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We won't agree on curriculum


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.



I hate that I hear the curriculum part of this dialogue seems to be ending here. I lean toward what Debbie is sharing in the sense that in my own classroom, the more freedom I am allowed the further I can take students into thinking, deeper learning and discussion, and developing ideas about the world. If you take away the freedom to think for teachers and students, you certainly cannot expect thinking to be part of education. Scripted programs are the antithesis of thinking. Likewise, if you build a curriculum that is thick with standards that must be met at given levels, thinking is likely to take a back seat to coverage. Add testing to that design, and well…

On the other hand, here in California, students commonly come and go mid school year. If no curriculum is in place, how will a first grader manage in his or her next school? Isn’t there a base of knowledge that is needed prior to moving on to a next step or grade? Can a child learn multiplication prior to counting? Are there not things that should not be missed in an elementary education at least? Perhaps many of my concerns are discipline specific, like math.

I wonder if Debbie envisions changing the system of grade levels altogether to better match her vision of how schools should operate without curriculum?

I also wonder if it is possible to build a core curriculum, to assess that core, and yet allow for freedom far beyond the core in classrooms across the nation? Would our instruction shrink to offer only the core that is assessed? Or would we be freed to explore where student curiosity demands?

Please don’t leave curriculum yet. Is there some room for agreement here?

Hi Diane,

I don't think Deborah is arguing that AP and IB programs and curricula should be outlawed, in fact they can work very well for many students. However, there are hundreds of other very good existing alternatives--from Montessori schools, to Waldorf schools, to Dewey's own Lab School, and Francis Parker's school, etc., who graduate fine thinkers (and have for many, many years). What these schools have in common, aside from their "progressive" approaches, are their prohibitive tuitions.

By arguing for a national curriculum for public schools, tied to high-stakes tests, one is arguing that alternative approaches to curriculum be essentially outlawed for public school children.

This is inequitable. And it doesn't have to be. If we instead invest our time and resources into preparing and empowering teachers, as Linda Darling-Hammond suggests here: http://www.ascd.org/ed_topics/el199802_darlinghammond.html rather than focusing narrowly on curriculum, public school children will benefit in the end. As Deborah suggests, decisions about the best approach to curriculum need to be made close to the child and the community, not in Washington, D.C.

Bonita DeAmicis is certainly right that students come and go in California and I would add that they come and go even within the same high school. I think she is right also that all schools need to follow a 'core curriculum' of some kind but this core need not be more than 65% or 70% of the entire school year. That allows plenty of time for alternative assingments. Some teachers in high school spend this time on posters and collages. I have done some of this but really prefer to develop language, reading skills vocabulary and cultural literacy. Now that we are at the end of the year I finally show a few films with question and discussion guides. During the core curriculum period of the year there is simply no time for more than 10 or 20 minute clips occassionally.

In our school we have a period of 'free instruction' after the state testing and teachers can do what projects they want. Most world history teachers did pre-American history unit of some kind (American history comes for most the following year). All social studies teachers try to integrate the news and current events TO SOME extent as they make connections from past to present. But the school policy is to allow flexiblity but to encourage collaboration in unit testing. I will give the same final as others but it is up to me how much i count it and of course I am free to add my own essay and short answer supplement. Since the final is tilted towards the college prep and AP studens that is the correct thing to do if we have ELD (English langauge development students). I need an instrument to compare my students among their own cohort for my purposes.

AP and IB curriculm are good places to start but there are other curricula such as the WE THE PEOPLE currucula which is superiot to AP in one respect as it emphasizes original research, collaboration AND oral presentation and defense of arguments. AP US history has a weakness in that it tends to be canned and students respond by cheating. My personal view is that US history should be TWO years not one. Once again if one has MORE time after the AP test or before the AP test one has more freedom to incorporate many other elements. But there is no question that a good AP curriculm is an authentic standard which requires a lot of reading, writing and studying. The Foreign Langauge tests REQUIRE listening and speaking portions. By contrast there are many so-called curricula where students accumlate hollow credits merely by attending. Recently I had a conversation with a student, a football player, who had finished FOUR YEARS OF SPANISH in high school. He could not hold a conversation. He did not know the differnce between 'hombre' (man) and "hambre' (hunger). He really had a very cursory and superficial knowledge of Spanish for all practical purposes. He was a straight "A" student in a 'college prep' program. All his grade was based on T/F and fill in the blank workbooks with cartoons (no translation was EVER done) and standarized multiple choice tests.

Yes it is nice to have freedom to create elements of one's curriculum. Tomorrow night I am going to attend a district meeting (attended by ELD coordinators, Mentor Teachers and Administrators) concerning the possible adopting of a new ELD 3/4 Curriculum (Intermediate and Advanced). This is democratic because teachers and specials have an input. I have never had a curriculum shoved down my throat without input and 9-12 we have district wide freedom to adopt our own textbooks and curriculum WITHIN REASON. But we want a CORE CURRICULUM available for ALL teachers in the district. This helps teachers and gives them a good starting point in my opinion. I have had to create curriculum from scratch and have enjoyed it but it takes a tremendous amount of work and of course always results in an somewhat ideosyncratic approach. This approach has its merits, of course, but its quality depends on the ambition and backrground of the classroom teacher. Most K-12 teachers DO NOT WISH to be entirely responsible for the creation of their curriculm. It is a mistake for this to happen. Teachers should have flexiblity but also be required to meet certain basic, agreed upon and known standards.


Why does Deborah insist that only teachers should evaluate students?

Doesn’t the evaluation process (assigning grades, NOT feedback about how to improve) disrupt the close, personal interaction and trust that Deborah believes is the key to a great education?


I would bet that not one percent of our high school seniors has ever heard of Martin Luther himself.

hello if you'd like our ideas for improving education, be sure to request it. For a tidbit of APEOPLEPOEM.com, be sure to visit the sight. Thank you. James Mansfield

PS: self-interested unions, with their tendency to cause inflation, will never consider change that can improve education and will soon lead to the ending of our lifestyle as we have become convinced it is supposed to be lived here on jplanet earth! And beware, self-interested unions are only one part of the problem.

I'm am puzzled as to where Ravitch reads Meier's as being "anarchistic" and "tyrannical" in her views on curriculum. From what I can ascertain, Meier's would deem her view of curriculum as being democratic and locally controlled, which is far from the loaded terms that Ravitch used to define Meier's ideas. I also don't read where Meier's states that AP and IB courses should be abolished and that "rich" schools lack curriculum entirely. On the contrary, from what I can gather in the blog, Meier's is advocating that public school students should enjoy unfettered access to the same, rich curriculum that "rich" schools (and AP and IB courses) create and enjoy for themselves.

If Ravitch is indeed correct in her assessment of Meier's ideal curriculum, then she must absolutely bristle at the United States university system, which, from what I can tell, is run pretty much in Meier's ideal. In this system, professors are granted academic freedom and there is no core curriculum mandated from the state or federal government. Assessment is conducted by the professors themselves as well, and there is no state mandated test one must pass before a university is granted permission to award a diploma. As far as I know, the United States university system is amongst the most respected in the world. Why aren't elementary, middle, and high school teachers afforded the same academic freedom and professional respect? If we have a successful education model in place already (i.e. our university system), why isn't the public school system allowed to emulate it?

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