Standards Are Not Curriculum: Why We Must Put Student Knowledge Center Stage in How We Teach Kids to Read

Susan Pimentel: How a new tool is looking beyond standards to help identify high-quality curriculum.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

We are in the midst of a reading curriculum renaissance. Over the past dozen years, an array of new English Language Arts curricula have appeared and legacy programs have substantially rebooted their offerings, all intended to align instruction with rigorous college and career-ready learning standards. That’s a good thing — necessary even; but not sufficient.

Standards are not curriculum. And yet, far too many ELA curricula in use today have put them at the center of literacy instruction, with disappointing results. How did we get here?

I want to shoulder some of the blame. I served as a co-author of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts, published in 2010. We developed those standards by identifying the progression of specific skills and competencies students should master in each grade across four domains: reading, writing, speaking/listening, and features of language like grammar and vocabulary.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this design had the unintended consequence of standards alignment overpowering nearly all other considerations — including how the standards were being taught. Too often, schools and teachers directed to “meet the standards” responded by teaching ELA as a mechanical series of content-agnostic, skill-based activities. And curriculum vendors retooled their offerings to put standards at the center, especially after reviews by EdReports and others revealed the vast differences among curricula in their alignment to standards.

Those ratings have helped redefine instructional quality and brought a much broader range of curriculum developers to the fore. But they rely on a blunt metric. An ELA curriculum can earn a positive rating if it lines up with discrete, grade-level standards. While valuable, these reviews are incomplete. They fail to account for an important admonition contained in the Common Core State Standards we made sure to include:

They [the Standards] do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must, therefore, be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.

In fact, the Standards mention the importance of knowledge-building more than 100 times.

Fortunately, a handful of publishers took this guidance to heart and created a new generation of ELA curricula unparalleled in their potential to drive reading success. They are designed to go deep on content. In the knowledge-based classrooms that use them, students are learning to read through the joyful exploration of reading to learn.

These best-in-class, knowledge-rich reading curricula ground instruction in high-interest topical units, based on powerful evidence that literacy and knowledge go hand in hand. Through coherent, thoughtfully sequenced activities, these curricula teach phonics and core literacy skills while growing student knowledge about the natural and human world. They use complex texts and scaffolding supports that grant all students access to grade-level content. The knowledge they build is like an interest-bearing savings account: the more students know, the faster they learn and the better readers they become.

Systematically growing knowledge is an essential equity investment. Beginning in the earliest grades, knowledge-building is a vital strategy to accelerate learning and grant all students access to grade-level content. And it sets the stage for a lifetime of critical inquiry and analysis.

Sadly, these content-rich ELA curricula are not yet used in enough American classrooms to make a real dent in our national reading crisis — an especially urgent goal given the persistent adverse effects of pandemic-related school closures.

Let me be clear. While standards can and should set the bar for annual learning targets, they shouldn’t be used to define the particulars of daily classroom instruction. Fluent reading is built on skills, yes, but it is ultimately fueled by curiosity and the desire to make meaning. Nobody picks up a text to practice finding the main idea of a paragraph. Rather, they learn to find the main idea by engaging with a text because it’s interesting, opens a window into new knowledge or offers a unique insight. What if, instead of foregrounding skills, students were learning about dinosaurs, butterflies, or the American Revolution, and mastering reading skills along the way?

That’s the crucial difference between high-quality, knowledge-based reading curricula and curricula that are merely standards-aligned and only touch on texts and topics that don’t add up to building a coherent body of knowledge.

A new curriculum review tool, recently published by the Knowledge Matters Campaign, is designed to help states and school districts differentiate between the two. It arrives at an important moment for reading teachers and education leaders nationwide. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. states have passed “science of reading” laws in recent years, most requiring districts to use curricula that have been vetted and approved by their state education departments. While existing tools can be used to assess whether a curriculum covers essential foundational skills, until now nothing has existed to help states and educators identify content richness — the other essential component of literacy.

The Knowledge Matters Review Tool looks at 26 separate criteria across eight dimensions, selected from the rich body of research on what works best in reading classrooms. That includes whether texts are intentionally organized to build topic knowledge and if classroom activities include regular communal readings of rigorous, grade-level texts. It assesses curricula based on the depth of knowledge-building discussions, a volume of reading and writing on conceptually connected texts, and the availability of targeted supports for students who need acceleration to get to grade level.

As a field, we’ve taken significant steps toward providing all students with the excellent, equitable, rigorous reading instruction they deserve. But we’re not there yet. There is real reason for hope and a clear opportunity to improve, with a rising tide of renewed focus, energy, and mandates for change. Better yet, we know more now than ever about the power of high-quality curriculum. And with this new tool, educators can be sure that curricula both meet standards and build student knowledge. If we can get this right, I believe we’re on the cusp of reshaping literacy instruction and supporting a new generation of excellent readers.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today