Sunday, October 22, 2006

On standards, the curriculum, and acorns

One of my frustrations with some types of education policy writing is its irritatingly acontextual nature, as if nothing but that era (usually This Era) and the conceptualization in use at the time (i.e., a particular buzzword) is relevant for the question at hand. The writing that frustrates me can often be very detailed, accurate, and descriptive, but in a flat, largely uninteresting way. Make connections! one part of my mind screams as I plod through the piece. But, inevitably, the only connections made are to last year, or to nearby states, and only with regard to the buzzword in focus at the time. And given the speed with which we plow through buzzwords (is that a mixed metaphor?), maybe we need to keep away from narrow definitions.

The standards movement is one of those buzzwords that is a particular magnet for acontextual writing. Writing that assumes meaningful curriculum development didn't exist before the late 1980s makes me want to pull my hair out. There are multiple problems with the term standards movement, including the elision of different types of expectations (the purpose of schools with our expectations of student performance) and the elision of two separate developments in the late 1980s and early 1990s (performance assessment commonly associated with the New Standards Project and Laura Resnick, on the one hand, with efforts to create state or national curricula, on the other).

But the greater problem with most writing on standards is a failure both to look at curriculum history broadly conceived and also to think comparatively, with the U.S. as one of many countries with curriculum policy. Advocates of standards often talk about the need for alignment: we test what we say we expect from students, which should have something to do with what we plan for them to learn. Curriculum-studies folks would point out that this is parallel to their observations for many decades that there are different levels of curriculum. Terms such as the formal curriculum, the taught curriculum, and the tested curriculum abound in curriculum writings, and essentially the argument for alignment is that the formal, tested, and taught curriculum should be identical. Alignment is really about aligning different types or levels of curriculum. In abstract, that's fine as far as it goes, but alignment doesn't guarantee that the learned curriculum will be the same, nor that alignment will eliminate the hidden curriculum.

The ahistorical nature of most writing on the standards movement is more problematic. It is true that the early 1990s was the first time when we could witness most states trying to write formal curriculum expectations across a range of academic subjects. But states have written expectations before into specific parts of the curriculum, and somehow advocates for aligning different curriculum levels haven't been interested in looking at that history. The narrow definition of alignment also assumes that those who have gone before and only focused on one type of curriculum (say, the tested curriculum if you look at minimum competency testing) didn't know what they were doing in terms of its effects. And I suspect that's baloney: Even if a particular effort only targeted one chain in the desired link from expectations to what happens in student minds, advocates often have had a very clear idea of what they hoped would happen. Connecticut common-school advocate Henry Barnard, for example, hoped that blindly-graded admissions testing to high schools would drive the curriculum in grammar schools, even when only a small minority attended high schools at the time. We cannot clearly identify what is truly new in the last 15-20 years of curriculum (including the standards movement, for want of a better term) unless we look at the history with more than very narrowly-defined questions.

So, too, with international perspectives. Advocates of standards and alignment occasionally will refer to the existence of a national curriculum in other countries, most famously France, but it is not true that every other industrialized country has a long history of a centralized curriculum. I am not a comparativist, but I have a sneaky suspicion that parents have often thought that parts of the French national curriculum are compartmentalized drivel, but that's less important than a little bit of skepticism we need about the inevitability of centralized curriculum. (We can talk about de Tocqueville's model of history later.) For decades, West Germany had a clearly-articulated lack of national curriculum in reaction to the national curriculum of the Nazis. My understanding is that when Sweden's public sphere was attacked as inefficient in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the consequences was devolution of curriculum planning. After the end of apartheid, South Africans (of all ethnic and racial groups) started looking at its prior national curriculum with considerable shame. Looking internationally, I don't get the sense that the U.S. is out of step with some universal consensus on curriculum centralization.

In fact, as my astute spouse has pointed out to me on occasion, we have a nationalized curriculum in the oddest places. One of the cultural norms of elementary schools in the U.S. is to teach about the calendar. We want young children to get a sense of time, and one way to help them understand the concept of a year is to talk about seasons. But the way we do so, in all parts of the country, is tied to temperate parts of the country. In southern California and Florida, kids learn about temperate climates--that leaves turn colors in fall, that it snows in winter, and so forth. In Florida??? Leaves don't turn colors in the fall here, and deciduous trees often drop their leaves in February (especially oaks). In Florida, fall is the time of year when acorns fall, and when it gets a bit drier and more comfortable after Halloween. And don't even talk to me about teaching kids about snow. But you'll see plastic colored maple leaves in Florida classrooms this time of year. I remember the same growing up in southern California, and I suspect it's also the same in many Hawaii, Arizona, and New Mexico classrooms. We don't follow Noah Webster's exhortations to speak with the same accent, but we have the same plastic maple leaves everywhere!

Right now, I'm in the middle of writing a passage where I'm trying to flesh this idea out and realized I needed to head to the curriculum-studies and comparative-ed literature. But, as inevitably happens, the literature doesn't really answer the question I have in my head. There really isn't a comparative curriculum-studies history of the extent to which curriculum has been centralized. Darn it! So instead I get a peek at the concerns that are prominent in the literature, which forces me to think more broadly. It's a useful lacuna.

(Posted in slightly different from at my solo blog.)

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