State Common Core Curriculum Standards Will Be Political

A new effort by Governors and Chief State school officers to formulate common core standards for 46 states is underway. See The leaders want to rely on research and evidenced based information, but as this blog indicates below past efforts have been heavily influenced by politics.

Michael W. Kirst and Robin L. Bird

As the national debate about curriculum content standards demonstrates, policymaking around the standards is a political as well as a technical process (Ravitch, 1995). Disputes over such issues as the inclusion of AIDS education or creation science in a curriculum highlight the existence of value conflicts embedded in the development and maintenance of curriculum standards (Wirt & Kirst, 1992). Because of these conflicts, the process often requires complex trade-offs between groups of competing interests. In this blog, we review the political tensions surrounding the process including foundations for making decisions regarding the content of curriculum standards, the history of reform efforts, the role of values, and the influence of special interest groups.

The most common solution to determining curriculum standards is to endow an individual or group (e.g., a state school board or a national subject matter association) with the authority to make decisions about curricular content by professional, and presumably expert, judgment (Massell & Kirst, 1994). The community provides these decision-makers with a degree of autonomy that ranges from absolute responsiveness to virtual independence. For example, the Clinton administration’s Goals 2000: Educate America Act advocated that disputes concerning national standards content be resolved by a part of the federal government.

But what procedures do the developers of curriculum standards follow? Past efforts can best be described by what Lindblom and Braybrooke (1963) call disjointed incrementalism, a strategy in which decision-makers use pragmatic methods that result in minimal changes at the margin. Conflict is avoided by using vague language concerning standards and covering so many topics that no major interest group feels left out. Content priority is sacrificed to the political necessity of coverage.

The development of national mathematics and science standards, however, represented a change from disjointed incrementalism to a nonincremental reconceptualization and complete overhaul of subject matter standards and examinations. Examples cited by national standards advocates include efforts by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and the National Academy of Sciences (Massell & Kirst, 1994). The politics of these efforts are complex, as one observer of NCTM’s efforts noted (Ball, 1992,
p. 2-3): Twin needs propelled the development of NCTM’s standards for school mathematics: the need to gain consensus and the need to promote change. On the one hand, if these standards were to stand as the banners of the community, then they had to reflect shared values and commitment. On the other hand, if change was desired, then these standards had to do more than reflect current practice. New ideas were needed, ideas that departed from extant assumptions and practices.

In short, the development of national, state, and local content standards requires complex trade-offs, and there is no way to avoid conflict and a sense of winners and losers. Difficult choices must be made concerning standards and the procedures by which they are established. Merely following the “right” procedural steps is not sufficient because there are many constraints on what can be included (e.g., length of the school day). The history of standards development has been one of jockeying for priority in an overcrowded school schedule, and some groups’ priorities are incorporated into the curriculum because of political considerations while others’ are neglected. For example, organized proponents of driver education and vocational education have been more effective politically than those of music education (Wirt & Kirst, 1975).

Efforts to formulate curriculum standards have provoked conflict over the proper foundations for deciding what to teach. For example, should schools teach those things that are likely to be useful immediately in life outside the school or those most fundamental to an understanding of organized knowledge? Should they emphasize the development of individuality or conformity to cultural heritage? As long as people disagree on how to evaluate curricula, they are bound to quarrel over its composition. The basis for this disagreement can even be such things as social class or race.

From 1900 to 1970, four foundations for evaluating elements of curricula emerged as salient: tradition, science, community, and individual judgment. These foundations are reflected in people’s preferences, but their conflicting natures create political stress and demand for curricular changes. They are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive, but do represent major streams of thought and feeling among constituencies. In short, they are ways of answering Herbert Spencer’s question, “What knowledge is of most worth?”

The appeal to tradition, exemplified by the Great Books program of the Council for Basic Education in Washington, D.C., rested on the assumption that subjects of study that survive the test of time are in the long view most beneficial and, therefore, should receive the highest priority in the curriculum. The appeal to science, the newest basis for curricular decision-making, has received strong support from many influential groups, including the U. S. Department of Education. This appeal rests on the assumption that educational and psychological research will reveal cognitive concepts that should guide teaching. The appeal to community presupposes that every school is part of a community of association and interests, in which reside the ultimate criteria of usefulness, relevance, and benefit of any curricular element. Therefore, those matters that deserve first priority in the curriculum are to be determined by the community, either directly via its representatives or by studies of the community. The appeal to individual judgment amounts to a skeptical denial of any rational basis for curriculum-making beyond the student’s own values, needs, and desires as these are manifested in his or her own judgments. Adherents to this position argue that any basis for curriculum is doomed to failure if it purports to provide answers to Spencer’s question.

Each of these values has its supporters and detractors who bolster their positions with techniques that we regard as political. Some schools stand primarily on only one of these foundations. Some liberal arts colleges rely largely on the appeal to tradition, as do the curricula of a number of private “Latin” schools. A number of Christian groups advocate traditional curricula. By contrast, several schools embrace a scientific basis such as constructivist pedagogy or stimulus and response psychological rewards. “Free” schools and “free” universities base their programs on the choices of individual students. Afrocentric schools are oriented to a community focus. But, by and large, the foundations of U.S. public school curricula represent a heterogeneous mixture. As such, they reflect the political compromises and diverse values found in any state or local district.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *