Curricular confusions

You shouldn't need 3-D glasses to see the need for a good curriculum. So why, then, does Neal McClaskey at Cato think that a national curriculum is ?not possible in this dimension?? ?Or why does former Gates Foundation education honcho Tom Vander Ark say, ?A ?common curriculum' (whatever that means) is the wrong idea when we're about ready to develop ?school of one'"?? Which sounds a lot like Sarah Engel's recent New York Times op-ed Let Kids Rule School? (see Liam's brilliant From the Department of Bad Ideas on that one.) ?Or even Fordham's ?Kathleen Porter-Magee's Stop Seeking Curricular solutions to instructional problems.

Curriculum is the newest old question of the hour (see Liam's The Same Thing, Over and Over), brought on by a ?a bipartisan group of [250] educators and business and labor leaders,? according to the NYT, signed on to a Shanker Institute statement in support of a national curriculum. Unfortunately, it shook some old trees, which brought a flutter of dead ideas back to clutter the education sky.?

Could someone explain why educators ? and Cato -- are so afraid of curriculum? I thought we were beginning to overcome our fear of knowledge. I recall the first time I showed my school district's Curriculum Director ? a former psychologist ? a copy of the Core Knowledge K-8 Sequence and her remark was, ?No, we don't do that. Our job is to teach children how to think critically??? Think critically about what? I asked. ?I showed the same book to a local community college administrator and he said, ?Who's he to tell us what to know??? ?

That was more than ten years ago and I thought that they were ten years behind the times -- well, a few centuries behind, but that's another story.

As I wrote last month, (here and here) our curricular phobias?lead us to some pretty nutty ideas and practices.? One is our obsession with developing standards and tests ? divorced from content. Aren't standards a synthesis of the content? ?But what content? Why does the Civil War figure in our standards? Didn't very certain things happen at very specific times? Can't we agree on those specific things and times as something our kids should know?? But the content has become secondary ? if not a distant unknown, forgotten in our new age?of Schools of one, ?Individual Education Plans, Differentiated Instructions,?Child-centered classrooms.

Not that E.D. Hirsch, godfather of the modern curricular movement, couldn't have predicted it.? In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books he wrote,

With the current emphasis on testing and accountability it might be assumed that the days of child-centeredness are now over. But that assumption would miss an essential point. The schools still lack a definite, pre-set, year-by-year curriculum (though this is changing in math) and yet at the same time schools are being required to make measurable progress on year-by-year tests.

This contradictory and self-defeating situation has arisen because of a quirk in child-centered educational theory. Though it is opposed to imparting facts in a definite curriculum, it is not against inculcating all-purpose general skills?such as reading strategies and critical thinking. ?Rote learning? and a set curriculum are to be regarded with scorn, but students may be subjected to drills in how-to skills that will prepare them to pass tests.

My friend Robert Pondiscio at Hirsch's Core Knowledge Foundation sounded an early alarm about our neo-no-nothings, with a series of posts: A Curriculum Manifesto, ?Ed Reformers for Illiteracy, Pascal's Wager on Curriculum. This is one of the better blog trilogies on the subject; must-reads. ?

But I'll give the last word to Checker, who threw up?his arms in his recent Rational thinking on common curricula,

For Pete's sake, people, this is an effort to help teachers do a better job of getting their pupils to a higher standard of achievement in English and math, not to repeal local control, eliminate autonomy and choice, or impose the federal government on state and local education agencies.

?--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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