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Where Does the Existing Curriculum Come From?

Throughout their history, American schools have changed in structure and curriculum to reflect various visions of what children should learn. Let's look at how the question "What is most worth knowing?" has been answered over the years.

Shifting Purposes: From Colonial Times Through the 1970s

Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries During the colonial period of our history (from about 1620 until the 1770s), knowledge of the community's concepts of right conduct and religious belief was considered the most important thing children should learn. During the 1770s, the time of the Revolutionary War, the schools began to focus on political ends. Although not available to all, education was seen as essential to produce a populace literate enough to continue the democratic form of government. Schools extended their curricula beyond the Bible teachings of earlier years to include knowledge necessary for trade and commerce or a university education.

The purpose of the common school, which developed in the mid-1800s (as described in Chapter 10 of your textbook and this web site), was to produce a literate and moral citizenry. The curriculum emphasized conservative republican virtues and moral values; these were molded by teachers and by the McGuffey Readers, (http://digital.library.pitt.edu/nietz) a series of popular books that guided the learning of millions of American children during the nineteenth century.

Changes in the Twentieth Century As American society experienced rapid changes in the twentieth century--massive immigration, depression, world wars--the definitions of the formal curriculum reflected equally rapid changes. Those who thought the schools should prepare students for entry in the world of work tried to shape the curriculum for that purpose. Others who held a progressive philosophy thought the schools' curriculum should help children gain knowledge of themselves, develop as individuals, and acquire democratic social competence to reform society. During the so-called progressive education era of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, many elementary schools emphasized citizenship and self-adjustment and followed a primarily child-centered or society-centered curriculum; that is, they tended to stress the needs and development of the individual student rather than the mastery of fixed subject matter. (See Chapter 10 of your textbook or this web site for more on progressive education.) This by no means was universally true; many schools during the progressive education era maintained a strong subject-matter focus, especially at the secondary level. By the 1950s, the curriculum of the schools had become broad and diverse in response to these competing demands for vocational preparation, reconstruction of society, and personal development.

Critics of American education in the 1950s used the 1957 space launching of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union as evidence that American schools were deficient. The American public, which had complacently believed American schools to be far superior to any other country's, reacted against the perceived "softness" of the curriculum and demanded a return to the "meat and potatoes" of learning: the academic disciplines, with particular emphasis on science and mathematics. As a result, curriculum development during the 1950s and 1960s became largely subject matter centered. The pendulum swing from child-centered to subject-matter-centered curriculum and back again is an ongoing theme of American curricular change.

Prosperity was a major factor in the extensive curricular changes of the 1950s and 1960s. Because the public was willing to spend increasing amounts of money for children's education and because of concern for national defense and worldwide prestige, the federal government poured huge amounts of money into curriculum development projects, teacher-training workshops, and research. The influence of the federal government on the development of new curricula during this period cannot be overestimated.

The tremendous postwar knowledge explosion forced new approaches to curriculum planning and made many areas of existing curricula, such as geography, seem obsolete. In addition, a combination of social and political factors encouraged a new approach to the educational needs of the country, including new emphases on multicultural and bilingual education.

Structure of Disciplines Approach The approach to teaching specific disciplines underwent significant changes during the 1960s and 1970s. Instrumental in leading these changes was the publication of Jerome Bruner's book The Process of Education.1 Bruner's basic thesis was that any discipline could and should be studied, at any level of complexity, in terms of its "structure." Bruner defined the structure of a discipline as the concepts and methods of inquiry that are its most basic parts. Instead of studying random facts or incidental phenomena, students should learn the principles that constitute the heart of a discipline; in this way, they will learn how to learn. Teachers were encouraged to let students discover meanings for themselves using a discovery (or inquiry) method. The concepts fundamental to the discipline's structure would be studied over and over throughout the school years, but each time from an increasingly complex point of view. The curriculum of the discipline would resemble a spiral; as students moved upward along the spiral, they would re-encounter familiar concepts in more complex forms.

Bruner's structure of disciplines approach was used in numerous curriculum projects that had considerable impact on the public secondary schools' curricula, particularly in the areas of mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, and foreign languages. But these new projects had less impact at the elementary level; elementary school educators objected to planning from the top down, believing that such an approach failed to take sufficient account of the developmental processes of young children and that it separated rather than integrated the disciplines.

By the late 1970s, reaction against the structure of disciplines approach became more vocal. The new curriculum projects seemed to work for the bright, college-bound students but did not seem to prepare students for the world of work. As youth made demands for freedom of choice in the educational system, secondary schools responded with a more flexible curriculum and a proliferation of electives, with little focus or balance. For a time, in some schools, it seemed that no particular knowledge was considered any better than any other knowledge.

Curriculum Reform in the 1980s and 1990s

Back-to-Basics Movement During the late 1970s and early 1980s, a perceived decline in the quality of education, as evidenced by declining scores on standardized tests and attributed to students' choice of so many electives considered to be "soft" academically, led to a back-to-basics movement. The spokespersons for this movement were among both the very best educated and the least educated people in the country. Although their goals were not always clear, their disenchantment with the public schools and their desire to return to a more rigorous, more traditional curriculum were evident and often stated quite sharply. Proponents urged more emphasis on basic subjects, particularly reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also science, history, geography, and grammar. They wanted the schools not only to teach content but also to help children learn to work hard. They believed that to create a society made up of strong citizens, our schools must turn out individuals able to take on difficult tasks that they can see through to completion. They wanted the schools to demand more orderly and disciplined student behavior. They wanted the authority and centrality of the teacher to be reasserted, and they desired a more structured teaching style. Finally, back-to-basics advocates often wanted the schools to return to the teaching of basic morality and, in particular, the virtue of patriotism. In many ways, the back-to-basics movement was a reaction against the personal freedom movement of the 1970s, which emphasized drug use and sexual freedom, symbolized by the culture of the "hippies."

Although the term back-to-basics is heard less often today, many more educators than were involved in that movement have called for similar kinds of school reforms in the name of "excellence in education," a concept discussed further in Chapter 12 of your textbook. The recommendations for greater academic rigor in public school education have been adopted by many state legislatures. The early advocates of the back-to-basics movement offended many educators with their pressure tactics, hostile language, and the deep strain of idealistic nostalgia in their desire to return to a simpler society. But behind much of their rhetoric were ideas and aspirations that most educators also believed. Many people inside and outside education believe that the schools have tried to be "all things to all people" and that it shows. If nothing else, then, the back-to-basics movement, as subsumed in the more recent excellence-in-education movement, has refocused the public and educators on the primary mission of the schools: to help children develop the necessary knowledge and skills to live good and productive lives and contribute to the well-being of society.

Curricular Issues and Reform Reports As our brief historical review shows, American schools have been subject to many varying demands and expectations--more than they can possibly fulfill. In response to the realization that the schools had been asked to do too much, curriculum reformers of the 1980s tried to define some unifying major purposes for the schools. These reformers, including Ernest Boyer, John Goodlad, and the very influential report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, strongly supported higher academic standards and the development of students' academic competencies in mathematics, science, literature and language, history, arts, foreign languages, and technology. Emphasis would be placed on developing ways of knowing, reasoning, communicating, and problem solving. These reformers wrestled with traditionally troublesome curricular questions: What knowledge is best for all? Should schools have a core curriculum, and, if so, of what should it consist?

Recent Curriculum Reform

Many discussions of curriculum reform during the early 1990s involved issues of centralization or decentralization. In contrast to many other countries, the United States has traditionally had a decentralized system of state and local curricula. The national government has had little influence on what is taught in our nation's schools. During the early 1990s, however, spurred by concern about the nation's economic competitiveness with other countries, a strong movement emerged toward national curriculum standards, national testing and assessment, and the establishment of national goals. A 1994 law, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, (http://www.ed.gov/pubs/G2KReforming/index.html) codified eight national goals to guide future educational initiatives and funded different academic groups to develop national standards in the various subject-matter fields. By 1996, though, these centralization efforts had lost steam, giving way to a growing consensus that the setting of standards and curriculum should remain the prerogative of the individual states and that the federal government should downplay its attempts to influence curriculum standards. Interestingly, many states were using the national standards developed by different academic groups in formulating their own state standards. (http://www.education-world.com/standards/)

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, virtually every state had developed its own standards for student learning, and many states backed up their new standards with rigorous accountability measures for both students and educators. As discussed in this chapter of your textbook, the standards-based reform movement, has been the strongest influence on subject-matter curricula over the last decade. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act ( http://www.ed.gov/nclb/), discussed in detail in chapter 11 of your textbook, gave national support for states to implement rigorous standards-based education and accountability measures.

1 Jerome S. Burner, The Process of Education (New York: Random House, 1960).



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