Curriculum versus Standards: What’s the Difference?

A lot of the controversy over the Common Core State Standards revolves around local district control of curriculum and the learning expectations of Common Core. But curriculum and standards are two different things. Let’s clear up some of the confusion.

The Missouri Learning Standards include the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English language arts and math. The standards simply state what students are expected to know at each grade level. For instance, at the end of 7th grade, students should know how to draw, construct and describe geometrical figures, describe the relationships between them and solve real-life and mathematical problems involving angle measure, area, surface area and volume. Standards make expectations for students as clear as possible to parents, teachers and the general public. They are similar to setting goals for learning except that schools often go above and beyond the standards for those students who are ready to learn more. For an in-depth look at the standards, click here.

On the other hand, curriculum is largely the day to day, week to week scaffolding of skills teachers use to help students reach the standards.  Curriculum is what students do in the classroom, the homework they have, and the myriad of ways teachers carefully select the activities to increase each student’s learning. Curriculum is strictly a local decision made by teachers, administrators and school boards. As Missouri has implemented the CCSS statewide, local educators have made their own curriculum decisions based on local needs, just as teachers adjust their classroom instruction to meet the learning needs of individual students. The CCSS do provide illustrations and examples of the content described by the standards, but they don’t mandate how or what to teach.

While curriculum may be altered year to year, classroom to classroom, and student to student, standards remain constant. Standards cannot be pilot tested—they are simply expectations for learning, a goal to be reached. Say you want to run a marathon; that’s your goal. You can’t pilot test the goal, you can only determine how you’ll reach it. You begin with daily training, running shorter distances and slowly adding on until you’re able to build your endurance for 26 miles. That’s your curriculum. If at first you can’t run those shorter distances, you might try walking until you can run, tweaking the “curriculum” as you go.

As local districts continue to develop and adjust curriculum to make sure students are reaching the Missouri Learning Standards, including the CCSS, they need the support of parents, students and the general public. The ultimate goal of standards and curriculum is helping kids graduate from high school fully prepared for college, postsecondary training and career.