Curriculum Opinion

We won’t agree on curriculum

By Diane Ravitch — May 23, 2007 2 min read

Editor’s note: Deborah Meier is currently traveling in China. While she is away, the Bridging Differences blog will go on a brief hiatus. The blog will return on June 11. The following is Diane Ravitch’s final new entry before the break begins.

Dear Deb,

No, we are not going to agree. We just can’t bridge our differences when it comes to curriculum. I hate to write this while you are in China, but I guess it will still be here when you get back. As far as I can tell, in your view, curriculum is whatever the teacher decides to do today, perhaps in response to an “interesting question,” or something that comes up incidentally in the class discussion.

I am not sure where you got the idea that schools for the “rich” don’t have a curriculum. I recall looking through the curriculum statements of private schools some years ago and finding that most of them had a curriculum that was clear and very rich with content. It did not appear that teachers were expected to make it up every day as they went along.

You seem to think that any set curriculum is a form of tyranny over the human mind. Do you feel this way about IB courses and AP courses? These are probably our best current examples of specified curricula, and to my knowledge, they seem to be very popular, especially in advantaged schools and affluent districts.

Yes, there is most certainly an important element of equity that inheres in a set curriculum. It is the best way to assure that a course called “Algebra I” has the same level of challenge as a course with the same title in a different school. It is the best way to make sure that poor kids have access to the same ideas and skills as their affluent peers. Researchers know that course titles often hide wide variation, and the variation tends to favor the most advantaged schools, where the course content sets higher expectations.

And yes, in a country as diverse as ours, there is value in supporting the broad dissemination of knowledge and a common intellectual culture. A common intellectual culture does not mean that everyone should think alike, but that everyone has a (more or less) shared vocabulary and deep enough knowledge about important ideas so that people can engage in arguments. You can’t argue with people unless you share a certain base of knowledge and values. Nor can you have a debate unless the words mean the same things to people who are debating. You and I can argue fruitfully (most of the time) because we have so much in common (sorry!). We can disagree because we share a wide range of words, idioms, terms, and experiences. We both know a great deal about our shared history, and that makes it possible for us to argue about it.

If most Americans don’t have a clue why there was a Civil War; what happened during Reconstruction; what Lincoln said and did; what the Plessy decision held; what racial segregation meant; what the Brown decision decided; who Martin Luther King Jr. was; what the civil rights movement was about, etc., then how can they possibly understand events today? Having shared background knowledge and a common vocabulary of words and ideas does not determine what we think; it enables us to talk to one another.

Debbie, I respect your wisdom and experience, but I will never, never, never agree with your anarchistic ideas about curriculum.

Have fun in China.


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