09/16/2013 03:14 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2013

The Governors and Chief State School Officers Gave Birth to the Common Core, Now They Should Put Some Flesh on the Infant's Bones

A majority of the public thinks it's a good idea that American students should share a core of common knowledge. That's one reason people tend to favor the idea of Common Core Standards. They understand that children will have a better chance to learn when, for example, all the kindergartners in a class learn a core of the same things, which will make the job of next-year's first-grade teacher's more manageable. Then all students, including those from disadvantaged homes, can then move forward more readily. That's the basic reason why many nations with specific core curricula show better results than we do both in achievement and in equity.

Hence the friends I talk to who are not familiar with educational politics, simply assume that when "Common Core State Standards" are talked of, the children in each grade level will in fact receive a core of the same specific content. If they found out that "Common Core" meant something vaguer and more evasive, they might well want to know why. And they might very well think: "So what's new? "

The Common Core Standards (CCSS) in Language Arts (which are far better than most state standards) don't actually specify a grade-by-grade core of content. That's to be left up to the states and localities. The Governors and Chiefs in those states and localities do acknowledge the need for a core of shared knowledge in each grade, saying that the curriculum must be "intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades." This important statement further recognizes that reading proficiency depends on knowledge gained in all subjects across the curriculum -- in the arts, history, civics, science, and math, and that the language-arts class contributes only a portion of the knowledge that will be needed for college and career readiness.

That readiness-goal can be roughly quantified. It entails a vocabulary size of some twenty thousand word groups, gained over the 13 to 14 years of schooling. The general knowledge represented by a vocabulary of that size is the single most consistent measure of college and career readiness. As the CCSS rightly say, it can only be gained by all students through systematic instruction "within and across grades." This insight behind the new standards represents a big intellectual advance.

But while the governors and chief state school officers insist that states and localities should formulate such a curriculum, they seem to forget that they are the states and localities.

Unless they find the courage to get specific about core content, the incoherence and inequity of our schools will persist. The actual content that our students receive will be left up to individuals, or textbook publishers and test makers. In other words, if the governors and chiefs in charge in each state don't live up to their own recent admonitions in CCSS, we will continue to have the laissez-faire curriculum we have today, which has failed the nation, and will continue to do so. And the burden of incoherence will fall hardest on disadvantaged students who can only get needed background knowledge and vocabulary in school through a systematic approach to content.

Educators look to the coming Common Core tests for guidance. That is just where guidance should not come from! Tests ought to be based on a coherent curriculum whose specifics have been carefully worked out by thoughtful educators. After many decades of experience we should have learned that there is no educationally productive way to determine course content from test items which haven't themselves been based on a specific curriculum, and that are not even public. Who gave these testing companies the right to determine in secrecy the content our children shall learn? Without definite content decisions in the states and localities, the focus will continue to be on skills, and that will not get you to twenty thousand word groups. The converse, however is true; in the course of systematically gaining knowledge in different domains, the needed reading and writing skills will be gained.

Courage must be shown. The vice of curricular vagueness masquerading as virtue needs to be vigorously exposed to the public -- like Tartuffe in his nakedness -- as showing a lack of courage and decisiveness. Political timidity has produced a system under which children from educated families get the knowledge they need from home, while other people's children get it helter-skelter or not at all. Count the number of words they know!

Somebody needs to start offering prizes to "State Superintendent of the Year" to any willing to show guts. Chief state school officers and superintendents must be willing to stand up for definite content in the way that Commissioner John King recently did in New York, when there arose a great outcry that the state-approved curriculum for first graders should include the Code of Hammurabi and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It was an illustrative event. John King stood his ground. The critics were answered effectively, and the outcry diminished.

It is inevitable that any definite curriculum standard will raise an outcry in the United States. The best response is to acknowledge and deal with the controversy, and challenge critics to produce a better-thought-out alternative. In my experience, that's the end of the matter, because the critics will quickly understand that their own specific proposals will raise an outcry too. A dependable and universal law of educational policy in the United States is that any specific curriculum will raise an outcry -- at least among educators. Outcry or failure are the alternatives. The ethical choice ought to be clear.

The states and localities need not start from scratch. There exist two American models of specificity: the Massachusetts state standards, and the Core Knowledge Sequence. Massachusetts still leaves many specific decisions for choices out of a long list. Perhaps that's why progress in narrowing the gap with disadvantaged students has faltered. I think their core choices need to be narrowed. But the general excellence of the Massachusetts standards and tests explains that state's pre-eminence, and deserves to be imitated. No state or district would have to reinvent the wheel.

The only thing we'd need to reinvent would be a system of thought that leaves the specific content of the curriculum up to -- somebody else. For a governor or chief state school officer that's being an absentee parent.