James Rutherford

“Only when we agree about what all high school graduates need to be successful will we be able to tackle the most significant challenge ahead of us: transforming instruction for every child,"4

“Common standards are a crucial first step toward putting our country’s children on the road to international competitiveness.” 5

The statements above were made in the context of an effort—involving 46 states and the District of Columbia—just launched by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)6 to create a common core of voluntary state standards in English language and mathematics. These efforts can be taken as evidence that the standards movement is not going away anytime soon, never mind the lack of solid evidence that content standards have an important impact on K–12 education. For most educators, the notion that we should understand as clearly as possible what we want all students to learn still makes sense.

Note that this new standards undertaking focuses on English and math, which is not surprising because those subjects will always be at the top of the school reform hierarchy. It follows that it will be some time before states get around to forging common standards for second-tier subjects (science, history, etc.), let alone engineering. Thus engineering need not rush to come up with national K–12 engineering education standards. Instead it can afford to take deliberate steps to find its desired place in the school curriculum, steps that will result in the evolution of engineering standards rather than their instantaneous birth.

Notice also that the NGA/CCSSO project does nothing to change the structure of the curriculum structure. Since the end of the World War II, the K–12 curriculum has steadily added content but removed very little. The curriculum is now so over-stuffed that there is little or no room for the likes of engineering, environment, or economics content. Nonetheless, teachers and publishers are reluctant to deal with content overload by simple surgery,7 so year to year content learning demands expand, the curricular structure remains rigidly fixed, and coherence declines.8 Sometime in this century the curriculum will have to be dramatically redesigned structurally to


CCSSO President-Elect and Maine Education Commissioner Sue Gendron.


Editorial, San Francisco Chronicle, June 8, 2009.


Partnering with The College Board and ACT.


The AAAS Project 2061’s Designs for Science Literacy has a chapter, “Unburdening the Curriculum,” that identifies major topics and technical language that can be cut from the science courses, subtopics that can be trimmed from remaining major topics. As far as I know, none of the textbook publishers or classroom teachers has followed this advice.


Check out today’s textbooks. In the sciences they are monsters approaching 1000 pages, and don’t even tell an engaging story.

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