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Curriculum Mood Swings

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I noticed a call for manuscripts on "The Changing Curriculum'' in an educational journal and thought, "Hmm. That should be an interesting issue, now that so many schools are involved in restructuring.'' Later, however, as I remembered my own career in education, I realized that the truest statement I could make about change in schools is, "The more things change, the more they stay the same.''

I know from the work of Michael Fullan and others who have explored the complex factors involved in the initiation, implementation, and continuation of a change that instituting lasting change is difficult and elusive. Yet the title for a new bibliography from the National Association for Core Curriculum--Research on the Effectiveness of Block-Time, Course, and Interdisciplinary Team Teaching Programs--led me to wonder if there has been any real change in curriculum since the early 60's.

The word core in the association's name instantly brought back memories of my days as a beginning teacher in California in the early 60's. I was hired to teach English and social studies in a junior high school, but since we were all assigned to teach the same group of students for two periods, we were called "core teachers.'' We talked about "core classes,'' not English and social studies.

At the time, I was too busy as a novice teacher trying to prevent chaos in my classes to consider the theoretical basis for the district's curriculum policies, so I do not know what arguments persuaded district administrators to create the core classes. Perhaps they were similar to those being put forth today: Subjects should be integrated because real-world problems are interdisciplinary, for example; or, 45-minute periods are not conducive to interactive student learning and reflection. I do recall that we were encouraged to have students do projects that combined English and social studies and to involve them in writing for social studies as well as for English.

Even though "team teaching'' and "collaboration'' were not discussed, there was a natural basis for teacher collaboration. Because each teacher taught five periods rather than six, we each had one split-class. Although one teacher opted to teach English while the other took responsibility for social studies, it made sense for us to coordinate our teaching. We were dealing with the same group of students and taught both subjects to our other students.

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

When I left that district five years later, though, core--and along with it, much of the informal teacher collaboration--was dead. I'm not sure exactly when or why administrators began scheduling the two subjects as separate classes--to facilitate developing the master schedule maybe. My last year in that junior high I was an "English teacher,'' and my friend, a "social-studies teacher.'' The junior high where I taught next had never even jumped on the "core bandwagon.''

Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, however, reforms that die are often reborn, albeit dressed in slightly different feathers. What counts as an innovation may not be new, but rather newly rediscovered. By the early 70's educational reform was in high gear, and while some of the innovations, such as elective courses, seemed on the surface to have split the curriculum up into many tiny fragments, that wasn't always the case. Many electives were interdisciplinary--filmmaking and humanities courses, for example. And teachers were teaching in teams. In the small rural high school where I was then teaching, the three of us who made up the English department developed a new curriculum and team-taught the freshman students in heterogeneous classes.

Because the school also instituted a flexible modular schedule, teachers had the option of scheduling students not only in longer blocks of time but also in groups of varying sizes for different purposes. In my short-story course, for instance, all the students met as a large group for an hour, during which general information about short stories was presented and discussed. Then, as a follow-up, there were 40-minute small-group discussion sessions. Students in each of these groups read different stories, depending on their interest and reading level. In the small-group sessions, the students and I talked about the particular stories they had read in relation to the material introduced to all students in the large-group meeting. The modular schedule made it possible to eliminate the rigidly tracked classes that are still the norm in most high schools and are one of the targets of current reform.

Modular scheduling also provided teachers with time during the school day to work on curriculum. Because teachers had more unscheduled time with the modular schedule than is the case with a traditional one, we met frequently to discuss professional concerns and develop curriculum. A colleague and I designed and team-taught several elective courses. It was also easy to schedule one-on-one individual or small-group sessions for students who needed extra help. Moreover, we often became unofficial "teacher advisers'' for some students, since the changes in the schedule created a climate that encouraged a great deal of informal conversation between teachers and students.

But these innovations did not last, and I was moved to write an article about the benefits of the flexible modular schedule in that school and its unfortunate demise. That year, the most rewarding of my entire career in education, I experienced and came to value many of the "innovations'' that have become part of the restructuring movement today. Even though I now understand more clearly the complex political and organizational factors that killed our efforts to change that rural school, it doesn't ease my sense of loss.

Of course, my school wasn't the only one to return to traditional ways of educating students. Things changed on the national scene as well. The back-to-basics movement of the late 70's and early 80's led to the reinstitution of the usual year-long courses and increased demands for accountability. Teachers pressured to increase student scores on standardized tests didn't have the encouragement or energy to develop interdisciplinary courses or student projects.

Curriculum and classroom practice are much like the weather in Maine: If you don't like it, wait a minute. As reform has elided into restructuring, teachers are once again being asked to think about change. The concepts aren't new, but some of the labels are. "Collaborative'' or "cooperative learning'' seems a lot like "small-group training'' in the 70's. "Block scheduling'' might be thought of as a less flexible variation of the "modular schedule.'' Take a journey back through the history of American education with Lawrence Cremin or Herbert Kliebard, and it is easy to trace the complex pattern created as political and social movements cause the dominance of one curriculum vision or another to wax and wane. It is also clear that the current movement to institute a more student-centered, interactive, and integrated curriculum has its roots in John Dewey's idea of education as experience.

Despite the introduction of computers and other responses to changes in the outside world, schools today still teach much of the same basic content they did decades ago. Arthur Applebee, for instance, who conducted a study in U.S. secondary schools to compare required book-length works in the curriculum today with those in 1963, found that there were very few differences. Furthermore, there was a surprising degree of agreement among public, Catholic, and private schools. Plays of Shakespeare--"Romeo and Juliet,'' "Hamlet,'' "Macbeth,'' and "Julius Caesar''--still top the list. The authors of the top 10 titles in 1989 as in 1963 include only one female (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird) and no minority authors. Mr. Applebee does note that works by women and minorities have been added to the curriculum in some schools.

His findings reinforce my own personal impression that much remains unchanged. Every time I have scored open-ended-response essays written by students for the English Composition Test or the Advanced Placement test in English, I have been struck by how many of the books students choose to write about are the same ones I read as a student and taught as a beginning teacher. As I have observed classrooms at all levels, I have been amazed at how much time some teachers spend on grammar worksheets and vocabulary lists, despite a vast amount of research suggesting that teaching skills in isolation is not effective.

What is really sad--and probably inescapable--is that young teachers today will invest as much energy and enthusiasm in making changes as I once did only to see the national mood swing back again. The changes they make in their own teaching will stay with them because they will be forever changed by what they have learned and experienced with their students. They may, however, soon find it increasingly difficult to teach in ways that they believe are right and true. When the public demands that schools once again return to the old ways of doing things, teachers and administrators will be forced to respond, and the climate will be very unfriendly for those who believe in a student-centered experiential curriculum.

Some might argue that curriculum change today is more research-based than it was in the past, but still I wonder. Changing curriculum? And so what else is new? Like ocean tides that ebb and flow, so, too, goes curriculum. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Perhaps the curriculum question we most need to ask and answer is not "What?'' but "Why?''

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