Systemic (Standards-Based) Curriculum, a Literature Review


If the function of school is to educate school-aged children in the basics of reading and writing and turn out informed citizens to help democracy prevail, then the curriculum is the piece of the puzzle that determines what and how student will learn. There are different types of curriculum, as well as intended and unintended purposes for creating it.


School systems determine what content and skills need to be taught after considering the state requirements and hopefully looking toward the future needs of success in the world outside of school. A systemic curriculum or standards-based curriculum seeks to provide clear objectives aligned with standards and assessment criteria.


According to Deborah Meier’s Educating a Democracy (2002) “Standards-based reform systems are generally organized around a set of four interconnected mechanisms: first, an official document (sometimes called a framework) designed by experts in various fields that describes what the kids should know and be able to do at given grade levels in different subjects; second, a classroom curricula - commercial textbooks and scripted programs -that are expected to convey that agreed-upon knowledge, third, a set of assessment tools (test) to measure whether children have achieved the goals specified in the framework; and forth, a scheme of rewards and penalties directed at schools and school systems but ultimately at individual kids, who fail to meet the standards as measure by the tests.” Within a system, determining the experts and the specific criteria for learning depends on the subject and age of the learners.


As a curriculum director, making decisions about what should be taught, how it should be taught and how it will be assessed so that students acquire the content, skills and depth of learning they need is challenging. Working with the teachers, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction and considering the data from previous years as well as new state standards to align with the expectations, we created a standards-based approach to improving the learning of all students. Along with ensuring that units are laid out in a manner that makes sense, students are able to practice skills and develop competency against standards by completing performance assessments where the rubrics and other success criteria is shared prior to the learning. Students have multiple chances to achieve proficiency or mastery over time.


Historically, this standards-based curriculum was put into place to ensure equity and offer opportunities for students that provided a framework to follow. According to O’Day and Smith (2016) “The odds of success for a school with a population that has lacked important opportunities are substantially increased if it operates in a supportive environment where its internal (school) and external (district, state, and federal) leadership are all pulling in the same direction. This is the central tenet of standards-based reform, a systemic improvement strategy first articulated in the late 1980s and subsequently spread through federal and state policy across the nation.” Leaders must take the time to ensure that not only curriculum is written so transparency is experienced for the public, but it must also be supported and then examined regularly.


As we implement our new standards-based curriculum, we want to make sure that it continues to serve the purposes and objectives we set up to ensure the depth of learning of all students. The teachers who wrote the curriculum will need support throughout the year. Through classroom visits, informal data meetings after decided upon benchmark assessments and then revision opportunities, we can determine if the intended curriculum is what is actually be presented and how effective it is in helping students find success. This is the only way to ensure that the students are learning what we intend for them to learn and we remain flexible to that end.


In classes that end in state tests, the largest challenge occurs. For example, in Global History right now, New York State has recently redesigned the Regent exam around the new social studies framework in order to decrease the amount of history covered and to focus on more critical thinking skills. Students will be assessed on their ability to answer questions about history in a more thematic approach and then write an enduring issues essay where students will review and interpret a variety of primary documents with known biases and select the ones that support their ideas. Knowing that these are the skills the state is assessing, the way we realign curriculum makes sure that students learn these skills and apply them in a variety of different ways.


One thing I appreciate about the shift in this exam is that it aligns better with interdisciplinary learning which supports an approach to learning that moves beyond the walls of just one content area class. Standards-based systems take skills and content and allows the teacher and school district to apply the learning as needed. Unfortunately, when state tests become the assessing mechanism, the hope of purely promoting a mastery system is challenged. If we have the power to align our assessments with the standards and determine what success looks like, then the chances of students being able to succeed increases.


For standards-based curriculum to really work, the folks who write the curriculum must have control over the assessment so that the curriculum is appropriately aligned. Too much rides on the test scores in New York State and teaching to a test deeply undercuts our ability to educate students meaningfully and deeply. The classroom needs to be a place where interactive, differentiated instruction engages students in material that can potentially make their lives better. If we want students to be successful, we must ensure that teachers are supported to help them be successful.


According to Massell, Kirst, and Hoppe, “policymakers must confront several immediate issues and challenges if they are to improve these reforms. One which came through repeatedly in our study is the need to provide additional, and more sustained, support to teachers and local administrators. Teachers need access to richer opportunities on an ongoing basis, and they need direction and support from central office staff.” 


The challenge with many reforms that occur in education and standards-based curriculum is no exception, is that there are many different issues trying to be tackled with a cure all without addressing the complexity of the issue. The only way we can improve student learning is to make sure that efficacy of the teaching staff is continually growing as well, not because the tests are changing and we are infatuated with the scores being printed in the newspaper. We need to focus more heavily on the relationship of what students need to learn and what they are able to do with what we are actually teaching them as it aligns with the standards. 


According the Harvard Educational Review’s review of Carr and Harris’s book Succeeding with Standards, “Although aligning standards with curriculum and assessment is necessary, in itself it is insufficient to achieve the linkage advocated for by Carr and Harris. Linkage requires that educators explicitly delineate the relationship between what students need to know and be able to do (learning standards), how learning is expected to occur (curriculum), and how progress is measured (assessment). It also requires that they delineate the relationship between the standards and other parts of the educational system.”


Standards-based curriculum on its own is not a bad thing. Once we determine who the experts are who should be writing the standards and determining what classroom instruction looks like, then we can create assessments that support the needs of students based on what they know and can do.


As curriculum leaders, it is our job to make sure that the intended curriculum that is centered around essential questions, aligned with standards, delineates a skill set and predetermines the kinds of assessments with student choice and voice in the process, then we can review data and adjust accordingly. This system was created to try to build more equity into the learning experience.


Having unbiased standards and core competencies that were agreed upon helps teachers, students, leaders and families know the expectations and work toward a greater well-rounded level of proficiency and/or mastery.


Works Cited

Carr U. F., & HARRIS, D. E. (2001). SUCCEEDING WITH STANDARDS Linking Curriculum, Assessment, and Action Planning. Retrieved July 29, 2018, from http://hepg.org/her-home/issues/harvard-educational-review-volume-72-issue-4/herbooknote/succeeding-with-standards_49


Massell, D., Kirst, M., & Hoppe, M. (1997, March 21). Persistence and Change: Standards-Based Systemic Reform in Nine States. Retrieved July 29, 2018, from http://www.cpre.org/sites/default/files/policybrief/862_rb21.pdf


Meier, D. (2002) Educating a Democracy. Will Standards Save Public Education? Chapter 1, pg 3-31. Beacon Press, Boston.


O'Day, J. A., & Smith, M. S. (2016). Chapter 9 Quality and Equality in American Education: Systemic Problems, Systemic Solutions. In The Dynamics of Opportunity in America,. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-25991-8_9

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