In this informal paper, I’ll argue that the education reform being promoted by the federal government will fail, that the major underlying cause of poor school performance is being incorrectly diagnosed, and that the basic rationale for the reform strategy is unsupportable.  I’ll identify what I believe to be a largely ignored but critically important component of reform, list myriad specific problems with that component, and suggest a way to address them.

How matters stand

The “standards and accountability” education reform effort begun in the 1980s at the urging of leaders of business and industry is failing. The reform message, powerfully reinforced by mainstream media, Congress, and both Republican and Democratic administrations, is simple:

  1. America’s schools are, at best, mediocre.
  2. Teachers and students deserve most of the blame.
  3. As a corrective, rigorous subject-matter standards and tests must be put in place.
  4. Market forces must be brought to bear to pressure teachers and students to work to those standards.

It’s assumed that competition – student against student, teacher against teacher, school against school, state against state, nation against nation – will yield the improvement necessary for the United States to finish in first place internationally.

Premises of the current reform strategy

This diagnosis of the cause of poor school performance and prescription for its cure drive a reform strategy that seems straightforward and logical but rests on an unexamined assumption.

That strategy: Education reform policy must be “data driven.”  Standardized tests produce the necessary data in the form of scores.  The scores are valid because the tests are valid.  The tests are valid because they’re keyed to standards.  The standards are valid because they’re keyed to certain school subjects.  These subjects are valid because they’re components of the core curriculum. The core curriculum is valid because it’s been in use for more than a century and its validity hasn’t been challenged.

Or, to sequence the logic differently: Custom and bureaucracy legitimize the core curriculum, the core curriculum legitimizes certain school subjects, those subjects legitimize the standards, the standards legitimize the tests, the tests legitimize the scores, and the scores legitimize the reform strategy.

Imagine an inverted pyramid, with the whole of the current reform effort resting on the assumption that the present math-science-language arts-social studies “core curriculum” adequately prepares the young for what will almost certainly be the most complex, unpredictable, demanding and dangerous era in human history.

The traditional curriculum can’t support that assumption.

A major underlying cause of poor school performance

The “core” was adopted in 1893.  Custom and the conventional wisdom notwithstanding, it’s deeply flawed.  It . . .

(1) directs random information at learners at rates far beyond even the most capable learner’s ability to cope,

(2) minimizes or even rejects the role that free play, art, music, dance, and random social experience play in intellectual development,

(3) is so inefficient it leaves little time for apprenticeships, internships, co-ops, projects, and other links to the real world and adulthood,

(4) neglects extremely important fields of study,

(5) has no built-in mechanisms forcing it to adapt to social change,

(6) gives short shrift to “higher order” thought processes, and

(7) makes no provision for raising and examining questions essential to ethical and moral development.

The core . . .

(8) has no agreed-upon, overarching societal aim,

(9) lacks criteria establishing what new knowledge is important and what old knowledge to disregard to make way for the new,

(10) doesn’t  move learners steadily through ever-increasing levels of intellectual complexity,

(11) overworks learner memory at the expense of logic,

(12) emphasizes reading and symbol manipulation skills to the neglect of other ways of learning,

(13) is keyed to students’ ages rather than their aptitudes, interests, and abilities,

(14) makes educator dialog and teamwork difficult because it artificially and arbitrarily fragments knowledge, and

(15) encourages attempts to quantify quality and other simplistic approaches to evaluation.

As it’s usually taught, the core . . .

(16) penalizes rather than capitalizes on individual differences,

(17) ignores the systemically integrated nature of knowledge,

(18) fails to adequately utilize the single most valuable teaching resource – learner first-hand experience,

(19) requires a great deal of “seat time passivity” at odds with youthful nature,

(20) is inordinately costly to administer,

(21) emphasizes standardization to the neglect of the major sources of America’s past strength and success – individual initiative, imagination, and creativity – and

(22) fails to recognize the implications of the recent transition from difficult learner access to limited information, to near-instantaneous learner access to prodigious volumes of information.

If, as the No Child Left Behind legislation, Race to the Top, and The Common Core State Standards Initiative assume, the curriculum is sound, the most important reform questions have to do with the effectiveness of competition and other market forces in altering teacher and learner behavior.

But if poor performance isn’t primarily a “people problem” but a system problem – a poor curriculum – these programs are at best ineffectual and at worst counterproductive, for they maintain and reinforce the curricular status quo and stifle alternatives.

The role the curriculum plays in shaping individuals and the future of the nation is too important to simply take the adequacy of the traditional curriculum for granted. Any one of the 22 problems noted above is sufficiently serious to prompt immediate corrective action, the present curriculum suffers from all of them, and more than a century of effort to eliminate them by sequencing and re-sequencing courses, altering distribution requirements, and exploring interdisciplinary parallels and intersections, hasn’t solved the core’s problems.

A proposal

Facts must be faced. First, doing what we’ve been doing for more than a century, just doing it with greater determination, isn’t education reform. Second, the present curriculum is so deeply embedded in custom and bureaucracy it can’t be changed in any significant way, so a new approach will have to mesh with the “core.” Third, any new approach can’t be successfully imposed “top down” — mandated by Congress or state legislatures. It will have to come “bottom up” and spread from school to school, propelled by its success with average teachers working in ordinary classrooms with learners of every ability level.

The most useful thing Congress and state departments of education can do is back away from centralizing initiatives and legislation that attempt to establish or reinforce, either directly or indirectly, a particular curriculum.  Presently, most damaging to meaningful reform are national subject-matter standards and corporately produced standardized tests.

The idea with the greatest potential for triggering significant reform isn’t new.  Alfred North Whitehead stated it succinctly in his 1916 Presidential address to the Mathematical Association of England when he said that the education establishment had to “eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of the modern curriculum.”

Scholars have been saying for centuries that it’s not possible to make good sense of reality by breaking it apart and studying the parts, that it’s relationships between the parts that create the whole.  Educators, being in the sense-making business, are going to have to make the subjects in the core curriculum fit together to form a comprehensive, logically coherent, systemically integrated curriculum.

Attempts to do that have led to the use of themes, projects, problems, concepts, interdisciplinary activities, and so on as organizers of instruction.  These have enjoyed success, but they don’t go far enough in helping learners construct systemically integrated mental models of reality, models so well understood they become conscious guides to decision making and action.

There’s a more direct approach, and the simplest way for teachers to learn it is also the best way – learning by doing – putting the approach to work.

An ideal learning laboratory is already in place.  It’s “hands on,” instantly accessible, and sophisticated.

  • It adapts to every ability level, encompasses every major concept in every major field of study, and couldn’t be more relevant.
  • It engages learners in every known thought process, erases the artificial, arbitrary boundaries between school subjects, stimulates imagination and creativity, and meshes the “two cultures” – the sciences and the humanities.
  • It addresses all 22 of the curricular problems noted earlier, and making use of it doesn’t cost a dime.
  • In fact, for general education purposes, its efficiency could both radically reduce costs and free up time for a range of instructional options not now possible.

That laboratory is the school itself and its immediate environs.

The school offers, on an intellectually manageable scale, all the components of reality.  It’s a complex physical environment, contains a diverse population, and displays all major patterns of human action and interaction, all shaped by values, beliefs, and assumptions.

Those four kinds of information encompass and organize all reality, and all present and future academic disciplines designed to explain that reality. And, unlike school subjects, the four are systemically integrated. Change one of them, and the whole system of which they’re parts changes. Taken together, their real-world exploration by learners enables them to construct, elaborate, refine, and put to practical use their comprehensive models of reality.

If teachers and learners are charged with making more sense of the immediate reality of their school, then are challenged to use that sense to make the school a true learning organization, what’s now a social institution all but paralyzed by a static curriculum, lack of overarching aim, and sense of mission, will become dynamic, adaptive, and creative, capable of playing its proper role in guiding individual and collective action.

Those teachers and learners will be doing, and learning from doing, what all humans must constantly do in order to survive – asking and answering questions the answers to which determine our individual and collective fate: What’s going on here?  Why?  What should I do next?

The questions they’ll ask and try to answer in their new roles will quickly demonstrate the usefulness of geography, physics, economics, history, chemistry, sociology, art, all other disciplines, and other, presently neglected fields of study. They’ll ask: What’s a school? Where on earth exactly is this one? What does it look like on Google Earth? What’s the size and shape of the territory it occupies? What’s this particular one supposed to be doing? Why? Who decided that? Is it succeeding? Why or why not? What’s its history? How much does it cost to operate? Who pays? How do they feel about that? Why? Who owns it? What resources does it use? Where do they come from? How does its climate control system work? What waste does it generate? Where does the waste go? With what consequences? How many are involved in the school’s operation? What kinds of things do they ordinarily do? Who makes which decisions? How? How do various groups feel about the school? What would they like to change? Why? What’s the best way to organize the information being generated by all the questions we’re asking? Is that important? Why or why not?

The more questions learners and teachers ask, the more they’ll think of to ask.

The step from making more sense of immediate reality to making more sense of community, society, nation, and world is small enough to allow it to be taken with minimal bureaucratic wave making.  Even grade cards can remain unchanged.


There’s a “looseness” in learning by doing that’s worrisome, even unacceptable, to many.  Implicit in traditional instruction is an ancient assumption that the elders know enough about human potential, the nature of the future, and the range of differences in the young and their situations to decide what they need to know. There’s a little truth in that, but not nearly enough to support the traditional core curriculum and the drive to standardize learners rather than capitalize on their differences.

Closing textbooks, getting out of chairs and classrooms, and trying to make more sense of immediate here-and-now experience is the surest, most direct route to creating a comprehensive, philosophically defensible, theoretically sound, politically neutral, dynamic and functional general education. The study should be required, with all else elective.

“Human history,” said H.G. Wells, “is more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” As any day’s newspaper surely affirms, education is running a very distant second in that race.  Changing that requires changing what teachers and learners are doing — changing the curriculum.


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Source: Ecology of Education

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