Curriculum Opinion

Thoughts on a National Curriculum

By Deborah Meier — March 12, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

So we’re back at the thorniest issue—a national curriculum.

The kind of “set” curriculum I like is one proposed and supported by the constituents of a particular school—like ours at Mission Hill or CPE/CPESS. Although, even ours was probably not sufficiently detailed for you. I’ve embraced a few other people’s favorites; I could live with some others; but, many I couldn’t. (My peculiarly inept rote memory may be a factor in some of my biases.)

There are at least five assumptions that I suspect come into play for me.

1. Goals. First and foremost: nourishing a lively democracy. Plus, having a productive and useful life. I would argue that differing viewpoints about what constitutes a well-educated citizen are matters of persuasion, not mandates. There are healthy biases, ideologies, assumptions that lead to prioritizing knowledge, for example, in different ways. If it were possible to have one right way to “tell” history or science, to my way of thinking, there could be one right way to do everything. “Why can’t we all just agree?” Because intellectual agreement has to be arrived at. Since it’s judgment I want to “train,” I don’t want our differences covered over, dumbed down, compromised (a snippet of each).

2. Intellectual Authority. In a democracy, there is healthy tension between expert and lay authority. There are also profound differences between experts—whether we are discussing science, history, or even mathematics and, of course, literature, dance, theater, music. What and who to include? Again, these are not differences of a trivial nature. These differences—and how we respond to them—are at the heart of authority in a democratic culture. I want teachers—individually and collectively—to represent a positive example of intellectual authority at work, arguing, constructing, revising. (Incidentally, it’s one reason some great teachers end up in less-well-paying private schools.)

3. Standardization. There are more forces leading to a dumbed-down standardization than we need already. The power of business and the academy will always be substantial, as well as all the new and old media. There is little risk that school boards, families, and teachers will not take these into account, or be swayed by them. We’re a nation of strong “opinions” (hurrah), but a livelier discourse about the “evidence” for our opinions, the inevitable trade-offs, the degree of uncertainty we must live with, and our capacity to imagine that we might be wrong is often lacking! Twelve years of searching for clues to the right answer—the four reasons for the Civil War, the right date of the Versailles Treaty, the magic ingredient (oops) driving photosynthesis is a dead end. No wonder astrology and astronomy get confused. The alternative reasoned mindset starts early—and can’t wait for more advanced study after most kids have left school.

4. Equity and resources. Money matters. Some argue with this, but then continue to make sure their own children get the most expensive and selective educations. Common sense should remind us that we pass on to our children all the advantages we possess. To expect such advantages not to matter is a pernicious myth. Given these differences, we must not only equalize public resources, but see to it that more resources are allocated to the “have-nots”—e.g. equitable health care, before- and after-school settings, summer experiences, facilities, staffing, and teacher-to-student ratios. (Why do the rich think 12:1 is not too few? Why do businesses think 8:1 is a good supervision ratio?)

5. Respect. We’ve handicapped too many kids by pretending schools can replace their families and communities. At Mission Hill, we had a motto—imagine that every child’s parent were in the room when we talked about them. Building that alliance is a time-consuming and expensive challenge. It happens to be do-able, but would be a lot more so if staff and families had the time it requires.

Which do we agree or disagree with most, Diane?

I‘ve long noticed that the adults who attended very different schools, at different times and in different countries are often equally “well-educated.” The differences are a blessing, not a curse. Occasionally U of Chicago alumni like to think we are special—“you can tell ‘us’ from the rest,” they say proudly. (Our CPESS/MH alumni sometimes make claims similar to U of C grads.) The “habits of mind” we invented at CPESS were based on an attempt to synthesize what we felt all “smart” people did when confronting a new situation—how their minds “worked” on a problem. We claimed these “habits” distinguished a good carpenter or car mechanic from a poorly educated one. We concluded that such “habits” required a different approach to standards and assessment. But I’ll admit the graduates of x and y came out pretty well, too, with a different approach! (Or maybe underneath there were deep commonalities?)

What you describe re. Brown v. Board of Education is exactly the issue. Given the coverage expected in New York state’s list of standards, who could afford even three days, much less weeks on this fascinating case history? In Boston, Mission Hill also insisted on time spent studying Brown’s impact on the history of Boston—which wasn’t on the Massachusetts standards at all.

We concluded, based on our own histories and extensive research, that we all learn most efficiently when the subject “happens” to pique our interest, overlaps with what we’re currently “into,” when local circumstances provide rich examples, and/or our own teaching passions make it a perfect topic! Ancient Egypt and dinosaurs are not highly relevant or useful, but nary a 6- or a 12-year-old isn’t tempted.

More on this as we both dig into this argument! Okay?


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