The core of a good idea

Lynne Munson

There's plenty not to like about No Child Left Behind, and its various loopholes and limits are getting lots of attention as Congress works to reauthorize the law. One issue that has finally moved to the fore is the watering down of the k-12 curriculum--a process that began long ago but has become more acute under NCLB-generated pressures.

NCLB is only the latest challenge to serious liberal learning and curricula rich in the social sciences and the arts. It's been decades since the typical U.S. college pressed a broad and deep education upon its "liberal arts" students, much less its teacher-education candidates. And then there's the Back-to-Basics and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) movements, which have contributed to a further shift away from liberal education.

But lo, there is a rare positive development for those of us who think a content-rich liberal education should be the centerpiece of schooling for all children. A possible positive development, to be precise.

Congressmen George Miller and Buck McKeon's discussion draft for the reauthorization of NCLB includes a new "Core Curriculum Development" section. It would award grants to school systems "to promote and strengthen" one or more of the following subjects as "an integral part of the elementary school and secondary school curriculum."

  • Music and arts
  • Foreign languages
  • Civics and government
  • Economics
  • History
  • Geography
  • Physical education and health

Alright, there's some tinkering to be done here. "Physical education and health" is an oddball on this list. And where's the study of literature? But it would seem that Messrs. Miller and McKeon have heard the concerns of the many parents, teachers, and scholars who don't believe anyone--and I do mean anyone--can truly be educated if they learn only to read and compute.

Their proposal would allow federal dollars to be used for a wide range of activities in the listed subject-areas. Possibilities include expanding instructional time, improving curriculum and/or professional development, purchasing textbooks and other essential materials, partnering with community organizations, and developing tests.

For example, an elementary school outside Kansas City could bring its students to the nearby Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where they would learn about the history of art with real objects as their guides. Or high schoolers from Chicago's South Side could learn about geography by plumbing the maps of the Windy City's famous Newberry Library. Teachers could engage in the kind of substantive professional development that would remind them how their love of history or foreign language or sculpture triggered their desire to teach in the first place.

There's a great deal of potential in the Miller/McKeon proposal. It might create many excellent experiences inside and outside the classroom. Do you hear a "but" coming?

The "but" is spurred by some of the similarities that this proposal shares with another well-intended but ultimately flawed Congressional foray into liberal education: Senator Robert Byrd's "Teaching American History" (TAH) program, created under the first No Child Left Behind to offer intensive training to teachers in order to boost their historical knowledge. Congress must learn from TAH to avoid repeating its mistakes.

Like TAH, Miller and McKeon's core-curriculum development program would fall under the general purview of the Secretary of Education. Former Secretary Rod Paige created a new office, the Office of Innovation and Improvement, in an effort to effectively manage TAH and kindred programs. It was, and is, well led and well run. Yet TAH still delivered mixed results.

The problem is that the Education Department's system of grant review emphasizes process over anything else. When I served at the National Endowment for the Humanities, I consulted with the Education Department about how it might improve its review process for the TAH applications. I was shocked that not only did ED fail to ask applicants for such basic information as reading lists for the professional development seminars, but that applications didn't even include the résumés of the scholars involved in them. If you make no attempt to assess the rigor of what someone proposes to teach or the credentials of the person asking to teach it, a mixed bag is the best you can possibly expect to get.

We can do better. Should Miller's and McKeon's core curriculum program survive NCLB's reauthorization process--and then actually get funded--those running it must demand that applications for these grants contain substantive and well-supported descriptions of what will be taught, how, and by whom. Applications should be judged according to criteria more rigorous than a simple checklist or inputs and timelines.

Also, the current proposal would offer grants over a five-year period. It should not. Few programs can stay vigorous for that long, particularly if they are overseen by Department of Education staff members, who are already overburdened with work. Scaling down the timeline will increase effectiveness; the program itself shouldn't be authorized for five years.

I applaud the Miller/McKeon proposal. It proves that those who have pointed out the narrowing of curricula are being heard, at least on the periphery of the NCLB reauthorization process. But if its authors truly seek to combat that narrowing (rather than just prove that they know about it), they will learn from TAH's mistakes and revise their core-curriculum program accordingly.

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