Curriculum & Instruction

Though I am not inclined to give teachers too much autonomy until they start showing signs of it working to improve our schools, Jonathan Zimmerman raises some interesting issues in his When Teachers Talk out of School essay in this morning's Times. Citing cases of teachers censored or dismissed for making Facebook comments about students ?-- ?I hate their guts? or my students are ?rude, disengaged, lazy whiners? -- Zimmerman leads us into more tender, and interesting, territory by mentioning the case of the teacher asking students to read books banned from the school's library. Is this a freedom of speech issue? Zimmerman seems to be on the verge of seeing it as a professional conduct question:

All professionals restrict their own speech, after all, reflecting the special purposes and responsibilities of their occupations. A psychologist should not discuss his patients' darkest secrets on a crowded train, which would violate the trust and confidence they have placed in him. A lawyer should not disparage her clients publicly, because her job is to represent them to the best of her ability.

And he even admits that teachers ?have a responsibility to transmit the topics and principles of the prescribed curriculum.?

Zimmerman then gets a little squishy when he talks about the need for teachers to teach? ?democratic capacities,? including ?reason, debate and tolerance ? so that our children learn to think on their own? ? which sounds like a reasonable part of the curriculum --? but quickly falls...

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Liam Julian

Louis Menand offers opposing views of college in the latest New Yorker. On the one hand, he writes, college is basically ?a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they're sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious?no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense?those negatives will get picked up in their grades.? And at the end of it all graduates are ranked, scored. The G.P.A., in this perspective, is a really just a judgment ?that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential.?

Menand's second theory of college's purpose is not so purely practical. ?In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards,? he notes, ?people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success.? Literature and music and art, then, will go mostly ignored. A student ?will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being.? In such a world, college is the one place where such knowledge and skills can still be passed on, even to those pupils who would rather finish their business classes and get on with it. Through this process college ?socializes,? taking ?people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs? and instructing them in ?mainstream norms of reason and taste.? Thus does campus function...

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The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,

but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here

to the unfinished work which they who fought here

have thus far so nobly advanced.

--Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 1863

My father, an Army logistics officer in World War II, only told a few war stories when we were growing up in the 50s and 60s. The one about crossing Italy in the winter in a Jeep ? ?Half the time it pulled me and the other half I pulled it,? my father laughed ? made me a lifelong lover of Jeeps*.? I thought he made up the one about losing his hearing as a result of ?an enemy bullet piercing his helmet and spinning violently around on the inside, bursting ear drums and his dreams of being a lawyer ? until I found the helmet in the back of a closet one day.? I once caught my father in the bathroom, his foot hoisted into the sink, a washcloth carefully tending a set of shockingly gnarled and yellowed toes ? frostbite, he admitted, from the war. He didn't say it, but my guess was that it came from the pulling part of that winter Jeep trek across Italy. The body remembers....

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For the last couple of years?ever since the nation's governors and state superintendents started working on common academic standards in reading and math?conservative education analysts have engaged in a spirited but polite debate about the wisdom of this development. The last month has seen the discourse turn nastier, with charges and counter-charges, name-calling, and quasi-apocalyptic warnings about federal bureaucrats wanting to ?control your children's minds.? Particularly at issue in this latest round of recriminations is Uncle Sam's role in all of this; are we witnessing a federal take-over of our schools? A push for a federally-controlled national curriculum for all public schools? [quote]

Some of these concerns are not entirely unfounded; the Obama Administration and other supporters of the move to ?common? national standards (my organization among them) have made some unforced errors that have helped to fuel the paranoia. But for conservatives worried about federal interference in our schools, this debate is mostly a sideshow. What should really keep them up at night are the myriad proposals for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act that would push Washington's hand ever deeper into the day-to-day operations of America's schools?proposals that are coming from both sides of the political aisle.

Before diving into the No Child Left Behind debate, let's mitigate some key concerns about a ?national curriculum? with a review of the facts.

The effort to get states to agree to common standards started well before the 2008 election, with the Council...

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The big fuss about "national curriculum" has lately slid into an argument about whether the federal government may?and should?have anything to do with "curriculum." Actually, it's an argument?limited to the Education Department, which has in its founding legislation a specific prohibition on "controlling or directing" curriculum. (Other federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and Arts and Humanities endowments have?engaged for decades in the funding, development, evaluation, and encouragement of curricula.)

A whole bunch of folks, mainly conservative policy wonks and grumps, have spent a whole bunch of time in recent weeks declaiming that Arne Duncan is a sinner if not a lawbreaker because his Race to the Top program encouraged states to adopt the new "Common Core" academic standards and because he gave a bit of federal money to the two assessment-development consortia to help pay for instructional supports and curricular materials related to their forthcoming tests (which are, in turn, supposed to be aligned with the dreaded Common Core).

This debate?is no?longer confined to the blogosphere and think tanks, however. In the last couple of days it has drawn in Duncan himself as well as House education chairman John Kline.

I?guess people were born too late?or have short memories. Arne Duncan has plenty of precedents in both parties?and none of them were jailed, impeached, or even criticized, save perhaps for their curricular judgment. Because there have been umpteen earlier efforts by the federal Education Department to develop, foster, encourage, and evaluate?specific academic...

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Liam Julian

Tennessee is determined, it seems, to sully its reputation when it comes to matters educational. The state that in the 1920s began the anti-evolution battles by bringing?teacher John Scopes to trial for allegedly?speaking of?evolution in his high-school biology class has moved the so-called ?Don't Say Gay? bill along the path from notion to law. Friday the state's Senate passed, 20-10, the legislation, which mandates that instruction at public elementary and middle schools will be ?limited exclusively to age-appropriate natural human reproduction science.? The bill originally forbade elementary and middle schools to ?provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality? but was amended after some lawmakers, according to the Associated Press, noted they were ?uncomfortable? with?such language. Nonetheless, says the legislation's sponsor, Republican Stacey Campfield, the bill's effect is undiminished because ?homosexuals don't naturally reproduce.?

One can defend Campfield by arguing that he is merely attempting to block from public-school classrooms unregulated discussion by untrained teachers of divisive topics. Parents may not be comfortable with their elementary-school-aged children learning about homosexuality at school; such parents may wish to teach their kids about the topic at home, in their own way, and in their own time, and Campfield believes that is their right.

The issue is emotional, and it is easy to castigate Campfield, to fit him for stereotypical southern-bigot clothing, but a charitable assessment of his position reveals?one that is far from ridiculous. It is, however, flawed.

Campfield seems to assume that any discussion...

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One of the more interesting characteristics of the recent curriculum counter-manifesto was its lead sentence, which had this lovely turn of phrase: we ?oppose the call for a nationalized curriculum.?? Interesting, I thought, since I don't believe anyone at the Shanker Institute called for a nationalized curriculum; they called for a national or common curriculum.? Was this a distinction without a difference? Was Shanker just being "sneaky"?? Not at all ? and I'm sure the writers of the counter-manifesto understand all too well that nationalize is a verb, meaning to do something like Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez might do to oil companies or hotels.

Nice try, guys.

On the other side of the aisle, of course, is the privatization crowd.? Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier have been sharing their worries about billionaire ed reformers conspiring to kill off public schools for a long time and just about anything associated with ?business? draws hizzahs of privatizing public education.? Just the other day, Gail Collins weighed in on the Times op-ed page with a column called Reading, ?Riting and Revenues.? ?Today,? she opines, ?let's take a look at the privatization craze and the conviction that there is nothing about molding young minds that can't be improved by the profit motive.?

Though I would never be one to pooh-pooh a rhetorical flourish or two, there really are times when the language should be used to clarify not confuse.? The word "demogoguery" often comes to mind.? Words...

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The ???counter-manifesto??? released this week in opposition to national testing and a national curriculum is full of half-truths, mischaracterizations, and straw men. But it was signed by a lot of serious people and deserves a serious response. [quote]

First, let us dispatch some silliness. To the best of our knowledge, and based on all evidence that we're aware of, neither the signers of the Shanker Institute manifesto, nor leaders in the Obama/Duncan Education Department, advocate a ???nationalized curriculum??? that would ???undermine control of public school curriculum and instruction at the local and state level??? and ???transfer control to an elephantine, inside-the-Beltway bureaucracy.??? Nor is anybody calling for ???a one-size fits all, centrally controlled curriculum for every K-12 subject.??? We certainly wouldn't support such a policy???and can understand why the conservative luminaries who signed the counter-manifesto wouldn't want it, either. As parents, grandparents, charter-school authorizers, and champions of school choice in almost all its forms, we believe deeply in the importance of schools having the freedom to shape their own unique educational approaches.

So let us be clear: While the assessments linked to the Common Core State Standards will be mandatory (for schools and districts in states that choose to use them), the use of any common curricular materials will be purely voluntary. We don't see any evidence to indicate otherwise.

We also find curious the attack line, penned by Jay Greene, that ???centralization of education is bad for everyone except the...

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Guest Blogger

This is a guest post by Diane Ravitch, in response to "A Pedagogy of Practice" by Kathleen Porter-Magee.

When I say that poor kids should have the same school advantages as rich kids, I am not referring to unstructured classes and open classrooms, to balanced literacy or constructivist math.

I am speaking about classes of 15 students, instead of classes of 25-30. I am speaking about schools that have a program rich in the arts, rather than schools that focus intently on preparing for the next state test of basic skills. I am speaking about schools where children study history and read biographies and trade books, engage in debates, discussions, and projects, not just read banal textbooks. I am speaking about schools that teach science and have working laboratories for experiments and demonstrations. I am speaking about schools that teach great literature and engage vigorously in discussion of controversial topics.

I am speaking about schools that have the resources to keep their facilities up to date and spotless and to provide students with access to current technology.

I am speaking about schools that treasure their teachers, treat them with respect, give them the autonomy to teach as they think best.

I am speaking about schools that view education as a way of thinking and knowing and doing, of schools that seldom if ever administer standardized, multiple-choice tests. I am thinking of schools that have the luxury of teaching children to be thoughtful, independent, responsible,...

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