A concluded battle in the curriculum wars

In the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas journal, Tom Loveless has a brief, measured examination of today’s curriculum debates. Entitled “The Curriculum Wars,” the essay reviews age-old disputes between traditionalists and progressives in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, then reframes them in light of two recent developments: technology in education and Common Core. 

Loveless recalls the whole-language vs. phonics battle in reading instruction; project-based learning vs. content-oriented instruction in science; problem solving vs. computation skills in math; and multiculturalist, “national-sins” history vs. Eurocentric versions (He doesn’t use the term “Eurocentric,” but it’s implied). While the former (progressivist) approaches dominated education through the 90s, the “rise of accountability systems” that focused on basic literacy and numeracy skills, plus research showing the ineffectiveness of whole-language theories, blunted those approaches in reading and math and marginalized science and social studies/history debates.

We are now in a state of “relative calm” in curriculum matters, Loveless asserts, but technology and Common Core threaten to revive the controversies. In customizing instruction to each student, he warns, we may find the curriculum fragmenting to the point that students “no longer learn a common body of knowledge and skills at approximately the same time.” We might extend that concern to the outcome that there would no longer be any common body of knowledge and skills. (Loveless has a nice comment, too, on the “romantic ideology” of those we might call the “disruptivists,” who rely on doubtful theories of learning styles in their effusive advocacy of customization.)

The threat that Common Core poses lies not in the standards themselves but in the uses to which the initiative may be put. Specifically, Loveless says, teachers and school officials may cite it as justification for “questionable approaches to learning.” When challenged for a controversial reading assignment or dubious constructivist math exercises, people may respond, “But it’s aligned with Common Core—we have no choice.”

Loveless is surely right to forecast a revival of curriculum disputes as technology advances and Common Core is implemented. We see the issue simmering with the delicate rollout of test items by PARCC and Smarter Balanced, as well as in local news stories on this and that objectionable classroom assignment. But in offering prescriptions for better ways of managing those controversies, Loveless begins with a curiously flat assertion:

First, much more research is needed on the effectiveness of different curricula. We need to find out what works, whether it is progressive or traditional in approach.

This suggestion appears to overlook the abundant research that supports content-oriented curricula in the “softer” subjects of English Language Arts and social studies/history. Indeed, research on the necessity of background knowledge for reading comprehension is decisive and uncontroversial, even though reading instruction in our schools continues—foolishly—to favor abstract “comprehension strategies” (“identify the main idea,” etc.) over acquisition of general knowledge across subjects. Indeed, while elements of Common Core’s ELA standards emphasize “close reading” and “finding evidence” and imply the teaching of reading skills in a manner disconnected from the knowledge embedded in and presumed by the assigned texts, other parts of Common Core firmly reiterate the premise that “knowledge is intimately linked to reading comprehension ability” (see Appendix A, p. 4). People may disagree over how much time should be devoted to abstract reading skills, yet the recognition of background awareness relevant to specific texts is universal among cognitive-reading researchers.

E. D. Hirsch has spent twenty-five tireless years bringing these findings from cognitive science to education policy and practice, but the reaction he has evoked indicates that the curriculum debates Loveless recounts may be shaped by a more fundamental opposition than whole language vs. phonics and multicultural vs. traditionalist. It is the distinction between skills and knowledge—or, more precisely, between the belief that thinking skills are independent of background knowledge vs. the belief that thinking skills hinge (in one way or another) on background knowledge. Dan Willingham and Andrew J. Rotherham provide a summary statement of the distinction and the truth of the latter belief in a 2009 article in Education Leadership, which chides the “twenty-first-century-skills” movement for downplaying the importance of domain knowledge. Loveless himself cites Hirsch and implies that learning-styles and multiple-intelligences theories lack empirical support, but he holds off from saying that the scientific evidence has declared one side a winner.

Yes, we need more research on which curricula work best, but we already have ample solid research demonstrating the decided advantage that the traditionalist emphasis on content knowledge has over the progressivist insistence on active learning (disengaged from domain facts and concepts). Before we call for more studies, let’s first disseminate existing findings. In this respect, while some people may miss the rancor and partisanship of the 80s-era controversies, closing the old debates prevented genuine progress of the very kind Loveless calls for. Let’s re-open the curriculum wars once more and let the evidence speak.

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