Teaching Opinion

The Progressive Case for a Common Curriculum

By Education Week Staff — December 10, 2013 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today, Robert Pondiscio once again writes to Deborah Meier.

Dear Deborah,

This may be a first for Bridging Differences. I make a progressive argument and you push back with a conservative response. I want schools to give the children of the poor and marginalized the base of knowledge the privileged take for granted; I want the disenfranchised to command the language of power, and your response is that if any single best practice dominates schooling, “it undermines liberty, democracy, and progress, in general.” My friends at the libertarian Cato Institute will surely agree and applaud.

How did this happen? We have not bridged any differences. We have passed each other mid-span heading in opposite directions!

I am making the case for common curriculum as indispensible to teaching for social justice, educating for democracy, and maximizing personal liberty. With the utmost respect I must hold your feet to the fire here, Deb, and ask you again: Do you believe there is any content in any subject that every school should teach and that every child should know? If so, please cite some examples. And if not, why not?

I confess I’m not surprised you rejected my suggestion that we start with the U.S. Citizenship Test. It’s obviously nowhere close to cataloging all one needs to know to be an active, engaged citizen. But its mere existence establishes an important principle. Americans, through our democratic, representative process, have decided this is the rock-bottom baseline of factual knowledge for citizenship. We may not agree on the test’s content, but we must respect the rule of law. Do you believe we can morally and lawfully make knowledge demands, however trivial, of one class of citizens but not another? Yes or no?

You write that the struggle to define democracy and liberty continue to evolve and that schooling “ideally prepares us to join in that struggle.” I strongly agree, but here again I must insist on specificity. Do you expect children to absorb what they need to know to contribute to this discussion by osmosis? Through patient and persistent modeling of democracy in our schools? Or do you wish, as I do, for children to learn the story of America’s founding, study the American Revolution, read the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, and become familiar with major historical events and movements of the past 250 years, warts and all, so that they might understand, in your excellent phrase, “precisely what protects other rights such as fairness, liberty, equality, privacy, and happiness.” Yes or no?

The civic virtues we both prize are empty platitudes without history to make them meaningful. Why is it so difficult to say—loudly and proudly—there are things all Americans should know to be competent citizens, so there must be a common curriculum? Are you uncomfortable stating that children should learn how America righted the historic wrongs of slavery and disenfranchising women? Do you not wish for children to study the labor movement and the struggle for civil rights? Are there American children who do not need to know these things? Are you so reluctant to choose that you would rather have no curriculum at all?

You asked, “Do we really have to teach a common core to promote thinking, or do we mean ‘thinking like us?’” The answer, whether we like it or not, is empirically and emphatically, “Yes.” And if by “thinking like us” you mean “thinking like Americans” (all Americans, regardless of race, gender, or sexual identity), the answer is clearly and unambiguously “Yes” again.

It is essential to clarify I’m not making a political or pedagogical point, but an instructional one. I hate to divert our discussion with a technical point, but it’s a vital one. Cognitive skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and especially reading comprehension, are knowledge-based. They are not content-neutral, transferable skills that can be taught, practiced, and mastered in the abstract. Our ability to comprehend written or spoken language is largely a function of constantly making correct inferences, which itself is a function of background knowledge and vocabulary shared by author and reader, speaker and listener.

If I describe an underdog basketball team’s season, for example, as “a Cinderella story,” I am assuming you get the common reference. But even the simple word “shot” means something different on a basketball court, a doctor’s office, a rifle range, a tavern, or when the repairman tells you the dishwasher is “shot.” Our shared knowledge creates the context that makes even our simplest utterances make sense. Shared words are not enough. Shared context is what enables us to understand each other.

I should add that the decision to have a common body of knowledge is not ours to make. The decision already been made. It is embedded in centuries of writing and speaking by poets and parents, statesmen and scientists, artists, immigrants, and others who have contributed to our capacious culture. The only decision left for us to make is whether we will welcome all children into literate life and full citizenship, or consign millions to a form of illiteracy by our stubborn refusal to teach it.

I hope our readers don’t feel I’m belaboring the point. But if the estimable Deborah Meier is unclear on why a clear, well-defined common curriculum serves the ends of social justice, then there’s no hope at all that anyone else will.

A wise friend and professional mentor of mine argued not long ago in favor of a voluntary national curriculum. “Many educators and parents worry that a national curriculum might be captured by ‘the wrong people,’ that is, someone whose views they do not share.” But despite these concerns, my friend was persuaded of the need for common content as a means to “release us from the shackles of test-based accountability.” Let me quote at length from this peerless educational thinker who argued for a voluntary national curriculum:

“If it is impossible to reach a consensus about a national curriculum, then every state should make sure that every child receives an education that includes history, geography, literature, the arts, the sciences, civics, foreign languages, health, and physical education. The subjects should not be discretionary or left to chance. Every state should have a curriculum that is rich in knowledge, issues, and ideas, while leaving teachers free to use their own methods, with enough time to introduce topics and activities of their own choosing.”

I agree wholeheartedly. And also with this:

“To have no curriculum, as is so often the case in American schools, leaves schools at the mercy of those who demand a regime of basic skills and no content at all. To have no curriculum is to leave decision about what matters to the ubiquitous textbooks, which function as our de facto national curriculum. To have no curriculum on which assessment may be based is to tighten the grip of test-based accountability, testing only generic skills, not knowledge or comprehension.”

Wise words. Do you recognize them, Deb? They were written by Diane Ravitch in her seminal 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Much has been made of Diane’s repudiation of her early views on education, testing, and accountability. But she has always been stalwart in her support for a knowledge-rich core curriculum.

How about you, Deborah? I’m not asking you to like a coherent, specific core curriculum. But do you see that in this one case, the ends we seek are all but impossible to achieve without it?

Yes or no?


Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City’s South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.