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What Frightens Me About a National Curriculum


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.




I completely agree with you that one of our goals for education should be to prepare “people to assess the events that surround them, independently sorting out pros and cons.”

But if people don’t have a critical mass of knowledge about a subject, how can they possibly do this?

Look at the difficulty that we have had in sorting out international data? If you had a wealth of knowledge about statistics, would you not feel more confident/interested in interpreting the many aspects of the international data?

As for play and exploration, these are wonderful tools to use to engage students in understanding the world around them. But we can’t just expect children to reinvent the wheel. Much of math, reading, science and literature are not intuitive and can not be discovered by play alone. (I’ve had very bright, passionate first graders insist that since they can’t see air, it does not exist. Should we leave them with that very perceptive misconception?) So balancing the need to play with the need to learn is the job of every teacher and should be done at the classroom level.

But teaching techniques aside, are there not some subjects, ideas and skills that you think all our children would benefit from knowing?

Erin Johnson


I guess I support a national curriculum. After all most people who I respect see it as important.

The much more important thing however, is Frank McCourt's and your, approach -teach your passion. And your students' passion.

"Studies say" that it would take a student until 23 or so to master all of the high school stndards even if they lost no class time. Or should I say that studies said that a few years ago? With the explosion of knowledge, what would it take now? Unless we want 30 year old high school students, I don't see how national standards can be a very important part of urban school reform.

Also, we still have politics. Diane, I'd interested in your review of the National History Standards. As I recall, professional historians (and I were one) were virtually unanimous in favor and the Senate was virtually unanimous in opposition.

The best thing about National Standards is that it is a mechanism for better professional development. Few public teachers in my poor district have enough knowledge of subject matter to prioritize. And in my experience, it is usually easier to teach the more important concepts to low skill students if you embrace the accepted professional standards. That counter-intuitive but I think its true for two reasons. Professional historians, for instance tend to stress history from the "bottom up," multiculturalism, new approaches even including DNA and anthropology, and the drama of complex human conflict. That is inherently more interesting. Secondly, as opposed to the "one damned thing after another" school of high school history, professional historians have named the phenomenon, created fun metaphors, and de-prioritized the booring old stuff.

So personally, there is no conflict between "teach your passion" and standards. I just think most of the talk about national curriculum is awfully distant to my kids world.

Finally, we always come back to the old chestnut that our kids are highly mobile so there should be some commonality. That sounds logical but in my world it is so absurd that it should serve as a wake-up call. I get a new transfer every day, but they never have any memory of what they were studing in their old school. Usually they can't remember what course they were taken and often they can't remember their old teacher or if they were even taking a social science course. The over-emphasis on teaching short-term episodic memory, to the exclusion of long-term memeory and knowledge should tell us that we aren't incorporating enough passion and relevance into our instruction.

Today though, my Black history students read a poem by Claude McKay and instantly recalled the rookie teacher who taught it to them last year. One girl dug up an old text and showed me another poem by McKay which I had never read. I've been hearing the same thing about that teacher in all of my classes.

If you wanted to install a proven, world class set of national content specific math and science standards for every grade level from k-12 the easiest way would be to adopt the existing Singapore standards. They are printed in English. All of the curricula materials (including teaching guides and computer games) have been developed. The printed materials are in paperback so they are less costly than the existing hardback materials used today. Given the fungible nature of math and science the politics would be somewhat diminished. I would enjoy hearing what arguments exist against employing national math and science content standards that are commensurate with the world's best. I suspect the adoption of a national US history curriculum is pretty much impossible.

Deborah - I'm with you in rejecting a national curriculum, but I believe there is a place in American education for the kind of national history standards that were voted down by Congress in 1995. Those standards were clear enough to provide guidance to educators at the local level and broad enough to leave room for innovation in teaching and learning. Students should not be tested for knowledge of historical facts, and historical content knowledge is not to be prized for its own sake. An understanding of the past contributions of all peoples to contemporary society and culture wouldn't help students become adept at analyzing scientific data, and it wouldn't involve the Deweyan hands-on learning you advocate. But it would promote a spirit of inquiry and a set of perspectives vital to a democratic citizenry, NAEP or no NAEP.

Tom said it better than me, and shorter.

I guess I'm always trying to split the difference between curriculum-driven reformers, and those of us who want to teach the whole human being.

It hardly requires my response—because between the 4 of you, you’ve pretty much raised everything. Still…
Erin: Even 3 year olds do complicated, deep thinking based on the knowledge they have; so whatever kids look at seriously and carefully is what we should be “demanding” them to think about vs. “memorize” before they think. (I contrast that kind of memorizing with memorizing a poem or song.) The issue becomes, what to drop if we are to teach statistics, for example, in such a way that adults had a useful handle on how odds play out, etc.? What would it take for adults to have a real grasp of the difference between millions, billions and trillions? My list of what I wish all “all kids” knew is endless. Fortunately we have a long life after we leave school, assuming we’ve unleashing both passion and discipline—and I’m talking about the discipline it takes to go beyond “well, that’s my opinion.” My dilemma is what we have to leave out so much to do so—and I’d best leave this decision to those closest to the community and child—informed by potential consequences. I'm still feeling sad about what I may have had to "leave out"--given that life is finite and my desires infinit.

John T. I just don’t get it, Tom! No conflict between passion and a set of national standards? It’s impossible to agree on a truly lean list. And we barely have time to “cover” more than math and literacy NOW! Thanks for your words on the mobility argument.

John S. Actually even Science and Math are hard to “agree” about. The big problem with U.S. math is that it is lready based on expecting kids to “cover” far far too much. No one dares cut it down to any reasonable set of understandings and skills. In part because we really don’t agree about what it’s for. Ditto for Science. The vast majority of our science teaching assumes the important thing is to know the “truth” even if that requires teaching science like a magic show--at best; with “hands-on” experiments that produce an “aha” but are built around entirely false (ie. Predetermined) answers. Science is as much about disproving as proving. Could it be that Singapore—if we looked deeply—is an example of good math because of factors about Singapore we don’t know a lot about—and that it comes at the cost of some other important learning? I don’t know; but I’d be cautious. (Besides, we actually do pretty well on international science tests.)

And finally Tom C. Why Congress? Whatever leads me to want THEM to decide on what history to teach? That truly is frightening. I see no reason why the American Historical Association, like the math educators, couldn’t produce one or more suggested guidelines in history. On another matter entirely—I think Dewey is actually more “inquiry-based” than “hands-on”. And I think I am too.

My best to you all, Deb


These were my thoughts, and I think Tom and I were both agreeing with you about the problem with congress. The History Standards were outstanding but apparently they didn’t have enough hero worship for the politicians.

1. The proposed Standards were better than what is actually being taught in the schools I know. Implicit in my story was my surprise that a teacher, especially a young one, knew about the Harlem Renaissance. Our kids don’t even get to learn about “Deep Deuce”, which was the site Oklahoma City’s version of that golden age and Ralph Ellison’s childhood home, which inspired so much of The Invisible Man. By the way, the girl who started off the excellent discussion had just come in late, returning from an injury, and I hadn’t had a chance to hear her story or ask why her brother had been dropped from the school. Her home had been firebombed to the ground in the latest round of our gang war and she found a refuge in the poetry of resistance and of affirmation. Her brother followed a different path.

2. I had absolutely loved my experience in academia and so I see it as one of many paths to passionate teaching. Also, it fits into the “Six Degrees of Separation” concept of Malcolm Gladwell and provides a means of connecting inner city kids to the outside world. I was liberated by the transition from “slingin iron” as a rough-neck in the oil fields to the Rutgers doctoral program and meeting up with world historical figures. Even students who remember few concepts usually remember the punch line of the story when I gave a copy of my first book to Ralph Ellison as I effusively praised his work. Ellison replied, “Thank you very much. ... Do I hear this correctly? I can’t get a gin and tonic in the Ralph Ellison Library?”

3. I don’t think computers have been cost effective yet as an educational tool, but I wouldn’t bet against them for the rest of the 21st century. The digital revolution will bring more standardization, and we who revere the liberal arts must work with the changes that they produce or be swept away.

4. I had just returned from the fall break in the Quachita Mountains and the only thing I read during the break was the AFTs cover story on Al Shanker. I never fully agreed with Shanker but eventually he sorta won me over on Standards. It was more of a “if you can’t whip them, join them” attitude of mine. Anything that gets us back to peer review and professionalism is welcome.

But I have even more reservations about national standardseven as I know they are being swept aside by history. The problems with the Standards Movement has been that the word sounds too much like Standardized Test. There is even a more dangerous connotation to the word curriculum. The specter of a national “Scope and Sequence” enforced by standardized tests is terrifying.

So I’m glad you made me think through this again. Its reassuring to have you remind me of my better judgement, even as I compromise so much.

The problem is: the people who win often--far too often--disagree with me! But I'm still stuck, because the only other alternative is for me to be selected benign dictator. Which is even less likely to happen. So, I fall back on trying to persuade. And feeling alternately more or less hopeful. And I've turned out on occasion to be wrong!


There are many problems with what is going on, and not going on in our schools today. There are also solutions. Check out this movie trailer for a documentary on our education system coming out in December/January called "Flunked".


I like the notion of a national curriculum for a number of reasons but most importantly from an equity standpoint. I would like kids from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, etc., exposed to (and be expected to learn) the same rich body of knowledge our kids get here in Massachusetts.


Students in Singapore perform so much better on the international tests because the math is better structured, more complex and there is a deep seated belief that all children can learn to be excellent problem solvers if they are taught properly. The highly articulated math goals set out by their Ministry of Education contains a profound understanding of both mathematics and how children learn.

If you are so inclined to delve into why the math taught in Singapore is so much better than any math taught in the US, the American Institutes for Research issued a report concluding that,

“Analysis of these evidentiary streams finds Singaporean students more successful in mathematics than their US counterparts because Singapore has a world-class mathematics system with quality components aligned to produce students who learn mathematics to mastery. These components include Singapore’s highly logical national mathematics framework, mathematically rich problem-based textbooks, challenging mathematics assessments and highly qualified mathematics teachers whose pedagogy centers on teaching to mastery. Singapore also provides its mathematically slower students with an alternative framework and special assistance from an expert teacher.”


We could never transform ourselves into Singaporeans (not would we want to). But why do we not learn from their great successes at teaching math?

Erin Johnson

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