Curriculum Opinion

Who’s Afraid of Curriculum?

By Diane Ravitch — May 14, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I always find myself in agreement with your judgments about teaching, which are invariably wise. Yet I am often, as in this instance, unable to follow your logic when applied to district-wide, statewide, or national-wide policies. Like you, I think it is wonderful to teach argument, to encourage students to think about alternative interpretations, to realize that their textbooks are not necessarily authoritative, to prepare for democratic life by thinking independently.

Still, it seems to me, unless I am misreading you, that you are opposed not only to tests, but to curriculum as well. Here and elsewhere, you have made clear your strong opposition to any standardized testing. Again, unless I wasn’t listening closely enough, there is no standardized test that wins your approval. That’s OK. It’s a principled position, and you make a good case. But no matter how good your case, standardized testing is not going away, so I believe that we should try to come up with sensible ways to improve such testing and to limit the excessive test prep that is ruining so many classrooms.

You end with a swipe at the NAEP proficiency cut points. It’s true that they have been criticized by various reviews; it is also true that the NAEP staff and board commissioned most of those reviews and have responded to them over the years. Without question, NAEP is the most heavily studied, analyzed, and evaluated testing program in the United States. I also think it is a better test than any state test that I have seen. If you want to know what it “covers,” go to the NAEP website and you will find curriculum frameworks for every subject tested, as well as large numbers of sample questions in each subject. I don’t know of any other test that is as forthcoming in describing in detail what it covers.

I find it harder to understand, however, what seems to be your opposition to curriculum. In good old-fashioned progressivist fashion, you want classrooms where teachers can explore a question that a student raises and make that question the topic of the day, the week, maybe longer. Presuming that in a class of two dozen students, there are at least two dozen questions, the entire semester could be spent exploring interesting questions raised by students. The teacher could wander from topic to topic or revisit an old topic or whatever.

This is a description, I would guess, of a school or a district in which there is no set curriculum. As you know better than most people, many teachers would find this mode of teaching to be extremely stressful. It is hard to prepare for the day’s lesson when you don’t know what it will be until Maria or Johnny raises an interesting question. (I remember when I was in school—probably junior high school—my friends and I used to raise “interesting questions” as a way to distract the teacher and pass the time in class on our terms, shooting the breeze, not hers.)

I truly don’t see why you find it objectionable to know what the curriculum for each year’s studies will be. Is it really so awful that many fifth-grade classes study the founding of the American nation and the American Revolution, or that eighth-graders are likely to study the Civil War? It would seem to me that teachers can organize their work better if they know what they are supposed to teach. And that within the limits of an organized curriculum, there is plenty of room for students to debate, argue, search for alternative explanations, explore alternative sources, etc.

This is a matter on which I expect we will never bridge our differences. I do believe that whatever the subject, be it science, history, or mathematics, it is valuable to have a curriculum, a definition of the topics and main ideas that will be taught during the course of the year. I believe that it is valuable for teachers, students, and even for parents, who know what their children will be learning. I don’t see that this implies any diminution of the teacher’s freedom to teach or the student’s ability to raise questions and engage in debate and argument.


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.