May 4, 2008

A thoughtful debate on curriculum

One of the greatest sins of the Joel Klein administration is engaging in Stupid Ed Tricks that distract Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch from thoughtful debate on Bridging Differences, such as the discussion they have been engaged in recently on curriculum:

Here we see two articulate educators defend very different views of the Good Education--not philosophical questions but the policy question of whether a centralized curriculum is appropriate for a state or country. Ravitch favors a centralized curriculum that is less prone to what she sees as the weaknesses of localism. Meier favors local choices that can reap commitments greater than central control.

I think we can take the strengths of each position for granted: Meier has run several schools with very local missions, and she has done so remarkably well. Ravitch points to situations where a centralized curriculum has strengths (such as Finland).

What neither addresses very well are the weaknesses of their own positions. I think Ravitch has a point with the weaknesses of localism: while Meier and many other educators can and have constructed unique curricula that serve students and the community well, there are plenty of cases where localism led to low expectations or just nutty ideas (my phrase, not Ravitch's). And Meier and other critiques of a centralized curriculum have a point: there are plenty of centralized curricula that fetishize knowledge and discourage in-depth probing of key questions.

But those same weaknesses are also often true of each advocate's preferred choice: institutional inertia can easily turn centralized curricula into whatever was gong on in the status quo ante, and local curricula can fetishize factoids as easily as a centralized curriculum.(And don't tell me that a national test will do much to discourage either problem: no test does more than lightly sample any curriculum, and the most easily testable parts of that curriculum.)

What Ravitch and Meier show is that the debate over the curriculum is not just over the stuff but also the how and who and all sorts of meta-issues that focus on control: should a state or country's political leadership (or bureaucratic leadership) decide what children learn, or should teachers and communities (the local bureaucratic and political leadership)?

If you're wincing at that expression, I've made my point: this is the wrong debate to have. Yes, control is important, but whatever level of government/institutions make curriculum decisions, there needs to be regular discussions about what children should be doing and learning. To be honest, neither world-class standards nor community needs cut the mustard with me, because they're shortcut jargon. Here's a challenge: start with a single student's work and go from there. Since history is my discipline, we can use an essay by any student in middle or high school and ask the question: Is this what students should be learning about history and doing in a history class?

Then get a batch of student work with ranges in skills and purposes (of the assignments). What looks "right" to you? Are most students at that point, and what would be necessary to get more students there?

Then look at the discipline more broadly: how much of the thousands of books written in U.S. history in the past few decades is enough stuff to learn in secondary school? What would be embarrassing for students to graduate without knowing? Then, a second look: how many winces can we stand on that point, because adolescents are remarkably forgetful about history?

Then a third look: how would the teaching of history have to change to get the minimum number of winces? How would professional development look? Can the state or country pay for that? Can we afford not to pay for it?

In history, I don't believe anyone's gone through this type of iterative process for K-12. Some parts of it, certainly, but not all of it, except for higher ed. And with due respect for one of my national affiliates I'm embarrassed that the AFT gave Virginia's standards a "100%" for its standards. (That curricular micromanagement is an embarrassment to the discipline.)

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Posted in on May 4, 2008 9:04 PM |