Policy Position

Standards and Curricula

in Education


Updated as of January 2020.

Curricula are not standards. Standards are not curricula. In the debate over the Common Core State Standards, definitions of key terms such as “standards” and “curricula” vary considerably. For some, standards and curricula are the same. For others, standards are a framework by which curricula are developed.

Although there is no universally accepted definition, most education experts agree it is important to make a clear distinction between the two concepts. In general, standards are broad goals, or, in the words of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, “standards define what students know and should be able to do.”

Curricula include specific course content either developed by the teacher or obtained from an external source. Teachers may use different curricula so long as it is aligned to the standards established for that subject and grade. Arguably, the latter is more important than the former. In an early assessment of Common Core adoption and implementation, Tom Loveless, an educational researcher at the Brookings Institution, found no apparent relationship between the quality and the rigor of state standards and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. These findings suggest that the content teachers teach and that students learn likely has a much greater bearing on student achievement than what standards alone may provide.

Simply put, standards reform is not enough to boost student performance. Standards are successful only when they are buttressed by content-rich curricula delivered by well-trained educators, preferably using direct instruction.

Key Facts

  • State education officials mandate that all subject-area teachers follow the Standard Course of Study, which defines “appropriate content standards for each grade level and each high school course to provide a uniform set of learning standards for every public school in North Carolina.” State standards are reviewed and updated periodically.
  • The Common Core State Standards were developed by three Washington, D.C.- based organizations — the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc. — and were championed by the U.S. Department of Education. In 2010, the North Carolina State Board of Education adopted Common Core mathematics and English language arts standards for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. In 2018, English language arts and mathematics teachers began using a revised version of the Common Core State Standards.
  • State-authored standards included in the Standard Course of Study include arts education, career and technical education, English as a second language, guidance, healthful living, information and technology skills, science, social studies, and world languages.
  • Currently, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction provides curriculum resources to teachers without mandating that they adopt any of them.
  • North Carolina state law prescribes teaching of curricular content in certain grades and course areas. For example, state law prescribes inclusion of a civic literacy curriculum during a high school social studies course. Health education, character education, and financial literacy are other content requirements outlined in the statute. The requirement to teach multiplication tables and cursive writing are two notable curriculum mandates passed into law.


  1. Legislators should create two permanent commissions charged with raising the quality and rigor of state English language arts and mathematics standards, as well as curricula and assessments. The goals of the commissions would be to 1) modify substantially or replace the Common Core State Standards; 2) specify content that aligns with the standards; 3) recommend a valid, reliable, and cost-effective testing program; 4) provide ongoing review of the standards, curriculum, and tests throughout implementation.
  2. The commission should develop a rigorous state-developed curriculum or adopt a rigorous, independently developed curriculum, such as the Core Knowledge Sequence. Prescribing baseline curricular content would provide a more equitable education environment, ensuring that all students, regardless of socioeconomic circumstances, are exposed to the same essential content. It would also allow the state to compensate for knowledge and skill deficiencies identified by institutions of higher education, private- and public-sector employers, and other stakeholders.

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