Field notes: Curriculum in the trenches

I emerged from our Board of Ed Curriculum Committee meeting yesterday smiling.? Despite agreement by Karl Wheatley and John Thompson, regular commenters on Flypaper, about the need to define curriculum before we start talking about it (see Curriculum Confusions), I was heartened by the fact that the dozen teachers and administrators sitting around?our conference table?didn't discuss the definition ? though I'm sure each had a different idea about what it was.? A few years ago, I would have been discouraged by that fact -- but?a few years ago the discussion would have gone like this: We don't have a curriculum. Yes we do. No we don't.? Then again,?a few years ago, we didn't even?have a Curriculum Committee!? As a friend of mine told me recently, you don't have to talk about Hirsch anymore.?

In fact, at the local level, in New York state and many other places, thanks to the tireless efforts of a generation of reformers ? I am lucky enough to have gotten to rub intellectual elbows with some of the best, at Fordham and Education Next and Core Knowledge ? the curricular train is finally on the tracks and pulling into a district near you. And guess what?? The teachers are so relieved!

For the first time in my district, teachers are talking about aligning content, vertically and horizontally. Okay, so it's just a reading textbook (Journeys), but it is the first time that K?6 teachers have ever used the same text!? And they love it. And Yes, teachers are not necessarily the best people to be writing K?6 curriculum (please, no threats!), but the process of entering the names of the subjects they're covering and the documents and books their kids are reading in Rubicon Atlas -- and adding to it from sources like the Common Core -- has begun the process of seeing schooling as a true scaffolding of knowledge, specific, content rich knowledge. And, importantly, they have come to begin to grasp the essential concept of ?common knowledge? as?a common content language, a means of communicating, a standard by which to judge differentiation. They are understanding?its benefits?for productive group activity, learning,?and growth ? and I am confident that they will begin to see that this has implications for our country. ?

We've come a long ways in my district. When we were interviewing for a new superintendent three years ago, each board member was allowed to ask the candidate one question (pre-approved by the rest of the board and asked of each candidate). Mine was something to the effect, What did you think of E.D. Hirsch and the views he expressed in his book Cultural Literacy?? It was a trick question, obviously, and it worked: none of the six candidates admitted to not reading Hirsch, but all of them gave great speeches about bringing diversity training to the district.? Except for one of the six (and he was 25-year-veteran teacher and principal), all of these people were veteran superintendents, all having ten to fifteen years of administrative experience under their belts.? My view then ? and now ? is that no one in education can be taken seriously on the subject of curriculum unless he has read Hirsch.

So, who would have thought that New York State would now have a Commissioner of Education, David Steiner, who has written about Hirsch and has more than a passing acquaintance with the subject; or an Assistant Commissioner, John King, who co-founded a charter school (Roxbury Prep) praised by Hirsch for its content rich curriculum.? We now have a slew of state chief executives (see Checker's Rebirth of the Education Governor) who get it. None of the teachers in my district want to be told how to teach. But most of the ones who have been shown the Common Core or Core Knowledge Sequence or even the drafts of curricula that Steiner's Education Department is preparing ? they are not complaining. The news from the front: we are happy.?

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

Peter Meyer
Peter Meyer is a Adjunct Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute