Curriculum is the engine of our public education system. To a large degree it shapes the allocation of financial resources and time, the preparation and assignment of teachers, and the formulation of academic standards and standardized tests. Despite its importance, curriculum doesn’t get much attention from parents, politicians, or the media, except for calls for more rigor and a national curriculum (God forbid). Nearly everybody just accepts curriculum as it’s always been—without questioning whether it is appropriate for a very diverse student body and a high-tech, rapidly changing world.
The standards movement and the increasing emphasis on accountability (especially since the enactment of No Child Left Behind) tend to make the core curriculum even more impervious to criticism or change. And that is unfortunate because the key to significant improvement in student learning might well be a serious examination of—and national debate about—the traditional core curriculum.
Such an assessment might well begin with this question: What is the main purpose of the curriculum? The answer is hardly academic: If the main purpose is to designate specifically what every student should know, then the standards movement and core curriculum make sense. If the purpose is mainly to provide an essential component in learning to think and solve problems, then the specific knowledge is of secondary importance, and requiring all kids to learn the same things at the same time makes no sense.
In an Education Week commentary last summer (“Why Thinking ‘Outside the Box’ Is Not So Easy,” August 30, 2006), newspaper columnist Marion Brady challenged the traditional curriculum: “Of all the education-related unexamined assumptions, none is more deeply embedded than the belief that the main business of schooling is to teach the ‘core curriculum’—math, science, social studies, and language arts.”
In his compelling argument to rethink the curriculum, Brady writes: “School, finally, isn’t about disciplines and subjects, but about what they were originally meant to do—help the young make more sense of life, more sense of experience, more sense of an unknowable future. And in that sense-making effort, math, science, social studies, and language arts simply aren’t up to the challenge. They’ve given us a curriculum so deeply flawed it’s an affront to the young and a recipe for societal disaster.”
Neither Mr. Brady nor I would suggest for a moment that learning to think and reason can take place without knowledge. But it is arrogant and counterproductive to set grade-level standards and curricula that define what every student should know. Maybe that was possible—perhaps even reasonable—in an age when virtually all that we knew about science could fit on one shelf in Thomas Jefferson’s library. But not today.
Being able to read proficiently is the crucial prerequisite to becoming educated. Many of the people who built this nation and made enduring contributions to society had little or no formal education: George Washington, Patrick Henry, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Andrew Jackson, Robert Fulton, Thomas Edison, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and millions of ordinary citizens. Once they could read, they acquired the knowledge they needed to be productive workers and good citizens (even without a core curriculum or the enormous benefit of the Internet). And, by and large, they learned what they wanted to learn, and the more they learned, the more they wanted to learn.
Schools fail to teach a great many of our children to read well enough to understand what they read. Yet they still require students to attend years of courses that they may lack the interest or skill to master. How reasonable is that?
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as One Size Fits Whom?