I've served on the ACM Education Board for several years now, and I've come to realize how important curriculum standards efforts are. Before I served on the Board, I thought of curriculum standards as necessary bureaucracy. Somebody has to tell accreditation boards what to accredit for! I have learned of at least two important roles for curriculum standards that I had not thought about previously.
I have now heard several times how important curriculum standards committees are for new departments, particularly in the developing world. Want to start a new computer science program? One of your first questions is, "What should we teach?" There it is, all laid out for you — what a set of curriculum experts think is our current best practice. I have heard stories from Eastern Europe, Africa, and India, about new departments using the curriculum volumes to guide them getting started. There is a lot involved in starting a new computer science department: The curriculum guidelines provide an excellent starting place. From there, choices can be made and tailoring can occur for the local context.
One of the more surprising purposes is to settle battles (or prevent them) in curriculum committee meetings. I have been in many of these, at different schools. Do we teach objects first, or objects late? Should we stick with Java or move to Python? Exactly when should graph algorithms or pointers be introduced (if at all)? Sometimes, I think curriculum committee battles are examples of (in a quote often attributed to Henry Kissinger), "Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." Other times, I think that the battles are so intense because they are actually about values. Values change over time, and no amount of data or analysis resolve disagreements about values. In any case, a curriculum standards document can be used to help resolve (at least some of) these battles, just as the Guiness Book of World Records can be used to resolve trivia battles. People have told me how curriculum documents have been used to move a stuck curriculum reform process, or to make a choice between several options long considered and fought over. Curriculum standards processes are about moving our education efforts forward, reconsidering what we do, and inventing anew.
I have enormous respect for those who lead curriculum standards efforts. It's a challenge requiring diplomacy, the ability to strike compromises, creativity, and enormous patience. Essentially, you have all those curriculum committee battles vicariously, with the top experts in those curricular areas. The resultant document is a guide, then, to how these issues have been resolved and how that resolution can be mapped to your local curriculum.
All of this comes to mind because two curriculum standards efforts have reached a significant point in the last month:
I encourage you to get involved in these efforts — comment on drafts, and add content where requested. Standards are most valuable when they reflect our best thinking and broad contributions. Promote curriculum committee peace! Help with standards!
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