Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Curriculum Development/National Curriculum

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Is a national curriculum needed?
On the diffusion of education among the people rest the preservation and perpetuation of our free institutions.

—Daniel Webster

The conflict between the expediency of increased federal power and the suspicion of that same power has marked virtually all of American history. Federalist thinkers’ clashing with supporters of states’ rights has been the root of most political divisiveness in our nation. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an American utopia contained a government which governs best by governing least; however, as the world has matured and become more globalized, federal power has by necessity crept constantly upward. The establishment of a national curriculum would be another landmark step in the flow of power away from the state and local governments, and into the federal government. Allowing the federal government to determine what our children learn is a power not to be given lightly. A national curriculum would be harmful to both the balance of federalism and to the children it is taught to. A federal solution to a problem is an attempt to apply a general principle to a vast and diverse nation. On matters which affect the entire nation in a mostly similar way, such as international relations, the federal government is the fairest and most effective agent. Education of children is far more personal for most families, and is deserving of a more local approach that can be more responsive to constituents’ desires. A local approach is also the most efficient for issues that are generally polarized along geographic lines, such as what should be taught in schools. Change in federal policy is often very slow on controversial issues, and curriculum (aside from generally agreed upon fields such as mathematics) is often controversial. Advocates of a national curriculum claim that such a thing is necessary and inevitable; other options do exist, however, and can allow us to avoid granting too much power to the federal government.

The Problems Defined: Mobility[edit]

In their paper, “Improving our undeclared national curriculum,” Allen and Brinton list four basic problems we are currently faced with due to the lack of a declared national curriculum: mobility, obsolescence, equity, and accountability.1 Dr. Allen cites the statistic that 20% of students move during their time in school, and that these students suffer under the status quo. As will be discussed later, the current system does involve a sort of national curriculum, therefore empirically we can deduce that a national curriculum would not solve the problem of mobility as would be intuitively assumed. In fact, giving true curriculum choice to localities could be the solution to the problem of mobility. While 20% of students move, this 20% is not evenly distributed across the country. There are many places in the United States where the schools are very small and there is very minimun cases of new students or students who leave during the year. There are many schools who have students in and out all of the time because of the location of the schools. Shouldn't the curriculum be one that everyone should come together on? Mobility should not be as large of an issue as it is, there should be a consistent curriculum so that these students do not have to catch up/over-learn material (Leinward).The current undeclared national curriculum does not cater to the special needs of mobile students, because the majority of students are not mobile. Some communities have a much higher percentage of transient students due to military families, etc. These communities can tailor their curricula to their particular situations, while leaving more stationary communities to focus on other issues particular to them.

Keeping Up With The Times: Obsolescence[edit]

Dr. Allen points to obsolescence as one of the problems that a national curriculum can solve1, but having the federal government implement a curriculum would only exacerbate this problem. Education is harmed by obsolescence, as the information students are taught is always at least 5 years out of date. The problem of obsolescence in the status quo results from the delays involved in textbook publishing, textbooks being the major enforcer of the de facto national curriculum that exists already. Involving federal bureaucracy in determining the national curriculum would only increase the delays, as any changes would experience delay in approval on top of publishing delays. The initial creation of a national curriculum would be a long and arduous process, if it could even be completed. Congressional reluctance, professional disagreement on standards, and failure to produce national tests have thwarted attempts to create a national curriculum in the past. 3,5 One can only imagine the battles that would have to be waged over each change to the curriculum if it were to be established.

You Can’t Please Everyone: Equity[edit]

The problem of obsolescence becomes linked to the problem of cultural equity when attempting to form a national curriculum. The question of which area’s and which culture’s history to teach first, or at all, inevitably results in an unspoken ranking of relative significance. A congressionally established national curriculum could result in students in Oklahoma having to learn about California’s history but not that of their own home. That is to say nothing of the political battles that would be fought over racial histories. Some propose an independent group of wise educators, who are insulated from politics yet publicly accountable to determine the national curriculum without the bureaucratic battles.3,5 Aside from the contradiction posed by political insulation with public accountability, the formation of such a group is an idealist pipe dream, reminiscent of a council of town elders attempting to govern an entire nation. No group could ever be formed that could agree on an equitable curriculum for the entire United States. National curricula may work for smaller, less diverse nations, but the United States is far from homogeneous, and it would be impossible to set a culturally fair national curriculum that could actually be covered in the time available. The real solution to the equity and obsolescence problems in American education is to remove the textbook dependence that causes them, not to add to them with politics and bureaucracy.

We’re Letting The Horse Lead The Driver: Accountability[edit]

Dr. Allen argues that a national curriculum already exists, and that it is created by unaccountable private parties, making directed change impossible. The criteria for college admissions, which set the standard for high schools that intend for their students to go to college, are set by the College Board, a private company that creates the SAT. Textbooks are considered traditionally to be the primary resource for teaching, and so the content publishers choose to include is largely considered to be the only curriculum that can be taught. This is not to say that textbook publishing occurs in a vacuum, where publishers can arbitrarily decide what to include. Publishers are primarily concerned with profits, and so textbooks tend to be geared towards Idaho and Texas, the only two states that conduct statewide textbook adoption. For these reasons, Dr. Allen calls local control of curriculum a “myth.”1 Indeed, Dr. Allen is correct in his assessment of the status quo, but declaring a set national curriculum retains all the problems of the current, undeclared, national curriculum we carry. No matter who decides the contents, having the same curriculum throughout the country creates problems with student mobility, equity, and obsolescence. Of the problems in the status quo listed by Dr. Allen, only accountability is solved for by a declared national curriculum; fear of this accountability is as likely to paralyze the process as it is to improve it.

Solving at a Local Level With the Power of Technology[edit]

Since the problems of mobility, equity, and obsolescence remain even under a formally established national curriculum, another solution must be found to Allen’s list of challenges. These problems all stem from the fact that a single curriculum cannot address the needs of all localities. The first step is to eliminate the textbook dependency that ties us to the current, hidden, national curriculum. Internet resources, properly applied, can solve this problem as well as provide many additional benefits. Networks such as the “ALEX” system in Alabama are inexpensive to create, and allow teachers easy access to education standards, lesson plans, and classroom resources.4 These networks also allow teachers to collaboratively develop lesson plans and easily provide feedback to administrators on the curriculum. Curriculum guidelines determined at the local level can quickly and easily be distributed over these networks, and can be made available to the public to ensure accountability. Local accountability is superior to national accountability because local officials are more directly answerable to individual constituents. Teachers have readier access to local officials to provide their input into curriculum development than they do national officials. More progressive teachers could persuade their local school boards to alter the curriculum for their subject to enable more experiential learning activities and skill development rather than memorization and grinding through non-real-world problems. This method of teaching requires considerable creativity and commitment, but the teachers who are able to do so are the ones students most remember and credit with their motivation in life.2

Textbook replacement resources are abundant on the internet to support any curriculum, and are generally available free of charge. For example, a physics class could use the hyperphysics web materials located at This website is maintained by Georgia State University, and contains an extensive indexed set of instructional materials; these materials can be searched by keyword, or using the web-diagram interface that leads intuitively from general to more specific related topics. With both instructional materials and step by step illustrated examples, all that a teacher must add are problem sets to have a complete textbook replacement. This site is but one example; with web publishing becoming faster and easier, there are many resources to choose from, or a teacher could even create his own. Updating such resources is an almost instantaneous process, eliminating obsolescence. Internet resources are becoming less and less expensive all the time. While the digital divide must be addressed, the ultimately lower cost for greater power that electronic resources provide would allow communities of different socioeconomic status to enjoy greater equity than ever before. Freed from the curriculum of textbook publishers, and provided with the tools to create and distribute curricula, local governments can provide curricula that are specific to the needs of their children.

Freedom from the uncontrollable hidden national curriculum is only a start, but it is a start that will completely change the ability of local governments to tackle curriculum development. Rushing to replace the current curriculum with yet another rigid, universal structure would prevent us from seeing what local governments could accomplish, and even bring back the same old problems with a vengeance.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

What is the most significant effect student mobility has on your classroom?
A. Time must be taken to review at the beginning of the year to ensure all students start with the same background.
B. Some students will leave during the year, making class size smaller.
C. Students from mobile families are less emotionally stable.
D. Parents from mobile families are less helpful in the educational process.

A. Time must be taken to review at the beginning of the year to ensure all students start with the same background.

How can teachers combat the problem of obsolescence?
A. Have their students read the newspaper daily.
B. Fill in missing and updated information from textbooks with up-to-date resources.
C. Explain to students that textbooks are always about 5 years out of date.
D. Retiring before they become obsolete.

B. Fill in missing and updated information from textbooks with up-to-date resources.

How can teachers influence the curriculum in the status quo?
A. By using content resources aside from textbooks, such as the internet.
B. By writing their congressman.
C. By ignoring the requirements in the Standards of Learning.
D. There is nothing teachers can do to affect the curriculum in the status quo.

A. By using content resources aside from textbooks, such as the internet.

How can local governments take control of curriculum development?
A. Provide feedback to textbook publishers.
B. Make use of internet resources to provide alternative content sources.
C. Allow teachers complete curricular freedom.
D. Apply for federal funds.

B. Make use of internet resources to provide alternative content sources.

What sort of teachers are the teachers students most remember and credit with their motivation to succeed?
A. Teachers who worked them hard so they learned difficult material.
B. Teachers who provide very little homework.
C. Teachers who have a system of privileges to reward good behavior.
D. Teachers who involve students in experiential learning activities that develop skills rather than the memorization of knowledge.

D. Teachers who involve students in experiential learning activities that develop skills rather than the memorization of knowledge.

What percent of students face mobility?
A. 15 and under.
B. 20 and under.
C. 15 and above.
D. 20 and above.

D. 20 and above.

A federal solution to a problem is an attempt to apply?
A. A general principle to a vast and diverse nation.
B. An overview to a nation as a whole.
C. A principle to a control group to supply to the nation.
D. The NACP to the nation as a diverse group.

A. A general principle to a vast and diverse nation.

Which program allows teachers easy access to education standards, lesson plans, and classroom resources?
A. The Johnson program
B. The Alex system
C. Code Martin program
D. Dr. Allen's system of educational awareness

B. The Alex system

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal a sample response.

What is wrong with public school curriculum in the United States now? How would you go about solving these problems, if the decision were yours?

There are many different problems with the curriculum in the United States today. A few are that we have a mobile military and a shortage of funding. A mobile military hinders your curriculum because the soldiers move their family when they move, thus your students must adapt to a new school with different educational priorities then where they came from. The shortage of funding has schools in poverty areas unable to teach the required curriculum by the state government because of older books or unknowledgeable teachers.

These problems and many more make you ask then why do we not have a national curriculum? I have thought about a way to create a national curriculum that is not federally government based. I know that there is a college board for colleges and universities that help to create a “national” college curriculum. Of course every school from the different states has certain requirements that are different from the other, but on a whole if you are studying to be an electrical engineer and you transfer you will get about the same courses and material required. If there was a public school board that had the most knowledgeable scholars and the highly valued people when it comes to the curriculum; then they could create the base national curriculum. This will allow the military to be mobile with their families as well as their children get a quality education without being ahead or behind.

The way that this board will work would be simple. It will be a discussion first off as to determine what is important in what grade. The one difference would be different throughout each state would be the grade that they learn about the state they are living in. The courses will be the same per grade. Also testing similar to the SAT and the ACT would be required to compare the progress of each school. The incentive for each school to participate would be the more in tune with these highly valued scholars curriculum the more funding that will be given to support the cost of this national curriculum. The funding would have to come from the federal, state, and local governments.

This is what I believe will work to create a national curriculum for students so that the nation can pull together to produce the best next generation that is possible. With the technology that is available to the world, who is to say that there could not be a spelling bee between a school in Virginia and California.