The State of Curriculum
At the dawn of the century, Highland Springs Elementary School was akin to thousands of other one-room schoolhouses that dotted the American landscape. Inside the roughly hewn structure near Richmond, Va., a lone teacher toiled in relative isolation to provide basic lessons to more than two dozen students. She supplemented her own meager education with textbooks and the state course of study.
In the state capital to the west, Virginia's leaders, like many of their counterparts throughout the nation, were engaged in a passionate debate over the prospects for universal schooling, as they set out to redefine education for a new era.
Like the sunlight that sneaked through cracks in Highland Springs' wood siding, the modern conceptions that were emerging over what and how to teach a rapidly growing student population were barely brightening the daily routine of the classroom.
What the historian Herbert M. Kliebard describes as "the struggle for the American curriculum" was just beginning. That struggle--among scholars with conflicting philosophies about curriculum-making and teaching, and between local and state officials wrestling for control--would ebb and flow for decades.
Throughout the 20th century, the curriculum would become a national preoccupation that would open up the classroom to greater scrutiny. It would at times unify the country in patriotic fervor, and at others, divide it in sectarian ferment. It was both the property held most dear by communities bent on determining what their children should learn and a medium for legislators and others seeking to correct societal ills.
The 1920s and 1930s would see an expansion and diversification of the curriculum to deal with a bulging high school population and to appease concerns over the economic realities of the day. In the 1940s and 1950s, the slackening of academic standards would come under attack as the United States vied with adversaries for military and technological superiority. In the wake of that criticism, the nation would redirect resources to improve math and science education. The civil rights and women's movements of the 1960s and 1970s brought demands for changes in curriculum and textbooks to give greater play to disenfranchised groups and to present the nation's history in a more critical light. By the 1980s, public worries about perceived "mediocrity" and global economic competition stirred a vast wave of state legislative action seeking more rigorous academic requirements.
On the eve of the 21st century, the struggle for the curriculum--being played out in the setting of state academic standards and measures for holding schools, teachers, and students accountable for meeting them--is no less fractious. Scholars, administrators, teachers, and parents are all bidding to leave their imprint. But in the span of a hundred years, much of the control over what is taught has shifted from the schoolhouse to the statehouse--an often turbulent transition made reluctantly and grudgingly. State leaders, more than ever, are at the helm, still trying to fulfill the hope and promise for public education their counterparts were striving for a century ago.
Mind as Muscle
As the 20th century opened, schools were free from state strictures on what was taught.
At Highland Springs Elementary, circa 1900, children huddled around a coal-burning stove reciting Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" and other memorized lessons. The strict discipline and tedious exercises that ruled those early school days scarred the memories of many youths.
"That one room was like a prison," recalled alumnus Leonard H. Rose for a writer who compiled the school's history in 1986.
Another former student remembered that in 1910, "teacher Bell Graham drilled and drilled the students in spelling."
Those sentiments in Virginia were echoes of a 1913 survey of young factory workers in Chicago, who said they preferred "factory labor to the monotony, humiliation, and even sheer cruelty that they experienced in school," Kliebard writes in The Struggle for the American Curriculum: 1893-1958.
That doctrine of "mental discipline" maintained its stranglehold on most classrooms into the early 1900s. Exponents of the theory, which shaped the curriculum throughout the 19th century, likened the mind to a muscle that had to be exercised in a precise and systematic way.
The philosophy "provided the backdrop for a regime in school of monotonous drill, harsh discipline, and mindless verbatim recitation," Kliebard notes in his 1986 book. "This may have gone on anyway, since the poorly trained and often very young teachers undoubtedly were at a loss to do anything else, but mental discipline provided them with an authoritative justification for continuing to do it."
But a more progressive approach being advanced by the day's scholars was gaining favor in some school districts. Those scholars pushed for abandoning the autocratic classroom environment and the lecture-based instruction of previous decades in favor of more child-centered methods, in which children were encouraged to ask questions and suggest areas of content to explore.
Reading, writing, and arithmetic--which, along with Bible study, were the foundations of schooling in the 1800s--continued to fill up the school day. Other subjects, however, including nature study, literature, social studies, art, music, and manual training, were finding their way into many classrooms.
State education departments were feeling pressure from the experts to embrace the new philosophy. Yet, they were too overwhelmed by other tasks to push many changes in the classroom. Those miniature bureaucracies, usually headed by a superintendent, were dealing with a flood of requests to certify thousands of new school districts, as well as attending to their primary duty: gathering statistics on student enrollments and school financing.
Besides, even if the education departments had had the manpower, they were in no statutory position to oversee what was taught in schools. They did, however, encourage schools to use their respective states' courses of study--guides drawn up by most of them in the last half of the 1800s that outlined in varying detail the general objectives and broad goals for each subject. State administrators hoped the courses of study would give teachers the necessary direction to organize the school day. Some of the guides merely cited the courses that were expected to be taught; others, though, led teachers through almost every minute of the school day.
State officials dispatched county superintendents and inspectors to assist and examine local schools, but "since travel was by horse and buggy over poor roads, even the most diligent state official could not visit many schools in a single year," wrote Jim B. Pearson and Edgar Fuller in Education in the States: Development Since 1900, a massive 1969 report by the Council of Chief State School Officers on the history of state education policy.
What's more, those visits were usually devoted to financial affairs, and rarely curriculum concerns.
Largely then, curriculum decisions fell into the hands of local officials. Many states reported that state superintendents could not break the grip of local control and exerted minimal leadership in curriculum matters in the first two decades of the century. County superintendents were widely viewed with scorn and suspicion, and courses of study were mostly ignored by classroom teachers.
Michigan's superintendent, Delos Fall, said in 1901 that "each district board should specify the studies in local schools," according to Education in the States. Teachers were encouraged to follow a state manual and course of study--if the district did not provide one.
Ultimately, with nearly 200,000 school districts in the United States by 1910, sometimes with dozens alone in a single rural county, the content and quality of instruction varied widely.
New York Difference
Curriculum, however, was becoming increasingly important to state legislatures and state boards of education.
The vast social and political changes of the era pushed the stakes higher for public education. With the arrival of more and more children at the schoolhouse door in the first two decades of the century, many of them immigrants, quality became more of an issue. As the schools came to be viewed as vehicles for preserving American values and democratic ideals among a more diverse citizenry, educators and their professional organizations, whose numbers and influence were growing, were vigorously promoting plans for expanding public education.
"Policymaking in public education by then had gravitated from the locally based and part-time evangelists for the common school to a new breed of experts and professional managers, people who made education a lifelong career, created new fields of specialization, and sought to reshape the schools according to the canons of educational science and business efficiency," David B. Tyack and Elizabeth Hansot write in Policy Making in Education, published in 1982.
The high school curriculum--shaped by college-entrance requirements--was of particular interest. The prestigious Committee of Ten, a group of college presidents that was convened by the National Education Association to recommend standards for college admissions, first questioned the relevance of rigid academic courses for the new cohort of students, most of whom would not advance to college. But the committee concluded, in its 1893 report, that schools should maintain a single academic curriculum for all students.
Officials in New York state believed they were doing just that. The state's examination system, begun in 1865 and administered by the board of regents, all but guaranteed that students in even the most isolated districts had access to a college-preparatory curriculum. In 1910, the education department issued a detailed, 256-page syllabus for elementary education.
Two years later, the state education department was enormous by all accounts, with a staff of 250 to supervise and inspect more than 10,000 school districts. Throughout the century, the regents provided syllabi and support services to help teachers prepare students for the rigorous end-of-course exams, though decisions about textbooks and instructional methods were still left to individual districts.
While intended for a small proportion of the high school population, the standards set by the regents' program raised the stakes for all New York students, argues Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
"The influence of those exams over the 20th century has just been incredible, in my judgment, by way of ensuring that any place you went in rural or urban New York, you would have access to the array of courses required for a regents' diploma," says Ambach, the commissioner of education in New York state from 1977 to 1987. "The exam system provided an opportunity for students to stretch themselves and reach for a higher goal. They raised the ante for teachers and students, parents and schools."
But the elite high school program, such as New York's and those promoted by the Committee of Ten, had its critics. They disagreed with the committee's view that "education for college is education for life."
The statistics supported their view. In New York, for instance, only one in 16 high school students in 1904 completed the four-year program. Today, about 40 percent of the state's students earn a regents' diploma.
By 1910, the winds of change favored progressive ideals, and more state policy efforts became focused on curriculum matters.
In a great irony, such efforts were often aimed at the rural schools to bring them up to par with their far superior urban counterparts. In the countryside, local boards with their often bullying tactics wielded tremendous power over teachers and, ultimately, what they taught, Tyack observes in his 1974 book, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Urban districts had already begun standardizing coursework, and by the 1920s, became leaders in curriculum development. But rural districts, which made up a majority of the nation's school districts, fought to maintain autonomy over instruction.
Many states found it an impossible task to enforce standards in thousands of tiny school districts, but most communities rejected recommendations that districts be organized into larger, more cohesive units. Reluctant to intervene in what communities staunchly defended as local decisions, states turned their attention toward the primary tool of the trade--the textbook--to standardize classroom practice.
Throughout the 19th and the early 20th centuries, teachers relied heavily on textbooks, as some still do today. Twenty-two states, most of them in the South, eventually adopted policies for purchasing texts. Such policies were intended to impose a standard course of study. In the process, they were also expected to take such decisions out of the hands of often poorly educated, unsophisticated teachers and put them into those of experts; combat uneven pricing, corruption, and unscrupulous practices common among publishers of the day; and reduce the problems associated with a highly mobile student population, according to Michael W. Apple, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
One educator, reviewing Kentucky's state textbook-adoption policy in 1919, reported that, with such an ill-prepared corps of teachers, "the only hope was to place the best textbooks possible in the hands of the students," Apple writes in Textbooks in American Society, published in 1981.
In the Southern states, screening texts guaranteed that books that did not promote Southern culture--in such sensitive areas as race--would not find their way into schools. ("Book Smarts.")
The book-adoption policies, which laid out in meticulous detail the topics and historical events and figures to be covered, went a long way toward establishing states' authority over subject matter.
California had the most restrictive policy, making it a misdemeanor for a school official or teacher to use materials other than the approved texts. The state had even built its own printing plant in 1885, at a cost of more than $500,000, and for a time hired its own writers to ensure that the textbooks would meet requirements at a minimal cost. Despite rampant criticism that the system was "reeking with fraud and dishonesty," and resulted in higher-priced, poor-quality texts, the state continued to publish its own books into the middle of this century.
Health and Safety
Even the most thoughtfully chosen textbooks, however, offered no guarantees for improving education. Early in the century, reformers were pushing for state policies to address "the 'bookish' curriculum, haphazard selection and supervision of teachers, voluntary character of school attendance, discipline problems, [and] diversity of buildings and equipment" that characterized the rural school, according to Tyack. So state leaders sought to address what the Stanford University scholar calls the "rural school problem" in other ways.
At loggerheads with local boards over administrative issues, such as the consolidation of districts and the supervision of teachers, states initially exercised their authority over turf outside the traditional curriculum or in those areas in which they were likely to meet with the least resistance.
In the waning years of the 19th century, many legislatures had begun mandating studies in physiology, for example. Under pressure from the Women's Christian Temperance Union, schools were ordered to teach about the ill effects of alcohol and drug use. Patriotism was another popular theme of many early mandates, such as a 1909 provision requiring the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Indiana classrooms. In 1925, another law in that state--similar to those being adopted elsewhere--called for the teaching of the state and U.S. constitutions.
When the First World War raised concerns about the United States' military preparedness and troop fitness, states began requiring physical education. From 1915 to 1918, eight states--California, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island--enacted physical education laws. Most other states followed suit in the ensuing years and in the decade leading up to World War II. The military-style curriculum that became the norm--including ropes courses and calisthenics--shaped gym classes for decades to come. Similarly, the Great Depression prompted many states to require economics classes.
World War I also brought into sharp relief the realization that schools were not meeting the needs of most students. Following the advice of experts who promoted the idea of educating for social efficiency--preparing students according to their likely paths, either to college or the workforce--states began dividing the curriculum into general education and vocational tracks. The Oregon superintendent of schools in 1913 hired two assistants to travel around the state to promote vocational courses. The state attracted national attention for its extracurricular-training program, which had 12,000 students enrolled in clubs for sewing, poultry raising, cooking and baking, farming, and other skills, Pearson and Fuller noted in the Council of Chief State School Officers' report.
By that time, states were beginning to rally around vocational education. Within a few years, most states had created home economics programs, and about half had established agricultural education.
In 1917, federal legislation that provided funding for agricultural, occupational, and home economics education made vocational education a standard in the high school curriculum. The additions were not without their critics, many of whom saw such classes as anti-intellectual and a means of limiting students' academic opportunities. ("Debating the Direction of Vocational Education.")
The popular notion that the teenagers flooding the high schools were less talented than previous generations of students guided educators in diversifying the curriculum, David L. Angus and Jeffrey E. Mirel contend in their new book, Conflict and Curriculum in the American High School. It was incumbent on the schools, reformers argued, to meet the needs of what the psychologist G. Stanley Hall had referred to earlier in the century as "the great army of incapables."
By the 1930s, the high school ranks had swelled to nearly 5 million. By the end of the decade, more than 7 million students, representing three-fourths of 14- to 17-year-olds, were seeking a secondary education.
As the Depression wore on, states were taking on more of the financial burden of running schools. Between 1920 and 1940, the states' share of education spending nearly doubled, to 30 percent of total costs, and would increase to 40 percent by 1950, according to Pearson and Fuller. With their investment in public education growing, states believed they had more of a stake in curriculum matters and began to play a more active role in determining what was taught.
From studies of educational programs in hundreds of districts--by curriculum pacesetters such as Elwood P. Cubberly, Franklin Bobbitt, Charles Judd, and George Strayer--emerged new models for designing curricula.
The favorable results from revised programs in Denver and other cities gave states the impetus for more widespread reform and, in the 1930s, spawned a curriculum-revision movement.
Under the guidance of Hollis P. Caswell, a professor of education, and his colleagues at George Peabody College in Tennessee, now part of Vanderbilt University, the curriculum-revision movement marked the first time states had instituted comprehensive curriculum-development programs, according to History of the School Curriculum by Daniel Tanner and Laurel Tanner, published in 1990. Beginning in Florida and Alabama, and expanding to California, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, and nearly all the Southern states, the movement had far-reaching influence, Daniel Tanner says. While the state courses of study addressed the content to be studied, those statewide curriculum programs aimed to improve instruction.
"State curriculum programs took the lead in making a highly important redefinition of the meaning of the curriculum," Caswell recalled in a 1930s-vintage paper, "Emergence of the Curriculum as a Field of Professional Work and Study." Prior to that emergence, "courses of study gathered dust on shelves," Tanner notes in his book.
States struggling to maintain education funding in the midst of the Depression looked to foundations--including the General Education Board, underwritten by the Rockefellers, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York--to supplement state start-up money for the revision programs.
Virginia Superintendent Sidney B. Hall enlisted Caswell in 1931 to lead what would become the most famous of all the statewide programs.
Caswell was to "set up a more modern approach to the teaching situation which should exist in the classroom ... and bring educational practice up to the standards described by our best scholars in educational theory," according to a state summary of the program.
Following the precedent set in Alabama and Florida, also choreographed by Caswell, collaboration among administrators, teachers, scholars, and community members would emerge as the main component of the Virginia initiative. For the first time, the teacher's role in curriculum development was at center stage.
"Initially, all 17,000 teachers in the state were invited to join in a curriculum-study program, and according to Superintendent Hall's account, an incredible 15,000 joined the study committees that were formed and held in 1931-32," Kliebard writes. Teachers intimately involved in the process, the program's advocates argued, were more likely to implement the recommendations.
Teachers statewide formed study groups to discuss educational objectives, the place of subject matter in the curriculum, and ways of organizing instruction and measuring outcomes, among other topics. They were asked to record descriptions of their best work and list materials they found valuable.
Unveiled in 1934, Virginia's revised course of study was much different from those of previous generations. It was organized around what were deemed the purposes of schooling: protection and conservation of life, property, and natural resources; production, distribution, transportation, and consumption of goods and services; exploration; recreation; extension of freedom; and the expression of aesthetic and religious impulses.
By 1937, Virginia officials had declared the elementary course of study a great improvement. State surveys found that nearly 85 percent of teachers were implementing some part of the program in their classrooms. The high school program progressed more slowly.
"Progress has been made in every direction and we believe our program is well on its way to successful fruition," Superintendent Hall wrote in 1939.
A Model Curriculum
As many as 31 states, many of them using the work in Virginia as a model, underwent similar curriculum revisions. The movement was hailed as a great example of what could be achieved when all the interest groups--under the direction of the state--worked together.
But critics have characterized the process as manipulative and undemocratic.
"The goals of the curriculum revision were never truly open for discussion," the education historian Diane Ravitch writes in The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980. "Despite the rhetoric about participation and cooperation, the outcome of curriculum revision was fixed-in-advance by the experts."
Teachers who did not follow the group were fired, she writes. The Philadelphia curriculum guide, for example, said that "if teachers refused to behave 'intelligently and cooperatively,' then 'protective measures' would be taken 'in the interest of the common welfare.' "
Regretably, Ravitch writes, the curriculum-revision movement "was not an effort to balance intellectual, social, and emotional needs, but a conscious attempt to denigrate the traditional notion of 'knowledge for its own sake' as useless and possibly worthless."
But Virginia Lewis Dalton, 85, remembers her first few years of teaching as an exciting time. Dalton, who started teaching at her alma mater, Culpeper High School, in a rural county north of Charlottesville, Va., in 1940 and later headed the state teachers' association, recalls that the innovations promoted through the state's new curriculum brought welcome relief from the drill-and-skill tradition.
The curriculum program "called on teachers to be more creative," Dalton says. "I was young, and I was excited about it. It gave [teachers] an opportunity to interact more with students rather than with textbooks."
Such endeavors, though, did not last long. By 1940, foundations discontinued subsidizing them, and World War II was beginning to divert the country's attention to more urgent issues of national defense and the preservation of democracy. What had been a flood of mail arriving at Teachers College, Columbia University, which had collected copies of more than 85,000 courses of study drafted by states and districts, turned into a trickle. And publication of new courses of study was halted by shortages of manpower and materials.
But the era's influence on the emerging field of curriculum development is evident, scholars say.
"It represented the curriculum field as coming into its own," says Kliebard, now a professor emeritus of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
For the first time, states hired numerous subject-area specialists and created curriculum laboratories to help districts rewrite curricula. As a result of the Virginia experience, Caswell designed the "scope and sequence" chart, a variation of which is still widely used today to design curricula.
"It was a turning point in the professionalization of the field ... an advance in some respects in people's thinking about curriculum," Kliebard argues.
States, universities, and professional organizations responded to the new thinking with an abundance of publications to support teachers and administrators. The California education department, for example, produced a monthly guide for teaching science in elementary school from 1934 to 1941. Cornell University produced leaflets for science teachers.
In the late 1930s, the New York board of regents, which had long exerted its influence on the high school curriculum through its rigorous examination program, conducted an extensive study of graduates and dropouts to determine the system's weaknesses. The "regents' inquiry" and other studies of the period revealed wide gaps in the curriculum's ability to meet the needs of all children.
By the mid-'40s, policymakers and researchers determined to make education more functional were pushing for a rewriting of the high school curriculum.
A study commissioned in 1945 by the U.S. Office of Education to study the future of vocational education concluded that many schools were failing to design programs for the 60 percent of students who did not participate in either college-prep or vocational programs. Those students, according to Charles A. Prosser, who had helped draft the federal vocational education law three decades earlier, would benefit from "life-adjustment education." Such programs, which were later endorsed for all students, consisted of "guidance and education in citizenship, home and family life, use of leisure, health, tools of learning, work experience, and occupational adjustment," Ravitch writes.
Soon, regional conferences were organized to discuss the issue. The Office of Education and nearly every major educational organization were uniting behind the idea of restructuring education for "functional" purposes.
Some of the solutions promoted during the life-adjustment-education movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s--such as courses on dating and the proper use of leisure time--bordered on foolishness, in the opinion of its many critics.
Less than a decade later, in the midst of the Cold War, the logic behind the de-emphasis of subject matter would be questioned as schools took much of the blame for the nation's perceived shortcomings. The United States' embarrassment at falling behind in the space race with the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in 1957 forced schools to re-evaluate the curriculum.
As in 1917, the federal government felt compelled to respond to a national emergency by taking aim at the curriculum, according to Kliebard. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 called on the National Science Foundation to restructure curricula in mathematics, science, and foreign languages. ("The Race to Space Rocketed NSF Into Classrooms.") The law was expanded in 1964 to include social studies and English.
States eager to qualify for the matching-grant program began concentrating more on those disciplines. The new money from Washington allowed state education departments to expand their staffs substantially and hire many more subject-area specialists. The legislation also led to the creation of federal regional laboratories to assist districts.
The NDEA represented "a massive entry by the federal government into curriculum matters that dramatically changed the political balance and the nature of the interplay among the protagonists in the struggle," Kliebard writes. "The way in which the curriculum of American schools was determined was never quite the same after that."
As the civil unrest of the 1960s erupted, academic rigor took a back seat to educational equality.
"Amid the extreme social dissension of the late 1960s, the schools--because of their role in generating values and teaching ways of knowing--were directly affected by antiwar protests, the splintering of the liberal center, the rise of the counterculture, the growth of racial separatism, and demands for 'relevant' curricula by everyone who wished to change society," Ravitch writes.
The growing demand for equality from those who were disenfranchised or discriminated against--African-Americans, other minorities, women, and the handicapped--was being played out in the courts and in Congress, further accelerating federal encroachment into education.
As those groups were granted more legal protections, they pushed to get their viewpoints into the classroom. The advocacy groups, as well as curriculum materials, promoted a more balanced curriculum that incorporated the contributions of all people--not just those of white males of Western European stock.
Many state legislatures followed the federal lead in trying to promote reform in school.
"Although education policy is a major responsibility of the state legislature, until the 1970s considerable authority in fact had been delegated to local school boards, with the state determining only a broad policy framework," J. Myron Atkin, the dean of the school of education at Stanford University, wrote in a 1980 article in the scholarly journal Daedalus. "As confidence in the schools seemed to diminish ... state legislators began to interest themselves more in education affairs."
Increasingly, Atkin noted, legislation greatly diminished local school administrators' and teachers' control over the curriculum.
Citizens' groups seeking more school accountability for what they saw as escalating costs and poor academic results, began exerting their own influence, leading protests over the content of textbooks and educational experiments, such as "open education." Taxpayer revolts in California and Massachusetts--which reined in the local property taxes that paid for education--forced those states to take on an even greater responsibility for the schools. In more than 30 states, parents and community groups were ultimately successful in pressuring their legislatures to mandate minimum-competency testing of students, prompting a re-emphasis on the teaching of basic skills.
"By 1980," Ravitch writes, "there was no turning back to the days when local school boards were near-autonomous."
A year later, U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell noted "a widespread public perception that something is seriously remiss in our educational system." To help find a remedy, he created the National Commission on Excellence in Education to study the problems of public schooling.
The commission's influential and controversial report, A Nation at Risk, released in April 1983, described a society that no longer dominated the international economy, and an education system confused about its purpose.
"The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people," the commission concluded. "We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament."
The report, with its urgent rhetoric, ignited an intensive new campaign to improve American education. Its authors crisscrossed the nation to aim a spotlight on schools. A flurry of public attention to the report prompted governors and other elected officials to take a more active role in education. Following the release of the report, then-Vice President George Bush invited governors to his summer home in Maine to discuss a course of action. Many states quickly enacted laws beefing up instructional time and graduation requirements.
Despite such action, the depth of discussion around curricular matters was disappointing, Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching until his death in 1995, said a year after A Nation at Risk was published.
"It has not led to a serious and creative look at the nature of the curriculum," Boyer told a reporter in 1984.
"Instead," he said, "states have simply been adding units along traditional lines, almost mindlessly, without asking what it is we ought to be teaching in them."
Six years passed before a national summit on the issues the commission raised took place. During that gathering in Charlottesville in 1989, governors and education leaders committed themselves to working toward a set of goals for the nation's schools. Among them were aspirations for all students to master challenging subject matter in core disciplines and for U.S. students to become "first in the world" in math and science achievement.
Later, many policymakers and educators, heeding the recommendations in A Nation at Risk, decided the country needed to translate those goals into academic standards spelling out what students should know and be able to do. The federal government provided several subject-matter groups with money to write what were described as voluntary national standards in such disciplines as English language arts, science, history, geography, civics and government, and the arts. So upset were many educators and lawmakers by the results of those efforts, particularly in history and English, that support for national standards has all but disappeared.
State officials, who had spurned all but the most cursory of roles in the development of curriculum at the beginning of the century, maintained that it was their responsibility--indeed, their very right--to define classroom content. All but Idaho and Iowa have set standards in at least one subject, and many are creating assessments and comprehensive accountability programs designed to ensure they are met.
State legislatures, citing a lengthy history of ineffective reforms, have taken a more aggressive approach aimed at improving classroom practice, which has remained relatively constant over the century, regardless of the intensity or extent of reform efforts, Larry Cuban writes in What Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1990.
Virginia, once again, is influencing other states. Highland Springs Elementary School is but a memory. And the state has shaken off the spirit of "progressive education" that made it a leader of curriculum revision in the 1930s. Today, a traditional curriculum is the guiding force behind the state's academic standards. Held up as a national model, the Virginia standards, which outline in detail what students should learn at each grade level in every major subject, have been declared clear and rigorous, though some educators argue that they're too prescriptive and sacrifice critical-thinking skills for the memorization of facts.
As with the reforms of decades past, the standards adopted in most states are voluntary. But policymakers believe they have found a way to force their entry into the schoolhouse: a system of rewards and sanctions based on how well students master the material.
The power of the purse has proved to be a strong motivator. Some states, like Kentucky and North Carolina, provide bonuses for teachers in schools that meet state expectations on tests. Another tack has been for states to withhold aid unless instructional materials for reading are used for phonics instruction or related professional development. Nearly two dozen states passed legislation with that requisite in the past few years. Though local officials and teachers still try to maintain autonomy, state leaders are knocking ever louder at the classroom door.
Putting it bluntly, the "abject failure" of locally controlled schools forced states to take a stronger stand, Gov. Gray Davis of California recently told a reporter.
"When you have an earthquake or natural disaster, people expect the state to intervene," said the Democrat, who championed an extensive package of education measures passed by the legislature this year. "Well, we have a disaster in our schools."
Vol. 18, Issue 36, Pages 21-28Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as The State of Curriculum