Some of you who are music educators will be doing curriculum writing work over the summer, while others will be planning for the coming school year. In either case, it is important to understand the distinction between standards and curriculum. With the presence of common core in many states, standards have taken on a renewed importance in planning and delivering instruction. In music, the core arts standards have refocused instruction on the four artistic processes of performing, creating, responding and connecting. In past years, before these new standards, local curriculum writers frequently transferred the music standards into curriculum documents, and with little additional work, published the standards as a curriculum. Clearly this approach obscured the difference between standards and curriculum, as writers supposed that the two were virtually interchangeable.
As we write new curricula using the new core arts standards for music, we must avoid repeating this mistake. There is indeed a difference between standards and curriculum. Standards express what all students are expected to achieve. They are equally applied to all students in all districts, regardless of differences between districts, schools, classes, or students. As such, they include the body of knowledge and skills that are deemed essential for all students to be able to demonstrate. Standards do not include how these knowledge or skills will be taught or learned, only that they will be taught and learned. With this in mind, it is easy to see why presenting standards as a curriculum is unacceptable; there is no guidance included in what the teacher is to do, what materials or activities will be used, or how learning will be assessed. These matters are specific to local districts, and the responsibility of individual teachers to implement.
This brings us to the question of what is a curriculum. Simply stated, if standards are what all students will learn and do, then curriculum is how some students, those in a particular school district, will meet the standards. This is why one set of standards suffices for an entire state or nation, while each school district needs its own curriculum. It is in the curriculum that the individual needs of students and districts is taken into account, and articulated so that meeting the standards fits students who are different in ways that affect their learning.
Whereas the standards say that musicians select music to perform based on interests, knowledge, abilities, and context, the curriculum says that students will draw on known cultural influences on interests, knowledge and context, and will direct students to self-evaluating their abilities. For example, an urban district might specify in the curriculum that blues, rhythm and blues, rap, and gospel musical styles will be included in middle school music instruction. Students will develop performance ability though targeted instruction and practice, create learning experiences from which students will acquire knowledge of and develop interests in these musical genres, and then provide them the opportunity to select and practice songs based on the knowledge and abilities they have acquired from the instruction. Having done so, they will have met the standard under the process of selecting music for performance. In a rural district, the same standard might be met with folk, bluegrass, and country music genres. Finer differences would likely occur. For example, improvising is more likely to occur in rap and blues than in folk or country music, so the urban class might emphasize improvisation and/or creating more than the rural class. On the other hand, instrumental music tends to be more prevalent in country and bluegrass than in rap music, so the rural class might emphasize instruments, especially violin/fiddle, more than the urban class. These differences would also be shaped by differences in student interests. Yet in both the urban and rural classes, the standard would be equally well met, all instructional factors being equal. Curricula specify the best means for the students in a given district to accomplish the means of meeting the standard.
The curriculum, unlike the standards, must also include the method by which student learning will be assessed. If students are supposed to be able to select music to perform based on knowledge, interests, context, and ability, then they must select music that they will actually perform, and the selection must be assessed based on how well it aligns with each of those criteria. Requiring students to select music within their ability can also motivate them to increase their performance proficiency so that they can perform a song that at present is challenging, but which they are highly motivated to sing or play. In any case, it is necessary to assess learning in order to determine if the standard has been met after instruction according to the curriculum has been given.