Does America Need A Common Curriculum?

As of this writing the debate is raging between the proponents and opponents of common  curriculum. As one side is raising the issue of necessary common standards, the other is bringing up issues of local control, public input and review, and the danger of undue influence of special interests.

As a teacher of mathematics I will talk about the common curriculum from the prospective of teaching my subject. I believe that we must have a common curriculum in mathematics. We worked very hard at Russian School of Mathematics on developing our own curriculum. Indeed, our curriculum represents for us a powerful teaching tool and a unique competitive business asset. Today Russian School of Mathematics consists of eight affiliates with five locations in Massachusetts, two in Northern California, and one in Kentucky. Each school is lead by a creative, highly professional and experienced principal. All principals enjoy a lot of creative freedom in implementing educational process in their schools. But freedom and improvisation come only after fundamentals are firmly put in place. And fundamentals are defined by our school’s common curriculum.

I see on a daily basis how lack of common curriculum is affecting families. Let’s take current economic situation. Americans are a highly mobile people. Our mobility as a nation is an important economic factor. This is one way how we are often dealing with changing economic conditions. Every year a large number of people are moving in order to deal with a loss of a job, to improve living conditions, or to pursue career and business opportunities in a new destination. I believe that the lack of common curriculum in math is a huge drag on nation’s mobility: as soon as a child changes a school district a family might face from a small to a big educational crisis.
Often a student who did very well in his old school can not be properly placed because of the lack of coordination between districts’ programs. Thus a good student, because of a gap in districts’ math programs, suddenly needs to be placed below his or her level. This makes every move into a huge headache for families — and this is when they just move from one school district to another. When they change a state, families could be totally at a loss due to sharp differences in programs.

In high school a family move to a different school district or a state could bring student’s grades sharply down, and significantly lower chances of admission to a desired college. Lack of common math curriculum creates a whole big market for tutors. But realistically speaking, even with the best tutors, it often takes a hard working student at least a year to catch up.

In math there are very important topics that must be studied in a proper sequence. Unfortunately current lack of curriculum allows teachers to occasionally skip some subjects altogether. I once realized that one of my ten grade students had no idea about circles. When I brought it up with his public school teacher, she answered to my utmost amazement — “I don’t do circles, I don’t like them.” With all my respect to local control this is not a way to teach math. Circle must be studied whether the student goes to school in Hawaii, Minnesota, or Massachusetts.

At the same time I don’t want to oversimplify the matter or to deny to opponents of current attempts to install common curriculum across the nation their valid points. The need for common curriculum should not be confused with a top down federal mandates on how to teach math. Such mandates would be open to manipulation by special interests. A couple of years ago Professor Sandra Stotsky made a powerful point in City Journal about dangers of politicization of teaching math, where she showed how social experimenters are attempting to redefine school math programs. Common curriculum should be driven by good teachers, good schools, and by healthy competition. This is exactly how we developed our own common curriculum at Russian School of Mathematics.

By: Mrs_Rifkin   Mrs_Rifkin

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