Alliance Formed To Push Curriculum to Front of Reform Agenda

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ASPEN, COLO.--The leaders of more than 33 national subject- matter groups met here last week and hammered out plans to form a permanent organization that would work to put curricular issues at the forefront of the education-reform movement.

"What we are unabashedly stating is that curriculum is the key centerpiece of the reform movement," said Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and head of a steering committee formed to outline the structure of the new organization.

The effort is an outgrowth of a pioneering meeting of leaders from curriculum groups held here a year ago. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.)

More than 20 groups attended that initial meeting, known as the "curriculum congress," with no clear idea of where the effort would lead, observed Rex Brown, a meeting organizer and director of an education reform project for the Education Commission of the States.

"A year ago," he said, "the question was: Should curriculum organizations get together and see if they have a common agenda or set of problems that can only be pursued as a group?"

"This year," Mr. Brown added, "the question is how."

An Unbalanced Curriculum?

The answer to that second question, however, was still up in the air at last week's meeting. But the permanent organization could begin to suggest one, the participants here said.

According to a preliminary outline by the participants, the new coalition would serve as a voice for curricular issues in education reform and a potential resource for educators looking to improve what they teach. It would include as members leaders of national, nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations whose primary focus is curriculum and instruction.

For many of those attending the meeting, a major impetus for their efforts is a concern over the direction in which current national initiatives to reform education are headed. They said efforts to create a national testing system, for example, have overlooked the central role of curriculum in the classroom.

"One assumption we've been operating on at the national level is that the way to effect change is to put in some kind of gate keeping test," said Alan E. Farstrup, director of research and development for the International Reading Association. "But is that the only way to encourage reform, or is that backwards?"

"That is something that's been brought into question at this meeting, and I think it ought to be open for debate," he added.

In a news release prepared at the close of the meeting, the group also noted that national-testing efforts have ignored some of the key subjects normally taught in schools. The omission, the group said, could result in an unbalanced curriculum in schools seeking to "teach to the test."

A "balanced" curriculum, participants said, would include subjects such as civics, the social sciences, the arts, second-language studies, international studies, and health and physical education, as well as so-called "basics," such as English, mathematics, science, and history.

The alliance also called in its statement for a greater emphasis on the needs of students and for ensuring their "access to a challenging level or instruction that reflects and respects their individuality and prepares them to be capable, flexible, and educated adults."

"The government-business coalition that has been leading a lot of the reforms has interests at heart of preparation for the workforce and national security," said Judith Renyi, a meeting organizer and director of Collaboratives for Humanities and Arts Teaching, or CHART, a Rockefeller Foundation-funded effort that sponsors precollegiate curriculum projects in 13 states and school districts.

"Our groups have those interests at heart, but they also have something broader--including the interests of children," she added.

CHART and the E.C.S. put together all of the "curriculum congress" meetings, which included one last December in the Washington area, with funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Wait for a New Train?

While many participants here agreed the current reform efforts are misguided, the group was divided over how to address such concerns.

They noted that a panel chaired by Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, charged with studying national standards and testing, and the Bush Administration's America 2000 education strategy have called for putting a national assessment system in place as early as 1993.

"The shadow over the whole thing, of course, is the Romer commission and America 2000," said Andrew Ahlgren, deputy director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's curriculum-reform effort, Project 2065.

"That train has left the station, and we have to decide whether to stop it, flag it down, or wait and hope for the next train," he said.

While it will be up to Mr. Cawelti's newly appointed steering committee to address that question, a number of participants last week said they favored taking the time to formulate more thoughtful recommendations for curriculum reform.

"In losing one battle, I don't think we lost the war," said C. Edward Scebold, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. "We don't want to be in a position where we come out boldly and blatantly and say we have a program for solving everybody's problems."

A Broader Focus

Participants also said the group would have a focus broader than those of current national reform efforts.

Among the issues on its agenda is the examination of potential approaches for integrating diverse subject matter.

"Lots of people have lots of topics they want in the curriculum, like environmental education, AIDS education, drug education," said Mr. Cawelti of the A.S.C.D. "[The problem is] finding a place in an overloaded curriculum."

At the same time, the group cautioned in its first official statement, such efforts should take place "within the traditional field of knowledge."

"If you're teaching about the American Revolution and you decide to do a diorama, that doesn't mean that the kids in your class will not be taking a visual-arts class," said Carol Sterling, director of arts education for the American Council for the Arts.

The integration issue was a central topic for the group partly because of a growing realization that, if all the curricula-reform recommendations generated by the individual subject-matter groups were adopted, students would, in the words of one attendee, "spend up to 40 hours a week in school."

The topic was also, however, a subject of intense debate at the meeting.

"If the real fear was that, in the face of budget cuts, reform would be tied to a generalist view where the same people are taught everything," said Mr. Farstrnp of the reading association.

In addition to curricular integration, the group promised in its statement to explore multicultural curricula, seeking approaches that both reflect cultural diversity and Americans' common cultural values.

One issue emphatically not on the table was the development of a national curriculum--an idea that engenders fierce opposition from advocates of local control of schools. Participants repeatedly warned against any language in their official statements that might mistakenly convey the impression they favored such a venture.

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 32

Published in Print: September 4, 1991, as Alliance Formed To Push Curriculum to Front of Reform Agenda
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