NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Curriculum Wars

April 8, 2014

Traditionalists and progressives continue to battle over the right curriculum for American schoolchildren, says Tom Loveless, a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.

Two major issues exist today in the curriculum field: new technology and Common Core.

  • Many see technology as an opportunity to modify teaching styles and present material to students in a way that particular students can best understand.
  • However, the concern is that these technologies will ultimately affect not just how something is learned, but what is learned.
  • If individual interests and pre-existing cognitive skills determine what is learned and when it is learned (i.e., "each student learns at her own pace"), demographic characteristics that are correlated with personal interests and cognitive skills will mirror how far students proceed through the curriculum.
  • Achievement gaps based on socioeconomic characteristics will surely widen and solidify.

Common Core, on the other hand, is about a set of standards that appeal to all students. However, traditionalists tend to oppose Common Core, because it contains a number of ambiguous elements:

  • Common Core stresses process and practice, not content.
  • Common Core suggests that teachers balance non-fiction and fiction reading assignments. The assignment of controversial texts by teachers will likely be justified in the future on this basis.
  • If Common Core is interpreted as requiring all students to take the same courses, there is going to be controversy, especially in the area of math tracking starting in middle school.

Curriculum politics are bound to heat up again, just as they did in the 1990s. The public needs more information -- research on the effectiveness of various curricula, research on the impact of Common Core, details on the link between curriculum and instruction, and evidence on learning and technology -- in order to evaluate these debates.

Source: Tom Loveless, "The Curriculum Wars," Hoover Institution, March 20, 2014.


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