Education Reform

Curriculum Frameworks

The Massachusetts Education Reform Act, passed in June 1993, mandated the creation of curriculum frameworks for grades K-12 in English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science and Technology, History and Social Science, World Languages, the Arts, and Health. Three months later, a committee established by the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE) began searching for the answer to a simple question: What should young people know and be able to do when they graduate from high school?

To develop an answer, the DOE first established a Commission on the Common Core of Learning. Headed by Massachusetts Board of Education Chair Martin S. Kaplan and Co-Chair Madelaine S. Marquez, the 40-member Commission included educators, policymakers, students, clergy, and representatives from business and community organizations.

From September 1993 to June 1994, the Commission considered input on the proposed guidelines by an estimated 50,000 educators, policymakers, and other citizens across the state. Using this input, the Commission created general guidelines for what students across Massachusetts should know and be able to do upon graduation. The guidelines were adopted by the Board of Education and published as the Common Core of Learning.

Criticized by some as being too broad and politically correct, the document nonetheless outlined ambitious learning goals that would help students think and communicate, gain and apply knowledge, and work and contribute to society, both during and after their schooling. According to proponents, the Common Core of Learning would allow all students to "lead productive, fulfilling, and successful lives in our complex, diverse, and changing world."

Simultaneously, the DOE began developing detailed curriculum frameworks in individual subject areas. A core committee of twelve developed the frameworks, supported by district committees across the state. These committees, composed largely of K-12 educators, commented on draft frameworks approved by the central committee, as well as provided their own ideas about the content of the frameworks.

In December 1995, the Board of Education accepted and endorsed curriculum frameworks in Mathematics, Science and Technology, the Arts, Health, and World Languages. Across the state, administrators and teachers began to modify their curriculum to meet these new guidelines. But they were aiming at a moving target. Soon, the guidelines would be revised.

The Board of Education under Chairman Martin Kaplan took criticism for the slow pace of frameworks development. Kaplan resigned in January 1996, knowing that Governor William Weld intended to name John Silber, Dean of Boston University, as Kaplan's replacement. As new chairman, Silber criticized the already-established curriculum frameworks as too murky and focused on learning processes rather than on the quantifiable knowledge students needed to attain to become productive citizens. He ordered the frameworks' revision.

As they began revising the frameworks, the Silber-led Board of Education decided to restrict the input of classroom teachers and other educators in the field. Instead, Silber appointed small teams comprised of Board of Education members and other curriculum experts. He gave these teams the responsibility of revising and finalizing the frameworks.

The existing frameworks, the Silber committees found, failed to place an adequate emphasis on factual knowledge. In order to engage in higher-level functions such as critical thinking, the committees said, students needed to know a broad range of basic facts. Under the leadership of Silber and his successor, James Peyser, frameworks revisions reflected this educational philosophy.

Critics of the Silber and Peyser boards decried the new revisions, charging that the boards had shut teachers out of the process. Further, they argued, the focus on factual knowledge trivialized the curriculum frameworks. Students who learned under these new guidelines, the critics said, would know facts without context, and would be unprepared to think critically and problem-solve in the world outside the classroom.

As of early 2001, revisions to the Mathematics, World Languages, Health, and Arts frameworks had been approved. The English Language Arts revision was at the final prepublication draft stage, and the Science and Technology/Engineering framework had been sent for teacher working groups' review. As revisions continue, the process has been a contentious one.

The DOE-approved Mathematics frameworks were created under the direction of Sandra Stotsky, a reading expert, and Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll, a former math teacher. An advisory panel of mathematicians, which had presented an alternate proposal, resigned in protest. Two weeks later, Driscoll announced that the assessment items on the spring 2001 MCAS Mathematics test would be based on topics that are common to both the original and the revised mathematics frameworks.

The Massachusetts Education Reform Review Commission, in its 2001 Annual Report, noted that the failure to finalize the curriculum frameworks was a source of great frustration to field educators. Because the frameworks were continuously changing, the Commission said, school districts could not be sure they were correctly aligned with them.

Frameworks revisions often force schools to scrap existing curriculum plans and create new ones. This means redirecting scarce resources, purchasing new teaching materials, and retraining teachers to meet new guidelines. In light of these problems, the Commission has recommended that frameworks remain unchanged for five years once the History and Social Science revisions are made.

Educators, parents, and students have also argued that the amount of material to be covered under existing frameworks is overwhelming. Meeting the frameworks, these opponents say, often means squeezing out the arts, field trips, or vocational explorations in order to focus on core subject areas. This narrowing emphasis, they say, runs counter to the intent of the original Common Core of Learning.

As the DOE works to develop solid curriculum frameworks, competing philosophies of education and disagreements over the inclusion of basic facts, skills, and processes stand in the way. After more than eight years, the answer to the simple question of what Massachusetts students should know and be able to do when they graduate from high school continues to be hotly debated.