Curriculum Issues in Americas Schools

The education system in the United States started as a social experiment. America is the only nation that provides extended educational opportunities to all children. The experiment is having problems by not meeting the curriculum needs of children. When looking at curriculum, it is imperative that the purpose of education fits into learning patterns and the learner in the context of the community. When curriculum is not determined locally, a disconnect occurs.

The following data from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) found that 30 million adults have “below basic” literacy skills. Simply stated, 1 out of every 6 adults (25 and older) across the country have difficulty reading and writing. The report quotes statistics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that reading and math skills of U.S. teens (13 – 17 years-old) during a fifteen year study showed little progress.

Historically, education in America was based upon learning and meeting challenges. During Colonial times, children grew up in a society that taught them real world skills. The children learned how to sew, how to care for a sick animal, how to build shelters and when to plant and harvest. If a child wanted to learn a trade, they were apprenticed to masters who taught them specialized knowledge and skills.

After the Civil War, urbanization began in America. Many immigrants arrived in this country and schools filled the need for a working class who were needed for manual labor. School curriculum taught the skills need for repetitive work: sit, be quiet, listen to authority (teacher), remember rote answers, stand up, and line up when the bell rings.

By the turn of the century, children were expected to learn more and education expanded to secondary school. The National Education Association (NEA) was appointed to organize and systematize educational curriculum. The original NEA committee was made up of school administrators who were not involved in the classroom. It is then that school became mandatory with laws and regulations to keep children in school. Other than adding more facts to each subject covered in the curricula areas, school curriculum has not changed.

The curriculum does not meet the needs of students. Core curriculum should help children learn how to experience life, develop skills that are pertinent to their life experiences. In America, today, students are not engaged in the subjects and are noticeably bored. Classroom disruptions are normal. Police roam high school halls in order to keep peace. Barbed wire now surrounds most schools. Core curriculum has not changed since the turn of the century.

Marion Brady (educator activist) argues against standardized core testing. Teachers of elementary schools teach to the standards of what a group of policymakers in Washington, D.C., decided what students must know to be educated. They may break kids into cooperative learning groups (selected by high, medium and low achievers) to help memorize the standards in order to pass the test. Secondary schools fortunately get to divvy up the core curriculum standards among teachers of math, science, language arts, and social studies.

Harvard Innovation Education Fellow Tony Wagner (author of “The Global Achievement Gap” and “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who will Change the World”) also observes a problem in U.S. schools with core curriculum. He believes knowledge is like air and water: free. People can use computers to discover facts. He opines that “knowledge children are encouraged to soak up in American schools – the memorization of planets, state capitals, the Periodic Table of Elements – can only take students so far…. ‘skill and will’ determine a child’s ability to think outside the box.”

After interviewing young innovators in their 20s, he concluded, “The culture of schooling as we all know it is radically at odds with the culture of learning that produces innovators.”

From these interviews of innovators and their parents, he identified five ways in which America’s education system has failed to promote innovators.

The first identified way that schools fail to raise culture of learning is, individual achievement is the focus. It is more of a competition to get the highest GPA.

The second is specialization is celebrated. American students are encouraged to find a “major” in college. Innovation is learning to cross disciplinary boundaries and exploring problems and solutions from multiple perspectives.

Risk aversion is the norm. In other words, within our educational system students are penalized for mistakes. Students spend time trying to figure out the “right” answer the teacher or school superintendent wants. It stifles innovation because students become afraid to take risks.

Learning is profoundly passive. Even in cooperative learning groups, students are encouraged to find the “correct” answer. Students listen to the teacher and know what is expected as an answer and come up with the “correct” response.

The last failure is the extrinsic incentives drive learning. It is the rewards a child gets for “doing” a good job. This is As and Fs. If a child is motivated by grades, he or she loses track of independent thinking.

The main problem is that core curriculum is not teaching children to think outside the box; to be creative and innovative; to deal with real life problems. Instead, schools are teaching children that to be successful, they must have one right answer. Instead of standardized tests, perhaps it is time for school reform. Basically, children are learning about how Institutionalism works and how to conform to norms that others consider important.