Standards Opinion

It’s Time to End the Curriculum Wars

By Dave Powell — October 12, 2015 6 min read
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The past forty years or so haven’t been kind to people who are more interested in focusing on the things people have in common rather than the things that make them different. I’m one of those people.

For me, it’s a philosophical choice: I am an “educationist,” or an “EduProf,” or whatever other term of endearment you may have heard to describe people who spend their professional time thinking about educational issues. In my quest to become one, I spent a lot of time thinking about the work of John Dewey. Dewey, of course, is most well known in educational circles for arguing that education should be centered on the needs of the people actually being educated, not the people doing the educating. It was a revolutionary idea then, and it’s still a revolutionary idea now. That tells you something.

What’s less well known, and less well understood, about Dewey is his philosophy. He was a philosopher first—just the kind of philosopher you picture in your head when you hear the word. He was interested in questioning the very basis of Western philosophy, which, in his mind, had provided the foundation for a system of thought that divided the world into hierarchies and built walls between people to ensure the existence of inequality.

In short, Dewey was a pragmatist. We use the word “pragmatic” these days as a synonym for “practical,” and, in a way, that’s what Dewey was—eminently practical. He wanted to focus on solving actual problems. He did not want to sit around thinking philosophically all day, or, at least, did not want to do that unless he could be solving problems at the same time. There’s more to say about what it means to be pragmatic in a philosophical sense, but you can read my dissertation if you really want to know about that. Don’t everybody line up at once!

The point here is that focusing on what we have in common—the values that we share, rather than the ones that drive us apart—is a pretty good way to resolve conflicts. Dewey understood this. He knew that the best way to settle a dispute is to focus not on the areas of difference, but on areas of agreement. For example, two people having a debate about abortion might focus on the fact that each is concerned about a person’s rights—on the one hand, the rights of a person-to-be, on the other the rights of the person carrying that person—and begin a discussion from there.

This isn’t to say that problems are easy to solve; they’re not. The suggestion, though, is that conversations about difference are much more productive when they are focused on the things that antagonists have in common. Try it and see. You might be surprised by the results.

But back to the politics of division. In the last forty years or so, we’ve had wedge issues driven between us at every possible turn by people who understand that power can be amassed and exercised very effectively by getting people to be angry at one another. This has happened in every sphere of political life, from the denigration of “welfare queens” to the division of the world into “terrorists” and “lovers of freedom.” It has also happened in our educational politics. Take the school curriculum, for instance.

You probably already know about attempts to politicize the curriculum in Colorado, Texas, Georgia, and Oklahoma. There are many more. In 1994, a national controversy erupted when a group of historians tried to introduce standards for teaching history. This effort was predated by the politicization of the MACOS curriculum (it stood for “Man: A Course of Study,” and it lives, online!), and have been followed by the recent effort to re-rewrite the framework for Advanced Placement U.S. History, which was pilloried as “un-American.” That’s just what’s going on in social studies.

Across the curricular spectrum there is more trouble, and more unnecessary division. Creationists question the teaching of science, eager to impose their values on everyone else. Great books continue to be banned. And Common Core? Where do we begin with that? There is a growing sense among many Americans, most of whom have no idea what they’re talking about, that Common Core is just, well, bad for us. Because. Just because.

Maybe they’re right. But when I think about Common Core, I don’t think of it as a huge cultural change being foisted on us by people who want to destroy America. I think of it as perhaps the most ambitious professional development project ever undertaken in the history of education, and that makes me feel a lot better about it. It’s the marriage of good policy (for a change) and the regular evolution of teachers and teaching, which happens as one generation hands things off to the next. It’ll do as much good for teachers as it does for students, and it’ll do a lot of good for both.

Plenty of people disagree with me, and they’re not all just playing politics. There are lots of reasons to wonder if Common Core will actually fix anything. But I think we have to give it a shot. What are the other options? I think right now we have three:

  1. We can let state departments of education decide what gets taught in public schools. Maybe you’re comfortable letting government bureaucrats decide what your kid should learn. Maybe you have really thoughtful, responsive government bureaucrats in your particular state, or maybe you’re hoping federal bureaucrats will take care of things for you. Probably you don’t, and probably they won’t. I find that the older I get the more I just want government to govern. I want educators to educate.
  2. We can let corporate publishers decide what gets taught in public schools. If you’re a teacher, are you satisfied with the quality of the materials Pearson and Houghton-Mifflin have been sending your way? I mean, they’re made for everybody right? And people complain about standardization coming from Common Core. The fact is that publishers set the de facto curriculum in our schools through the materials they produce. Is it any good? Does it provide kids with the education they deserve? Publishers make what sells. And meanwhile we keep answering poll questions about Common Core. I don’t want anyone with a profit motive—especially not anyone with a profit motive who is in cahoots with political activists—deciding what ought to be taught in school, either.
  3. We can let teachers decide what gets taught in public schools. This is the revolutionary idea we’ve all been waiting for: let the teachers decide what and how to teach. Of course, that makes a lot of parents/activists really uncomfortable. What if my kid is forced to learn something I disagree with? What if my child’s teacher is a creationist? Or an evolutionist? What if my child’s teacher is gay? This might be the end of civilization as we know it.

No, it won’t. My personal feeling is that establishing reasonable standards of practice for teachers, and reasonable expectations for student learning, will enable teachers to focus on doing what they do best. You wouldn’t try to get from point A to point B without a map, would you? There are certainly times in life when you leave point A without knowing where point B is yet, but school, as a social institution, should still focus on helping us figure out how to get to point B. It’s point B that opens up the possibility of finding, and traveling to, points C-Z. We need to get somewhere before we can go everywhere, and just going anywhere won’t necessarily get us somewhere. See what I mean?

So enough already. Let’s put an end to the curriculum wars. Setting standards could allow us to focus on the things that bring us together and the values we share, not the things that drive us apart. We can still be different, and should always celebrate difference. But let’s focus on doing something together for once. Let’s let the teachers decide what belongs in the curriculum and what doesn’t, with standards to guide them. Can we trust them enough to do that? Can we trust ourselves enough to let them?

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