What is Included in the School curriculum?

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What is Included in the School curriculum?

Even though schools look pretty much the same today as they did at the turn of the nineteenth century the present never exactly mirrors the past. Curriculum has gone through some major changes since the first schools were established in the Plymouth colony nearly 400 years ago. From schooling in Colonial America to the present day concerns with teaching reading and equal access for all students to learn, the intensity of debates among educators, politicians, and the population in general about what should be taught and how it should be taught has never faltered.

Curriculum is and will remain one of the key concerns of schooling in the United States. Strangely enough, its meaning comes from the description of a Roman chariot race track. Today it is an abstract concept that involves business, education, and philosophy. While there are many ways to define the term curriculum, for our purpose here, we will refer to curriculum as the course of study completed by students during their school days.

Students will always be expected to know the basics which, in the future, might include in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, how to conduct a search on the Internet or create a media presentation. When Bob Dylan wrote that “the times they are a changing.” school curriculum was no doubt not in his thoughts, but he was right on the mark. Curriculum has been the conduit through which educational ideas and goals become evident in practice and programs. Curriculum always changes. Sometimes it follows like an obedient puppy and sometimes it pulls ahead like a poorly trained greyhound, but a useful and purposeful curriculum is never far removed from the students and society it serves. Curriculum will continue to evolve. It will respond to the needs of society, to the combined voices of special interest groups, to visions for the future, to the discoveries of science, and to changing social and political structures.

Preparation for Industry

As industrialization took hold in the cities of the Northeastern United States at the end of the nineteenth century, schooling was greatly influenced by the need to help new immigrant populations become literate and disciplined workers. Education was becoming more standardized, compartmentalized and centralized. The New York Free Society introduced the Lancasterian system to the United States, first in charity schools and later in common schools as an inexpensive solution to mass education. Proponents also claimed that the system could guarantee that students would learn the basic skills in the few years they had available for education. The curriculum in these schools emphasized the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students worked in homogeneous ability groups, some learning to read and do arithmetic, some practicing previously learned basic skills. The Lancasterian method also employed a form of behavior modification that rewarded good behavior and progress.

The move toward preparing young people to contribute effectively to the industrial revolution was assisted by the work of psychologists at the turn of the century. Harvard philosopher and psychologist, William James found evidence that the stimulus-response, or behavioral concepts of learning could be used to help children develop desirable habits. His ideas were expanded by one of his most famous students, Edward Thorndike, who published in 1913, Educational Psychology, which guided education for the next few decades. He ”viewed teaching as a science concerned with the control of human behavior” which included rewards and punishment. He also promoted testing as a way of determining which people are suited for which social roles. Thorndike’s principles were applied to schools in the popular textbook, Classroom Management by William Chandler Bagley who believed that schools should help students develop the industrial habits needed for the assembly line. Based on behavioralism, teaching was reduced to a very rigid routine.

Testing was beginning to have a great influence on the specific curriculum to which a student was assigned. French psychologist, Alfred Binet, had developed a test for separating children with mental disabilities from “normal” children or children without disabilities. U. S. psychologist, Lewis M. Terman revised the original Binet test, resulting in the popular Stanford-Binet test used to determine IQ, or intelligence quotient. Many of these early psychologists believed that intelligence is inherited and that students could “be scientifically selected and educated for their proper places” (Spring, 2001, p. 298) in society. This belief was later challenged by critics who argued that intelligence was also influenced by environmental factors. Terman (1928) acknowledged the nature versus nurture debate and the role of education when he wrote, “If the differences found are due in the main to controllable factors of environment and training, then theoretically, at least, they can be wiped out by appropriate educational procedures—procedures which it would then become our duty to provide” (Gumbert & Spring, 1974, p. 101). The impact of nature and nurture on intelligence continues to be debated today.

Progressivism: Curriculum for Reform

There has always been an ebb and flow to school curriculum as it reacts to the pull of American life. In the beginning, the waves of curriculum reform were gentle while the undertow was hardly noticed. As American society and the American system of education grew in tandem, the pull of new ideas and novel educational practices became stronger and were, in turn, resisted with ever greater force. The standardization and centralization encouraged by the Industrial Revolution made routines and assembly lines seem a likely answer to educating the great influx of immigrants to America’s cities. In 1923 Frank Gilbreth, a motion expert and the subject of Cheaper by the Dozen, demonstrated the importance of efficiency in reaching desired goals, no wasted motion, no deviation from the norm, everyone in step. But one size does not fit all and eventually the assembly line idea in society and education was seen as impersonal and inhuman. Fritz Lang’s famous silent film, Metropolis (1927), startlingly expressed the plight of oppressed workers and lent credence to the social injustices and conflicts emerging in urban America.

The precursor for reforming education began with Rousseau who challenged the idea that children were born evil. In Emile published in 1762, Rousseau questioned the focus of education on memorization and subordination to authority. He thought that learning occurred through experience and discovery. He also believed that moral education should occur in adolescence, not childhood. Influenced by Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi of Switzerland introduced a teaching approach in 1781 that used teaching objects from the real world, learning by doing, and activities rather than seat work. This approach valued the maternal instincts of love and nurturing.

In 1896, John Dewey opened his laboratory school in Chicago. His ”methods emphasized student interests, student activity, group work, and cooperation—methods premised on the idea that the school had to serve a new social function in a world of increasing urban life and large cooperation” (Spring, 2001, p. 273). Classrooms had movable tables rather than individual desks. A colleague of Dewey’s, William Heard Kilpatrick, introduced in 1918 the “project method” that was widely adopted by school districts. The project method expected students to participate in an activity directed toward a socially useful end for the purpose of developing moral character.

The progressive movement in American education covered a period of more than 50 years. Its proponents believed that reformed schools could ultimately reform society. They argued that learning experiences must encompass the interests of students and engage them in activities directly related to their lives. In the eyes of progressives, traditional curriculum with its emphasis on lecture and recitation could not possibly address student’s individual needs and learning styles. They believed that curriculum must be moderated through activities directed by the learner. Industrial training, agricultural education, and social education were viewed as important elements in progressive education.

Student-centered instruction had become good practice in the 1940s, and schools were more humane by the 1950s. However, “the increased expectations that the progressives placed on schools to solve societal problems also made them vulnerable to criticism and charges of failure” (Olson, 2000b, p. 99). Progressive thought reappeared in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it was confronted by the back-to-basics movement at the end of the 1970s. Theodore Sizer founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, a group of high schools developed along progressive lines. Hundreds of schools follow the progressive ideology often incorporating social justice. They include the Urban Academy, Central Park East, and El Puente in New York City. In 2006, these progressive schools are “operating at the margins of the education system: in charter schools, alternative schools, and schools of choice that have some freedom from the dominant, central-office-driven culture. . . .Many of the ideas that teachers now take for granted—movable furniture, working with students in small groups, the provision of social and medical services in schools, and integrated curricula—can be traced directly back to progressive roots” (Olson, 2000b, p. 100).

After Sputnik I

In the late 1950s, an urgent demand for new materials and new teaching techniques emerged among educators, politicians, and parents. The Russian launching of the first satellite, Sputnik I, on October 4, 1957, initiated this change. U. S. leaders were bound to do whatever it would take to regain its supremacy over the Russians during this Cold War period. To ensure that the U. S. would win the arms race with the Soviet Union, Congress had already taken some steps in this direction by establishing the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950. Following Sputnik 1, Congress’ resistance to financially supporting education disappeared. In 1958, the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) was passed to support nationwide testing of high school students and incentives for them to pursue scientific or professional studies. It also included funds to improve the teaching of science, mathematics, and foreign language as well as to purchase equipment and materials. Many teachers benefited from the programs that taught new math and introduced them to new curriculum materials.

The NSF was charged with developing curricula for science and mathematics. New formats for textbooks and ideas for the presentation of relevant subject matter emerged. Teachers were suddenly presented with an avalanche of choices regarding what and how to teach. There were Attribute Games and Tangrams. Elementary school science packages offered Petri dishes full of fungi and amoebas on order from the local science laboratory. Reading texts were organized around literary themes and generalizations relating to the students’ own lives. Bill Martin’s Sounds Of reading series provided teachers and students alike with a framework for categorizing families, feelings, and friends. Scott Foresman’s reading Systems demonstrated that a language approach to reading could be combined with a strong phonetic foundation. The Denelian handwriting system attempted to make the transition from manuscript to cursive handwriting as easy as connecting straight lines.

Scientific and technological advances called for increased use of mathematics in physics, biology, and industry. “New math” was introduced to offer a shift in curricular and instructional focus and intent so that the average student could learn more math at an earlier age. Programmed English, an attempt at teacher proofing the high school English curriculum, and the SRA programmed reading series for elementary classes allowed students to learn English grammar and reading skills at individual paces. Efforts to increase student understanding and achievement in all areas of the curriculum have been a mainstay of curriculum development and implementation throughout public schooling in the United States.

The Cultural Wars

In the first few centuries of European settlement in the United States, most families were Protestant and English. The French and German immigrants who joined them were also Protestant and adapted the Anglo Saxon culture. The curriculum in schools reflected the religion and culture of the European settlers, which were at the center of the textbooks and lessons taught. Almost no one questioned this curriculum until immigrants from other countries sent their children to school in the mid-1880s. The cultural wars about curriculum have been an undercurrent in education since Irish immigrants and Catholic leaders questioned the use of the Protestant bible in schools. Periodically, the cultural wars become highly publicized when parents protest curricula and books at school board meetings and in other forums.

In the 1830s and 1840s, Catholics did not feel welcome in the nation’s common schools. Most Protestants were very hostile to Catholics and refused to stop using the Protestant bible for readings in the public schools. Not wanting their children to be exposed to the religious instruction of Protestants and the anti-Catholic hostility in schools, Catholics in New York City demanded that public funds be shared with them to establish their own schools. Emotions about this issue erupted into a riot between anti-Catholic and Irish Catholics in New York City in 1842. Riots erupted again in Philadelphia a year later after the school board declared that Catholic children could read their own bible and be excused from Protestant religious instruction. People were killed and a Catholic church burned during the riot. Less intense riots occurred around the country. As a result, Catholics ended up establishing their own school system without public funds.

During the Protestant and Catholic conflicts, the New York City schools began to remove anti-Catholic rhetoric from their textbooks. However, it would take more than a hundred years to make the school curriculum secular by removing religious instruction, bible readings, and prayer. Other religious groups took their complaints to the courts for resolution. In the 1943 West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to refuse to salute the American flag. The Supreme Court exempted Amish children from compulsory school attendance after the eighth grade in Wisconsin v. Yoder in 1972.

Fundamentalist Christians do not limit their concern about the curriculum to religious instruction. They believe that the curriculum should be based on the absolute truths that are fundamental to their religion. Therefore, they attack the teaching of evolution as a contradiction to creationism or intelligent design. They fight sex education because it teaches about contraception, which is viewed against abstinence before marriage. These groups also call for the censuring of books and curricula that present other perspectives or interpretations of their religious beliefs. They also attacked a number of the innovative curriculum packages developed by leading scientists as part of the NSF projects after Sputnik I, leading to them being withdrawn by school districts.

Religion is not the only contentious curriculum issue in the nation’s schools. Patriotism and nationalism have also led to many accusations and attacks on schools from both sides of the issue. The country has a long history of promoting the Anglo American culture as the one that must be adopted to become a citizen. The Americanization programs for southern and eastern Europeans at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of twentieth centuries were designed to teach the immigrants English and American ways, including patriotism and national heroes. Cultural pluralism was not to be tolerated, requiring immigrants to abandon their own native cultures. Textbooks did not reflect the cultures or contributions of the new immigrants nor those of the non-Anglos who had been in the country for centuries. By the 1960s inclusion of the missing groups in the curriculum was one of the demands of the civil rights movement. In the 1970s and 1980s, colleges established African American, Chicano, Asian American, American Indian, and women’s studies programs. Textbook publishers were incorporating the history and narratives of these groups in elementary and secondary books often as a separately set-off section rather than integrating them into the master narrative that still highlighted the Anglo Saxon culture as it had been adapted by the dominant society. Although groups of color and women are now included in the curriculum, the themes of freedom, equality, and opportunity are not often analyzed as part of the presentation or discussion. Students are not usually encouraged to question the master narrative and may be labeled as unpatriotic for doing so.

Whose history should be taught is a part of current education debates. E. D. Hirsch, Jr.’s best selling1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, became the center of a national school reform movement. Hirsch advocated the teaching of Protestant Anglo-American culture rather than culturally diverse cultures as multiculturalists advocated. His book outlined the key facts that all well-educated people should know. To achieve academic excellence and equity, schools were expected to teach a specific core curriculum. The proposed core curriculum focused on topics in language arts, history, geography, science, mathematics, music and art, delivered in a comprehensive and integrated format.

On the other side of the argument, historian David Tyack (2003) proposes the inclusion of multiple stories in the curriculum:

Pluralistic history can enhance ethnic self-respect and empathy for other groups…texts for a pluralistic civic education might have not one master narrative but several, capturing separate identities and experiences. But the history of Americans in their separate groups would be partial without looking as well at their lives in interaction. Our society is pluralistic in character, and so should be the history we teach to young citizens. But alongside that pluribus citizens have also sought an unum, a set of shared political aspirations and institutions. One reason there have been so many textbook wars is that group after group has, in turn, sought to become part of a common story told about our past. The unum and the pluribus have been in inescapable tension, constantly evolving as Americans struggled to find common ground and to respect their differences” (p. 63)

Whose stories should be included in the curriculum came to a head when the federal government supported the development of national standards in the late 1980s. The history standards, which were developed by a group of historians, were attacked at the highest levels for including the stories of the diverse ethnic and racial groups in the country at the expense of leaving out the study of some historical heroes. These traditionalists believed that this change would undermine patriotism. Religious conservatives found dangerous a curriculum that encouraged students to inquire into human behavior and values; they believed that the social studies curriculum should be built on absolute truths. Critics of the standards took their case to the U.S. Senate on January 18, 1995. Members of the Senate voted 99 to 1 to censure the National Standards for History with the statement that national history standards “should have a decent respect for the contributions of Western civilization, and United States history, ideas, and institutions, to the increase of freedom and prosperity around the world” (quoted in Symcox, 2002, p.1). The cultural wars continue, and so does the ebb and flow of curriculum.

This brief history may help you understand the curriculum that is included in the schools in which you are teaching. Curriculum is as old as any educating institution. It is a dynamic field, complex and sometimes messy. It can also be contentious. Educators should learn from their past mistakes and be able to create excellent schools for the future. This cannot be accomplished without an understanding of curriculum theory and practice. When teachers become active participants in determining the curriculum and practices of the profession there is a greater chance that excellence will be achieved.

Spring, J. (2001). The American school: 1642-2004 (5th ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Olson, L. (2000b). Tugging at tradition. In Education Week, Lessons of a century: A nation’s schools come of age. Bethesda, MD: Editorial Projects in Education.

Symcox, L. (2002). Whose history: The struggle for national standards in American classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press.

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