comments_image Comments

Want To Solve America’s Curriculum Problem? Here's How

Market forces have distorted how and what students learn. It's time for new approach to curricular design.

Photo Credit: CandyBox Images via


In my January 31 st contribution to The Washington Post's “Answer Sheet” blog, I joined Rene Descartes, Buckminster Fuller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Alfred North Whitehead, Felix Frankfurter, Thomas Merton, Neil Postman, John Holt, Harlan Cleveland, Ernest Boyer, John Goodlad, and dozens of others saying that the Common Core Standards are reinforcing an idea that's doing great damage to education. 

Of course, most of the scholars I named, being dead, didn’t actually mention the Common Core, but they left no doubt about how they’d have reacted to education policies that ignore the fundamental nature of the world that schooling is supposed to help the young understand.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Peter M. Senge  summarizes the problem on page three of his best-selling book,  The Fifth Discipline.

“From a very early age,” he wrote, “we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world.  This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price.  We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.”

If Senge and the others are right that adequate sense can’t be made of the world by slicing it into little pieces and studying the pieces without regard for how they fit together and interact, it follows that modern education worldwide isn’t meeting its major responsibility.

What this means (at least to me) is something that almost nobody who has a stake in education wants to hear. Current controversial issues—standards,  accountability, benchmarks, teacher quality, evaluation, length of school day, the nature of rigor, school grading, test design and uses, value-added measurement, Race to the Top, international comparisons, etc.—are sideshows. They may have slight effects one way or another on performance, but by diverting attention from the main problem, they’re doing more harm than good.

Solving the problem of the traditional curriculum's too-narrow scope would change those issues so much, every one of them would have to be rethought.

That’s probably not going to happen, so I’m not optimistic about the future of American education. We’re a society that’s never been particularly interested in the life of the mind. Our sense of community—“us-ness”—has withered, and with it the ability to solve shared problems. We’re not embarrassed by a level of poverty that makes it almost impossible to adequately educate a quarter of the young. Dominated by corporate interests focused on short-term profit, we refuse to acknowledge the near-certainty of a future that will challenge humankind’s ability to survive. We expect good work from teachers locked at the bottom of a bureaucracy that gives them no voice in and no control over decisions central to their effectiveness.

And we think the rich and powerful know more about educating than educators. Most people, for example, still don’t know that manipulating test scores to flunk more and more kids is just one of many sneaky strategies engineered to convince the citizenry that public schools should be handed over to McCharter chains (with taxpayers continuing to pick up the tab, of course).

My expectations are low, but if, as I believe, a minor tweak can go far toward solving our major curriculum problem, if it can significantly improve what goes on in learners’ heads, if it costs nothing to adopt, if it requires no change in staffing, facilities, or equipment, and if it necessitates no special knowledge or training, I argue that the tweak deserves a trial.

Unfortunately, testing it is against the law, law supported by both political parties, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Center for American Progress, Exxon-Mobil, The Waltons, the mainstream media, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Mike Bloomberg, Jeb Bush, and many, many others. In educational matters, they’ve put their faith in market forces and their money on test-and-punish reform policies, and gotten Congress to bless that faith with the necessary legislation. Educators who don’t fall in line are likely to find themselves looking for other lines of work.

See more stories tagged with: