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Reality check


Dear Deb,

Sometimes I feel that we are having a discussion that is way too theoretical, while the world of American education is moving hard and fast in completely different directions. You may be comfortable with a school where the kids spend four years on biology, or four years (or is it one year?) taking apart cars and remaining ignorant of Shakespeare. It's a free country, and there are surely teachers and even principals who agree with you. But this is not the policy debate in Washington or the state capitals, it will not be part of the reauthorization of NCLB, no matter who is elected President or who controls Congress; it will not enter the heads of the business and foundation leaders who now seem to be in the driver's seat in many states and districts.

In other words, even if I agreed with you—which I don't—it would be irrelevant, because the policy environment is going elsewhere and not giving even a second's thought to the ideas you propose. There will be science taught because it will be tested this year, in accord with NCLB. All fifty states will have their own science test, and I have not heard them agonizing over which science to teach. My guess is that the science tests will reflect the science that is contained in the most widely used textbooks.In the early grades, and perhaps through middle school, science will likely be life science, environmental science, not much more than basic biology. I doubt that there will be much chemistry or physics on these state tests, for fear that the tests will be too "hard" and the state leaders want good news, not bad news. I doubt that there will be much chemistry or physics on these state tests, for fear that the tests will be too "hard" and the state leaders want good news, not bad news.

I confess that I cling stubbornly to the idea of a liberal arts curriculum, one that includes history, literature, the sciences, mathematics, physical education, and the arts. Forgive me for not including a foreign language. I would love to see every American student learn to speak and read a foreign language. Is that sort of liberal arts program too much to expect? Is it impossible? I don't think so.

Nor do I think it is necessary to get stymied by the question of "whose" history, "which" science or mathematics, any more than one should get stuck over which foreign language. Twenty years ago, I helped to write the K-12 history curriculum for California, and those who wanted no curriculum insisted that no one could decide "whose history" to teach. In fact, while the committee had some good debates, the content wasn't all that difficult to agree on. We all agreed that American children should know the basic ideas, individuals, turning points, and debates in our own history, and we agreed to expand the study of world history from one year to three years (that was hard, deciding which civilizations to include and which to leave out). The content of the U.S. history curriculum was straightforward; we had no problem agreeing on the inclusion of certain key events—like the American Revolution, the shaping of the Constitution, the Civil War, the progressive era, the Great Depression, the World Wars, the Cold War, etc. The interpretation of those events is left to teachers. At the very least, all the students should be able to discuss the Great Depression, for example, because they will know that it happened and will know something about its effects in American politics, its effects on the lives of many people, the art and literature associated with that era.

Will they remember all their life what they remembered in the history class in fifth grade or tenth grade? Will they remember everything they read or heard or studied? Maybe not. Probably not. But I would still argue that we must try our best to teach kids what we think is valuable, what history, literature, science, mathematics, etc., will be important to them in their lives as citizens, as individuals, as people who will work in the modern economy. After they leave school, I hope they will have a solid foundation for continued learning and have the knowledge and vocabulary to participate in our democratic society and the skills to make it ever more democratic.

Speaking of Shakespeare, as you did, reminds me that a couple weeks ago I heard a political leader say that our society will stand or fall, a century from now, not on whether anyone knows Shakespeare but on whether they have the right job skills. We would probably disagree with him, but for different reasons. If, a century from now, we have forgotten how to read Shakespeare, this would be (from my point of view) a culturally impoverished society. We will, of course, be long gone, but I hope that my grandchildren's grandchildren do not live in such a cold, hard place.

To switch subjects, I wonder if you saw the excellent piece about the NYC public schools in the current issue of The Nation (subscription required) by Lynnell Hancock? Quite a lot of teachers and parents are buzzing about it. Hancock, who is a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has done her homework. She sees a corporate style takeover of the public schools under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein, and I think she nails her thesis. Their latest scheme—to pay students for taking tests and for passing tests—is yet another example of the corporate mindset, which devalues education and assumes that the schools will be "fixed" if only the scores on tests go up (no matter the quality of the tests), by any means possible. As usual, the editorial boards of the local newspapers are cheering for an inane idea.



"Twenty years ago, I helped to write the K-12 history curriculum for California, and those who wanted no curriculum insisted that no one could decide "whose history" to teach."

Great! Now let's create free curriculum that can be developed and honed over time. It's people like you, that have an "in" with the ed community, that can help make this possible. Forget the overpriced textbook industry. Take back education. Create the curriculum using something like a Creative Commons licensing in wikibooks, wikiversity, or wikieducation.

I'll be right there with you. The pay is lousy but it will be made up with warm fuzzies when schools start using the curriculum.

Dickey has an excellent point, but it's important to tie that creative commons idea to a coherent and standardized set of curricular expectations. It is not too much, or too rigid, to ask schools and districts to teach certain skills and concepts at certain points during the K12 years; that's the whole point of the state standards. In my experience, the standards alone aren't enough, as they can be broad and vague. They may tell teachers what a student should be able to do by June, but that's often not much help, week-to-week. Giving them clear (but not restrictive) expectations of WHAT to teach, along with the tools and time to plan and share collaboratively in terms of HOW to teach, seems to be me to be the ideal balance.


From Norrköping, Sweden (you think I could figure out how to put an ö in here without a Swedish keyboard?)... a session on school architecture at the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth made me think about the similarities and differences between arguments about school architecture and formal curriculum. Both are about the structure of schooling (infinitely easier to try to mandate, in contrast to instruction/enacted curriculum), both are intimately tied to ideas about pedagogy and what should happen with the physical or mental space of schooling, and sometimes quite political (anyone remember open classrooms? my middle school had those movable walls, though by the time I arrived in 1976, they were permanently configured in standard self-contained arrangements).

I wonder if there might be some reasonably arguable middle ground between Deborahäs comfort with no core curriculum and your strong support of a rather large core. Take U.S. history, for example. I'm not sure your response to Deborah is an adequate answer, because the agreement of a committee on a single approach doesn't justify that approach intellectually. I would love to take the Nash et al. 'standards' (questions, really) and tell teachers that the test of their teaching will be that we take a random sample of students, give them a day with the internet and 2 of those questions, and read the resulting essays... but that's a particularistic read of U.S. history. One could provide an equally legitimate course intellectually by placing U.S. history in a global context for the vast majority of time. Very different questions. Still U.S. history. And I'd bet that there's a smattering of college courses arranged that way.

Is there overlap between the two? Absolutely. Is there a way to describe the overlap in a way that provides a loose but reasonable framework? That I don't know...

Sherman, Andrew and Dickey.
Does there have to be a middle ground? I'm not convinced.
But if there must be one I love yours Sherman--which actually is rather like what CPESS (my old high school) required of graduates. But Andrew wants to be sure teachers are told what to do week by week, leaving them free to decide only on the hows. I think Diane's California curriculum propoal (for California) would have ended up with week to week mandates like that in order to cover everything. That, in turn, would dictate the "how-tos" of teaching, and the hows would be in conflict, I believe, with the kind of schooling that would fit Sherman's proposal!

Sometimes you can't fit everything into one box. Linda Darling-Hamond tried (some 15 years ago in NY State) to pull together a third way. She sold then Commissioner Tom Sobol on it. But alas, with the change in governor her proposal, like Diane's, never got implemented. But it would be worth taking a fresh look at it.


Deb and all,

Wrong! My comments about the California history curriculum were not a proposal. They were adopted. I was describing the history curriculum for grades K-12 that was endorsed by the state Board of Education in 1987-88 and has been re-endorsed periodically since then. It is still in place!
It established a history curriculum in the early grades based on biographies of important people, three years of world history, and three years of U.S. history. It is considered a model curriculum and has been used to guide the work of many other states.
It is a very clear set of curricular guidelines that identifies the key events, ideas, controversies, debates, and individuals, but does not tell anyone what to think or believe.

Diane Ravitch


While I'm perfectly comfortable with most of the current framework in California (which definitely has the earmarks of your and Charlotte Crabtree's original work), it nonetheless carries a certain intellectual orientation. That doesn't tell anyone precisely what to think, but it certainly would shape the nature of a course (though I suspect textbook adoption practices would have a coequal role, unfortunately). Let me provide examples of two subtle ways in which the current framework structures the social-science/history curriculum and one rather crass way that the current document does.

1. Subtle: embedded in the document is the "incomplete revolution" theme that's emerged in the last few decades of historiography both on Reconstruction and the modern civil rights movement. I think this is a perfectly respectable way to frame a course (it's certainly better than a vapid triumphalism), but it is a specific intellectual approach.

2. Less subtle: with all of the specifics of the curriculum structure, the division of world history from U.S. history courses reinforces the American exceptionalism tradition of historiography. As I noted in the earlier comment, this eliminates the possibility of orienting U.S. history around world history. Could a responsible school have a sequence of courses that also focus on chronology, on chunks of time that allow some depth each year, but doesn't have the U.S./World divide?

3. Crass: the appendices in the current document have a far more obvious neoliberal slant to them, with reading lists that seem unbalanced -- with Bloom's Closing of the American Mind but no Lawrence Levine as counterweight, as one example -- and the inclusion of Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" piece pushes a declension argument about civic engagement that is irresponsible without noting those who disagree with Putnam (such as Theda Skocpol).

I'll note again that many of the objectives in the structure could easily be turned into great essay questions, and that I am sure it is a framework that can be used for lots of fabulous teaching... but I am less sure of its consensual nature than you claim.

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