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School Curriculum

Core Knowledge Curriculum, Hidden CurriculumOVERVIEW

Ian Westbury

E. D. Hirsch Jr.

Catherine Cornbleth


In its organizational aspect the curriculum is an authoritative prescription for the course of study of a school or system of schools. In their traditional form, such prescriptions set out the content to be covered at a grade level or in a course or sequences of courses, along with recommended or prescribed methods of teaching. In their contemporary form such prescriptions have been re-presented as national and state standards, outlining outcomes to be achieved by schools without prescribing the specific bodies of content to be covered or methods of teaching to be used.

Curricula in both of these senses are seen as defining what schools purposefully do. However, most scholars and administrators who work with curricula or evaluate the impact of curriculum prescriptions or reforms do not believe that "curricula-as-documents" direct the work of schools in significant ways. Curricula-as-documents are more often than not developed after the fact, and are based on existing practices of teachers or a simple listing of the content of textbooks being used. Further, many teachers are not familiar with the curriculum their district has mandated.

Nevertheless, curricula and curricular mandates are the objects of persistent and hotly contested debates around schooling, and are widely taken to be important. Interest groups, governments, school districts, and their staffs devote much time and attention to discussions of the curriculum. Why does the idea of the curriculum and curriculum reform assume such importance in educational discourse and policymaking? Is it possible to direct the work of schooling?

Curricula, Education, and Schooling

All curricula emerge from ideas about what should be taught and learned, and how such teaching and learning might best be undertaken and then certified. As a result the fundamental question lying behind the prescription and development of all curricula is often seen as "What knowledge is of most worth?"–because it is the knowledge that is of most worth that education should, seemingly, reflect. In its ideological or philosophical aspect, much curricular thought seeks to articulate reasoned starting points for one or another form of curriculum. Such work can accept the framework of contemporary understanding of the scope and nature of education and schooling. It can be critical, seeking to articulate the hidden assumptions around such categories as race, gender, and class that have driven, and drive, schooling in inappropriate, even morally wrong, directions.

However, looked at more analytically, the curriculum of the school reflects layered cultural understandings of what is considered necessary for young people to know or experience if they are to take their place in the social and cultural order. Thus, as the central component of a pervasive modern institution, the curriculum is necessarily a part of all of the sociological and cultural ambiguities within societies. As such, the scope and nature of the curriculum are viewed as critically important for teachers, parents, cultural critics, interest groups, and the employers of the graduates of the school. As the curriculum as an idea is seen through the eyes of all such groups, it becomes a mirror that reflects different visions of the society and culture, and the tensions within the society around, say, the proper nature of the work of schooling and/or status-attainment and employment possibilities. As a result inevitable and unresolved differences of viewpoint characteristically surface around all discussions of the curriculum as a symbol of both a normative order for education and of the quality and character of what schools are understood as doing.

For these reasons the history of curriculum thinking and practice is marked, on the one hand, by popular and professional conflict and debate about what the curriculum should be and how teaching should be undertaken and, on the other hand, by rationalization of the good and/or bad consequences of one or another curriculum. What, for example, should the curriculum that is most appropriate for young people be based on?

  • The needs of the economy for human resources
  • National or international ideals
  • The need for societal and cultural change or preservation
  • Ameliorating pervasive distinctions of gender and race
  • The set of perennially "essential" and fundamental forms of knowledge and ways of thinking
  • The forms of a life that is most worth living

As a result of the competition between such starting points, there is political, cultural, and policy conflict around what should be authoritatively prescribed in curricula, how teaching should be undertaken, and how schooling should be organized.

The classification of such different conceptions of education and educating has been one of the core approaches used to give both teachers and laypeople a framework for approaching the normative issues that circle around such starting points for education and curriculum building. Often, as with Elliot Eisner and Elizabeth Vallance's 1974 classification, these issues are presented as involving perennial controversies. Thus in their frame there is a web of controversy built around an unresolved conflict among five classical curriculum "conceptions": (1) curriculum as the development of cognitive processes; (2) curriculum as technology; (3) curriculum as self-actualization or consumatory experience; (4) curriculum for social learning; and (5) curriculum for academic rationalization. But Eisner and Vallance also point to other ways of framing such debates: child-centered versus society-centered; futurist, that is, socially reconstructive, versus presentist or adaptive; values-centered education versus skills-training; and humanist or existential versus behaviorist models of education and teaching.

There are, of course, difficulties associated with such controversy-framed conceptions around the curriculum problem. Such overviews of curricular conceptions reflect abstractions about the curriculum rather than the practices of schooling. Most centrally, they do not reflect the complexities of curricular action.

Walter Doyle has sought to clarify the endemic questions around all curriculum thinking by pointing out that curricular action occurs at three distinct levels.

  1. Institutional, where the issues center on policies at the intersection between schooling, culture, and society.
  2. Programmatic, where the issues center on (1) the specification of subject content for schools, school types and tracks, with their core and elective course requirements or expectations, subject specifications, and so forth; and (2) the construction of appropriate content for classroom coverage within these subjects.
  3. Classroom, where the issues center on the elaboration of the programmatic curriculum and its connection to the worlds of schools and classrooms in their real-world contexts.

For instance, all institutional work around either the scope and rationale of an optimal mathematics curriculum or how the teaching of reading should best be undertaken centers on metaphors that reflect idealized norms for an imagined social institution. More often than not the discourse is framed in terms of reform and the need for change if a convergence between a normative ideal and the ongoing work of schools is to be achieved. Such discussions rarely, if ever, connect in any immediate way to the central issues around either programmatic or classroom curricula. There the effective delivery of existing procedures and practices, and not reform, is the overriding preoccupation. Nevertheless, the image-making that is characteristic of curriculum policy debates within and among interest groups is important. Such debates symbolize and instantiate what communities should value. In this sense curriculum discussion, debate, and planning–and the public and professional processes involved in such work–is a social form for clarifying the role that schooling as an idea plays in the social and cultural order.

Programmatic curriculum work has two tasks. On the one hand, it is focused on the sociocultural, political, and organizational processes through which educational visions that are accepted by elites or publics are translated into operational frameworks for schools. Thus a policy language of "excellence" becomes the introduction of gifted programs in elementary schools or Advanced Placement courses in the high school. Programmatic work is also part of the search for solutions to operational problems, such as a mismatch between the capacity of a school system or school and enrollments, and the need to reconfigure a system around, for instance, middle schools. All such programmatic discourse and action seeks to precipitate social, cultural, and educational symbols into a workable and working organizational interpretation and framework. Such organizational frameworks, however, are only indirectly linked to actual classroom teaching. In such discourse and program building, teaching is seen as a passive agency implementing or realizing both an organizationally sanctioned program and its legitimating ideology. Curriculum work in this programmatic sense frames the character of schools and classrooms organizationally, as well as the ways in which schools might be seen within their communities. It does not direct the work of schools or teachers in any straightforward way.

At the classroom level the curriculum is a sequence of activities, jointly developed by teachers, students, parents and communities, that reflects their understanding of the potential for them of the programmatic framework or curriculum. At this level teachers, and the schools they work within, are active interpreters, not passive agents, of the mandated or recommended policy, programmatic, or organizational frameworks. Their interpretations may or may not be well articulated with the curriculum as imaged or mandated at the policy and programmatic levels. The educational legitimacy of such local interpretations, however, is not derived from the organizational framework of the curriculum. Instead it derives from the seeming match between what a local school is, and seems to be, doing and the understandings of its community about what its school can and should be doing.

But consistency among what a community's school does, the language and symbols used to describe and project that work, and the dominant ideologies and values is only one component of the framework for the school or district programs and curricula. Financial and/or personnel issues, state-sanctioned or state-funded mandates for programs such as special education or physical and health education, and the incentives for program change offered by governments and/or foundations are, more often than not, the immediate determinants of whether or not a school offers a pre-kindergarten program or upper-level "academic" courses.

In other words, the curriculum is the symbolic center of a loosely coupled system of ideologies, symbols, organizational forms, mandates, and subject and classroom practices that instantiates collective, and often differing, understandings about what is to be valued about the idea and the ongoing practice of education. At the same time the myth of an authoritative and hierarchical framework by which legislative bodies determine classroom work, with the curriculum as the agent of the linkage, is necessary for the legitimacy of a public schooling that is subject to political control. It is this paradox that gives all discussion of the curriculum its emotional force.

Curriculum-Making in the Twentieth Century

In an essay written at the beginning of the twentieth century, John Dewey declared his pessimism about the implications for educational reform of a "settlement" he saw between progressive educational reformers, who controlled educators' ideologies, and conservatives, who controlled actual school conditions, and had little or no interest in reform. The settlement he described has persisted and has controlled most of the conventional historical writing on the twentieth-century curriculum of the American school. The histories of the American curriculum across the twentieth century offer accounts of the absence of real and lasting Progressive curriculum reform in the school, along with a search for explanations of the seemingly persistent failure of reform impulses. But it was fundamental change that marked the history of the curriculum in the twentieth century. This reality is most clearly seen in the history of the secondary school and its curriculum.

In the late nineteenth century the significant curricular questions around the idea of what was later termed secondary education centered on the character of the cultures present in secondary schools or academies–the conflict between cultures achieving its force from its interaction with the changing relationships between social groups. Should the curriculum offer as its core the traditional humanistic inculcation into the classical and liberal culture built around the teaching of Latin and Greek, or should it embrace "modern" subjects like science and English literature? Should the ideology of the high-status secondary school be exclusively liberal (i.e., centered on high-status classical or modern academic knowledge), or should it be directly or indirectly vocational in the sense that it might embrace and give educational legitimacy to agriculture, engineering, applied sciences and arts, and so forth?

The late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century programmatic resolution of these policy conflicts centered around the development of several secondary school types (e.g., classical and modern pre-university, technical/prevocational, and vocational schools), with each type seeking legitimacy in terms of a different curricular ideology and a different clientele of parents and students. At this time the high-status pre-university schools were schools for the elite only. Most adolescents who entered secondary schools sought employment well before graduation, or were enrolled in school types, such as normal schools, that did not lead to matriculation to a university.

In the 1920s and 1930s this situation changed dramatically in the United States in a way that was not repeated in western Europe until the 1960s. Schooling began to assume a much greater significance in the pathway to adulthood, with the result that a new form of mass high school emerged as an alternative to apprenticeship as the way to work and adulthood. This new school offered the symbol of a high school diploma, along with a set of tracked four-year courses of study potentially open to the adolescent age cohort. This new school was, in Martin Trow's words, a "mass terminal" secondary school.

This new school required new legitimating ideologies that could serve to make it appear inevitable and desirable to both the range of its external constituencies and to the teachers who would work within it. Schooling as a preparation for work and life, (i.e., life-adjustment; citizenship; Americanization; child-centeredness; and, in the Great Depression, the vision of the school and the curriculum as a seedbed for social and cultural reconstruction) emerged as new educational ideologies to submerge (but not replace) the older public and professional ideology of academic training and mental discipline as the legitimate core tasks of the high school.

Seen in terms of their programs, however, these new schools offered reinterpretations of the modern curricular categories of the traditional high-status pre-university high school in their new, nonuniversity tracks, plus, as appropriate, prevocational or explicitly vocational courses. In other words, the program of the mass terminal high school did not build on the curricular potential of the technical or applied arts curricular traditions, or develop a new curricular form–although its extracurriculum of athletics and music did represent something quite new. It was, of course, the idea of the high school experience that its students and parents were seeking.

The years after World War II saw the second major transformation of the American school as a mass college-preparatory high school emerge from the prewar mass terminal school. This new high school required a rearticulation of the ideology of the high school curriculum with the ideology of the university, creating, in its turn, a need for new ways to frame popular and professional understandings. This required the rejection of the ideological platforms of the very different prewar high school. Thus, the college-preparatory role of the school reemerged into public visibility, a visibility most clearly symbolized by the comprehensive high schools being built in the new suburbs.

The new mission of the high school was presented in terms of academic development and the need to teach the intellectual structure of the now symbolically important sciences of physics and math–a goal that was interpreted as having implications for national defense and the national welfare. Programs embodying the new ideologies were aggressively introduced as symbols of the new mission of the school, although the program-building practices of those years centered overwhelmingly on merely serving the expanding number of students enrolling in the traditional college-prep track.

The high school of the late 1960s and 1970s reflected the political and cultural turbulence, and the rejection of tradition, of those years. These years brought a renewal of the avant-garde ideologies and curricular platforms of the 1930s (often with a countercultural gloss) as well as of a vision of the school as a site for social, cultural, and racial reconstruction, social justice, and the like. Programmatically, noncanonical works appeared in literature courses; environmentalism emerged as a topic in science; courses in film, black studies, and so forth, emerged in many schools. With these changes the ordered institution of the school was being questioned symbolically and, as a result, appeared at risk. The subject categories of the school seemed to lose their clear meaning and significance, and the quality of, for example, urban schools became an issue as the racial and ethnic makeup of their student bodies changed from majority to minority students. Public anxieties around the symbolic meaning and effectiveness of the high school as the way to adulthood became the focus of demands for a restoration of more traditional understandings of the school.

These tensions were symbolized by the National Commission on Excellence in Education's 1983 report A Nation at Risk, an endorsement of the symbols of the "traditional" academic model of the preuniversity high school. But most observers of the contemporary school agree that while, programmatically, courses have been renamed and given new rationales, classroom work has continued on its own trajectory. Middle school mathematics courses are renamed algebra, but traditional eighth-grade mathematics texts are used. And, to complete the picture of the stable ideological order around the curriculum that Dewey described, constructivism has come to serve as the educators' counterpoint to the symbolic conservative restoration.

Rethinking Curriculum Discussions

Seen historically, it is clear that much, if not most, public discussion of the curriculum should be seen as a rhetorical form that seeks to stake out positions in the ideological space around the concept of the school. Such discourse, as Dewey noted, does not directly influence programmatic or classroom practice, which have their own logics. Thus looked at across the twentieth century, the Progressive educational and curriculum philosophies, conceptions, platforms, and developments that journalists' and educators' discussions have taken as significant have had little demonstrable impact on the day-to-day work of the school. They are part of the changing parade of ideologies and platforms that have been invoked to legitimate one or another image of the school as an institution.

When the characteristic forms of normative educational and curriculum philosophy are looked at analytically, it is clear that they cannot have any significant directive force on the complexities of schooling and teaching. Most important, what such discourse also fails to offer is any explanation of the overwhelming success of the school as an institution across the divides of race, class, gender, and so forth, and of the ways in which the curriculum has both contributed to, and responded to, this success. The secondary school as an institution has achieved an increasingly dominant role in the lives of children and youth across all developed nations. This dominance is overwhelmingly accepted by the societies and cultures that host the modern school, despite the tensions that can circle around it.

Elizabeth McEneaney and John Meyer have argued that all thinking and research around the curriculum, and by extension all policymaking and program development, must be grounded in the recognition of the overwhelming success of the school as an institution. For McEneaney and Meyer an understanding of the idea or model of the modern nation, and of the individually empowered citizen in the nation, lies at the heart of any understanding of the success of the school and the curriculum. Access to high-status forms of schooling has come to be seen as both as a right of citizenship and as a way of integrating citizens within the framework of a common national culture. This culture is, in its turn, seen as both inclusive and rational, a self-understanding that must be instilled by way of the curriculum that frames the knowledge and attitudes that are seen to undergird the modern nation and modern society.

As a result of this twofold mission of incorporating the population and teaching an understanding of modernity, both the curriculum and teaching have become, paradoxically, increasingly participatory and expressive, yet increasingly rational in terms of their emphasis on mathematics and science, and tolerance of global and local diversity. Conversely, this modern curriculum has increasingly deemphasized transcending (and often exclusionary) cultural or religious traditions as well as rigid patterns of allocation of student-citizens across schools or school types.

As the implicit expression of the pervasive modern self-image of the citizen and nation, these changes have not, and do not, take place as a result of planned activity or reform. Instead, they come about as the model of society, and modern models for the curriculum, are incorporated, in routinized ways, in the work of teachers and policymakers. Of course, this instantiation of the model of society in the school and curriculum has not come about as a linear process. There are cycles of reform and resistance, the product of the tensions between older and newer models of society and the school and between the global and the local. Organizational structures, as seen for example in the highly centralized French system, can make change problematic at times. In the U.S. school system, with its loosely coupled, locally based structures, many of the tensions that create the need for major cycles of curriculum reform in other countries can be contained. As McEneaney and Meyer point out, schools can be required at the policy level to teach sexual abstinence and at the same time hand out condoms in the classroom. The policy curriculum can be an object of controversy; but the programmatic curriculum works in stable, deliberate ways at further incorporation of youth into the idea and institution of the school, while the classroom curriculum selectively incorporates a changing model of schoolwork in unplanned and unorganized ways. The evolving, changing classroom curriculum can at times be celebrated symbolically at the programmatic level, and made very visible to local communities. Or it can be concealed by a skillful management of the programmatic models and symbols presented to local communities, with their diverse publics.

In one sense, such an "institutionalist" account of the curriculum can be seen as Progressive, in the way that that term has been understood by educators for over a century. But Dewey, in common with most educational reformers of his time and since, bemoaned the absence in American society of what he saw as an appropriately Progressive theory of education, and insistently asked why this was the case in the face of the self-evident claims of the Progressive ideal. The institutional understanding of the curriculum outlined by McEneaney and Meyer, however, suggests that the United States, in common with all developed societies, has in fact institutionalized a normative democratic understanding of the curriculum and the school. It is this understanding that has determined, and is determining, the actual form of both the structures and work of schools.

An institutional understanding of the curriculum, and of the school that gives it agency, presents a major challenge to most of the ways that are used by educators to discuss the school curriculum. It offers a framing context in which their conventional approaches to understanding the curriculum might be placed while at the same time explaining what those approaches cannot explain.


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