Curriculum First

A Case History

The great truths in education turn out to be half-truths in search of their other half.

*  *  *

On Town Meeting Day in March 2000, some 400 legal residents of Lincoln, Vt., elected me to a three-year term on the board of Mt. Abraham Union High School, located in neighboring Bristol. A few days later, I took my oath of office and settled into a schedule of biweekly meetings in the school library. Comprising grades 7 through 12, the school serves around 900 students from five rural towns for an annual budget topping $9 million under a board of 13 elected members. Mt. Abe belongs to the Addison (County) Northeast Supervisory Union district. In March 2003, I was reelected to the Mt. Abe board and also elected to the district board coordinating six local schools.

During the first year on the high school board I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of important and sometimes ominous decisions that engulfed the board. We dealt with school security, contract negotiations with teachers, selecting a new principal, Internet filtering, special education mandates, and preparing the all-devouring, seemingly self-propelled annual document called the budget to submit to voters. I thought I'd never catch on, never learn the names of all the key people plus the acronyms used to designate occult entities in the wonderland of education.

After 40 years of college teaching, I had no particular agenda to promote on the board. Principally, I was curious to find out what was actually being taught in this rural high school, which has the largest payroll within 20 miles. I soon learned that the board spends little time discussing curriculum. I was told that the best way to inform myself would be to visit a few core courses. I chose English and History, or rather "Language Arts" and "Social Studies." (A return to the earlier names became the first item on my agenda.) Given a schedule by the department head, I visited about a dozen classes and was welcomed without fanfare or raised eyebrows. These visits gave me a vivid impression of overcrowding, of teachers without their own classrooms pushing overloaded carts like the homeless, of poorly and noisily ventilated classrooms, and of the constant demands imposed upon teachers for patience, firmness, and imagination. But amid multiple activities in the classrooms I found it impossible to discern a coherent sequence of content guiding the classes, not even in different sections of the same course. It would require months of class visits to gain an adequate sense of what was being taught in my school.

It turned out that there was another road to take. I had volunteered to be the school board representative on the teachers' curriculum committee preparing part of the self-study for our big 10-year NEASC accreditation visit. (NEASC stands for New England Association of Schools and Colleges.) This committee of eight teachers, chaired by the science department head, alerted me to four sets of documents dealing directly or indirectly with the curriculum. I made it my business to obtain and study all of these documents—as follows:

1. Vermont's Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities, Vermont State Board of Education, 84 pages, 1996. (See box, "Excerpt from Vermont Reading Standards," below.)

2. Curriculum Guidelines, Addison Northeast Supervisory Union. Six K–12 documents prepared and revised in rotation by the district in Mathematics, Language Arts, Science, Fine Arts, Social Studies, and Foreign Languages. They range in length from 33 pages (Mathematics) to over 200 pages (Language Arts), for a total of nearly 600 pages.

3. Course Selection Guide, Mt. Abraham Union High School. Published yearly. Contains 60 pages of brief descriptions (3 to 15 lines) of all courses offered by the school.

4. Course syllabi filed by all teachers as required by law in the assistant principal's office. One to three pages following a recommended outline.

The first three of these documents form a stack over four inches high. The teachers on the accreditation curriculum committee brought none of the above documents with them to refer to. They kept borrowing my copy of the Course Selection Guide. All of the teachers appeared to acknowledge that document number 1, Vermont's Framework of Standards, contains the tables of the law. But they had not read it carefully. None of the teachers seemed familiar with or interested in document number 2, the district's own lengthy Curriculum Guidelines, prepared by committees of teachers meeting over a period of many months. The Course Selection Guide is little more than a useful list identifying all course offerings. The syllabi record what has been taught in a particular course or section, not a program of study approved by the school.

It is not easy to describe the first two official documents. The state Framework of Standards and the lengthy district Curriculum Guidelines (themselves based scrupulously on the state Framework) presumably lay out a course of study for all students. As they stand, however, these two documents do not and cannot serve this function. They mention no authors' names and no titles of books to be read. Only the science and mathematics documents specify topics for a particular grade. Elsewhere, entry after entry stipulates that students shall examine, investigate, analyze, understand, and interpret immense intellectual topics such as "fiction" and "nature and nurture." The verbs teach, learn, and study do not appear. Because they clump four grades together, these documents cannot, for example, provide an answer to the question: "In what grade are the following materials taught: the solar system, Athenian democracy, dangling modifiers, and the Founding Fathers?" Such items do not even appear.

The nearly impenetrable pages of the state of Vermont's Framework of Standards plus the Addison Northeast Curriculum Guidelines add up to an elaborate professional camouflage of the fact that at no level—state, district, or school—is there a coherent, sequenced, and specific curriculum. The teachers on the curriculum committee for accreditation had good reason to ignore the district Curriculum Guidelines—they propose no course of study, no coordinated sequence of subjects within the core fields. I'm not saying that our district curriculum is watered down or lopsided or old-fashioned or newfangled. I'm saying that those 600 pages contain no useful curriculum at all.

What then fills these pages in multiple copies that no one reads or consults? In large part, they contain bland hortatory statements about what students "should know and be able to do." It's almost a mantra. Yet, the two major curriculum documents refer to no specific content, to no simple lists of items such as osmosis or Martin Luther King Jr. or, one hopes, Martin Luther.

And what also fills these pages, in the place of what to teach, is lengthy instructions about how to teach these unspecified materials. Our district Curriculum Guidelines of recent years devote increasing space to "Best Practice in Teaching," identified as "an inquiry approach, which is based on constructivist principles." The documents to which one looks for the articulation of curriculum turn out to be presentations of a pedagogical doctrine, constructivism, which is much in dispute and has appropriated to itself the dubious slogan and sales pitch "Best Practice." Most of my fellow board members don't know what "constructivist" means and, if they read that far in the Curriculum Guidelines, they don't ask. (Constructivism refers to the half-truth that full understanding occurs only when students learn for themselves from hands-on experience without direct instruction or teacher intervention.)

I cannot draw general conclusions about American education from this description of Mt. Abraham Union High School and of the supervisory district it forms with five elementary schools. I have observed only this one case. But at conferences where I have presented some of these materials, other participants have not hesitated to respond, "That's a pretty good description of my district."

By going back to school as a board member, I have come to the conclusion that my school and its district have no ascertainable curriculum and no effective curriculum document. Various sources continue to provide topics to be taught—individual teachers, lesson plans, habit, informal consultation, tradition, inertia. Even without the guidance of a curriculum, education goes on. Teachers teach. Students learn. They may even study. Budgets are voted in. The caravan passes. But all is not well. Is there anything to be done?

Dewey's Epiphany

During the two years it took me to discover the absence of an adequate curriculum at Mt. Abraham Union High School, I was also trying to reeducate myself about public education, elementary and secondary. I discovered all over again in books the intellectual excitement churned up by the history of education. That subject embraces the survival of democratic institutions, the conflicting claims of reason and religion, the nature of human cognitive development, the importance of personal leadership, and the constant distraction of intellectual fashion. (At the moment, we cringe or bask in the glare of several fashions: multiple intelligences, constructivism or discovery learning, personalized learning, and critical or higher-order thinking. They are all powerful half-truths.)

My reeducation in education led me to a curious discovery. At the turn of the 20th century in the U.S., John Dewey was conducting a famous yet now partially forgotten experiment in education at the University of Chicago, and he found himself in a position not too different from the educators at Mt. Abe.

After publishing four books in philosophy, psychology, and social thought and earning himself a sturdy national reputation, Dewey decided that, like any self-respecting science, the field of education needed a laboratory, an experimental setting, in which to develop and test its hypotheses. Dewey rapidly funded, founded, and staffed the University Elementary School, soon to be known as the Laboratory School, with himself as principal, his wife on the staff, and their children attending. The school opened in 1895 with 16 students.

More seriously and consequentially than I have done by serving on a school board in Vermont, Dewey went back to school in his late thirties. He built and ran a laboratory, showplace, proving-ground school. What concerns us here is what Dewey himself learned by going back to school in this enterprising, private, yet essentially democratic experiment.

In 1897, Dewey displayed the reformist zeal that inspired his experimental school in a pamphlet called "My Pedagogic Creed." Two quotes reveal his progressive approach:

The child's own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education.

I believe that there is, therefore, no succession of studies in the ideal school curriculum.1

Two years later, Dewey published The School and Society, and one can see his progressivism beginning to incorporate some traditional ideas. In particular, one begins to hear two new and unexpected verbs: to "direct" and to "control" the child's activities.

After three more years at the Laboratory School, Dewey returned to the pamphlet format to share what he had learned in "The Child and the Curriculum." Having observed the development of his Laboratory School for six years, Dewey now concludes that he wants it to be simultaneously child-centered and curriculum-centered. He is not proposing a compromise: He is promoting two complementary viewpoints. The logician in Dewey found the analogy of a continuum connecting apparent, not real, opposites. What he wrote deserves to be looked at carefully:

The child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process. Just as two points define a straight line, so the present standpoint of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction. It is continuous reconstruction, moving from the child's present experience out into that represented by the organized bodies of truth that we call studies.

Has Dewey now solved the problem of the child and the curriculum, either for 1902 or for 2005? No indeed. But something has happened. By going back to school, to his own school, Dewey allowed practice to guide theory to a sturdy synthesis. The Laboratory School under Dewey began to set, and then maintain, a year-by-year curriculum to guide the developing experience of the children. This major development in Dewey's thought and practice points back to my original quandary and presents a balanced understanding of the role of "the organized bodies of truth that we call studies"—that is, a coherent curriculum.

*  *  *

Newly elected to the school board in Vermont, I had learned that in 600 pages of official documents, there was no attempt to lay out a curriculum—that the program of studies was essentially rudderless. I went on to explore Vermont statutes and regulations pertaining to curriculum. These perfunctory-sounding rules distribute power and responsibility among three parties: the state, districts, and individual schools.

The legislature has assigned to the State Board of Education the responsibility to set standards for student performance, and to the 60 supervisory boards in the state, the responsibility "to coordinate curriculum plans among the sending and receiving schools" in their districts. The School Quality Standards issued by the Vermont Department of Education stipulate: "Each school shall make continual and steady progress in the alignment of local curriculum consistent with the [State] Framework [of Standards] or comparable standards" and "each school shall evaluate and review the curriculum on a periodic basis."

I interpret this overlapping legal language to mean that responsibility for setting curriculum lies with "each school," subject to the "coordination" of the supervisory board and in accordance with state standards. Thus, the principle of local control remains unmentioned and presumably unchallenged. District boards can only "coordinate" the curricula of district schools; the state board can only establish "standards" for the schools' curricula. Those state standards are deliberately kept vague, if not empty, for fear of infringing on local control.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"wysiwyg","fid":"936","attributes":{"alt":"Excerpt from Vermont Reading Standards","title":"","class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","wysiwyg":1,"width":"350","height":"322"}}]]

An excerpt of reading "standards" from Vermont's Framework of
Standards and Learning Opportunities, published by the Vermont
State Board of Education. English courses at Vermont public
schools are based on these standards.


In practice, the result is an elaborate game of "Après vous, Gaston." Everyone gestures to the other parties to go first through the door of setting a genuine course of study. In my district, the Curriculum Guidelines in each content area are drawn up by a committee representing all five elementary schools, one high school, and the superintendent's office. Great pains are taken to make the Guidelines "standards-based"—that is, attentive to ("aligned with") the state Framework of Standards, as well as "coordinated" among different schools. In this elaborate ritual of deciding on the curriculum at three levels—local, supervisory district, and state—all specific content drains away. Scores of people in every one of the 60 Vermont districts spend weeks thinking up fuzzy professional language to compensate for the absence of a specific curriculum.

High over the general melee I have been describing hovers the great raptor: I refer to the elusive yet commanding term "standards." No one can define them. No one can oppose them. No one can use them to write a curriculum. But is the mystery so great? In my understanding of our language, a standard (a required level of attainment in a defined activity) cannot exist in education without a curriculum to define the activity or field of study. We cannot "set the bar" higher or lower unless everyone involved knows the rules of the game and how to measure inches and feet.

Somehow, the laborious, confusing, 600-page "standards-based curriculum guidelines" drawn up for my Vermont district do not prevent a basic education from reaching a fair number of students in Vermont. Still, I'm convinced that we could do better and also save time and money.

All this I learned during four years sitting on two school boards.

What Dewey learned by going back to school can be told more briefly. He knew more to begin with. He learned to acknowledge not one but two centers in school: both the child and the subject matter to be taught to the child. He found the fit between those two half-truths. Between 1896 and 1902 in Chicago, Dewey changed his mind and recognized the need for a coherent K–12 curriculum.

Furthermore, his conversion to a sequenced, specific curriculum throws light on a complaint often heard today about standardized tests: namely, that tests oblige teachers to teach to the test. But just reflect for a minute. The reason for teaching to the test is not the mandated existence of tests. It is the lamentable absence of a clear curriculum. If there's no coherent curriculum to teach to and to base tests on, then one has to teach to the test. Here lies the great pedagogical short-circuit and breakdown, brought on by the empty promises and dummy documents called "standards." Without a specific curriculum, there can be no standards.

Finding a Curriculum

I don't have to go back to the Greeks and Romans, or to the trivium and quadrivium, in order to make the simple point that today, the only way to assure sustained attention to a true liberal arts program in a school is to embed it in the curriculum adopted by the school. A teacher here and there trying out Ovid or Dickens or a chapter of Tocqueville may ignite the intellectual curiosity of a few students and deserves every encouragement. But a curriculum that specifies a judicious selection of great books and perennial topics will allow that intellectual excitement to spread further and to attain the added rewards of "commonality." Yet, I have visited class after class in which the choice of reading is left entirely to the student. Commonality of reading and study, not to be confused with lock-step, is neglected in favor of student choice and personalized learning.

Now, I am not so optimistic as to believe that my supervisory district will soon develop a genuine curriculum, and even a liberal arts program. I do not foresee that 65 teachers at Mt. Abraham Union High School, seconded by the district board and the Mt. Abe board and the teachers of the five feeder elementary schools along with their boards, will soon decide to draft a grade-by-grade, content-rich, specific, flexible, teacher-friendly, and teacher-proof curriculum—and then be able to adopt it.

Yet, I believe that the accompanying deliberations would stir up the school and parents in a healthy and fruitful way. I would love to hear members of our community discussing the Founding Fathers and Huckleberry Finn, and the separation of Church and State.

There is an alternative. It's even a legal and simple course of action, though uncommon. The overriding principle here, partly embodied as I have shown in statutory law, is local control. Each school sets its own curriculum, coordinates it with other schools' curriculums in the district as directed by the superintendent, and bases it on Vermont's Framework of Standards. Nothing says a school or a district has to draft and write its curriculum document from scratch. And right here my Vermont district displays a certain timidity and conformity in regularly revising its own curriculum guidelines. The existing documents are prevented from providing a specific grade-by-grade content by their arrangement into three clumps of four grades each. As can be seen from the excerpts presented above, the very layout of these documents precludes a sequential curriculum.

The alternative would set aside existing Vermont curriculum documents. My district can examine and evaluate and finally select one from among a number of independent, off-the-shelf curricula now available, both public and proprietary. The New York State Board of Regents, the International Baccalaureate, Success for All, the Edison Project, the Core Knowledge Sequence, Direct Instruction, America's Choice—all of these programs make differing claims. Having spent much time in the past three years scrutinizing these programs and their curricula, I can say that each of these may offer schools something very useful. But, I have found only one curriculum that moves grade-by-grade (in this case K–8), that uses simple lists of specific content, does not prescribe teaching methods (which can be done locally), is cross-referenced, and that turns out to be informative and even a pleasure to read. The Core Knowledge Sequence (now in its third edition), prepared and published by the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Va., accomplishes all this in a no-frills 200-page booklet currently being used by nearly 500 K–8 schools. (See the excerpt in the box below.) The moving spirit here is the dedicated teacher-scholar E.D. Hirsch, Jr.2 Everyone concerned about what is being taught in our public schools should examine the Core Knowledge Sequence. The considered selection of such a curriculum by my district would represent the full and proper exercise of local control and a means of coordinating the preparation of students in the five elementary schools feeding Mt. Abe.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"wysiwyg","fid":"937","attributes":{"alt":"Excerpt from Core Knowledge English Curriculum\u2014Grade 8","title":"","class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","wysiwyg":1,"width":"350","height":"255"}}]]

An excerpt from the Core Knowledge Sequence (1999), a curriculum
that the author determines would be ideal for his school district. It is
currently being used by nearly 500 K–8 schools and is published by
the Core Knowledge Foundation.

For some schools and for some teachers, so specific a program of study would represent a fundamental change, almost a conversion, and would have to be carefully implemented. With the help of the Core Knowledge Foundation School Department, hundreds of schools have made the transition. For the most part, teachers, students, parents, and administrators have been satisfied with the results. In a school setting it helps enormously when all parties can find out easily just what is being taught in any course and how the sequence fits together to cover the ground.3

Vermont has offered its school districts and schools the opportunity to choose the best off-the-shelf curriculum. I'm not a paid lobbyist. I merely hope to demonstrate to my district with its six schools and seven boards, and to anyone concerned with school curriculum, that the Core Knowledge Sequence embodies the dynamic balance that Dewey discovered while running the Laboratory School—the balance between the developing child and the mature curriculum.

And just think, students in my district and in other districts might learn to understand references to my proposal as "quixotic." For in the Core Knowledge Sequence that I am championing, episodes from Cervantes' novel appear prominently in the fifth-grade English curriculum.

Roger Shattuck is University Professor Emeritus at Boston University and author of many books, including Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography. This article is based on an address he gave for a conference on the liberal arts sponsored by the Center for School Improvement at Boston University in May 2003. Earlier versions of this essay appeared in the Journal of Education, Vol. 184 (November 2, 2003) and in the New York Review of Books, Vol. 52, No. 6 (April 7, 2005), from which this article is excerpted with permission.


1. See John Dewey, Dewey on Education: Selections, edited and with an introduction by Martin S. Dworkin. Teachers College, Columbia University, 1959, pp. 20, 25, 27.

2. For an article describing E. D. Hirsch's general approach, see his "The Primal Scene in Education," The New York Review, March 2, 1989.

3. Full information on the activities and publications (including videos) of the Core Knowledge Foundation is available at its Web site:

American Educator, Spring 2005