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Obama Proposes New Competition for High School Career Curricula

President Barack Obama zeroed in on two areas of K-12 education in his State of the Union address last night: expanding preschool opportunities and beefing up high school curricula aimed at preparing students for good jobs.

My colleague Alyson Klein explains it all for you over at the Politics K-12 blog. Bottom line? The president is proposing another Race to the Top-type competition that would support high schools in taking on rigorous curricula in science, math, and technology, and in creating more business and higher-education partnerships to provide more "real world" experience for students. He also wants career and technical education improved.

But I couldn't help noticing something in the president's remarks that I haven't heard much—if ever—before when he's talked about improving K-12 education: He said the word "curriculum." And in saying that, he could be walking straight into the buzz saw of conservative criticism about the federal government overstepping its role by meddling in what's taught in the classroom.

When Obama has talked before about his administration's work to improve K-12, he has consistently talked about raising standards. He's bragged about how the Race to the Top competition helped propel nearly every state in the country to adopt the Common Core State Standards, and he's taken credit, too, for funneling federal money into designing assessments that he says will be far better than the ones we have now.

But that frame left his critics the job of connecting, for the public at large, the dots between standards and assessment, and what actually gets taught in the classroom—curriculum. Those critics have repeatedly argued that if the government is using its clout to persuade states to take on a set of standards, and to use certain tests, then what goes in between—curriculum—is essentially government-controlled, too.

There is another side to this argument, of course. And it goes something like this: It's wrong to conclude that the federal government is dictating curriculum, because there are many roads to the destination of getting students to master the standards and do well on the tests. These roads leave plenty of room for curricular freedom.

Regardless of what side of this argument you're on, though, Obama's clear connection of curriculum and a government-funded competition to foster its development could unleash fresh waves of angst and sniping about what the government is doing, and whether it's on the right side of the legal fence.

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