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What's Worth Learning: How Outdated Curricula Are Failing America's Students

The “core curriculum” used in America’s classrooms was poor when it was adopted in 1893, and grows more dysfunctional every year.

Photo Credit: Sergey Nivens via


It goes without saying that solving a problem begins with a correct diagnosis of its cause.

When Michael Gerson, President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter, had the president say in a January 2004 speech that American education suffered from “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” the simplistic diagnosis reflected and perpetuated the present “tighten the screws” reform effort.

That misguided effort continues. In the Introduction to What’s Worth Learning? (Information Age Publishing), I offer an alternative explanation for poor school performance.

Marion Brady


American education isn’t up to the challenge.

The evidence is inescapable. Millions of kids walk away from school long before they’re scheduled to graduate. Millions more stay but disengage. Half of those entering the teaching profession soon abandon it. Administrators play musical chairs. Barbed wire surrounds many schools, and police patrol hallways. School bond levies usually fail. Superficial fads—old ideas resurrected with new names—come and go with depressing regularity. Think tanks crank out millions of words of ignored advice, and foundations spend billions to promote seemingly sound ideas that make little or no difference. About a half-trillion dollars a year is invested in education, but most adults remember little and make practical use of even less of what they once learned in thousands of hours of instruction.

Congress and state legislatures bring market forces to bear, certain that the rewards and penalties of competition will work the wonders in education they sometimes work in business, and nothing of consequence happens. Charter schools are formed to promote innovations, but if the merit of those innovations is judged by scores on corporately produced standardized tests, the innovations are inconsequential. Municipal governments take over failing schools or hand them off to corporations, producing results so poor that statistical games must usually be played to justify contract renewals. Stringent standards are put in place, and tests keyed to them are so high-stakes that failure may shut down whole schools, end teaching careers, and permanently affect the life chances of the young. But performance stays flat.

Cut through the hype and the ideology-driven political rhetoric and it’s clear that, decade after decade, institutional performance nationwide changes little. Even schools considered models and pointed to with pride—upscale, beautiful, well-staffed, shipping high percentages of their graduates off to the Ivy League—send most students on their ways with talents and abilities unidentified or undeveloped. Few graduate with their natural love of learning enhanced or even intact.

Perhaps most damning of all is the fact that the human need to understand, to know, to make sense of the world, is one of the most powerful of all human drives, but the institutions we’ve created to meet that deep human need would close their doors if it weren’t for mandatory attendance laws, social expectations, and institutional inertia.

The static state of America’s schools stems in large part from a failure to understand a process sometimes called “institutionalization” and its implication for what’s taught. In educating, the curriculum is where the rubber meets the  road.

If it’s poor, the education will be poor. No matter state or national standards, no matter the level of rigor, no matter the toughness of tests, teacher skill, school size, market forces imposed, length of school day or year, parental support, design or condition of buildings, generosity of budget, sophistication of technology, administrator wisdom, or enthusiasm of students. A school can be no better than its curriculum allows it to be, and the process of institutionalization, neither understood nor addressed, assures that year after year the traditional math-science-social studies-language arts curriculum will become more dysfunctional.