National Curriculum

Andrew C Porter & Morgan S Polikoff. 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Thomas L Good. Sage Publication. 2008.

Does the United States have a national curriculum? If not, should it? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a country having a national curriculum? The answers to these and other questions are provided in what follows. The focus here is on a national curriculum for U.S. schools. The first section defines a national curriculum and describes its components—standards, assessments, and textbooks. With this definition in mind, the second section describes the recent history of a national curriculum. The third section uses data to determine if a de facto national curriculum already exists, paying special attention to studies of alignment and the role of textbooks. The final section weighs the potential costs and benefits of turning to a national curriculum for the United States, making suggestions for change.

What Is a National Curriculum?

Any curriculum consists of both intended and enacted curriculum. The intended curriculum is the formal curriculum as captured in content standards, achievement levels, assessments, and even textbooks, while the enacted curriculum represents what teachers actually teach. National content standards are the first component of a national intended curriculum. Content standards specify what students are to know and be able to do in a given content area. A second and related component is a national assessment of student mastery of the content standards. A third componentis achievement levels (sometimes called performance or achievement standards), which specify the level of content mastery on the assessment necessary to be at a particular proficiency level (e.g., advanced, proficient, basic). There can be other pieces to a national intended curriculum, including national textbooks. There could also be a national enacted curriculum, which would be reflected in uniform content taught—the same topics (e.g., linear equations) covered at the same level of cognitive demand (e.g., use linear equations to solve story problems)— around the country. It is important to draw the distinction between intended and enacted—the former does not necessarily lead to the latter, and while the evidence shows there is not a national intended curriculum in the United States, many believe there is already a “de facto” national enacted curriculum. In this section, the focus is on examining the components of the national intended curriculum and describing what they might mean were they to be implemented in U.S. schools.

National Standards and Assessments

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 is an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It has seven key components: closing the achievement gap; improving literacy by putting reading first; expanding flexibility; reducing bureaucracy; rewarding success and sanctioning failure; promoting informed parental choice; improving teacher quality; and making schools safer for the 21st century. It also has numerous provisions, including annual yearly assessments for all students from Grade 3-8 and 10 in reading, math, and science; requirements for teachers to be “highly qualified”; school choice options to allow parents of students in failing schools to move their children to other schools; and sanctions for schools that fall short of measureable achievement objectives.

Assessments aligned with rigorous content and performance standards are the tools NCLB requires states to use to regulate education outputs. While required in reading, mathematics, and science, content standards are often written for other subjects. In California, there are content standards for career technical education, history-social science, physical education, and visual and performing arts. Standards documents are also written by professional organizations. These include the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Principles and Standards for School Mathematics and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) National Science Education Standards. With dozens of sets of state content standards, it is not surprising that there is variation in quality. The Fordham Foundation’s 2006 report on the state of state content standards revealed that states varied widely in the concreteness and depth of their standards across all subjects. Equally important, state content standards vary in the content they specify, both in terms of the topics that are to be taught and cognitive demand expected of students.

National content standards could emerge in several different ways. Content standards could be created by states working together. This is already the case in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, which have joined to create the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) to devise common standards and assessments. The federal government might encourage expansion of this type of regional assessment through incentives, but there would be no direct action at the federal level. The government could create national model content standards. Under this plan, states might be given incentives for adopting the model standards or aligning state standards to the model standards. Finally, the federal government could create content standards in core academic subjects and impose them on states.

NCLB requires states to have assessments aligned to their content standards in reading, mathematics, and science. Assessments measure students’ attainment of the content standards and are used to report levels of achievement every year in Grades 3-8 and 10. Assessments play an important part in determining whether a school reaches adequate yearly progress (AYP), the trigger for school sanctions. For a school to pass AYP, students must score above the annual measurable objective on state assessments in both math and reading/English language arts. This goal must be met not only for the student body as a whole, but also for subgroups including economically dis-advantaged students, students from major racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency.

National assessments, like national standards, could occur in several ways. States could work together to develop assessments aligned to common content standards as they have in the NECAP. The federal government could encourage the growth of these types of relationships through subsidies or increased funding. The federal government could go one step farther and create model assessments, giving states incentives to adopt them or model their assessments after them. Or the federal government could create assessments and force states to use them.

NCLB requires states to set achievement levels— definitions of attainment necessary to reach levels of proficiency. Achievement standards vary widely by state (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007), and many states’ “proficient” cutoffs fall below the “basic” level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—“The Nation’s Report Card” that assesses student achievement state by state in multiple subjects.

National achievement levels would require students across the country to be held to the same standards in terms of proficiency levels. A student proficient in Utah would have achieved at the same level as one in Massachusetts. National achievement levels might operate similarly to national content standards in creation and implementation.

Other Components of a National Curriculum

National content standards, assessments, and achievement levels are the most commonly thought of characteristics of a national intended curriculum, but other components could be included. For example, there could be a system of national textbooks. Textbooks could contain course material that is highly similar from one textbook to the next, covering the same content at the same level of cognitive demand. If there were national standards and national assessments, one could make an argument for national textbooks well aligned to the standards and assessments. Because there currently are differences in content standards and assessments across states, national textbooks make less sense. Nevertheless, textbook companies market their textbooks in all states; the strategy for building textbooks that are widely applicable is to include all possible content in each textbook.

A Brief History of a National Curriculum

Although it has gained steam recently, the idea of a national curriculum is not a new one. Various components of national curriculum have been proposed throughout the last 50 or more years. This section focuses on policies that have emerged since the late 1950s and examines how the movement for various components of a national curriculum has advanced.

A Failing System

The state of U.S. math and science education has been a concern at least since the Soviet Union launch of Sputnik in 1957. Out of the Sputnik crisis emerged a national curriculum movement known as “new math.” By the 1970s, as Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) scores trended downward, new math was abandoned. A major cause of the test score decline was the increasing percentage of students taking the SAT, but studies indicated numerous other possibilities, including a decline in academic course enrollments, assignment of less homework, tolerance of absenteeism, social promotion, and grade inflation (Ravitch, 1995b, pp. 50-51). Whatever the causes of the test score decline, public opinion on education continued the decline begun with Sputnik. In 1973, 48% of those surveyed in the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll gave schools an A or a B rating. Four years later, the proportion was down to 37%, with the proportion of A ratings cut in half (Gallup, 1977). By the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, 31% gave A or B ratings (Gallup, 1983). Public confidence in schools was dropping.

President Carter raised concerns about the state of U.S. education toward the end of his administration. In 1979, a federal commission warned of the steadily decreasing proportion of U.S. students studying foreign languages, citing decreased requirements of colleges and universities. A year later, a report on science and engineering education found decreasing expectations and standards, lowering enrollments in advanced courses, increasing focus on basic skills, and reduction in college admissions requirements (Ravitch, 1995b). These reports were just the beginning—the early 1980s saw more frequent and more forceful claims that U.S. education was a failing system.

The most important and alarming report of the early 1980s was A Nation at Risk. With harsh rhetoric, the report warned of the erosion of the United States’ global dominance through poor quality education. The findings were grim: low expectations were rampant; the high school curriculum had become a flimsy shadow; course enrollments in challenging subjects had dropped radically. To remedy the dire situation, the report advocated a set of college preparatory academic course requirements for all secondary students—certainly a form of national intended curriculum, although the recommendation left room for locales to make their own curricular decisions. The report was brought into the public eye by the news media; over 100,000 copies of the report were distributed in its first 5 weeks. President Reagan latched on to concerns about education quality, but not the solution. Pointing out that scores and expectations had been decreasing just as the federal role in schools had been rising (Kosar, 2005), he advocated a sharp cut in federal assistance to education (Jennings, 1998) and an increasing role of parents and localities through vouchers, educational savings accounts, and tuition tax cuts, all movements away from a national curriculum.

The Birth of Standards

As the 1980s rolled on, governors and state education leaders began pushing for new, detailed information about student achievement. In 1987, a study group led by Lamar Alexander pushed for NAEP, which included math and reading tested at Grades 4 and 8, to be used for state-by-state comparisons (NCLB now requires state participation in state-by-state NAEP). As a consensus began to form around the idea that it was important to know what students were being expected to learn, NCTM released its mathematics content standards in 1989.

At an education summit in 1989, President George H. W Bush and the governors set six national goals: every child should start school ready to learn; high school graduation rates should surpass 90%; students should demonstrate competency over challenging subject matter in core subjects; students should rank first in the world in math and science achievement; adults should be literate and possess the skills necessary to compete globally; and schools should be free of drugs and violence (National Education Goals Panel, 1993). The goal on competency in core subjects echoed the call of A Nation at Risk in advocating an academic curriculum across the nation. With Lamar Alexander as the secretary of education, in 1991 Bush announced his new vision for voluntary national standards and examinations, and the creation of the National Council on Education (Jennings, 1998). In its report, the National Council advocated voluntary national standards and a system of assessments as ways to help achieve the six national goals, saying the new vision of education would require a fundamental shift in U.S. thinking about education. Political wrangling over school choice and other provisions eventually killed Bush’s education bill in 1992.

President Clinton continued where Bush left off, pushing for voluntary standards and assessments during the 1992 presidential campaign. Shortly after his election, Clinton and his secretary of education, Richard Riley, submitted the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which passed in early 1994. The act wrote President Bush’s six national goals into law, adding additional goals on teacher training and parent participation. The “Republican Revolution” of 1994 brought changes to Congress, including a renewed states’-rights agenda. First on the chopping block was Goals 2000, which many on the Right saw as a gross infringement upon state and local decision makers.

Voluntary National Testing and NCLB

As the results of the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), the largest cross-national education study in the history of the world, revealed that U.S. students were still performing well behind students from many Asian and European countries (Beaton et al., 1996), Clinton remained convinced that voluntary national standards and assessments were an important step in improving U.S. education. He again made the case for high standards in his 1997 State of the Union address, proposing a set of national standards and tests of student achievement in reading and math. The proposed voluntary national tests (VNTs) would be modeled on NAEP and the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) exams. To be sure, there was considerable controversy from both sides. Some on the Right were concerned again about the federal role in schools, while some on the Left were concerned that Clinton’s proposal ignored opportunity to learn (OTL) standards—measures of the sufficiency or quality of the resources and practices in support of all students having the opportunity to learn the content in the standards and assessments. Clinton’s team went around Congress, using discretionary funds to prepare the VNTs. A maelstrom erupted, and Republicans passed legislation banning work on VNTs without explicit congressional approval. The VNT was dead in the water when Clinton left office (Kosar, 2005), despite a National Academy of Sciences’ report arguing that leaving testing to the states would surely fail (Feuer, Holland, Green, Bertenthal, & Hemp-hill, 1998).

In the 2000 election, George W. Bush irritated many Republicans by advocating an expansion of the federal government’s role in education. He supported high standards, mandatory annual testing at the state level, and rewards and sanctions designed to encourage states and schools to close the test score gap. To appease those who opposed his notion of increased federal involvement, he also encouraged additional discretionary funds for states and schools, school choice measures, and growth in charter schools. Most of these provisions were included in NCLB, which passed a year after Bush’s inauguration with overwhelming majorities in Congress. In 2007, despite 20-plus years of work at reducing achievement gaps and raising overall achievement, a report titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm describes how the educational problems of the United States persist and put the nation at economic risk.

De Facto National Curriculum?

For as long as there has been a movement to establish national intended curriculum, there has been the claim that a national curriculum already exists. Scholars have claimed that various components of the intended curriculum—textbooks (Ravitch, 1996), nationally standardized tests (Lewis, 1993), and standards and objectives (Hogan, 1992)—are so alike as to define a “de facto” national curriculum. Researchers have examined some of these claims.


Throughout the 1980s, researchers at Michigan State University conducted several studies on the content of teaching. The studies were motivated by a goal of empirically testing the popular claims described earlier. First, they sought to evaluate the idea that textbooks and tests were so similar in their content emphasis that they defined a de facto national curriculum. The study examined five of the most common achievement tests given to fourth-grade mathematics students, and four of the most common textbooks used in fourth-grade mathematics classrooms. Content analyzing the tests and textbooks using a matrix of topics and cognitive demand, the researchers found that just six topics by cognitive demand were covered in all four books and all five tests. Nineteen were covered in all four textbooks, accounting for just over half of each books’ problems. No test covered as much as half the material in any given textbook. In fourth-grade mathematics, there was no de facto national intended curriculum (Freeman et al., 1983).

The next target for investigation was teachers’ use of mathematics textbooks. Having shown that textbooks varied in their content coverage, the question was whether teachers used textbooks in the same ways. That is, if there were great consensus in textbook content, would teachers necessarily teach the same content? Using case studies, interviews, and content analyses, the authors concluded that textbooks could not provide teachers with help in making some of the most important instructional decisions (e.g., the amount of time to spend teaching mathematics). With these unresolved, teachers were left to themselves to determine how to implement textbooks, and several distinct styles appeared. Even the strongest textbook advocate used just 60% of her textbook’s lessons, leaving out several topics on which the book placed heavy emphasis and adding topics the book did not mention (Freeman & Porter, 1989). This study was one of several that supported the notion that teachers’ content decisions were based not just on textbooks, but also on teachers’ convictions and students’ ability (Barr, 1988; Freeman et al., 1986).

To be sure, textbook selection does not occur in a vacuum, and textbook selection by state committees has proven controversial. The impact of state textbook adoption committees in populous states such as Texas and California has been well documented (e.g., Apple, 1991). These committees currently operate in 22 states and have an important say in textbook content around the country (Sewall, 2004). The purposes of these committees are ostensibly to (1) ensure statewide uniformity of curriculum, (2) ensure high quality in all schools, and (3) to control costs (Tulley, 1985). However, some have argued that these committees actually violate teachers’ professionalism (Marshall, 1991), reinforce the politics of official knowledge (Apple, 1991), increase textbook costs, and promote textbook industry consolidation (Sewall, 2004). From 1988 to 1998, the number of major social studies textbooks producers dropped from nine to four (Sewall & Emberling, 1998), which may be attributed in part to the urgent need for textbook companies to get their books on state adoption lists. It is clear that textbook selection is an important process that has effects outside of the individual state or district in which it is occurring, and that consolidation in the textbook industry may be contributing to homogenization of the curriculum. Given that textbook adoption committees often choose several acceptable texts (Tulley, 1985), tend to be limited to the elementary grades, and that textbooks are just one of many components that go into teachers’ content decisions, the concern that the content of textbooks defines a national intended curriculum may be overstated.

Assessment, Standards, and Instruction

As researchers have confirmed the finding that the content of instruction is important in determining student achievement gains (e.g., Porter, 2002), the evaluation of various measures of content alignment has come into fashion. Curriculum alignment tools have also been used to measure alignment among standards, assessments, and intended, enacted, assessed, and learned curriculum. These tools report measures of alignment as values from 0 to 1, where 0 represents no content in common and 1 represents 100% agreement in content. Alignment studies have produced important results that have bearing on the national curriculum discussion. An examination of fourth-grade mathematics assessments across five states revealed that no two state assessments shared more than 45% of their content. These proportions were even lower at higher grades and in science—average alignment for eighth-grade science assessments was 28% (Blank, Porter, & Smithson, 2001). In short, the majority of content assessed across states is different, hardly a sign of a national intended curriculum.

Researchers have also used content analyses to determine the alignment of tests to standards. In one study, researchers examined the standards and assessments in four states. The intuitive hypothesis was that a state’s assessments would be more aligned to its own standards than to other states’. This proved not to be the case. No state had an alignment index of greater than .45 between its assessment and its own or any other state’s standards. Indeed, the mean alignment within states was barely different from the mean alignment between states (Porter, 2002). Measurement of alignment between instruction and assessment within and across states has shown similar results. In a study of six states, the average alignment between instruction and assessment within a state was .22, while the average alignment across states was .23 (Blank et al., 2001). Clearly, the disparity between the content of instruction and the content of assessments is great both within and across states. A de facto national intended curriculum seems unlikely.

While standards and assessments are not well aligned within or across states, research on the alignment of instruction (the enacted curriculum) tends to indicate the opposite. In a study of the alignment of instruction across six states, state-to-state alignment of instruction averaged .80 in fourth-grade mathematics (Blank et al., 2001) and .69 across all sampled states and subjects. No individual state-to-state alignment of instruction index was less than .55 (Porter, 2002). While it is important to note that these were convenience samples, it is a reasonable prediction that these results would extend to probability samples and in more states. If so, the United States has the curious situation where assessments and standards are poorly aligned across and within states, yet the enacted curriculum is common across the entire country. In some respects, this could be construed as indicative of a de facto national enacted curriculum. Somehow, this national enacted curriculum would have developed despite the lack of a national intended curriculum. From the perspective of students and teachers, sixth-grade math may be pretty much the same across the country despite state to state difference in content standards and assessments.

Arguments for and Against a National Curriculum

Having defined what is meant by a national curriculum and examined the research on whether it exists, the focus now turns to the issue of whether the U.S. education system would be better off if it had a national curriculum. As complex and winding as the history of a national curriculum in the United States is, so too are the arguments for and against the establishment of a national curriculum. This section briefly outlines three of the most important arguments in support of a national curriculum and three of the most important arguments against.

Pro: Opportunity to Learn

Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of a national curriculum is that it could equalize student opportunity to learn. Research has shown that in the current system of state control over content and performance standards, student achievement testing, and teacher certification, all states are not equal. There is considerable variation in the quality of content standards, assessments, and achievement levels. These state-to-state variations in definitions and provisions raise questions about student opportunity to learn. It is hard to see the rationale for cross-state differences. All students should aim for a level of proficiency that will help them be competitive with students from other states and countries. All parents and teachers should have faith that their students are learning the facts and skills necessary for future success.

During the Goals 2000 movement, OTL standards were a popular topic. Proponents of OTL standards saw them as a counterbalance to the negative effects of high-stakes testing on students in poor-quality schools, while opponents saw them as a threat to the new (at the time) push for monitoring educational outputs instead of inputs. OTL as a term has fallen out of vogue, but the concept moves forward through measurement of alignment of instruction to standards. At the same time, NCLB has moved forward with the regulation of educational outputs. The question is whether inputs are still unfairly distributed. While NCLB advocates might say that high standards and accountability for students of all subgroups leads to equal OTL by definition, variability in NCLB implementation paints a different story. Perhaps students do not have equal OTL as long as there is large cross-state variation. A set of national standards and assessments might level some of the great disparities in OTL.

Pro: Time and Money

Since 2000, 37 states have updated content standards in at least one subject and 27 have updated content standards in every subject (Finn, Petrilli, & Julian, 2006). This is a good sign if it means states are responding to NCLB’s pressures by strengthening content standards. However, developing and revising content standards is costly and time-consuming—requiring millions of dollars per content area and the cooperation of numerous stakeholder groups. Completing the process in all 50 states may be wasteful and inefficient. This is particularly true if the Fordham Foundation is correct that many states are doing a poor job of creating standards.

Rather than reinventing the wheel 51 times, the idea of voluntary national content standards may increase quality while saving time, money, and effort on the part of individual states. They could also lead to an equalization of opportunity to learn.

Pro: Raising Standards

If it is true that the quality of state content standards and the rigor of state achievement levels vary substantially, the question is what effect a national curriculum would have on the overall quality of these standards. Because there has been no empirical analysis of the relationship between NAEP and state content standards, it is not known for sure whether state standards are lower. Still, given the oft-repeated finding that the U.S. mathematics curriculum is “a mile wide and an inch deep” (Schmidt et al., 2001), it is clear that, on average, the United States’ curricula (at least in mathematics) do not meet international standards.

National standards and assessments could lead the way toward higher standards for students in all states. If all schools were held accountable to the same set of high expectations, state “gaming” of the system to avoid accountability could be eliminated. Parents would know that students across the nation were being held to the same high expectations. If states worked together and the federal government pushed for strong content standards and assessments, many states would see greatly improved standards. With strong evidence that the enacted curriculum is closely related to achievement gains, the expectation would be that strengthening standards would do the very thing NCLB set out to accomplish—raise student achievement.

Con: Federalism

Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution is the federal government authorized to intervene in educational decisions. The Tenth Amendment reserves to states or the people any power not explicitly given to the federal government in the Constitution. This has been the basis for local control of education since the United States’ founding. The argument is that a national curriculum would be an unconstitutional intrusion of the federal government into local decision making. Further, there might be concern that allowing this kind of intrusion requires a loose interpretation of the Constitution’s clause authorizing Congress to provide for the general welfare (Miller, 1995). There might also be broad support for individual authority in making choices about the content taught to children and rejection of the notion that the federal government should remove local control over those choices (Arons, 1995).

Few would argue that a national curriculum, created by the federal government and implemented from the top down, would not tread close to violating the Tenth Amendment. States have rights, and removing them through federal imposition would not be acceptable. On the other hand, the federal government has been massively involved in peoples’ lives in many ways not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. For example, the federal government withholds highway funds from states that do not set certain provisions regarding drunk driving—a power not mentioned in the Constitution but justified under the “general welfare” clause. Clearly, there is a precedent for federal involvement in many areas in which the federal government was not originally granted power. And if it is true that education is an integral part of the general welfare, this justification may be on solid constitutional grounds. Still, any federal intervention in local educational policy will require thought and caution—the American people must trust their leaders and those making the decisions about the form and content of any federal intervention. Otherwise, there is no hope of the intervention being accepted.

Con: Nonuniform Content Desires

Another point against national curriculum is that every state might not want the same content in their schools. Especially in history, where each state (indeed, each locality) could conceivably want to teach different material, a national curriculum might not make sense. At the same time, there are certain components of U.S. history such as the colonial period and the American Revolution that ought to be taught to all students regardless of locale. Further, there are techniques such as primary source interpretation and historical text research that would be useful for children from all locations to learn. In reading/language arts, it might be the case that local policy makers would want more freedom to control the sorts of texts that are read in classrooms. Still, there may be consensus that students across the nation should emerge with skills such as critical reading, proper grammar, and coherent writing. In short, while agreement may be greater on the content to be taught in mathematics and science, agreement for other subjects may be more difficult. Still, education policy should ensure that students in English and history classes across the country are learning essential knowledge and skills.

A compromise may exist in an idea proposed by former assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch. In 1996, when the debate on national standards was first raging, she described education standards as concentric circles:

One ring will be the skills that everyone in the nation (and the world) needs to know. Another ring will be peculiar to the state (reflecting its history, geography, and regional concerns). And the third will be local (supplying whatever the community cares deeply about). This ensures enough uniformity so that children have equal opportunity to learn what their peers are learning elsewhere; and it ensures that the state and locality can teach what their children need to know. (p. 9)

This may be an ideal solution—ensuring that students learn the common need-to-know skills, while giving states and localities the ability to be flexible in adding curriculum they feel is important. Any federal intervention that imposes from the top down with no room for local involvement is likely to fail, but respecting the individual needs and desires of decision makers at all levels could lead to a rich, diverse curriculum for all students.

Con: Official Knowledge

A consistent argument against any sort of higher-level control of school curriculum is put forth most clearly by Michael Apple. He argues that a curriculum is not a neutral assemblage of ideas, but a statement about what knowledge is most legitimate. By definition, a curriculum must exclude certain knowledge, certain interpretations of history, culture, and politics. Others also support this point of view, claiming a national curriculum “arbitrarily and heavy-handedly determines which field of knowledge, which kinds of learning, and which moral visions of education shall be imposed on all communities, all families, and all children” (Miller, 1995, p. 17). These are powerful statements from impassioned advocates of local control of schooling.

An important question these critiques evoke is whether the United States has already crossed the bridge to standards that define the dominant knowledge. NCLB already requires content standards in mathematics, reading, and science in each state. The question is whether state content standards would be any less likely to cause the problems Apple, Miller, and others suppose than national content standards (voluntary or not).

Making the Right Choice

The idea of a national curriculum for the United States is politically charged on both sides. On the one hand, there is great variation among states in the quality and content focus of standards and assessments. This may be leading to unequal OTL for students across the country. On the other hand, while national content standards could certainly be a step toward equalizing opportunity, rigid national standards were politically unfeasible and could cause as many problems as they would solve. Even national curriculum advocates like Diane Ravitch and Kevin Kosar point out the potential pitfalls of mandatory national content standards, including congressional meddling and hijacking of standard setting by groups without public support. Both Ravitch and Kosar support voluntary national standards and increased alignment. In this final section, the discussion focuses on recent work on national curriculum including voluntary national standards and tests. Finally, there are recommendations for how to do national curriculum right.

National Curriculum in 2007

Early in 2007, several pieces of legislation relating to a national curriculum have been introduced in Congress. Senator Hillary Clinton’s National Mathematics and Science Consistency Act would establish panels charged with creating voluntary national mathematics and science standards based on states’ and professional organizations’ (NCTM and NSTA) content standards. Senator Christopher Dodd’s Standards to Provide Educational Access to Kids (SPEAK) Act would task an assessment board with the creation of voluntary national standards in mathematics and science based upon NAEP frameworks. The act would also provide for reviews of state standards and fund grants to states for adoption of or alignment to the voluntary national standards. Senator Ted Kennedy’s States Using Collaboration and Coordination to Enhance Standards for Students (SUCCESS) Act would provide for alignment studies of state achievement and content standards with NAEP benchmarks, alignment studies of state assessments with state standards, and help for states to improve standards and alignment. Whether these three bills will pass through Congress is unclear, but it is clear from their introduction by such prominent legislators that aspects of a national curriculum are still under consideration.

Another timely development relating to the national curriculum is the impending reauthorization of NCLB. In 2007, legislators in Congress will have the difficult task of reviewing NCLB, based on early indicators about the successes and failures of the law. The Aspen Institute’s bipartisan Commission on No Child Left Behind was charged with evaluating the implementation and progress of NCLB and making suggestions for the upcoming reauthorization. Their report is replete with recommendations as to how to improve the act in its reauthorization, some of which relate to a national curriculum. The report recommends the creation of national model standards and assessments extrapolated from NAEP frameworks. A state could use these models in one of three ways: as the state’s standards and assessments, as a model for the creation of new state standards and assessments, or not at all. In the second or third case, alignment analyses would help ascertain the comparability of state standards and assessments to national standards and assessments. The secretary of education would also report annually on measures of state-to-national alignment. It is clear that components of a national curriculum will be part of the discussion of NCLB reauthorization.

Doing National Curriculum Right

The implementation of any components of a national intended curriculum, be they model standards or national tests, will be politically difficult. Many already object to the perceived intrusion of the federal government in educational matters through NCLB, so further intrusion is likely to be greeted by strong resistance. Still, a compelling case can be made for at least two points. First, it is difficult to justify the variation in content and achievement standards between states. In a world where students from Mississippi are competing not only with students from California, but also students from China and India, it makes little sense to hold students to different standards based on their state. Second, in mathematics and science particularly, and possibly in English/language arts, the idea that students from one state need to know largely different content than students from another state makes little sense. In these subjects, it should be possible to reach reasonable consensus on the content students should know and be able to do. Leaving room for states to add content they think is important is a critical step to ensure state and local rights, but a base of national standards in these content areas seems justified. The national standards and assessments recommended should be voluntary, per the Commission on NCLB’s recommendation, but states might be encouraged to adopt them or use them as frameworks through incentive programs.

Of course, implementing policy defining an intended curriculum may not produce the desired enacted curriculum. Researchers have examined the attributes of education policies that have intended effects (e.g., Porter, 1989). Specificity is the degree to which the policy is precise in defining what teachers are supposed to do. Consistency is how well aligned the various parts of the policy system are. Authority represents the buy-in of relevant actors, such as teachers and administrators. Power is the extent to which rewards and sanctions are conditional on policy compliance. And stability defines how the policy remains in place over time. Each of these attributes could play a role in crafting a national intended curriculum that results in a national enacted curriculum with equal opportunity to learn for all students.

Specificity of the components of the national intended curriculum (content standards, performance levels, assessments, and textbooks) is an important part of any national curriculum. The Fordham Foundation’s reviews of standards suggest specificity is not currently high, at least in some states. A national intended curriculum could be a step forward if it were more specific in terms of the important content and the performance necessary to reach proficiency. While NCLB requires consistency through alignment, many states have not yet demonstrated the alignment necessary to gain approval from the federal government. A national intended curriculum could improve on the current situation if it were more consistent, with high degrees of alignment among assessments, standards, and textbooks. While NCLB is part of law and thus high on legal authority, many states’ standards lack the input of experts and leaders of industry, meaning the intended curriculum may lack the authority needed. A national intended curriculum, developed with the input of teachers, administrators, business leaders, and content-area experts would have greater authority for all actors than the current system. Power exists under the current law in the form of rewards and sanctions for schools—those schools that do not demonstrate AYP are subject to progressively more serious sanctions. Curiously, the act is silent on rewards and sanctions for students. A national intended curriculum might do well if it had greater power over students, encouraging them to try their hardest through a system of rewards and sanctions. Finally, NCLB is up for reauthorization in 2007, and there has been considerable interest in how to change and improve the act. A national intended curriculum must be stable over time, so schools have a chance to adjust to the provisions and bring themselves up to speed. Constant revision will not be helpful in allowing the act to reach its full potential. These five attributes should be taken into consideration as policy makers design the intended curriculum, be it at state or national level.