In the case of the Common Core, the standards say, for instance, that fourth-grade students should “determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text” and that second graders should “estimate lengths using units of inches, feet, centimeters, and meters.”
These are outcomes—outcomes that demonstrate no preference for traditional pedagogy over constructivism, even if we at Fordham have our own preferences. They are outcomes that do not indicate how long you spend on particular topics, what order they should be taught, and on. Nor do the standards provide sample practice items or guidance about how to introduce or reinforce the concepts and content behind these expectations.
And so, when we say that Common Core do not prescribe curriculum, we mean very simply that those decisions—decisions about what books will be taught, about what writing assignments students will do, about how to introduce concepts, about how to build knowledge, about whether to use discovery learning or traditional methods—are made by local leaders and teachers.
But... what's the deal with that fourth grade standard, particularly (my emphasis):
Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text...
I read these things and even now they seem perfectly reasonable at first, but then they worm around in my brain for a day and a half or so and stop making sense. Why would you tell a fourth grader to determine the theme from details? Wouldn't you determine the theme from considering the work as a whole? CC ELA/Literacy wants you to teach it this way from grades 3 through 6. After that you have to start analyzing the development of the theme. I'm not sure exactly what that entails, but at least it sounds better.
The thing is, what really is in play here is not so much a conflict between describing what students should be able to do (determine the theme) and how to teach/do it (from details in the text) in terms of this standards/curriculum dichotomy. I'm sure it is just the testing guys throwing in the "details in the text" so they could write the kinds of questions they had in mind, e.g.:
Part 1: The theme is a) Love; b) Death; c) Both
Part 2: Which of the following details support your answer...