I am a conservative, so many of my views on education are, well, conservative. But I’ve also been involved with public education for a long time through my work with various historical sites and museums and the result has been that on some issues I diverge from mainstream conservative thought towards what many would probably describe as liberal territory.
The issue that I am most passionate about right now is the idea of a national curriculum.
The Department of Education has been a whipping boy for conservatives for a long time, often for good reason. I won’t provide a list of conservative grievances here, though I think they can best be summed up by saying that centralized power can be extremely corrupt. What I have come to believe, though, is that a national curriculum is one of the few positive things that could come from the federal government on education.
The most obvious benefit is the standardization of curriculum. What I am talking about is not a federally-provided lesson plan that would remove flexibility and creativity from the classroom. Rather, I advocate a national curriculum that acts as a sort of map, providing landmarks that teachers must visit throughout a given school year.
A national curriculum might mandate that all students study the First and Second Continental Congresses in their 8th grade year, or require all students to take Physics their junior year of high school and provide certain topics that must be covered throughout the year like gravity, force, energy, etc. Teachers would actually have more flexibility with a landmark-based strategy than with the current district-provided plans that micro-manage their teaching.
A standardized curriculum also provides both students and parents with a higher degree of mobility. Parents could move to another state to take a new job with less fear of damaging their children’s educational progress. Kids could transfer from one school district to another within the same state and have a fairly seamless experience academically. The mobility provided to parents has an economic impact and the mobility provided to students has an academic impact. It’s a win – win.
This is ‘school choice’ taken to an even further goalpost than currently advocated by even the staunchest conservatives.
For teachers, a landmark-based national curriculum would give them flexibility by building in elective blocks during every school year. Teachers would be encouraged to find creative transitions between one landmark and another. They could augment the national-mandated curriculum with regionally specific curriculum during their elective blocks. A biology teacher could create a small learning module about the ecosystems in their state with accompanying projects, field trips, etc. A history teacher could create a module about their city’s founding or how WWII affected their town.
This leads me to the next area where a national curriculum could be very effective. A national curriculum would help facilitate a wide-array of public education opportunities. While museums and other cultural institutions have been around for a long time, the concept of public education as a defined goal of these institutions is relatively new. What I mean by that is that they have always shared their knowledge with the public but not in an education-minded way.
This changed with the Archaeology in Annapolis Project created by Paul Shackel in the early 1990’s.
Shackel’s program has conducted a series of archaeological excavations in and around Annapolis with a major component being the involvement of the public in the actual work and in regularly scheduled public days where they can visit, ask questions, etc. Shackel’s work was documented in his book Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology which is now required reading in most historical archaeology programs. I was fortunate enough to attend one of his seminars at a conference several years ago and became convinced that the potential of these types of programs is nearly limitless and since then I have been fortunate enough to help implement similar programs here in Kentucky.
These programs are also a two-way street, with the flow of information going both ways. Part of Archaeology in Annapolis’ mission statement reads:
A long-standing part of Archaeology in Annapolis’ commitment to public archaeology has been our belief that people should be encouraged to critique, respond to, and challenge our motives for interpreting the past. This process serves as a cornerstone for the premise that through active and critical discourse social change can be wrought.
Public archaeology is part of a larger field of public education where various institutions are recognizing their usefulness as a supplement to the traditional educational structure. Museums realize that they can help provide context and visual stimulation for the study of history. Scientific institutions are able to provide a place where science can be observed in action instead of simply read about. Nature preserves are providing spaces where the natural world can be observed, studied and hands-on learning can take place. All of this might sound somewhat elementary, but what is new is that they are not just opening their doors but attempting to create curriculum specific programs that aid teachers in their work.
To put it simply, these institutions are hungry for collaboration.
Admittedly these institutions have dual motives. On the one hand, public education is their primary mission, but a bonus is that this increases revenues and allows students to serve as their ambassadors to the rest of the community. And as wonderful as these programs can be, the greatest challenge facing public education efforts is non-standardized curriculum.
An institution could create programs, but in an effort to meet curriculum guidelines in their local school districts the institution must limit it’s offerings to 3-4 school districts at most. Yes, kids from other districts can come visit on field trips and maybe get some generic programs, but they miss out on the true collaborative opportunities that come from tailored programs.
Back in June E.D. Kain posted a piece on bringing schools back into our communities as a sort of educational localism (my term, not his). I am on the fence on this idea but one of his comments struck me as particularly relevant to the issue of a national curriculum.
I’d like to see some open-source text-book programs take off so that small schools in various localities could team up to provide really great, cheap material. No reason why all these small schools couldn’t be constantly working together – and not just within each other’s districts. Connectivity has become much cheaper, faster, and more important than ever before. Schools need to use it, or else autonomy becomes a stagnating force rather than a force for creativity.
A national curriculum would also mean that kids in poorer districts could still visit places in more cost-effective ways. With the increasingly robust communication tools available through the internet, you could also create ‘virtual field trips’ where a classroom logs into a website and takes a trip to some place on the other side of the country. Place a big screen in a school auditorium and your entire 6th grade could visit the Smithsonian for a couple of hours along with kids from other states and all of them would be getting a curriculum-specific program.
Imagine a national curriculum that allowed not just museums and historic sites but also hospitals, universities, scientific institutions, banks, government departments, police departments and even the military to create programs that any teacher in the U.S. could use with their kids and know it would fit their curriculum needs exactly. This is where the really exciting ideas start to flow.
College science departments could work with kids on science projects and provide grad student mentors. High school students could visit college campuses as part of this program and get a taste of college life which might help them plan their futures. State legislatures could create programs that allow kids from all over the state to visit for a day and satisfy parts of their yearly curriculum.
The possibilities really are endless.
There’s also, of course the idea of collaborations between teachers in different school systems. Even within small states there is often a lack of understanding between different regions. A national curriculum might break down some of those barriers as students and teachers can learn together following the same landmark-based teaching plan I described above.
Ultimately, the idea of a national curriculum is a way of promoting efficiency and high standards. If the Department of Education could resist the urge to micro-manage and instead use a broad framework with built-in flexibility for educators, I think it could be a serious improvement over our current structure. A national curriculum would also link up with national testing, which doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. It also removes some of the excuses teachers’ unions offer for under-performing educators. In these ways a national curriculum should appeal to conservatives and liberals alike. At the end of the day, as counter-intuitive as it might sound to many conservatives, a national curriculum may just be one of the best way to solve a lot of problems at once.