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December 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 4

Letter from Washington / Old Wine in New Bottles

    Letter from Washington / Old Wine in New Bottles - thumbnail
    Credit: Christopher Futcher
      Arguments about curriculum are as old as education. After all, curriculum is the armature on which teaching and learning hang.
      Although curriculum can be narrowly defined as “the courses offered by a school,” to most observers, the curriculum is supposed to be a comprehensive statement describing what students should know and be able to do in order to earn a diploma. Because the curriculum defines what is important and what is not, it is appropriate for each generation to debate what to include and what to exclude. But today's debates do not discuss ways to tweak the curriculum so much as whether it should be standardized.
      Rare today is the school with a well-defined curriculum; rarer still is the school district with a unified, over-arching curriculum. Large school districts across the United States—including those in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, and Pittsburgh—are wrestling with the implications of a districtwide curriculum. Paul Vallas called for one when he was superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools. Not to be outdone, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein have announced that all low-achieving schools will begin to use a common curriculum. The Los Angeles school district, at the urging of Superintendent Roy Romer, has implemented a large-scale adoption of a phonics-based reading series, Open Court—with a dispensation for schools whose test scores are up to begin with.
      I know of only one large urban school district that appears to be an exception to the movement toward uniformity: Atlanta Public Schools is home to a dozen school reform models. But Superintendent Beverly Hall insists that Georgia's quality core curriculum is the only curriculum and that each reform model is simply offering a slightly different take on it.
      There are many virtues of a uniform curriculum—intellectual coherence, continuity, and consistency, for example—provided that the curriculum is thoughtfully chosen and characterized by appropriate scope and sequence. Nowhere is this more important than in urban districts with large populations of highly mobile, disadvantaged minority students. A coherent curriculum improves the lives of teachers and students alike because each side knows what is expected.
      The downside is less obvious but no less important. An overly scripted curriculum can limit the creativity of both teachers and students. Balance is the key. Compose a curriculum in broad strokes, specific enough for clarity, general enough for flexibility. Easy to say, hard to do. But well worth trying.
      My own take is that a curriculum should have two parts—one visible, the other invisible. The visible curriculum is made up of the formal courses of study; my vote is for the liberal arts, beginning in prekindergarten and running full tilt up to graduation. By the liberal arts, I mean the old-fashioned definition: an education that suits men and women to live lives of ordered liberty. Language arts, mathematics, foreign language, science, and social science. As recently as the 19th century, Cardinal Newman argued that a liberal education was essential precisely because it had no vocational utility; it was the education suited for gentlemen (and, by extension, gentlewomen). In Reclaiming the Legacy (seewww.c-b-e.org/pubs/doylebk.htm), an online book commissioned by the Council for Basic Education in 2000, I argue that in the modern era, a liberal education is the only truly vocational education because it builds students' character as it teaches them how to think. By contrast, a narrow, technical education—or worse yet, a vapid “general” education—does not prepare young people for citizenship, the demands and opportunities of the workplace, or a fulfilling personal life.
      For the second part of the curriculum, I borrow from the Quaker tradition that “values are caught, not taught.” By this I mean the invisible curriculum, which teaches students by example, and through which students practice the elements of citizenship and character formation that make civilization possible. Teachers who are dedicated to their craft set an example for students to do the right thing, whether it is as simple as respecting oneself and others or as demanding as writing a thoughtful essay.

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