The Forgotten Half

Many educators fear their subjects may be squeezed out of the curriculum

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To the guardians of the many disciplines that make up the school curriculum, the national goals for education spell trouble; it's not what the goals say that has these curriculum advocates worried—it's what they don't say.

One goal states, for example, that American students should be first in the world in mathematics and science by the year 2000. There is no goal, by contrast, on the arts or foreign languages.

Another goal advocates testing students in history and geography, but there is never a mention of political science, economics, or the other topics that normally fall under the rubric of social studies. Testing is called for in English, but not literature. And vocational education, health education, and physical education get no mention at all.

The omissions, an increasingly vocal number of curriculum groups argue, could result in an effective “narrowing” of the curriculum commonly taught in the nation's schools. By leaving out a few key subject areas, these groups say, the president and the nation's governors have sent a signal to administrators and policymakers nationwide about what is essential to good schooling and what is expendable.

The result, says Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, is that the fields left out “are going to receive less attention in an already-imbalanced pattern across the land. It's going to be a turf battle for the survival of these other subjects.”

The goals process began at the education summit in 1989, when President Bush and the governors launched a 10-year effort to improve education. Early in 1990, they agreed on six national goals to be met by the year 2000 and pledged to report progress toward meeting them each year until the turn of the century.

To varying degrees, the goals focused on five curriculum areas: mathematics, science, history, geography, and English. By the year 2000, students are expected to be first in the world in two of those areas—science and mathematics—and tests were called for in all five subjects.

In addition, the goals state, by the turn of the century, “every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our modern economy.”

Those involved in the goals-drafting process insist that the identification of only five subject areas was not intended to slight the rest of the school curriculum. “The goals say, `start here,' but they don't say, `stop here,' says Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, the former chairman of the National Education Goals Panel. “If what we're after is an educated person, we know that more than five things make an educated person.”

The first “report card” on the nation's progress toward achieving the goals, this past fall, expanded the curricular focus slightly. “An appreciation of the fine arts and mastery of one or more foreign languages,” the report states, “are examples of additional competencies that our schools must foster if we are to produce fully educated and well-rounded citizens of tomorrow.”

A second section of the report, titled “Additional Important Information,” expands on that by including data, for example, on the percentage of preschool children whose parents regularly take them to cultural activities. And charts in that section list the percentages of high school students taking Advanced Placement courses in the arts and foreign languages.

Simple acknowledgments of the lack of attention to the “forgotten half” of the curriculum, however, do not go far enough to ease the qualms of representatives of several subject-matter groups. For the most part, they say, their pleas to expand the disciplinary emphases in the report, repeated in letters to the goals panel and its sister organization, the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, have fallen on deaf ears. Dissatisfaction over the limited roles some of the disciplines have been given was a catalyst, in part, for the formation last year of the Alliance for Curriculum Reform, an unprecedented union of every major subject-matter group.

“We feel clearly they aren't looking at the whole curriculum,” says C. Edward Scebold, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “It started that way, and it continues.”

Representatives of several groups believe the business forces driving the national reform movement are responsible for the lack of attention their disciplines have received. As far back as A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report credited with spawning the movement, the overriding goal in school reform efforts has been maintaining the nation's economic competitiveness.

Business people, says Ruth Mitchell, associate director of the Council for Basic Education, “don't see the need for arts and languages; they're not taking the long view.” Says Carol Sterling, director of arts education for the American Council for the Arts: “Yes, we are concerned that our students have the skills necessary to ensure American economic preeminence, but we must also pay attention to our cultural preeminence.”

Sterling and other arts boosters say the lack of attention to that subject in the goals process comes at a particularly dangerous time. Although no statistics are available on the status of arts education nationally, a wave of budget-cutting measures in several large cities in recent years—most notably in New York and Philadelphia—has decimated school arts programs.

“On the whole, arts education in the United States is in a dismal state,” says John Frohnmayer, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Unless we can do something to change [the focus of the goals], it will further push the arts to the shoulder of the curriculum.”

The debate in social studies is of a different nature. While the goals' architects have not completely ignored the subject, they have pared down its scope by targeting history and geography. “They've eliminated government and economics, and, based on the assessment information we've seen so far, it seems they're only going to test U.S. history,” says Frances Haley, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. “They've sort of tagged citizenship at the end with no clear definition of what that means. To us, that's analogous to having on the list instead of science only biology and physics.”

The omissions also place curriculum reformers squarely on one side of one of the most divisive debates in the social studies field today: whether history should be the single core of social studies education. Both the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools and the California framework for social studies education have recommended that schools more heavily emphasize history. Groups such as the NCSS, in contrast, have been advocating for a broader approach.

In a similar vein, some people have questioned the use of the word “English” in the goals rather than “language arts,” a broader term more commonly used by educators. The choice, they say, leaves no room for the study of literature.

“The role that literature plays is that it gets readers to focus on the nature of the language itself, why a certain color, a certain shape, the kind of design you can find in language,” says Miles Myers, executive director of the National Council for Teachers of English. “It's also one of the important ways of knowing.”

The first draft of the original goals was written by officials in President Bush's administration. The choice of the five core areas, staff members involved in the effort say, was influenced in part by the fact that several of those subjects are regularly tested by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In addition, they say, A Nation at Risk deplored the “cafeteria-style” curriculum found in most high schools and recommended that it be replaced with a “new basics” curriculum. That core would include: mathematics, science, social studies, English, a half year of computer science, and, for the college-bound, two years of a foreign language.

To some who defend the core curriculum set down in the goals, there is no question that the school curriculum will be pared down. “It will be a narrowed curriculum,” says Chester Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University who served as an unofficial adviser on President Bush's America 2000 plan. “The question is whether that's a vice or a virtue. I believe doing justice to the five subjects . . . would be a heck of an improvement over what we've got now.”

Both the critics of the short list of subjects and those who defend it acknowledge that the goals leave some room for flexibility. As a result, the focus of much of the lobbying in recent months by advocates for the arts, foreign languages, and literature has been to point out how those studies enhance critical thinking. Arts groups in particular have pointed to a spate of recent studies suggesting that arts education also improves student performance in other subject areas, such as mathematics and science.

“Right now,” a spokesman for the National Endowment for the Arts says, “we're focusing on working with what's there.”

Vol. 03, Issue 04, Pages 14-15

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