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The ‘Latent Curriculum’

By Walt Gardner — February 10, 2014 2 min read
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When parents talk about a school’s curriculum, they usually refer to the courses and activities offered. But there is another curriculum that is less understood. It’s the rules, values and norms that prevail on a particular campus (Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools, Teachers College Press, 2013). Peter Cookson Jr. calls them the ‘latent curriculum.’

I agree with the author about its importance. Just as the broken windows theory helps to explain the existence of crime, I think we send a subtle but unmistakable message to students by the environment in which we educate them. This goes beyond the obvious in the form of dilapidated facilities to the way we treat students. While these factors do not technically constitute the curriculum, their effect on learning cannot be denied.

Just as it’s impossible to know if the chicken or the egg came first, I maintain it’s impossible to know if the socioeconomic composition of the student body or the curriculum came first. When I started teaching in 1964 at the high school where I spent my entire 28-year career, the curriculum was largely academic, and students came overwhelmingly from advantaged homes. The school’s grounds, buildings, and equipment were well maintained. Students addressed me as “Sir.” In short, I felt as if I were teaching in a private school.

But court rulings, Third World immigration, and cutbacks in financial support as a result of Proposition 13 changed the ‘latent curriculum.’ Students do not leave their attitudes and values at the threshold of the schoolhouse door. I can’t place an exact weight on each factor, but the school slowly became indistinguishable from the other high schools in the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District. The effect on instruction was dramatic. Lesson plans based on the traditional academic curriculum that used to engage students now bored them. I understood the need for rethinking my instruction, but I was never able to accept the lack of civility that soon prevailed.

Apparently, neither could other teachers. The rate of early retirement was one manifestation. But so was the number of parents who began to withdraw their children in order to enroll them in private schools. It’s tempting to attribute what happened strictly to resistance to change. Yet there is another explanation that Cookson provides: “Most people do not want to go to, or work in, a school that “reflects back ... poverty, disorganization, and confusion.” Are there exceptions? Of course.

The Coleman Report has its critics, but I think it rightly underscored the important role that poverty plays both off and on campus. As I’ve written before, I doubt if the best teachers from wealthy private or affluent suburban schools would be nearly as effective in rural working-class or inner-city schools. It’s not a question of expertise; it’s a matter of compassion fatigue resulting from trying to meet the needs and interests of students from chaotic backgrounds.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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