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Education Commentary

The Paideia Proposal: Noble Ambitions, False Leads, And Symbolic Politics

By Willis D. Hawley — November 24, 1982 10 min read

Interest in the Paideia group’s proposal seems traceable to the growing national concern that our schools are not preparing our young people for the challenges of what Daniel J. Boorstin calls “the technological republic” and that this failure, especially when compared to the achievements of other nations, threatens our economic prosperity and even our national security.

The Paideia proposal eloquently urges on us a single-track core curriculum for elementary and secondary schools and certain strategies for teaching those subjects.. There is much to admire in the proposal. There is no question that we need to change the curriculum of American schools to make it more rigorous and to ensure attention to more advanced mathematics, science, and language competencies. And, it is surely time that we ask more of youngsters than we are asking and that we insist that the gaps in achievement among and within most schools be reduced dramatically. It is easy to identify with Mr. Adler and his colleagues in the Paideia group when they assert that we should insist on education of superior quality for all Americans, regardless of their social background.

As a call to renewed interest in the quality of our schools, as a stimulant to re-examine what is being taught, and as a challenge to expect more of our schools and of our young people, the Paideia proposal contributes much to the growing demand for educational change. But as a guide to action, which it purports to be, the proposal leads us down primrose paths and away from the main roads we need to travel if we are to secure, as almost all now agree we must, higher quality education for all the nation’s youngsters.

The Paideia Proposal is not a blueprint for a new structure within which we can bring about meaningful change in the effectiveness of our schools. Rather, it is an artist’s rendering that pays little attention either to the terrain upon which the new structure will be built or to the practical problems of financing and construction.

Mr. Adler is impatient with those who charge that the proposal is impractical. He has been quoted as saying "... I don’t see why our group, having come up with the proposal, should solve all the practical problems.” Nice work, if you can get it. But one reason one might want to engage practicalities is that they often suggest important shortcomings of an idea. Educational reformers are well acquainted with windmills, and the lesson of past reform efforts is that the search for “a solution” or “an approach” is futile. If only it were as simple as deciding what it would be nice for everyone to know (which is, according to the Paideia proposal, everything except vocational skills).

But the key to improving our schools is not curriculum reform. Americans have always sought a quick and simple fix to what they have perceived to be the problems of schools. However, meaningful changes will require that we undertake the complicated jobs of improving teaching, dealing with diversity, and ensuring effective management of resources. Better curricula will help, to be sure, but they are not the answer.

The inadequacies of our schools mirror the characteristics of our society. Dramatic inequalities of income, racial and social class discrimination, chronic unemployment in some sectors, and the historically low status of education are the causes, not the products, of schools’ shortcomings.

The Paideia group’s proposal fails us for at least three reasons: the idea of a core curriculum is not only impractical but educationally unsound; its attention to evidence about learning and school effectiveness seems nonexistent; and its emphasis on curriculum as the vehicle for change puts the cart before the horse and seems likely to direct attention away from more promising but more complicated solutions.

The single-track core curriculum proposed by Mr. Adler and his colleagues insists that all children learn the same things in schools. For example, all children are expected to know calculus. The first question is: Can all children learn--and become proficient in--the same subjects? It is one thing to say, as many scholars and educators now do, that almost all children can be expected to acquire certain knowledge and skills and to demonstrate reasonably high levels of achievement. It’s quite another to neglect the reality that successful efforts to do this require heavy emphasis on a limited number of subjects and the adaptation of the pace and content of learning to the capabilities of students. Never mind that teachers do not know many of the things that the Paideia proposal says students need to learn. Let me assert that a majority of the nation’s brightest college students--or philosophers--could not employ calculus to solve a problem if their lives depended on it. Fortunately, few of us are in such mortal danger or ever will be. The Paideia group wants everyone to learn everything--our language, a foreign language, literature, fine arts, mathematics, natural science, history, geography, and social studies. On top of this, students will take 12 years of physical education as well as industrial arts; they will be involved in drama, music, and the visual arts; and they’ll learn how to exercise critical and moral judgments. Let him or her among us ... cast the first stone.

The second problem with the idea of a core curriculum is that it assumes that all students learn in the same way. What people can learn--even if they have the same capabilities--is related to what they want to learn and to differences in the ways they acquire, process, and integrate information. These differences in interest and “learning style” are affected not only by what goes on in schools, but by differences in genes and in home and community environments.

Third, the Paideia group’s heavy emphasis on a core curriculum ascribes more importance to what one learns than to the acquisition of an ability to learn and a love of learning. In a society where the average person may change occupations five times and where the ability to use new information may be the most important determinant of success, our concept of what it means to be an educated person will need to change. It will be more important to be a learner than to be learned.

In dealing with the teaching and learning process, the Paideia proposal imagines that one can divide the things to be learned into three classes and for each of these a particular pedagogical approach is most appropriate. No evidence is offered to support this important assertion. Research on effective teaching suggests that good teachers have a broad repertoire of teaching skills and that while teaching a given subject the teachers easily move from one to another in meeting the needs of their students.

Those who study how children learn will be surprised to find that lectures and description are strongly recommended teaching styles and that the group advocates “coaching” as the major way to ensure that children develop their intellectual skills.

To accept fully the argument of the Paideia group, educators would need to overlook much of the recent research on effective teaching and effective schools because that research directs the quest better education to concerns largely unaddressed in the proposal.

The history of American education is replete with efforts to find, as the Stanford University scholar David Tyack has put it, the “one best system.” We want desperately to make the big play that will, in itself, turn the game around. Whether it is desegregation, open classrooms, technology, or curriculum reform, we persist in searching for the solution. In many ways, curriculum reform is the most attractive strategy for change. It is easily explained, can be imposed from above (seemingly), is hard to argue against, and, if properly articulated, holds out hopes for great change. Everyone knows that a better cake can be had through a better recipe. But experience indicates that curriculum reform is illusory. The distance between mandating a curriculum and student learning is great indeed. The “new math,” for example, stumbled on teacher incapacity and parental ignorance. The results of the more recent legislatively imposed requirements that economics (especially free enterprise) be taught in schools should provide no sense of security to those who worry about the collapse of our economy or the triumph of democratic socialism.

Curriculum reform is not only difficult to achieve at the classroom level, but the imposition of new structures lulls us into a sense of false security. As Soviet educators know, if people see everyone taking physics courses, they are less likely to ask whether students are learning about physics. And, as university professors know, if the curriculum is rigorous, the blame for student failure can be assigned to students.

The point here is the argument of Murry Edleman (professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin) that many public changes in structures can be thought of as symbolic politics. They create the illusion of real change, which, in turn, dampens the fires of reform and induces quiescence. The Paideia proposal is patent medicine in this sense. Unfortunately, the formula that will improve the health of the body education is more complicated and, probably, more difficult to sell.

At best, this critique may seem like overkill to many. The goals of the Paideia group are noble ones, after all, and the proposal will surely encourage us to rethink what we are doing. Isn’t it all right to set high goals and let others worry about whether it can really work? No, it is not.

First, to pursue the holy grail with no certainty of its powers and without a reasonably good map is not likely to be productive. Such a quest, instead, is likely to be frustrating and to engage energies that could be better spent on the pursuit of more promising ways to improve American education.

Second, we have substantially increased our knowledge about effective teaching and effective schools, and it seems important to pursue the directions suggested by this relatively recent research. Some school systems are now engaging successfully in such pursuits though they are certainly less dramatic than the steps the Paideia group would have us take.

Third, a major obstacle to securing an educational system that produces high academic achievement among all youngsters is the social and economic inequality that distinguishes the United States from most other industrialized nations. The relationship between family income and academic performance is powerful. The Paideia proposal takes note of this fact by urging a system of preschool education, but it does not emphasize this strategy nor does it recognize that persistent efforts to expand publicly supported, early-childhood programs, which now serve less than one-third of the children who are legally eligible for (much less need) such services, have been unsuccessful. Nor does the Paideia proposal grapple with the fact that differences in the wealth of the haves and the have nots is growing and that the proportion of school children from families below the median income is rising. It is not enough to hold high hopes.

A growing body of knowledge about teaching and learning suggests directions for change that can increase the academic achievement of students from different backgrounds. A strategy for change must be of many parts. A core curriculum, much less one taught in specified ways, does not emerge from the accumulated knowledge as a strategy that has worked or is likely to work in the United States.

Instead, the research tells us, among other things, that student learning is fostered by engaging students in intensive success-bringing learning experiences, by using interactive teaching strategies, by refocusing the principal’s efforts on instructional support, by restructuring decision making at the school level, by adapting the curriculum to student needs while insisting on high performance and steady progress, by creating school climates that emphasize academic achievement, by promoting change from the bottom up, and by encouraging stability in interpersonal contacts and curricula.

This is not an exhaustive list of promising strategies for school improvement. And, to be sure, we need to know more. But now that we are beginning both to understand systematically how to meet effectively the very diverse needs of students and to have the ability to learn more, it is time to put that knowledge and capacity to work.

There is in the land a sense that the improvement of our schools is not only necessary but possible. But failure to recognize that low achievement is critically related to poverty, to racial, class, and ethnic discrimination, and to the prospect of unemployment upon graduation is a form of national self-delusion. Changes in our educational system could improve the education of almost all children. But even if we make substantial progress in what and how we teach, the fundamental inequalities of income, status, and opportunities created by our economic, political, and social systems make it very unlikely that we will achieve equal outcomes for all.

A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 1982 edition of Education Week as The Paideia Proposal: Noble Ambitions, False Leads, And Symbolic Politics


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