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Thoughts on a National Curriculum


Dear Diane,

So we’re back at the thorniest issue—a national curriculum.

The kind of “set” curriculum I like is one proposed and supported by the constituents of a particular school—like ours at Mission Hill or CPE/CPESS. Although, even ours was probably not sufficiently detailed for you. I’ve embraced a few other people’s favorites; I could live with some others; but, many I couldn’t. (My peculiarly inept rote memory may be a factor in some of my biases.)

There are at least five assumptions that I suspect come into play for me.

1. Goals. First and foremost: nourishing a lively democracy. Plus, having a productive and useful life. I would argue that differing viewpoints about what constitutes a well-educated citizen are matters of persuasion, not mandates. There are healthy biases, ideologies, assumptions that lead to prioritizing knowledge, for example, in different ways. If it were possible to have one right way to “tell” history or science, to my way of thinking, there could be one right way to do everything. “Why can’t we all just agree?” Because intellectual agreement has to be arrived at. Since it’s judgment I want to “train,” I don’t want our differences covered over, dumbed down, compromised (a snippet of each).

2. Intellectual Authority. In a democracy, there is healthy tension between expert and lay authority. There are also profound differences between experts—whether we are discussing science, history, or even mathematics and, of course, literature, dance, theater, music. What and who to include? Again, these are not differences of a trivial nature. These differences—and how we respond to them—are at the heart of authority in a democratic culture. I want teachers—individually and collectively—to represent a positive example of intellectual authority at work, arguing, constructing, revising. (Incidentally, it’s one reason some great teachers end up in less-well-paying private schools.)

3. Standardization. There are more forces leading to a dumbed-down standardization than we need already. The power of business and the academy will always be substantial, as well as all the new and old media. There is little risk that school boards, families, and teachers will not take these into account, or be swayed by them. We’re a nation of strong “opinions” (hurrah), but a livelier discourse about the “evidence” for our opinions, the inevitable trade-offs, the degree of uncertainty we must live with, and our capacity to imagine that we might be wrong is often lacking! Twelve years of searching for clues to the right answer—the four reasons for the Civil War, the right date of the Versailles Treaty, the magic ingredient (oops) driving photosynthesis is a dead end. No wonder astrology and astronomy get confused. The alternative reasoned mindset starts early—and can’t wait for more advanced study after most kids have left school.

4. Equity and resources. Money matters. Some argue with this, but then continue to make sure their own children get the most expensive and selective educations. Common sense should remind us that we pass on to our children all the advantages we possess. To expect such advantages not to matter is a pernicious myth. Given these differences, we must not only equalize public resources, but see to it that more resources are allocated to the “have-nots”—e.g. equitable health care, before- and after-school settings, summer experiences, facilities, staffing, and teacher-to-student ratios. (Why do the rich think 12:1 is not too few? Why do businesses think 8:1 is a good supervision ratio?)

5. Respect. We’ve handicapped too many kids by pretending schools can replace their families and communities. At Mission Hill, we had a motto—imagine that every child’s parent were in the room when we talked about them. Building that alliance is a time-consuming and expensive challenge. It happens to be do-able, but would be a lot more so if staff and families had the time it requires.

Which do we agree or disagree with most, Diane?

I‘ve long noticed that the adults who attended very different schools, at different times and in different countries are often equally “well-educated.” The differences are a blessing, not a curse. Occasionally U of Chicago alumni like to think we are special—“you can tell ‘us’ from the rest,” they say proudly. (Our CPESS/MH alumni sometimes make claims similar to U of C grads.) The “habits of mind” we invented at CPESS were based on an attempt to synthesize what we felt all “smart” people did when confronting a new situation—how their minds "worked” on a problem. We claimed these “habits” distinguished a good carpenter or car mechanic from a poorly educated one. We concluded that such “habits” required a different approach to standards and assessment. But I’ll admit the graduates of x and y came out pretty well, too, with a different approach! (Or maybe underneath there were deep commonalities?)

What you describe re. Brown v. Board of Education is exactly the issue. Given the coverage expected in New York state’s list of standards, who could afford even three days, much less weeks on this fascinating case history? In Boston, Mission Hill also insisted on time spent studying Brown’s impact on the history of Boston—which wasn’t on the Massachusetts standards at all.

We concluded, based on our own histories and extensive research, that we all learn most efficiently when the subject “happens” to pique our interest, overlaps with what we’re currently “into,” when local circumstances provide rich examples, and/or our own teaching passions make it a perfect topic! Ancient Egypt and dinosaurs are not highly relevant or useful, but nary a 6- or a 12-year-old isn’t tempted.

More on this as we both dig into this argument! Okay?



It seems to me that all of the countries that do better than we do in science and math have strong national curricula with very high standards. Perhaps if our curricula were set up in tiers with the AP or IB exams as the pinnacle? To a certain extent those exams have already created a national curriculum.

Hi Loren:
Having a high standards in math and science is fine, but is there really a "pinnacle?" There are many more things that are important for a good and just society besides good exam scores on a test.

The same thing can be said for "national standards" in a society as large as the United States. Standards are fine, but they should not be conflated with equity, habits of the mind, wisdom, respect, or many of the other things schools should also cultivate.

Deb, I'll take it you saw my comments on 'nationwide' standards, as opposed to repressive 'national' standards. One can imagine that states are left completely out of it; that each school subscribe to elementary history standards set P, geometry standards set Y, and art education standards set B.

Tony, I do think Habits of Mind can be woven with standards.

Respect. Deb, I'd like to focus on another sort of respect. That is, preparing young adults to balance respect and criticism of people and institutions.

Deb, in the 90's-03 timeframe, CNN turned a blind eye to all things bad in Iraq. In order to get prime camera shots, they simply refused to report on any of the torture, on the 30,000 killed each year, on the mass graves, the al-Anfal genocide campaign, the destruction of the Marsh Arabs, etc. On April 11, 2003, CNN's Eason Jordon wrote briefly of things not reported, promised they'd be forthcoming, then pretty much focused on the extraordinarily lame Valerie Plame mythology adopted by partisans as the story of the war.

Then there's our bankers, who just assumed that rating lier's mortgages as AAA was not a problem, and that if it ever became a problem, the government would bail them/us out.

These reporters and bankers have much in common with kids who drop out at 15-16, assuming things will go well somehow.

Respect should be, then, studying George Washington as he manned his post in the wilderness as a young major/LTC, stricken with a variety of respiratory ailments, suffering the brutal cold of winters in the 1760's Allegheny mountains.

Respect should be learning well the lives of Daniel Boone and Thomas Hutchins, Tecumseh, and Benjamin Franklin. People who made this country. Not "isms" and eras, played out in bland past pluperfect declarative prose, but genuinely told great stories of heroes and villains, of harsh winters and hard work, of suffering and success, of worry and joy.

Stories of rugged individualism--a personal creed now mostly reviled by academics driving air conditioned, iPod-surround-sound-filled Lexuses from suburban neighborhoods with pipelines and services supplying every need--are the key to both Mike's kids and bankers who take their responsibilities a bit more seriously.

And respect for entrepreneurialism. Our schools treat that as something nasty you do if you cant be a noble teacher, labor organizer, or government worker.

Respect for the habits of mind an entrepreneur needs. As well as respect for the tools they employ.

Every would be artist should learn accounting, in case they end up making money. Or worse, don't.

Supply and demand curves, so we can all have intelligent discussions of wage and tax policy, of trade restrictions and deficits.

So, already I've listed too many things to fit onto one set of national standards. That's why the countries which have them have great tests, but not so inventive economies.

We need to keep the inventiveness of the economy, while bringing into it the wonderful young minds that are now dropping out at 1 in 2 - 50%.

Not For Ourselves Alone is the remarkable Ken Burns story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her quest to deliver the fights recently given to men - to women. Is there a young lady in Baltimore or DC or South Chicago who should not master the details of the story of young Cady? Be able to relate back the life she was given and the forces she faced with the strength of her own will?

In this country, textbooks tend to create a rough de facto "national curriculum" because the publishers sell to a national market. And Texas and California, as the largerst markets that regulate textbook adoption at the state level, have an inordinate influence on textbooks. Given what we're doing in California these days, I'd say the rest of you should be worried.

However, this reminds me of a notion I came up with way back when I was a high school math teacher and in early grad school. As a teacher, I needed a text--I couldn't make up everything for myself every day. On the other hand, almost never could I bring myself to just follow the text--I had my own notions, even back then, of what students needed to learn about the math or what kids would need in order to learn it, and usually the books didn't do that great a job of providing good lessons. I ended up using the text primarily for providing the "skeleton" of the courses (scope and sequence) and for practice problems, though often had to make up my own there too, and got heartily sick of it.

So what I decided I wanted was a text that I could use as a resource, in contrast to a text that defined the curriculum. It would have lots more material in it for each topic than one could use, and I as the teacher would pick and choose and adapt to suit myself and my students. I developed this notion a bit more early on in grad school for a paper. The prof wasn't all that impressed, but I still think it's a good idea.

Good teachers do thiis anyway, when not prevented (and Margo/Mom, yes, they are often prevented by their administration. I don't know why you are more inclined to blame teachers than administrators for teaching-to-the-test responses to the high-stakes NCLB policies. I know of a school district that had adopted scripted curricula in reading and math, and for a few years literally had "curriculum cops" roaming the hallways, listening at the doors to make sure teachers were on the right page and sticking to the script.) The change would be in how we think about the role of prepared materials. Is their role that of standardization, like in a factory, with the goal of creating as much uniformity across classrooms as possible? (I see that as the direction we may be headed in, with standards, tests, "best practices" to be determined at a national level, and talk of a national curriculum). Or is the role of the materials to support the efforts of teachers, who follow guidelines with regard to topics and major learning objectives, but who has the final responsibility to bring the subject and the students together based on knowing both well? Obviously, my bias is strongly toward the latter. To me, the only relevant question is, what kinds of curriculum materials and guidelines will best support teachers in doing this?

Thanks, Deb, for articulating some of the connections between public schooling and a democratic society. In the teacher education program at Kent State, we are particularly interested in understanding what, exactly, comes after the commonly-used truism that "a democratic society needs an educated citizenry." Because of Kent State's history, we are particularly interested in how contested ideas are handled, and what the place of public schooling and the role of the public school teacher really is in a democratic society. And we're working on making that inquiry part of the preparation of teachers -- so that when they become members of the profession they will be interested in and willing to "contest" some ideas of their own. Your work, and Diane's, are very helpful and most appreciated!


I was referring to a curriculum in an academic subject. I'm not interested in getting into a values discussion; we'll never make any progress that way.


A national curriculum should be designed by as inclusive a group as possible. Why would any DC group want to take the blame if these documents are poorly done?

At one point in time, there were many stories about individuals in all subjects. I remember those stories fondly from my education. I think they still have their place, but it would be nice if we valued individuals from other cultures as well. The only individuals I remember studying were white males of European origin. I can relate to them because I'm a white male of European origin. Surely we can offer some additional points of view? We should also stop automatically labelling every historical figure as a hero or villain. If I am led to believe that Benjamin Franklin was perfect, how do you convince me that it isn't impossible to be like him?

Trends and -isms have their place too. It's helpful to observe group behavior and make predictions. Can't we find a balance?

Ed, every Tom, Dick and Mary these days has a degree in business or management. If teachers are giving the entrepreneurial individual a bad name, no one seems to be listening to us.

I teach Biology, Chemistry and Physics because those are the subjects I love. I am passionate about them. I'm frequently told by people I meet that science was their worst subject. It would be torture for them to carry on an in depth conversation about the geometry of satellite orbits. I personally can think of nothing more tedious than hearing you drone on about supply and demand curves and accounting. If you have a passion for it, then teach, damn it! The Right is always whining about Liberal bias in fields they have no interest in pursuing. Here in NYC there are many public schools whose themes are centered around the entreprenerial spirit.

The problem is that values are always embedded in curriculum. By choosing one curriculum over another you are expressing a value. This is particularly obvious in the Social Sciences and History which are by their very nature about who we are as a people, and even who is the "us" and who is the "them."

Less obviously, this is also true in the sciences. For example, as a one-time biologist, I am well-aware that molecular biology has a privileged place over ecology in how text-books, courses, and AP tests are organized. This is an expression of values by the community of professional biologists about how the field should be organized. This is fine, but it is also an expression of values.

Dismissing the fact that curricula is inherently about values also meant that "we never will get anywhere," just as surely as wallowing in it will.


My degree being in Physics, I can hardly hold it against you for having a passion for subjects scientific! As for 'teach, damn it,' that's what I'm trying to do here.

I'm curious why someone in the knowledge sharing business would dismiss econ and accounting as tedious? Mind you, my first econ exposure wasn't that great - some poor grad student who tried, but oversimplified. Yet done right, economics is the study of human behavior - sometimes in the aggregate, sometimes not. A topic every bit as compelling as Schrodinger equations for Infinitely long cylindrical surfaces, amino acid translation, etc., etc.

OK, maybe not as mystical as Mr. Heisenberg's principle, nor Mr. Einstein's, but pretty intriguing nonetheless. And much more useful potentially to the average young citizen.

As to white males, I think we somewhat need to make our storytelling color blind; to tell the story of civilization as it happened and it relates to our current culture. On the other hand, you'll note that I said we need much more material from the world, that I included Genghis Khan and David, and would certainly include many more.

Also please note that I didn't call for labeling anyone as hero of villain. Leave the labeling to the kids; just tell the tale.

One of the great stories is Benjamin Franklin's poor personal life. Estranged from his son; absent from his marriage much of his life, and certainly a bit of a philanderer, its a good lesson in family vs community service. But we don't have to "teach" these, just arrange more opportunities for bored kids to learn. [Most dropouts report trivial coursework, boredom as the primary cause.]

Jean's observation that texts define a defacto nationwide curriculum is true enough. Its also true that the states have too much influence over these.

If we could somehow remove the influence of the state educracy's, perhaps the texts would be much better than they are. Hence my proposal that standards--the assessment portion--be removed from the educracy's grasp.

Jean, curriculum cops seems a particularly bad idea; yet were I a school manager I wonder if I might not reserve the right in a particularly egregious school situation? Especially if I thought it would ward off things like national standards and state takeover!


I believe we need national standards, if for no other reason than to obliterate the fraudulent "standards" of states such as Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, etc.

Could anyone in all good conscious admit they'd be satisfied/content raising a child in one of these states and sending that child to one of their public schools?


Frankly, I'm surprised that you just wrote off every public school in four states. I know the deal with them setting low standards for meeting AYP, but is that reason enough for you to dismiss all of their schools? And would you pick a public school for your child based on the school's success in meeting AYP, anyway?

I've also never read the standards of those states. I'm not sure if the problem is really the standards, or the bar they've set for "proficient" on their tests. I'm all ears if you've got more info.

You provide a perfect example to prove my point. If the goal is to bring US students up to the same level as the best European and Asian students, your values point is best left for another day. We can achieve the goal if we stop debating petty semantics. When you drive a car, you may have the right of way, but the goal is to get to your destination in one piece. Making right of way the highest priority will probably lead to an accident. The accident is clearly the other guy's fault, but you didn't achieve your goal. BTW Ecology and Molecular Biology are very balanced in the NY State Science Curriculum.


There are, of course, a number of variables to consider when selecting a school for your child. It's not that I'd write off all the schools in these four states. Let's just say I'd be very selective.

Would you feel comfortable sending your child to a school that could not make AYP? It's one variable I'd at least take into consideration. Not sure I'd be too excited about the prospect of sending my child to a school that had trouble meeting this threshold.

These four states in particular have garnered a relatively notorious reputation for their public schools. And yes, you're correct. Their determinations for proficient have been called into question.

In 2005 Tennessee tested its eighth-grade students in math and found eighty-seven percent of students performed at or above proficient while the NAEP test indicated only 21 percent of Tennessee's eighth graders proficient in math. In Mississippi, 89 percent of fourth graders performed at or above proficient on the state reading test, while only 18 percent demonstrated proficiency on the federal test. In Alabama 83 percent of fourth-grade students scored at or above proficient on the state's reading test while only 22 percent were proficient on the NAEP test. In Georgia, 83 percent of eighth graders scored at or above proficient on the state reading test, compared with just 24 percent on the federal test.

Just who do they think they're kidding? They wouldn't be deceiving me because I wouldn't send my child to a public school that operated under such duplicitous practices.

Ed, I always enjoy reading your posts even if I don't agree with all of your statements. I have to take issue with your statement about "entrepreneurialism. Our schools treat that as something nasty you do if you cant be a noble teacher, labor organizer, or government worker." Where did you get the idea that our schools do this? Entrepreneurism is (and entrepreneurs are) enormously valued at every school I've ever seen, especially the one where I now work.

While I agree that entrepreneurialism should (continue to) be something we value, it would also be valuable to leaven it with another Respect: that for social justice. When my teaching partner and I address Carnegie, we examine both his "ruggedly individualistic" rise...and his complicity in the Homestead Strike. Many American Dreams have been made thanks to these values, but others' dreams have been trampled by some who pursue profit without the fetters of principle. The American story -- and many other stories -- is best told with attention to both.

As you yourself suggest in a follow-up post, let's look at these entrepreneurs and other icons...without apotheosizing them. That means we have to add the one value that I think MOST has to find its way onto some sort of standards list: the ability to gather, weigh, and reconcile potentially competing information (as Hegel's dialectic would have us do). "Synthesis" of this sort rarely seems to make it onto the standards lists I've heard spoken about; maybe I'm looking in the wrong places.

"Synthesis" is hard to put on a standardized test -- that's for sure -- but it's interesting to note that the new (added 2007) essay on the AP English Language & Composition exam attempts to do exactly that.

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Hey, Carl. Thanks for giving me a chance to explain that comment.

Your class and your schools sound like excellent positive models. My comment was just based on my discussions with teachers in real life and online.

The structure of our ed system insures that most teachers rarely encounter the economic system as Hamilton, Carnegie, and Brad Wheeler (my carpenter/contractor buddy) know it; a system of mostly friendly give and take. Instead they see things through the prism of collective bargaining. I hold that this results in a skewed view of how things work--and of how they don't.

I loathe the term Social Justice for just that reason. When Brad tripled his staff to work on remodeling the YMCA and other projects, that was social justice to me. That his guys probably got paid less than they should have--that was government meddling in the labor marketplace, suppressing wages in a way that almost no one has yet to acknowledge. I call the Federal minimum wage law the federal Wage Anchor, for that's what it does. Yet try to find an educator who doesn't swear it to be social justice.

These are small effects, but they accumulate in very big ways. And because the loop of government educators educating new generations of government educators continues to cycle, year by year we lose just a bit more of that respect for the leaders of businesses small and large, from Brad to the guy who runs the small frit factory to the drug companies who continue to do amazing science to deal with our many ailments to Waste Management which makes all the yuck go away to insurance which miraculously fixes things for us in a way government never could.

I agree with you that synthesis is perhaps hard to assess as a successfully learned skill. I certainly wouldn't want a board of certified educators evaluating my abilities of analysis and synthesis.

Yet let’s keep in mind here: anyone writing or reading here isn't likely part of the problem the standards are meant to address.

For Mike's kids, and those throughout our cities, the problem of values is acute. Much of that value problem has to do with understandings and expectations about how the economy works.

I'd refer you to sections 8 and 12 of Dr. Bill Cosby's Come On People to see how this works out. (Free audio at billcosby.com)

If we want kids to have hope, we can't fill their days with analyzing the failures of every adult who went before them. That they can learn quickly enough when they enter the real world. I like my teachers to be a bit liberal - so long as they are liberal with hope.

So let us go back to telling youth of those who succeeded-at each step along our common road-and how they went about it. Let us acknowledge and be saddened by the loss of vast physical freedom enjoyed by the native Americans of 1700, yet let no one leave school seeing this as an example of "imperial oppression". For that fails to see the freedom opened up to millions who left the poverty and hunger and true oppression of Europe for new lives, hope, and after a generation, levels of success and comfort never even dreamed.

RE: I have to take issue with your statement about "entrepreneurialism. Our schools treat that as something nasty you do if you cant be a noble teacher, labor organizer, or government worker." Where did you get the idea that our schools do this?

How about recent/current denigration of P21 as being presented by a PR person rather than and educator? How about the assumption that "for profit" is automatically a bad thing when associated with charter schools? What about the assumption that only teachers can understand what "really goes on," rejection of any value-add in school administration to be gained through the study of organizational theory?

I am not coming from a "right wing" persuasion--by any stretch of the imagination. Far from it. My motivations for involvement in education--such as it is--have far more to do with bringing along kids who are typically excluded--to the benefit of those on top of the heap. But when rejection of anything like entrepreneurialism, or organizational and management theory stand in the way of the ability to do that effectively--then it's time to change my way of thinking.

I'm especially struck by one comment in this post - the idea that if we feel we should equalize standards by nationalizing them, we should also consider equalizing funding. What a novel idea! Why would we assume that the standards are the only issue here? The teacher student ration, the amount of money for supplies, field trips, etc., all of this matters. I think that our society often wants to look at education as above the issue of money. It is a noble profession and all of that. The fact is, money is important. We can't let the idea of standards make us blind to that.

I don’t think that the only goal of American schools is that the best of our students should beat the best of the European and Asian on the international exams in science and math. If this happens, fine, but this goal strikes me as being a very narrow goal for a national curriculum. Reducing schooling to such a narrow definition of excellence is one of the many pitfalls of relying too much on testing to judge “quality.”

Some of the other goals of schools include providing equality of opportunity, creating a skilled and wise workforce and citizenry, etc. Not to mention all the untested fields like Music, Art, History, Social Sciences, Literature, Foreign Languages, Government, etc., many of which vary a great deal from country to country.

I am glad to hear that that New York has a “balanced” biology curriculum, and I trust your judgment on this. But judging such balance is still reflects values, albeit one reflecting contemporary professional standards. Often we need to make pragmatic decisions to go ahead with decisions about a program, curriculum, or exam. But ignoring that values are always involved, is not inherently detrimental to such pragmatism.

On a certain level, I suspect that we have to agree to disagree. But one of the beauties of this blog is that there are a number of committed and engaged people willing to do so.


What a great gig you've got, sitting at your laptop, teaching. I thought that I had to report to a school and interact with 150 kids. If only I had attended the Austrian School for Entrepreneurs and Teaching! Then I could demand social justice from the evil doers. As long as I exhibited no altruism!

I wouldn't be much of a teacher if I told my students that they should be interested in Physics because I thought it was compelling. It is my job to motivate my students through their own previous experiences to bridge to the concept I want to help them discover.
And Physics less useful? Physics is inseparable from every part of our lives. Children don't usually enter the open market for goods and services, but they learn quickly that they can't break the laws of Physics.

BTW I find Anthropology closer to human nature than economics.

The world standard for math and science education is reflected in the K-12 Singapore math and science curriculum. The materials are published in English language paperback volumes, including workbooks and complete with detailed teacher’s guides, as well as CD computer math games produced by the Singapore Dept of education to facilitate learning in or out of the classroom. It would make both pragmatic and economic sense to adopt Singapore’s materials now and then improve upon them. That way the ten years it would take to argue over a few irrelevant issues wouldn’t prevent our students from having access now to a world class proven program that works. I know pragmatic and economic are two words seldom associated with the world of education. One major advantage of a national curriculum that is linked directly to specific content standards is a parent could be provided very specific information on what content their child would need to know and by when. Something given our wide variation in the definition of “proficiency” is rare at best. By the way in addition to the homegrown Singapore curricular materials, 90% of Singapore’s students use the Heymath.com online program (from India).


I don't disagree with you. But to be practical, a national curriculum would have to remain a work in progress for several years. We can establish any number of goals at the onset, and try to establish a time frame for meeting all of them. Some of the goals might be met in the first draft, and others would have to be ironed out over time. If we try to create a perfect document the first time, we'll delay progress for many years. I only mentioned the science and math achievement as one goal we could probably plan for almost immediately. As a science teacher in an art school, I'm completely on board with the goals we would desire in other disciplines.

A word that resonated for me in Ed's, Margo's, and John's comments is pragmatism. Ed, I know from reading many of your posts that you don't think teachers tend to be pragmatic, but that you do see standards to be pragmatic. I hope I'm not putting words in your mouth to be writing this -- I hope this conversation is helping all of us understand each other better.

I spent many years in business (software and consulting) before becoming a teacher of English, and I know that what's pragmatic in business doesn't tend to look like what's pragmatic in schools. But I haven't seen much success in marrying the two. Yet. And I'm a union negotiator, so I've dwelt at what Ed might call both poles. I'm not sure what is the best step to take next, but I'm confident that it involves nourishing all the viewpoints instead of deciding that one must prevail and the others defer.

This leads me to my quibble with Ed's last post in response to mine: his comment about the native Americans. We can acknowledge the suffering Ed notes and acknowledge the great things that have been accomplished in America, and can still call the treatment of those indigenous people "imperial oppression." The myth of America as a story of pure goodness can be taken down a notch...and the greatness of America can handle a little humility. That doesn't make the nation not great; it does make it more honest. I think that's part of our true greatness.

And the analogy might be useful for standards, unions, business, etc.: the myths that limit understanding have to be dissolved, or at least inspected more closely. There are productive elements to promote and leverage when we talk about standards, unions, and business; there are inefficient or inappropriate elements to them all, too.

Maybe we can all surrender a bit of our respective mythologies; that strikes me as pragmatic.

But my mythology, is your pragmatism, and vice versa! Nevertheless, what Loren writes above is also true. Any curriculum, whether national or not, is always a work in progress.

Loren, what would economists study if not human nature? Plants? Animals? Materials? Physical forces? (Whereas anthropology ,i>does include such studies).

Carl, the point of the Native American thread is not about honesty or lack of honesty. Your version of honesty on this topic would likely not be mine; and mine changes each time I read on the subject anew.

Rather, let us examine how you inspire young, urban, mostly African American students to take the American dream seriously. If you teach them that white Americans have some advantage which perennially is used to exploit others, that doesn't give the kids much of a starting point. If, instead, you tell them an evolving story of progress, of an evolving set of ideas which they can now use to move up, then that gives those kids more power.

This is not just a racial thing. The whites in Youngstown near here maintain the same type of inferiority stories. In their culture, if GM and the UAW and the USW and the Federal government are not continuously growing and expanding a presence in the area, then woe to all residents therein. Youngstown will be forever behind, they think, without these fatherly structures to watch out for them.

Other counties nearby have no such delusions. We've never had any giant corporations, we all know that we'll live or die based on agile movement to whatever comes along. We can't at all comprehend a million student school system.

Loren, Carl, my points here are to help empower teachers. We know its a tough job. Teachers do not get near the resources they need. Especially in these urban districts.

The point is not to identify the relative strengths/weaknesses of the nation's six million teachers. The point is to reexamine the structures which support those teachers (especially the leadership on the employee side of the system), and ask 'how we can all help them help these kids?'


Just a comment on empowering teachers--which I agree is a very necessary goal in the vision of developing an educational system that serves democracy well. I am currently reading Senge, and one comment I ran across over the weekend was that of the futility of empowering an unaligned workforce. In other words, if there is not some agreement with regard to a common vision, empowerment just enhances the chaos.

Jean may decry the presence of "curriculum cops," but I think that this is what we come to when we don't put in the time (with some commitment to quality) for things like arriving at a common vision (at the building or district level) with buy-in from teachers, parents, administration, etc. This is where I am perenially disappointed in the work of unions. While teachers have a tremendous voice through unions, that voice tends to focus on working conditions that support an "every man for himself" atmosphere of "professionalism," that runs counter to achieving/carrying out the common vision thing. Collaborating with administration is viewed with skepticism, as is any attempt at evaluation, observation, etc.

I didn't mean to return to the union discussion (it just sort of popped out of my rambling here). The larger point has to do with supporting conditions in which teacher empowerment can have an overall result that improves results for all students--rather than haphazard results that relate to individual teachers' ability to make good use of their empowered status as well as surrounding support for what the empowered teacher is doing (not possible when everyone goes their own way).

Thanks, Margo; driving just now my mind went back to money and people.

What makes engineering professional organizations different from state ed associations and the like?

I'd argue that it is because the I.E.E.E. leadership must please all stakeholders; whereas the SEA leadership doesn't.

In organizations like the I.E.E.E., etc., professional communications, training, standards, and assessment techniques all come together under one organization focused solely on the profession itself.

This focus is constantly tuned through the power of the dollars committed to the organization. If it don't get funded, it don't get done.

For the I.E.E.E., dollars come not just from members. but from corporate sponsors. Engineers on the front lines have their vote; but so does management of the companies providing engineering services and products. So does management on the organizations (sometimes government bodies) consuming these services and products.

Like you, I hate to appear to beat the SEA/union topic. Yet its so important to why this issue of national standards even comes up.

Nationals Standards is a terrible idea brought to the fore because the nation's governors and superintendents have not worked in concert with the education leaders to build a better assessment system.

In Congress this month, the ed associations have been working their political magic to deny 1700 DC kids Opportunity Scholarships. Elsewhere in DC, the ed associations are battling the Presidents' call to pay teachers as other professionals are paid.

This isn't the sort of use of time I can get enthused over. As you say, Margo, where is the team focus?

I just came back from a Harvard conference with folks from many countries--and it reminded me that it just isn't true that most of our competitors (economically) have national exams and standardized tests and a nation-wide curriculum! But if we want to look at what our competitors do--and like Tony I hate viewing becoming an educated person as a competition with a limited number of winners--we might copy other things about them/ For example, teachers have far far more non-instructional hours a day, ditto kids; that they do less, not more, testing; their students have a larger national safety net re health, housing, etc; and more.

The missing link that differentiates us also is the role of "judgment" in making critical school-based and student-based decisions. I was amused to see Jerome Fons and Frank Partnoy's Op Ed in the NY Times today (Monday) on the mistake the financial markets made by relying on the "grading" "rating" system provided by Moody's, Rather than providing a lot of information and relying on regulators and investors to exercise their responsibility, we got lazy and replaced judgment with arbitrary letter grades. Amen in places like NYC. The missing tool, they argue, is "that tool..called judgment." (Lehman got n A a month before it collapsed. And GE's rating stands at AA+ while its dividends lost two-thirds of their value during the past year.

Amen for educational analysis.

Yes, indeed, democracy as an accountability system also doesn't always produce wise results. Maybe if those 4 southern states had unions they'd also have better school systems--because unions have been a healthy fore for raising "standards".

Finally, yes, becoming a good driver is an appropriate analogy at times to becoming a well-educated person. And yet, note, that you can't get a driver's license by taking only written tests. There's that annoying road-test which relies on guided judgment.



I'd have to believe there's a higher correlation between poverty and poor school performance than there is between states that don't have teacher unions and poor school performance. While poverty is a direct contributor to school performance, one could easily contend the presence of teacher unions to school performance is only incidental.

Historically, poor children have not performed well in school, are more likely to drop out, less likely to enroll in higher education, more likely to go to an emergency room for health care, more likely to wind up in prison, and less likely to pay taxes. As well, their children are more likely to repeat a similar cycle of poverty in their lifetimes.

That's why anthropology is interesting and economics is tedious. Ed, how is what you suggest empowering teachers? Empowerment shouldn't come with a backbreaking number of strings attached. Perhaps one way to look at it is to help the African-Americans realize that the American Dream isn't all it's cracked up to be, that there are other ways to be happy besides living 1 hour from your job in a house you probably don't need.


One of the most powerful statements on empowerment comes from Gandhi. I apologise that I cannot cite it more specifically, but it is along the lines of making the great discovery that what he needed to do, in order to achieve freedom, was to decide. This comes from a man who spent considerable time imprisoned as a result of his beliefs and actions--and dedicated an entire life to developing and sharing a cohesive vision that could render the empowerment of the Indian people a politically successful enterprise.

As we used to teach children when I was a community worker--there can be no freedom without responsibility. No--there is no empowerment without the things that you might be referring to as "strings." But neither is "empowerment" something that is granted to you by another.

Can teachers teach segregated African-Americans that "the American Dream isn't all it's cracked up to be, that there are other ways to be happy besides living 1 hour from your job in a house you probably don't need?" Well--maybe, but probably not so long as they live an hour away from their job in a house they "probably don't need."

In point four you mention "Equity and resources" but most of this discussion has focused on standards and what kids learn or what skills they build. That's important, but is there another conversation that focuses on this issue of "equity and resources"?

I agree with the statement "Common sense should remind us that we pass on to our children all the advantages we possess. To expect such advantages not to matter is a pernicious myth."

Much of the discussion that I've found about equity of resources focuses on the per-pupil spending differences between one school, or one district, and another. Does anyone have studies showing how "community wealth" differs between youth living in poverty neighborhoods and those living in more affluent and even wealthy communities?

If we really want equity, we need to look at the differences in community wealth, and how it influences student aspirations and learning habits. We need to use this information to innovate ways to more consistently make available some of the knowledge, experiences and mentoring that is provided by family and community on an on-going and informal basis to some kids, but is not available to anywhere near the same degree to kids in less affluent areas of the country.

I don't think that discussion can be mixed in with this discussion of standards, although they both point toward the same national goal of preparing our kids to compete, and survive, in the global economy of the 21st century.

Where is this other discussion taking place? I don't see it in the priorities that are coming out of the White House or the Education Department.


You write that in a democracy there is "healthy tension between expert and lay authority" as well as "profound differences between experts."

That is true, but we must draw the line somewhere so that parents, literacy coaches, and the like do not have the right to prevent schools from teaching, say, Huckleberry Finn. (A literacy coach once told me that we couldn't teach it because it was too "controversial").

Children should be exposed to works and opinions different from those of their parents. This happens inevitably in school except where the parents control the curriculum.

The worst scenario is the curriculum(textbook, test, etc.) that avoids all specificity so as not to offend anybody (as Diane describes in The Language Police). If parents don't want the school to teach evolution, or Huckleberry Finn, or fairytales, then we should hold public discussions about it. But we should not give up teaching these subjects and works.

There is a time for openness to other opinions, and a time for sticking to one's guns.

Diana Senechal

Of course, in the long run there is no avoiding "the people's" prejudices and wrong thinking. The survival of democracy is thus always a tension between lay and expert opinions--with corrections on both sides over time. Sensitivity about pushing the boundaries is required on the part of teachers. It won't do any good for schools to offend their communities "too much" (kids, that is, wont learn from those they see as hostile to their families, friends and community), and yet schools can't expand the intellectual boundaries if they are too timid.
It's always an uneasy balance, backed up by a constitutional balance.

Thanks for raising this - it needs attention.

As does Dan B's point about the unequal assets that reside within each child's community and school.



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