponents to conflate the idea of content standards with curriculum. He writes, “It is not a small distinction, since standards provide goals and a curriculum provides the day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year road map for reaching those goals.” He goes on to say, “From both a pedagogical and political point of view, it is crucial to keep the distinction between standards and curriculum clean and clear. But, most importantly, we need to try as hard as we can to get the facts straight.”

I agree with Meyer in many regards. If Common Core supporters want to build support for the standards among Republicans they absolutely must differentiate the Common Core from curriculum. I also agree that we need to get the facts straight. Unfortunately, this is something that Meyer’s post fails to do.

This conflation of ideas is not simply something Tea Party activists or Common Core opponents are guilty of, it’s widespread. Do a Google search for “Common Core Content Standards” and “Common Core Curriculum Standards.” You’ll get more hits for the later. Curriculum and content standards are often used interchangeably. Teachers, principals, and even assistant superintendents are guilty of as much.

Last year I contacted my children’s school and requested a copy of the curriculum. They sent me a one-page summary of the Common Core and an excerpt from Children’s Mathematics: Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI)

When I met with them and asked about the curriculum for spelling and reading. The teacher’s response was, “We’re following Common Core.”

When I asked about the math curriculum, the teacher told me they were using CGI to teach the Common Core. The principal even told me that she researched it by asking the district’s assistant superintendent for education about the district’s math curriculum. The answer—Common Core State Standards.

I tried to correct them. I tried to point out that these are standards not curriculum, but they were insistent. The problem is that the distinction between a “content standard” and “curriculum” is only a matter of degree. This distinction is not clear, not even for many educators.

Let’s look at an example. If I say students in first grade should be able to “Express the length of an object as a whole number of length units, by laying multiple copies of a shorter object (the length unit) end to end” Is that simply a standard or is that an activity that could be part of a lesson?

Meyer somehow tries to defend the distinction between Common Core and curriculum by noting that the standards must be complimented by a curriculum; an attempt that falls flat on its face. Demonstrating that a Common Core curriculum must be developed to implement the Common Core Standards simply illustrates that the standards will dictate curriculum to local schools. This strengthens the link between standards and curriculum.

Conflating standards and curriculum is not some ploy by opponents of Common Core. It is a widespread problem because the two are inseparable; just like love and marriage—you can’t have one without the other.

James Shuls is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute


9 Responses to Standards and Curriculum—You Can’t Have One Without the Other

  1. You’re right that the conflation of standards, curriculum, and pedagogy may be inevitable because each one drives the next. And you are also right that Common Core opponents are not the only ones who think standards, curriculum, and pedagogy are connected. It is not just a few bad apples who don’t understand Common Core correctly.

    Just yesterday the National Council on Teacher Quality released its rating of teacher prep programs. One of the 18 standards used to judge these programs was whether: “The program trains teacher candidates to teach reading as prescribed by the Common Core State Standards.” (see )

    So, NCTQ — an organizaion that fully support Common Core –believes that Common Core prescribes a particular approach to teaching reading. And the Fordham Institute, for whom Peter Meyer works, has endorsed the NCTQ rating of teachers.

    Either Peter should admit that standards, curriculum, and pedagogy are all connected, so CC will drive changes in all three. Or Peter should direct his correction to NCTQ, Fordham, and a host of other CC supporters. Doctor, heal thyself.

  2. Peter Meyer says:

    Connection does not a conflation make. Let’s switch to a car analogy here: the brake pedal is connected to the brake shoes. Mechanics don’t go around arguing brake pedals and shoes as if they are the same; nor do they say that because they are connected and each is necessary to stop the car, it doesn’t matter how each part is made. I for one think that the standards movement came about only because policymakers were afraid to dictate curriculum because everyone knew that it was curriculum — the hourly, daily, weekly map of a course or courses — that really counted. Standards and curriculum are not at all like love and marriage; they are not even like brake pedals and brake shoes. Standards are the rules governing marriage — you can surely have a marriage without all the rules, but you can’t have a marriage without a couple of actual bodies. By the same token, engineers design brake pedals and shoes; if you’re driving, you’d certainly prefer having the actual pedal to a drawing!

    Sorry, folks, but you can make all the connections you want, but a connection does not make either a causal relationship nor one of similarity.

    • Uhm… I’m confused. Are standards/curriculum/pedagogy like brakes or not like brakes?

      Rather than difficult-to-follow analogies, how about if we just address the issue directly? Peter, do you think the selection of standards shapes/constrains/influences the selection of curriculum and pedagogy? If not, why does NCTQ seem to think so in describing the reading pedagogy “prescribed by Common Core”?

      • Peter Meyer says:

        Yes, we need a non-proliferation analogy pact. And of course I believe that standards shape curriculum and pedagogy — but not in the ways the creators hope or the detractors presume. Mr. Shuls’ description of the way standards get mangled in the classroom trenches is instructive on this point. So are Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s point that there are so many standards (they counted 1,386 of them! — as to constitute a curriculum. But all this means is that we need more clarity about the distinctions between standards and curriculum not less. As I pointed out in my initial post, by not appreciating the distinction we wade into nasty swamps both pedagogically and politically. All I’m trying to do here is make the case that standards and curriculum are different and that by recognizing — and exploring and appreciating — the differences we will have a much better time of it (clarity-wise) as the debate progresses. And our education system, and the children in it, might even come out better for it.

      • In what way do “standards shape curriculum and pedagogy — but not in the ways the creators hope or the detractors presume”? NCTQ seems to think that Common Core requires a particular approach to teaching reading and judges teacher prep programs based on the extent to which they adhere to that pedagogical requirement. Is this less controlling than detractors presume?

      • Peter Meyer says:

        Jay, I’m not sure how the Andrew Hacker letter got posted as a comment above (“common core and curriculum says:”); please delete if you want. Having said that, it’s worth reading in the context of this discussion…. Since I haven’t read the NCTQ report, I don’t know what they are saying about Common Core, but don’t doubt that they would say that CCSS requires “a particular approach” to teaching. I just don’t know whether this Is a criticism or a statement of support and thus don’t know if this less — or more — controllling than detractors presume. It could go either way, since some critics fault the CCSS for being too rigid and others not rigid enough. My own opinion (and this not meant to represent any organization I may be affiliated with) is that, pedagogically, CCSSI has gone too far (making Hacker’s point that the CCSS might as well be called a curriculum), and will thus delay (again) the creating of real curricula, which I consider to be the meat-and-potatoes of the thing. For much the same reason I’m also against writing tests based on standards; doing so is yet another symptom of the conflation syndrome, a presumption that testing skills is the same as testing knowledge. If I were King for a Day, I would be launching curricula consortia rather than testing consortia…. And, of course, this doesn’t get to the politics of the thing, much less the governance issues. But I think Terry Ryan is absolutely right to say that the conflation of standards and curriculum definitely puts conservatives on edge. I hope I’ve answered your question 🙂

  3. Peter Meyer says:

    Sorry, I should have said “sameness” instead of “similarity.”

    • Ze'ev Wurman says:


      I agree with you that the CC went much too far in describing the “how” rather than the “what” and hence includes a large *curricular* component. Obvious examples of such are the prescription of 50%-50% (going to 70%-30% in high school) of informational versus literary texts; the painstaking detail of how to teach fractions; the insistence on teaching triangle congruence in geometry based on specific experimental approach rather than simply requiring to teach it; etc. Or the nice and easy first grade example of James Shuls. At the same time I remind you that the California 1997 math standards were possibly the clearest and the cleanest example of pure content standards yet they were frequently derided by educators as “simplistic” and “unthinking” because … they didn’t include pedagogy.

      But I disagree with you that writing tests based on standards is wrong. I would say just the opposite: if standards are the “what” as you say, then the test should measure that “what” (standards) rather then the “how” (curriculum). Curriculum is still largely local — at least in theory — and as such cannot be fairly measured by a nationwide or statewide tests. Making tests based on curriculum makes little sense.

  4. […] which chides Common Core supporters for not taking the critics more seriously; James Shuls’ “You Can’t Have One Without the Other,” wherein he argues that the distinction between standards and curriculum is one of degree not […]

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