Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pondering a Standard Curriculum in American Public Schools

I turned on my DVR to see what the recorded BookTV author lectures had to offer me. My service provider is imperfect with regard to the timing of their recording of these and there is no program information provided (which probably accounts for their recording errors). So when I hit the play button a man was in the middle of giving his lecture. There was nothing on the screen to tell me who this man was. I had never seen the man's face before.

I was knitting and listening, not looking at the screen. I was immediately drawn in by what he was saying, talking about the lowered academic standards that have been steadily occurring since the end of World War II. Who was this guy anyway? I liked what he was saying. I was also interested as he didn't have good things to say about the decades I myself was a public school student, and I thought things were better then than they are now.

Come to find out he was none other than E.D. Hirsch, the man behind the Core Knowledge Sequence. He was discussing his latest book "The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools". I didn't even know he had a new book published.

The lecture was short. I encourage you to view it free on the CSPAN BookTV website here. Following the lecture he answers questions from the audience. The beginning focuses on test scores to demonstrate dropping scores. He discusses that academics and teachers blame dropping scores on opening the SAT to more minorities and urban students who were seeking college admissions. Hirsch shows statistics to prove that this cannot account for the drop as the drop occurred also in nearly all white, middle class, non-urban Midwestern areas.

Hirsch makes the case that one reason it is hard for teachers to teach is because of a lack of a standard curriculum grade by grade. I don't believe he means curriculum as homeschoolers think he means, he doesn't mean the actual texts, but an overall plan (scope and sequence) of what should be taught in each grade. By having different content in classrooms within one school, within different schools in an area, (and so forth) the teacher cannot build upon past knowledge as the students in the class come with different content and mastery levels. As the grades get higher and higher this become a mess as each year the students enter the classroom with varying academic experiences from prior years.

Hirsch labels this different style of content, this thing that is NOT a national standard progression in a grade by grade manner as being a 'child-centered' curriculum. Once you understand his code word for that, understanding the rest of what he says is easier.

Let me tell you something about my own research and our decision to homeschool. The seeds of homeschooling were planted by husband when I was just six months pregnant. Later I wanted to homeschool for some other reasons. When my oldest was two I began reading about preschool. I wanted to know what went on in American preschools so I could take this into consideration for our home preschool or shall I say, what we'd do with the free time we had by our not sending our kids to preschool.

The first thing I realized was the non-existence of a general plan of education (scope and sequence) for public schooling or preschool in America. I thought maybe I wasn't looking hard enough, so I paused that search and began reading about private preschool methods using "alternative" education methods such as Montessori and Waldorf education. These were all started in countries other than the USA and now were used in some expensive private preschools in America. Some Americans think these were elitist methods of education for the wealthy only. I set about figuring out what went on in those preschools to justify hefty tuition for two and three year old children.

While reading the writings of Maria Montessori I was overwhelmed by the detailed thought process behind the philosophy, then the detailed application of classroom content and procedures in close alignment with that. I then went on to read about the Waldorf method and some of Rudolph Steiner's philosophies (the founder of Waldorf education). Again there was a lot of information about developmental stages of the child, what they should be taught when, and timing was very important, windows open to introduce this content, and so forth.

I then turned back to the American public education system for K-12 and also this nebulous thing called "preschool". I still could not find a solid philosophy or what Hirsh calls a "curriculum" or a national scope and sequence. The only thing I found was E.D. Hirsch's proposals in the Core Knowledge Sequence which was referenced in The Educated Child. Some parents use the Hirsch books in the "What Your ## Grader Needs to Know" series.

I need to insert here that at this point I was firmly in the unschooling camp. I read and respected the views of John Holt and John Taylor Gatto. I had strong opinions like "who is to say a child should learn this fact in this grade" and "why can't learning be different and all fun and games". When I read "The Educated Child" I bristled. I wrote a book review for that when my oldest was five years old and published it on Amazon. I recently re-read it and was surprised at my point of view back then because over time as my two children have grown older (they are now 12.5 and 9.5 years old) my educational philosophies have changed. Learning is not all games, struggling to learn something is not all fun and sometimes hard work must be done to understand a concept or see a point of view and the learner has to dig deeper to 'get it'.

But anyway back in those days when my oldest was in preschool I was still searching for answers about what was done in American public schools. I knew some classroom teachers (friends and relatives) and talked to them. They told me that what they did in their classroom was under their control and they had freedom. (Note this was before NCLB which has changed the focus of the classroom work in certain schools to be largely test prep for the standardized test.) They said what went on in different classrooms in the same school varied widely. I was surprised as this is so different from what Montessori and Waldorf education provides.

This sealed the deal that as long as I could, I didn't want my children in public schools (nor did my husband). There was not enough thought behind what was taught and when, there was no way to control what teacher they had, who was good, who stunk, and who was burned out. This was way too chaotic for my taste. Let's not even get into what is done in different schools in different towns or in different states! I was upset just thinking about a lack of a cohesive scope and sequence (or "curriculum" to use Hirsch's term) in one SCHOOL.

Back to the Hirsch lecture, the beginning of it was recorded separately, so I was able to go back to watch it from start to finish. Since that time over the next few months I've watched this lecture a total of four times. Each time I listen I seem to hear new things. (I only wish this lecture was longer!)

About Finland

Unschoolers sometimes discuss Finland. They say the kids enter school at age 7 or 8 and are late to learn to read as well as having that late exposure to formal lessons. Their school day is also shorter.

Yet Finland achieves high scores compared to other developed countries, including America. Hirsch said something I'd never heard the unschoolers say. First, there is a national curriculum. The government prescribes what is to be taught in what grade. Schools can offer different teaching methods but they must use this plan.

Second, the money follows the student. The students are free to apply to different schools, they are not forced to go to the school that their place of residence allows them to attend (for public school). The good schools thrive and the bad schools close for lack of enrollment.

Neither of these things happens in America. So it seems to me that the success of Finland is not due to delaying formal education to a later age or late reading being somehow beneficial, it is due to stricter prescription of content determined by the government and the student's having freedom to go to the school of their choice and the money being attached to the student, wherever they choose to go (what some in America call a voucher system).

Homeschooling vs. Public Schooling

I think that when pondering what should be taught when we need to divide homeschooling and public schooling.

With homeschooling we have a lower student to teacher ratio. Parents can also hire subject matter experts or teachers to instruct their child. There is more freedom with homeschooling. It is possible to match the books and curriculums (textooks etc.) to the child's developmental stage.

When there is more freedom with homeschooling the students can progress forward at their own rate. This progress may be slow sometimes or may do fast jumps ahead. That is fine.

Learning styles or different methods can be used with homeschooling. Customization is easier.

When dealing with large groups of kids in a public school classroom it is just not possible to customize as homeschooling families do. There are limits of budget, the challenge of one teacher assigned to 15-20 or more students and all kinds of other issues. In my volunteer work with Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, working with groups of boys of the same age but different abilities and developmental stages, I shudder at the notion of what school teachers have to deal with. I don't know how they do it. The spectrum of abilities is staggering. Add into the mix, the personalities and group dynamics of the kids interacting with each other and it can be a real mess.

I feel that it is beneficial to consider a national curriculum for American public schools. With that said I also would like to see more magnet schools available to all students which provide customized learning or niche topic learning.

I'd like to see schools for computer science or classical education or schools that specialize in teaching visual-spatial learners. I'd like students to be able to test into schools with specialized instruction. Additionally I'd like to see schools that teach vocations for high school for students who CHOOSE to seek a specific path. Why push all kids through a college prep track then make them pay for a private education after high school graduation to learn auto mechanics or heating and air conditioning repair or medical assisting or some other skill? Why not teach them The Three R's and a vocation for the high school years?

Dumbing Things Down

In the lecture Hirsch talks about dumbed down language in textbooks from pre-World War II and post World War II. He feels we are using easier language and requiring less work of our students. He feels this accounts for dropping scores.

Another item of interest to me in the Hirsch lecture is the over-focus on skills and the reduction of teaching content in the elementary grades. This is something that Joy Hakim also discussed in her three hour long In Depth interview on BookTV.

Take a Look

I encourage you to listen to this short lecture by E.D. Hirsch and to look at his charts and visuals.

Even if you think you are against a national standardized curriculum keep an open mind and just think about where the system as it is now has taken our students (downhill).

From what I understand Massachusetts has a plan for their state which is a standard curriculum.

I honestly have not thought much about the 'state's rights issue'. I am more concerned with a system that appears to be highly flawed with no real action moving toward education reform. Something should be done.

Some Books Mentioned in This Post or That Influenced Me

How Children Fail (Classics in Child Development)

How Children Learn (Classics in Child Development)


Kim said...

While I do agree that American schools would benefit from a national curriculum that all schools follow, I don't agree that a lack of it is the whole problem. There have been plenty of studies that show a correlation between beginning formal academic training at a later age and students' success in school. I don't have anything specific to site at the moment, although the Moore's do a great job of presenting that information in their book "Better Late Than Early". I'm sure Finland's success rate has plenty to do with the age which the children begin school, they are READY for it, and then the presence of a national curriculum takes full advantage of that readiness with great results. Here in America the answer to our failing schools has always been "more school at an earlier age" rather than recognizing that young children under the age of 7 or 8 just plain aren't ready for formal academic training at the level it's currently at. They burn out. That coupled with a lack of a national curriculum is the perfect recipe for disaster.

Mirela said...

Great post again!

This whole "national curriculum" issue is funny for me to read. I must admit I had no idea the USA had none! I never even thought such thing as a "no national curriculum country" could exist. Honestly!

Now, why do I find it funny is because here in Romania we do have a national curriculum, which is a big deal. Each and every textbook destined for schools must be in accordance to that said curriculum, and a teacher can never use a textbook that hasn't been approved by the Ministry of Education.

And now comes the "funny" part. At some point in my life I had the opportunity to write such a textbook. Apart from being a piano teacher I'm also qualified as a History of Music teacher, and believe it or not, there was no other person who wanted to write a textbook for history of music. I was puzzled. Why? And then, I was given THE CURRICULUM I had to follow in writing it. It was (still is!) so preposterously ridiculous, with obvious mistakes in it (!?) it made absolutely no sense whatsoever. And if I didn't follow each and every "item" in it, my textbook could never pass the Ministry evaluation. The most difficult work I had to do for this job was not the actual writing of the book or making it enjoyable for the children, but to juggle the whole mambo-jumbo of the stupid curriculum, and make it appear like I followed it, without totally screwing the kid's interest in the subject.

You may say History of Music is not a crucial subject for a child's development, and you are right, but this happens with all the other subjects like Maths, or Language. Teachers and parents alike are so angry with the national curriculum because it makes teaching so difficult. It is either clogged with so many unnecessary information, or it dwells to much on obvious stuff, or it skips whole things that children should know.

The real problem is teaching it, when you have some classes where children can barely read and others who glide through huge amounts of information, and yet, you are stuck with what the state says you MUST teach, no matter what.

To say nothing about the fact that once it is out and implemented, a national curriculum is almost impossible to change, or at least it takes decades to make changes, as it has to pass all sorts of governmental commissions and committees etc... And this is how you end up having to teach for example to highschoolers that want to be computer programmers almost two whole years of programming languages that are already dead. What does this do to teenage kids? First it kills their interest in programming, and second it takes two years of precious time to teach "fossil" stuff... Why? because technology moves faster than the national curriculum can change!

Don't get me wrong, I am all for some sort of structure, but a national curriculum is in a way "one size fits all"... and it mostly doesn't. Again, I'm not saying it's all bad. I still don't know how a country can function without one, but on the other hand our national curriculum is the worst prison for teachers.

You see, as a teacher I want freedom, to be able to tailor the content to my class, to be flexible, but this is also a huge responsibility.

I still don't know what the right solution is, but the first urge that drove me to homeschooling ideas was the need to escape the idiosyncrasies (and sometimes even idiotic notions!)of the national curriculum.

I guess there is no such thing as a perfect system, and we all yearn for what we don't have :)

WildIris said...

About your post: If a national curriculum would make American education more cohesive, then would home school teachers be obliged follow a national curriculum too?

National curriculum aside, when discussing American education we seldom look at American society and its impact on student learning. Our culture seems to be a lot less tolerant than it was thirty years ago, and that lack of tolerance is reflected in school administrations and teachers. Students, living in more fragmented families with less discipline, come to school eager to socialize but not always eager to learn.
Auto mechanics and dental hygienist need a knowledge of history, art, and a music education too. who we are is not our job description.

christinemm said...

Hi WildIris,
Massachusetts has a state scope and sequence (what Hirsch calls a curriculum). Mass also enforces strict regulations on homeschoolers.

I once looked into Maryland homeschooling when my husband applied for a job there. They have a state scope and sequence also and mandate homeschoolers march in step with it.

I think homeschooling and public school is an apples to oranges comparison. I would not set what is good for 99% of the students in this country who use school based on fears that it may overflow to the 1% that are homeschooled.

There are serious issues for any teacher, even a great teacher, with kids landing in the class with all different content from last year's learning. There should be some kind of basic standard.

I don't like Hirsch's use of the term curriculum as to me that means the actual books. This calls to mind the recent news story where school boards in Texas get a say in what actually appears in a textbook and mandates that gets used in the class. I am speaking more of a general more standard goals and objectives.

If we are going to have a government running schools should they not have some kind of mission statement and philosophy like private schools do? What is so crazy about that idea?

Private corporations for-profit businesses have philosophies and goals. Non-profits do too. Should not government agencies also (DOT, DEP etc.)?

WildIris said...

"There are serious issues for any teacher, even a great teacher, with kids landing in the class with all different content from last year's learning. There should be some kind of basic standard."

The same could be said of home school kids who land in a public school classroom after a couple of years at home.

I think Americans are a fiercely independent bunch that resists too much government--republican and democrat alike. Ideally home school and public school should produce students that know how to read, write, do math, conduct a science experiment and think. A pretty general list, but what to use and how to get there and how to measure if learning took place, well that is another issue altogether. Whose history do you include and who decides which set of classics to read? The feminist classics, the immigrant experience, or the dreaded old white men?

Your topic is not so simple that one can generate a simple, one-size-fits-all philosophy. Americans are not like-minded people, non-profits and private corporations are like minded.

Joyce Herzog said...

One other thing to think about... While I agree that the current system is missing a lot, there are hidden problems in the national standard approach as well. Unfortunately, every five-year-old does not enter school identical and cannot progress at a prescribed rate. Therefore a national standard must be accompanied with a standard of entry and a standard of passage through the system. Age is not an adequate measure either of development or progress any more than shoe size is related to age!

Joyce Herzog

Arby said...

A very well written post.

After teaching professionally for seven years I came to the conclusion that the single biggest problem facing education in America is parents. You can throw more and more money at education and not solve the problems facing education because you cannot legislate good parenting. Students need parents who are involved in their lives, who model a belief in the value of education, and who hold their children’s feet to the academic fire.

Setting a national academic standard will instantly become a political nightmare of competing special interests as parties attempt to integrate their political philosophy into the classroom. I would not want to be held to teaching some of the ideas that many in the politics subscribe to.

christinemm said...

I found the book "From Crayons to Condoms" eye opening and through that I learned a fair number of things being taught in public school that would never make it to my ideal "scope and sequence".

Here is a post I did when I was part way through the book.

I read the book cover to cover but apparently I never published a full book review. I should do that sometime!

TheRextras said...

I'm fine with un-nationalized and disparate educational systems throughout the country, including homeschooling, charter schools, private, big districts and small.

As Arby said, parents need to be responsible - their involvement is discouraged the more uniform the system is forced to be. Economically, money would be better used if it did not pass through so many hands (to DC and back).