Subject Specialists Decry Errors of Omission in Goals

By Debra Viadero — October 23, 1991 12 min read

To the guardians of many of the disciplines that make up the school curriculum, the most disturbing aspect of efforts to implement national goals for education are the things they do not say.

One goal states, for example, that American students should be first in the world in mathematics and science by the year 2000. There is no goal, by contrast, on the arts or foreign languages.

Another goal advocates testing students in history and geography, but there is never a mention of political science, economics, or the other topics that normally fall under the rubric of social studies.

Testing is called for in English, but not in literature. And vocational education, health education, and physical education get no mention at all. The result of the omissions, an increasingly vocal number of curriculum groups predict, could be an effective “narrowing” of the curriculum commonly taught in the nation’s schools.

By leaving out a few key subject areas, these groups say, the President and the nation’s governors have sent a signal to administrators and policymakers nationwide about what is essential to good schooling and what is expendable.

“These create a kind of cultural myth about what people are saying is important,” said Miles Myers, executive director of the National Council for Teachers of English, “and they have an impact because of what gets funded, what gets tested.”

The result, said Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, is that the fields left out “are going to receive less attention in an already-imbalanced pattern across the land.”

“It’s going to be a turf battle for the survival of these other subjects,” he predicted.

To some who defend the core curriculum set down in the goals, however, the question is not so much whether the school curriculum will be pared down.

“The issue,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University and the U.S. Education Department’s former assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, “is whether that’s a vice Or a virtue.”

Not a Slight

The goals process began at the education summit in 1989, when President Bush and the governors launched a 10-year effort to improve education.

Early in 1990, they agreed on six national education goals to be met by the year 2000 and pledged to report progress toward meeting the goals each year until the turn of the century.

To varying degrees, the goals focused on five curriculum areas: mathematics, science, history, geography, and English. By the year 2000, students are expected to be first in the world in two of those areas--science and mathematics-and tests were called for in all five subjects.

In addition, the goals state, by the turn of the century, “every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our modern economy.”

Those involved in the goals-drafting process said the identification of only five subject areas was not intended to slight the rest of the school curriculum.

“The goals say, ‘start here,’ but they don’t say, ‘stop here,’” said Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, the former chairman of the National Education Goals Panel.

“If what we’re after is an educated person, we know that more than five things make an educated person,” Mr. Romer added.

‘A Core Curriculum’

The idea in the goals-drafting process “was to establish a kind of core curriculum that would just about require diversity,” said Nikki McNamee, who participated in the process as an assistant to Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, one of the goals’ chief architects and the new chairman of the goals panel.

The first “report card” on the nation’s progress toward achieving those goals, released last month, expanded the curricular focus slightly. In addition to reporting students’ performance on tests in the five core subject areas, the report included data on students’ knowledge of civics.

The information, included at Governor Campbell’s urging, expands on language in two of the goals describing the need to prepare Americans for “responsible citizenship.”

“While these five subjects constitute an important part of what schools should offer students,” the report adds, in remarks echoing Gov. Romer’s, “they are not all that schools need to offer.”

“An appreciation of the fine arts and mastery of one or more foreign languages are examples of additional competencies that our schools must foster if we are to produce fully educated and well-rounded citizens of tomorrow,” it states.

A second section of the report, titled “Additional Important Information,” expands on that notion by including data, for example, on the percentage of preschool children whose parents regularly take them to cultural activities. Charts in that section also list the percentages of high-school students taking Advanced Placement courses in the arts and foreign languages.

The ‘Forgotten Half’

However, simple acknowledgments of the lack of attention to the “forgotten half’ of the curriculum do not go far enough, representatives of several subject-matter groups said.

For the most part, they said, their pleas to expand the disciplinary emphases in the report, repeated in letters to the goals panel and its sister organization, the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, have fallen on deaf ears.

“We feel clearly they aren’t looking at the whole curriculum,” said C. Edward Scebold, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “It started that way, and it continues.”

Dissatisfaction over the limited roles some of the disciplines have been given in the national education-reform effort was a catalyst in part for the formation of the Alliance for Curriculum Reform earlier this year.

Though the group’s aims are broader than concerns about the way the national goals are being implemented, a number of the groups taking part in the alliance, an unprecedented union of every major national subject-matter group, were themselves left out of the goals process.

Economic Motivations

Representatives of several subject-matter groups attributed the lack of attention to their disciplines to the business and economic forces driving the national education’reform movement.

As far back as A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report credited with spawning the reform movement, the overriding goal in school-improvement efforts has been maintaining the nation’s economic competitiveness.

Business people “don’t see the need for arts and languages,” said Ruth Mitchell, associate director of the Council for Basic Education. “They’re not taking the long view.”

“I think they would’ve been well-advised to think more broadly about what the purposes of education are rather than to think about developing competitive workers,” Mr. Cawelti of the A.S.C.D. said.

Carol Sterling, director of arts education for the American Council for the Arts, said “quality-of-life issues” must also figure in education reformers’ deliberations.

“Yes, we are concerned that our students have the skills necessary to ensure American economic preeminence,” she said, “but we must also pay attention to our cultural preeminence.”

Language Enrollment Up

Ms. Sterling and other supporters of arts-education programs said the lack of attention to that subject in the goals process comes at a time when those studies may be particularly vulnerable.

Although no statistics are available on the status of arts education nationally, a wave of budget-cutting measures in several large cities in recent years, most notably in New York and Philadelphia, has decimated many school arts programs.

“On the whole, arts education in the United States is in a dismal state,” said John Frohnmayer, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Unless we can do something to change it [the focus of the goals], it will further push the arts to the shoulder of the curriculum.”

By contrast, the lack of attention in the goals to second-language programs comes at a time when such studies are booming.

A soon-to-be released survey by Mr. Scebold’s group indicates that 37 percent of all students in grades 9 through 12 are studying foreign languages-an all-time high for that subject.

Ironically, Mr. Scebold said, that increase appears to have been driven in part by the growing recognition that Americans need second languages to compete in an increasingly international marketplace.

Similarly, said Bret Lovejoy, a lobbyist for the American Vocational Association, 97 percent of all high-school graduates have taken at least one vocational-education course during their school careers. He said those subjects include such courses as typing and computer studies.

History or Social Studies?

The debate in social studies is of a different nature.

While the goals’ architects have not completely ignored the subject, they have pared down its scope by targeting only history and geography, advocates complain.

“They’ve eliminated government and economics, and, based on the assessment information we’ve seen so far, it seems they’re only going to test U.S. history,” said Frances Haley, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. “They’ve sort of tagged citizenship at the end with no clear definition of what that means.” “To us, that’s analogous to having on the list instead of science only biology and physics,” she said.

The omissions also place curriculum reformers squarely on one side of one of the most divisive debates in the social-studies field today: Whether history should be the single core of social-studies education.

Both the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools and the California framework for social-studies education have recommended that schools more heavily emphasize history. Groups such as the N.C.S.S., in contrast, have been advocating for a broader approach.

“I’m sure there were a lot of political machinations in the goals process,” Ms. Haley reflected.

In a similar vein, Mr. Myers of the N.C.T.E. has questioned the use of the word “English” in the goals rather than “language arts,” a broader term more commonly used by educators.

The choice, he said, leaves no room for the study of literature.

“The role that literature plays is that it gets readers to focus on the nature of the language itself, why a certain color, a certain shape, the kind of design you can find in language,” Mr. Myers said. “It’s also one of the important ways of knowing.”

A National Curriculum?

To many of the governors and White House officials who crafted the original goals, however, those issues largely appear to be fine points.

“I don’t recall a lot of those specific debates ever being brought to the table,” one White House aide close to the goals-setting process said.

Mr. Finn, who served as an unofficial adviser in the development of President Bush’s America 2000 plan, which picks up on the national education goals, called some of the curricular debates “educational jargon.”

“These are not goals for educators,” he said. “These are goals for the country.” “Normal people know what those words mean,” he added.

A major concern of the governors in crafting the national goals, some of their assistants said, was to refrain from prescribing a national curriculum--something they feared could result from a cataloging of every subject taught in schools.

“Some of the criticism is making too much of the five areas chosen,” Ms. McNamee, Governor Campbell’s policy adviser, said.

“People feel like there’s some exclusive licensure or some exclusive gate in the process, and that’s just not the case,” Governor Romer said. “It never occurred to me that we would be limited to five subjects.”

Narrowing the curriculum, the Governor added, is not something “I would want to have happen.”

‘A Vice or a Virtue’?

The first draft of the original goals was written by officials in President Bush’s Administration, according to staff members involved in that effort. They said the choice of the five core areas was influenced in part by the fact that several of those subjects are regularly tested by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In addition, they said, A Nation at Risk deplored the “cafeteria-style” curriculum found in most high schools and recommended that it be replaced with a “new basics” curriculum. That core would include: mathematics, science, social studies, English, a half year of computer science, and, for the college-bound, two years o f foreign-language study.

At its heart, Mr. Finn said, the concern over a “narrowed” curriculum is a jobs issue.

“The concern is that these groups will be left out, and they will be out of business,” he said.

“It will be a narrowed curriculum,” he said. “If that is a problem, then that is a legitimate concern.”

“The question is whether that’s a vice or a virtue,” he added. “I believe doing justice to the five subjects in goal three would be a heck of an improvement over what we’ve got now, and I’m prepared to sacrifice some of the other things that muck up the curriculum .”

Moreover, Mr. Finn added, “there is no consensus about what to add.”

“Once you open the door, at what point do you close it?” he asked. “You can say, ‘fine, economics,’ or ‘fine, civics.’ But do you also say fine to home economics or bachelor living?”

Debate in Britain

The debate over what belongs in the curriculum was echoed recently on the other side of the Atlantic, where Britain’s education officials are deliberating whether to modify a national curriculum put in place in 1988.

In that country, students between the ages of 5 and 14 are required to study 10 subjects: geography, history, art, music, technology, physical education, science, mathematics, English, and modern foreign language.

Educators there are debating whether to reduce those requirements for students in their final two years of schooling, according to Richard Dorrance, acting chief executive of the School Examinations and Assessment Council. Under the proposal now awaiting formal approval, students would only be required to study the latter six subjects from ages 14 to 16.

“That’s to give students some freedom to choose what subjects they want to study,” Mr. Dorrance said.

“There are a few who are still saying it narrows the curriculum,” he said, “but I think most are saying now it actually broadens it.”

Being Flexible

Both critics of the short list of subjects in this country’s national goals and those who defend it acknowledge that the goals leave some room for flexibility.

“The third goal says students in America should learn to use their minds well,” said Michael Cohen, who helped write the goals in his former job at the National Governors’ Association.

“I think you could read that,” added Mr. Cohen, who is now director of the National Alliance for Restructuring Education, “and say the arts fits perfectly.”

Toward that end, the focus of much of the lobbying in recent months by advocates for the arts, foreign languages, and literature has been to point out how those studies enhance critical thinking.

Arts groups in particular have pointed to a spate of recent studies suggesting that arts education also improves student performance in other subject areas, such as mathematics and science.

“Right now,” a spokesman for the National Endowment of the Arts said, “we’re focusing on working with what’s there.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 23, 1991 edition of Education Week as Subject Specialists Decry Errors of Omission in Goals