What To Teach: Reform Turns Finally to the Essential Question

By Robert Rothman — May 17, 1989 16 min read

Following scores of reports recommending changes in course requirements, teacher training, and school structure, perhaps the most fundamental questions in education--what gets taught and how to teach it--have moved to center stage in the school-reform debate.

Spurred by national and international assessments, which have underscored shortcomings in instruction in many fields, and bolstered by deeply held beliefs about how children learn, subject-area groups have turned out numerous documents criticizing current curricula and calling for sweeping reforms.

In the past few months, for example, the National Research Council and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics have proposed substantial changes in math instruction; the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers Association have unveiled plans to overhaul the science curriculum; a coalition of leading English groups has called for a “fresh view” of language-arts instruction; and the Bradley Commission on History in Schools has urged major content reforms.

In addition, groups representing geography and economics educators have recommended boosting instruction in those fields.

This spate of activity, educators say, represents the most intense focus on curriculum issues since the Sputnik era, when teachers and scholars launched projects to create new math, science, and social-studies curricula. And it marks a sharp contrast to the early years of the 1980’s reform movement, when the subject of content was scarcely mentioned.

“The curriculum has been one of the less-attended-to areas of reform,” notes Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “But after you’ve talked about schools for awhile, and looked at structure, and teachers, in time you come to ask some questions.”

The unrelenting barrage of “negative indicators,” together with publicity generated by former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and two controversial books, Mr. Boyer suggests, “brought the reform movement, grudgingly, to the matter of what should be taught.”

“You cannot try to fix the quality of education,” adds Bill Honig, California’s superintendent of public instruction, “without asking the basic question: ‘What do you mean by an educated youngster?”’

“Just to get a kid into a math course is good,” he continues. “But it’s better if we can define what an effective math course is.”

To some educators, such as Marshall S. Smith, dean of the school of education at Stanford University, the current activity by national groups heralds the approach of a national curriculum, an idea still considered anathema by advocates of local control over schools.

“We’re moving in this direction,” Mr. Smith says. “My guess is, in the next 10 to 15 years, we’ll be much closer to a national curriculum than we have been in the past.”

“The issue of the 1990’s,” he predicts, “is going to be how national standards get set up by national organizations and get implemented and played out against the rhetoric and spirit of enhancing autonomy at the teacher and school level.”

But other observers strongly disagree with that assessment. For one thing, notes Mr. Boyer, the proposals advanced thus far have failed to add up to a coherent view of what should be taught.

Moreover, no consensus has yet emerged on what direction reforms should take, contends E.D. Hirsch Jr., who joined the debate over curricular content with his best-selling book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Should Know.

Many of the new curriculum reports, he argues, emphasize the teaching of skills to enable students to solve real-world problems, an approach he considers “wrong-headed.”

“Parents are told by teachers that kids are getting higher-order thinking skills that will enable them to take advantage of new knowledge,” he says. “That isn’t a novelty. It’s the same theory that got us into difficulty.”

“The difficulty,” he says, “is that kids don’t progress as they should in schooling because of a lack of shared communication in class.’'

Chester E. Finn Jr., the former assistant U.S. secretary of education, who shares Mr. Hirsch’s doubts about the current reports, says they nonetheless represent “a laudable, if belated, effort to describe what we’d like kids to come out of school having learned.”

The groups “are pausing to ask,” he says. “That’s good.”

‘Players in Reform’

Although each of the national groups involved in curriculum reform began its work independently, most observers agree that all the efforts represent responses to the conditions that prompted reform reports such as A Nation at Risk.

“Most subject-matter groups started to take a look at the curriculum at the time the first sets of criticisms came out,” says Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Some people said the answer is a longer school day; others said merit pay; others said technology. This is one response.”

The subject-matter groups wanted to become “players in reform,” suggests John C. Maxwell, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, a member of the coalition that recently reported on language-arts instruction.

Many of the earlier reform reports were written by “folks outside the education establishment,” he points out. “Subject-matter associations have things to say, too.”

These groups felt that the initial proposals were unlikely to affect student performance and that curriculum change was necessary, adds Mr. Smith.

The achievement gains produced by regulatory and structural reforms have been marginal, he says. “There are some, but not enough to knock your eyeballs out.”

Underachieving Curriculum?

Mathematics educators are credited by colleagues with leading the way toward the new focus on content and instructional methods.

“The math people did a good job,” says Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “They saw the curriculum as a stumbling block.”

According to Shirley M. Frye, president of the nctm, math edu8cators began reformulating their ideas about content in response to business leaders, who had argued that schools’ emphasis on paper-and-pencil computation had failed to produce workers who could think mathematically and solve problems.

Their position received a boost from the second international mathematics study, a 1982 test of 8th- and 12th-grade students in 20 nations, which found that the performance of U.S. pupils lagged far behind that of students in other industrialized countries.

In analyzing the causes, the study’s authors, using research that examined students’ “opportunity to learn” the topics tested, concluded that differences in performance were related to what was taught.

“In school mathematics,” the 1987 analysis based on the test concludes, “the United States is an underachieving nation, and our curriculum is helping to create a nation of underachievers.”

The study also concluded that factors cited by school reformers--such as class size, time spent on instruction, and teacher preparation--bore little relation to performance.

In response to such findings, the nctm agreed to establish a task force to recommend standards for K-12 curricula.

“You can only stand there and say, ‘Dear us,’ for so long,” says Ms. Frye.

‘Turf Protection’

Other groups’ efforts were also spurred by the steady stream of reports documenting U.S. students’ poor performance in national and international comparisons.

Mr. Aldridge of the nsta cited a study of science curricula in the Soviet Union and China as an explanation for why students in those countries outperformed Americans on international assessments. The nsta has set plans for a pilot project that will emulate those nations by teaching all science subjects each year from grades 7-12.

The Bradley Commission on History--a panel of teachers and some of the most eminent scholars in theel20lfield--was formed in the wake of the first national assessment of U.S. history, which concluded that high-school students showed a “shameful” lack of knowledge. The commission recommended that schools substantially boost the quantity and quality of history instruction.

The Joint Council on Economic Education, a New York-based curriculum and teacher-training group, urged educators to make economics a “new basic skill” after high-school students “failed” a test of basic economic concepts.

The National Governors’ Association, citing a study that found that one in seven American adults cannot locate the United States on a world map, proposed expanding instruction in geography and world history.

And at the same time that the drumbeat of negative findings and proposals for change was growing louder within the field, public awareness of the problems was stimulated by the release of Secretary Bennett’s proposed model curricula--James Madison High School and James Madison Elementary School--and the publication of two surprise best-sellers, Mr. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.

The heightened attention was a boon, say those interested in promoting changes.

“I had been pressing for curriculum reform for years, but I couldn’t get attention or support,” says F. James Rutherford, director of the aaas’s Project 2061, an ambitious effort to redesign math and science instruction. “The other reports made it possible” for Project 2061 to go forward, he says.

There is also an element of “turf protection” at work in the activism of the subject-matter groups, suggests Mr. Boyer.

“Subject-area interest groups, when everything else shakes down, believe students ought to study what they think is important,” he says. “No discipline wants to be off the list.”

In part because of their common origins, many of the curriculum pro4posals share common themes. Among these are: less emphasis on memorization and rote drill and more emphasis on problem-solving; a sharper focus on active participation by students; and more attention to relating schoolwork to students’ everyday lives.

Back to Dewey

Many of these ideas have existed in education literature for decades, and some hark back to John Dewey’s notion of “progressive education,” notes Diane Ravitch, adjunct professor of history and education at Columbia University Teachers College and a member of the Bradley Commission.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” Ms. Ravitch says. “Dewey was looking at these questions at the beginning of the century. The problem was the same: how do you make the stuff you want to teach interesting and relevant, and make it real in students’ lives, without debasing the subject matter?”

But that approach “can be overdone,” Mr. Shanker cautions.

“You’ve got to be careful,” he says. “There are an awful lot of things kids don’t have to spend a lot of time understanding.”

“They have to know enough about math to use the basics,” he says, ''but not everything about the mechanics of arithmetic to go on to other things.”

For Mr. Hirsch, the very source of the curriculum proposals casts doubt on their validity.

“The people who have gotten us in a bad situation are the same people now gathered to reform it,” he says. “It’s as though the managers of a bankrupt company are now reforming the company.”

But Mr. Maxwell of the ncte counters that schools have problems precisely because such proposals have “never really come to fruition in classrooms.”

“It’s not that the ideas were tried and found wanting,” he says. “They were tried in a very limited way.”

“The ideas are struggling to be born,” Mr. Maxwell adds. “The number of youngsters who have to be in classrooms, together with the routines of schools, repress teachers’ desires to teach the way they want.’'

Moreover, suggests A. Graham Down, executive director of the Council for Basic Education, the reform ideas may be more necessary now than when Dewey first recommended them.

“Schools have changed so little, and outside society has changed so much,” he says.

‘Fragmented Fashion’

Other critics contend that the proposals do not go far enough in prescribing changes.

“The reports beg the question of the need for an interdisciplinary approach,” argues Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. “In high schools, there is no way to teach everything that ought to be taught without resorting to an interdisciplinary approach.”

“The great and urgent need in the curriculum is integration--how students discover patterns and see connections,” adds Mr. Boyer. “Yet we continue to organize the curriculum around the categories of disciplines.”

He views the solutions proffered to date as “piecemeal” only.

“They haven’t developed a coherent view of what the curriculum should be,” he says. “That is not to say there aren’t interesting ideas, but they are presented in a fragmented fashion.”

But Mr. Down suggests that the proposals could lead to an erosion of the traditional subject-matter boundaries.

“In mathematics,” he says, “if you do less counting and more thinking, you are more in the realm of the humanities.”


By far the sharpest criticism of the current recommendations comes from those--like Mr. Hirsch and Mr. Finn--who have argued for a greater emphasis on factual content in the curriculum.

“The recent flurry of reports are skills-heavy and knowledge-light,’' says Mr. Finn, who is currently professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. “They are hostile to the proposition that there are things all kids should know.”

“If kids don’t know things,” he adds, “they will have no material on which to exercise their cognitive skills.”

Mr. Hirsch argues that such “knowledge-light” recommendations are the inevitable result of the process of compromise that committees go through to produce reports.

“When you get a committee together,” he says, “it’s hard to reach agreements, so you come up with general statements instead of specifics.”

Mr. Boyer, though less sharply critical than Mr. Hirsch, agrees that the “blue-ribbon panel” approach used by most subject-matter groups has failed to produce a comprehensive statement about what the curriculum should include.

“In the current approach, you have a first-rate staff, and bring in scholars over the weekend, who tack the assignment onto their busy schedules,” says Mr. Boyer, who currently serves as co-chairman of the National Commission on Social Studies in Schools, a three-year effort to re-examine what should be taught under that rubric.

“That’s curriculum on the run,” he says.

Referring to the massive effort during World War II to develop the atomic bomb, Mr. Boyer adds: “I’d like to see a Manhattan Project for curriculum planning at the national level. That project had lots of money, pulled the best scholars together, and gave them time to think about a major national assignment.”

Ms. Frye of the math-teachers’el15lcouncil defends the reports as appropriate responses to the problems in curricula.

Assessments show that “our students did well on low-level skills,” she points out. “When they were in competition on higher-level items, such as geometry and problem-solving, they did not do as well.”

“That said to us that what they learned was a function of what was taught,” she says. “We haven’t taught higher-level skills, or the integration of content.”

Those who are most skeptical of the position taken by Mr. Finn, Mr. Hirsch, and others warn that a curriculum based on a list of facts, like the one appended to Mr. Hirsch’s book, could lead to a “trivial pursuit” education that would not train students to think for themselves.

“You need to know some facts,” says Mr. Honig of California. “You need to know that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. You couldn’t have a discussion at a deeper level without facts.”

“But if you stop at facts,” he adds, “you never get into deeper issues. That’s not teaching.”

National Curriculum?

Some educators who are following the facts versus thinking-skills dispute say it will inevitably turn to the “deeper issue” of a national curriculum. And they believe the current activity is heading in that direction.

“I don’t hear anyone saying that there should be one curriculum imposed on everybody,” says Ms. Ravitch of Teachers College. “But there is a lot of consensus on what should be taught.”

The forthcoming National Assessment of Educational Progress, which will for the first time compare student achievement across states, will contribute to a consensus in at least one subject area, adds Susan H. Fuhrman, director of the Center for Policy Research in Education at Rutgers University.

“It’s going to happen with a 50-state naep,” she says. “There will be a national definition of what should be in math courses.”

Mr. Honig is among those who think the resistance to relinquishing traditions of local control is breaking down.

“Biology in Portland, Maine, is the same as biology in San Diego,” he says. “We spin our wheels if we all try to redefine the curriculum at the same time.”

“You don’t want to cede the job to the federal government,” he notes, “so what you need is a professional curriculum.”

That form of curriculum consensus could replace the material in textbooks, which currently represent a de facto national scope and sequence, Mr. Honig suggests.

Moreover, adds Mr. Smith of Stanford, such agreement would enable teachers in different districts to have a “professional conversation.”

“If everybody is doing the same experiment,” he says, “you can have a conversation stimulated among teachers. It’s not as if everybody will do it in exactly the same way, or draw the same conclusion.”

Leaders of the subject-matter groups, however, carefully distance themselves from support of the national-curriculum concept. They stress that they did not make their proposals with that intent, and they insist that teachers should be free to design instructional methods appropriate to their particular classrooms.

“The traditional view of the ncte is that we ought not develop a national curriculum,” says Mr. Maxwell. “We have steadfastly refused to develop scope-and-sequence charts.”

The math teachers’ document was aimed at providing guidance to local schools, not dictating to them, adds John A. Dossey, the group’s former president.

“It doesn’t specify teaching styles, or which topics should be presented in which grade,” he points out. “There is still a lot of room in this for local initiatives.”

Easier Said Than Done

That type of document is very useful for administrators at the local level, suggests Mr. Cawelti of the ascd “Curriculum-builders in the field need that kind of guidance,” he says.

It also is useful for teachers because it describes what national leaders consider “best practice,” Ms. Ravitch observes.

But the curriculum reports’ more controversial recommendations calling for changes in school structure and practice may prove difficult to implement, she predicts, adding, “It’s easier to talk about doing it than to do it.”

In fact, many teachers currently in classrooms are not qualified to teach some of the more complex material prescribed in the reform reports, Mr. Shanker contends.

“For the most part, the curriculum recommendations create a more demanding set of skills for teachers,” he says. “Unless there is, at the same time, some movement to provide adequate incentives for teachers, they aren’t going to work.”

The success of the proposals will also depend on “how radical” they are perceived to be by local administrators, adds Mr. Rutherford of the aaas

“No system likes to hear that they are doing things wrong and they have to fix it up,” he says. “A large system, where power is sorted out, is able to resist most small or medium-sized reforms. It might adopt them in name, but the system ends up looking pretty much the same.’'

“It is clear that serious curriculum reform will be difficult,” Mr. Rutherford concludes. “We spent a whole lot of money in the 1960’s on curriculum reform, and we fixed up a few courses. But even that had problems.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 1989 edition of Education Week as What To Teach: Reform Turns Finally to the Essential Question

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