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Curriculum Opinion

What Frightens Me About a National Curriculum

By Deborah Meier — October 25, 2007 4 min read

Dear Diane,

Your frustration about folks avoiding original sources is reasonable. Especially when it’s actually easily available. But, of course, the “original source” itself is an interpretation of data. In short, we fall back on easier, less time-consuming ways. (“We” being me. See the back-and-forth comments about—presumably—the same data between Erin Johnson and myself.)

In fields that I don’t feel deeply connected to, I mostly look for the experts I “trust”. There’s no way to be an expert in all the subjects I need to have an opinion about! So I go along with the consensus in some cases (like climate) and rely on “my” experts (generally via the magazines I read) on foreign policy and economics—e.g. Richard Rothstein, or Paul Krugman. So why should I expect folks to do otherwise about schooling?

But it’s why it is so easy to get myths out there into the public sphere as though they were facts. In our field, there’s the myth about the good old days. It rests in part on how often opinion leaders of all political stripes refer casually to the “decline” of public education; ditto for the assumption that most other nations are doing better at something called “schooling” or “education” without our having stopped to define what either means. We fall back on test scores whose contents and assumptions few question, whose methodology even education reporters know little if anything about, not to mention the narrowness of the measures—or the way scores are set. We use a language that assumes that being well-educated is a zero-sum game, in which the progress of others has to injure us.

We trust these assumptions because to think otherwise would require going against the grain and becoming an expert oneself. Rothstein’s piece in American Prospect is not the first masterly complicating of the economic/schooling myths, but precisely by complicating it he loses part of his audience. For example, he reminds us that we “forget” that there’s a 20-30-year gap between when the tests are administered and when that age group has an impact on the economy. In the information age, resources are also not evenly distributed. While, for example, FairTest—the only national organization that is in the business of being skeptical about test data, has a budget of less than half a million, the three or four leading testing agencies each spend many millions on promoting the idea that tests are the one true measure. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of FairTest.)

It leads me to wish we had a very different way of spending those 13-20 schooling years—preparing people to assess the events that surround them, independently sorting out pros and cons. I’m for the “liberal arts"—but not at the expense of “making sense” of the world around us, those “habits of mind” we build our curriculum around at schools associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools. The traditional liberal arts might even support such habits, if we designed them with this in mind. It would, for example, take a very different definition of advanced mathematics. The public’s much-criticized lack of interest in advanced math may, in fact, betray their good sense, not their bad. Calculus-driven math may be foolish-driven math, that mis-prepares us, leaving us disarmed before the realities of our world. Perhaps a “statistics-driven” math would be equally tough and “advanced” but more suitable for a democratic citizenry?

In short, what frightens me about a national curriculum is not merely that I think it’s more exciting to teach based on the particular interests and events that swirl around the young but because I think I can even “cover” more stuff of importance if I begin with what grabs our interest—from dinosaurs, mummies, castles, to modern Iraq or climate claims. I can better engage kids with the world they live in—including its history—if I make that the central aim of my work. Diane, it seems unlikely we can get a national consensus around the kind of experimentation that many of us think needs to take place. Nor should we! But suppose I’m right, that more “coverage” of the traditional fare won’t make us either scientifically more sophisticated or mathematically more at home in this world? I’m not interested in banning traditionalism, but I’m also not interested in prohibiting us from the kind of exploration that needs to take place. Nor do I want to leave it all to private schools to experiment with the age-old conundrums. I think there are responsible ways to engage in this work, not just in private but also in public schools.

Our scientific future depends, I believe, on our remaining a nation that appreciates “play"—the non-utilitarian (or at least not immediately so) mindset that we’re born with. We are systematically cutting ourselves off from the roots of human intellectual inventiveness. We need to find the equivalent of a generation-old practice of taking cars and radios apart to see how they work and building fortresses out of whatever is on hand. Computer-programmed games can’t replace the old chemistry sets. Finding the modern equivalents requires us to experiment, not to return to the 1896 Ivy League consensus, great as it was. Some of us were lucky to have had both, but too many kids today have neither. They thus develop an acquiescent mindset or else a merely rebellious one, but an insufficiently curious and self-disciplined one.

As I meet with teachers and principals and parents I hear a lot of anguish and fear. Of course my sample is biased, but…. Read Dan Brown’s book, “The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle” for a moving account of why we may be entering an era of temp teachers.


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.