Curriculum and Choice: A Proposal

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In any endeavor, the clear definition of the end-product is extremely important to the productivity of the enterprise. Schooling is no exception. In order for schools to teach and students to learn more in less time, a clear-cut curriculum is essential.

We are moving toward parental choice of schools. This could be choice within a school district, choice across district lines, or unrestricted choice between public and private schools. However the debate on choice is resolved, a way must be found to make the choices that emerge varied and attractive to the diverse aspirations of parents, students, teachers, and the needs of employers. If parents are to have the freedom to choose schools, then schools must have the freedom to respond to that capability by offering diverse curricula. If all schools in a state or district have the same curriculum, choice will be very limited. Location of the school, basketball or football prowess, and social reputation will rule. What is taught and how well it is taught will be ignored.

Each school cannot readily create a modern curriculum. Yet if curriculum development is done by the state or by each school district, then the result will be a "one size fits all" curriculum. Changing that situation, through competition, is an important part of school choice.

At the state and local levels an expensive bureaucracy exists devoted to curriculum development. Purchasing curriculum services from specialist organizations could reduce the cost involved and improve the quality of the end product. Large and small public school districts and private schools would benefit.

One way, in fact, to provide the needed diversity might be to establish a number of voluntary national or regional curriculum conferences. Controlled by boards elected from member schools, these conferences could design curricula with different emphases. Included could be basics, arts, the Paedeia, and computer science, to name a few. The recommendation of related textbooks, computer courseware, and the provision of tests could be part of the service. Conference testing could not camouflage non-performance. With conferences' survival dependent on reputation, tests would have to be reliable. Free choice would see to that. Competing for member schools, and without political involvement, these conferences could move rapidly to meet new needs as they arose in our changing economy, such as the need for computer literacy.

Member schools would pay dues based on number of pupils. The conferences would also be supported by fees charged producers of courseware and textbooks submitted to it for approval. The membership and boards of directors of the conferences should not include publishers with vested interests in approvals. That would make the approvals suspect. Nevertheless, the marketing costs of publishers would be reduced by such a development because it would mean they need only seek approval of a few conferences, rather than of every school or district in the nation. This could eventually reduce the prices of their publications. The provision of seed money for the development of these conferences might therefore be an opportunity for educational and philanthropic foundations.

Membership in controlling boards should include representatives from parent groups, employer organizations, and universities. This would insure input from the consumers of the curricula.

With the movement to a longer school year and the potential of accelerated learning through interactive computer technology, it is important to end our reliance on school years to measure learning. The conferences could describe subject matter in syllabi, rather than years. Individual schools and school districts would find this effort to be expensive.

Specialized conferences could develop, in addition, curricula for such controversial areas as bilingual and multicultural education.

But it is not my intention to discuss the content of the several curricula that might emerge from such conferences. The creative interaction of parents, students, teachers, and employers would determine that. What is important is that the freedom these groups would have to make such decisions would permit the evolution of curricula able to meet ever changing needs. On core subjects such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, a consensus might eventually develop. Parents choosing schools, employers choosing employees, and colleges making admission decisions based on what is taught will determine, in large measure, future curriculum development. At the present time, the U.S. Secretary of Labor, Lynn Martin, is proposing specifications for the education of the 70 percent of high-school graduates who don't complete college. These were developed over six years by a commission led by the former Labor Secretary, William Brock. The commission found that these young Americans leave school without skills needed for meaningful employment. Its recommendations, and those of other similar groups, could provide a launching pad for conference developments.

Will politicians give up their habit of mandating additional curricular requirements? Each of us firmly believes we know what other people's kids should learn. For choice to be effective in improving schools, though, we must agree to disagree about schools and curricula, with you having yours and I mine. Perhaps then we can agree on funding.

There is a precedent in the building industry for the type of conferences I propose. Half a century ago, every village, city, and township had its own building code. At about the same time many new products and methods for home construction were being developed. These included roof trusses, drywall, and copper or plastic plumbing. The cost to each municipality of evaluating and approving this welter of new techniques was overwhelming. The manufacturers' cost of obtaining approvals from so many governments was an expensive problem as well. Home buyers did not receive the benefit of new products and the cost of homes was inflated.

Enter the building-code conferences. These were voluntary organizations with members from different municipalities. They developed modern building codes and maintained a competent engineering staff. Their member cities and towns were able to legally adopt the conference's building code as their own. This reduced their costs and, more importantly, reduced home prices, while insuring quality construction.

The building-code conferences are regional but membership in each is scattered across the country. These conferences are not governmental units, although their members are all governments. Each can specialize in particular needs, yet a consensus exists on certain core regulations. For instance, on the West Coast, the International Conference has expertise in earthquake-proof construction.

Could curriculum conferences replace existing state curricula? That is what has happened in the building industry. Conference codes have replaced the codes of most states, cities, and the Federal Housing Administration.

Curriculum conferences could benefit the schooling enterprise by providing low-cost technical support for an industry whose technological component will rapidly increase in the future. This can be a step on the road to making America's schools the best in the world.

Vol. 11, Issue 03, Page 25

Published in Print: September 18, 1991, as Curriculum and Choice: A Proposal
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