Curriculum: An Introduction

It’s no news to teachers that the national discourse on public education is all too often far removed from the reality of the classroom. Discussions of curriculum are a case in point. These discussions tend to be polemical and based on politically skewed notions of what is fundamental to learning, which does little for the needs of children, nor teachers. As John Merrow —in his review of the current educational debates, “The Influence of Teachers” — dryly observes, the battle between reformers and their opponents is “fundamentally irrelevant to the world children live in.” The “experts” that often hold sway in the court of public opinion on critical matters such as curriculum don’t often have much of a clue of what it takes to stand and deliver.

Were these experts to come into my classroom to deliver their expert understanding unto my students, I have the feeling that most of them wouldn’t last much past the moment that they first get cussed out or a chair is thrown, let alone the moment wherein they realize that they don’t truly understand how to break down a concept critical to understanding content, stripped right down to its procedural foundations. At this foundational and essential level of teaching, pedantic debates like phonics vs. whole language become petty. It’s all about what students actually need.

What is fundamental to the world children live in, at least within the confines of the classroom, is the content that is delivered to them. And what is even more fundamental is how this content — the curriculum — is delivered to them. Standing at the focal point of this delivery, so central and influential in a student’s immediate realm of existence, is the teacher.

Though the teacher has ultimate control over pedagogy (methods and strategies they use to deliver the content), it is all too often that they don’t have a full say in the development of the curriculum which they are expected to deliver. This curriculum more often comes prepackaged at great expense to the district from an external contractor. For example, in my elementary school (and as far as I understand, most of the city et al) we are expected to utilize McGraw-Hill’s Everyday Math curriculum, Houghton Mifflin’s social studies texts, Harcourt’s science texts, in addition to the reading and writing workshop pedagogy and curriculum laid out by Teachers Colllege.

Try following this curriculum when you teach children far below grade level. Both the pacing and delivery of that content must be differentiated — in the most authentic sense of that word — in order to reach children who struggle in basic numeracy and literacy. As a new special education teacher, especially in my first year, any professional collaboration or input I have been able to get from colleagues has been critical to my curriculum development and pedagogical strategies. But this collaboration or feedback has been few and far between. Realizing this critical need for collaboration, and after gaining exposure to systematic structures of professional collaboration, such as the Professional Learning Community model, or through the DOE’s inquiry team approach, I began seeking to develop more systematic approaches to curriculum development in my school.

There are schools in which teachers sit around a table during scheduled common planning time and map out their curriculum together. I have the sense — admittedly limited — that not many schools are authentically performing this activity. However, even if they were (again, my sense here may be limited, correct me if I’m wrong), they don’t often share the curriculum that they have created with other schools or districts.

What we currently have is a situation in which teachers across the nation are mostly delivering content singularly created and delivered within the isolation of their own classrooms or packaged and delivered by private contractors not fully accountable to the public nor with input from the stakeholders (students and teachers) most directly involved. It’s like our districts, schools, and teachers are fumbling around in the dark with their hands outstretched.

Meanwhile, our children with the greatest of needs are sitting in our classrooms, not learning what they need to truly succeed (do I really need to replay the disheartening statistics?) because while they may learn something amazing with this or that teacher, that learning is not systematic nor structured consistently throughout the span of their education. Furthermore, our teachers are all too often struggling to plan and differentiate their curriculum with a minimal of paid, scheduled planning time and often minimal collaborative input and feedback from other master teachers.

If we are truly committed to the concept of equity in public education, or the concept of education as a civil rights issue, then we had better take the curriculum taught in our schools seriously. What we choose to leave out of our curriculum — what we leave unsaid, or what we leave up to chance — are often the most critical pieces of knowledge that our students require in order to become competent citizens in an increasingly polarized nation.

I invite you to join me as I explore the critical topic of curriculum over my next few posts. The first side of curriculum I will explore is the concept of a “hidden curriculum.” The next side I will consider — one which is currently looming large in the national discussion — is the concept of a unified core curriculum. Finally, I will wrap up my ideas on curriculum with advocacy for a new method of curriculum development based on the open source model utilized in software development. I welcome any and all feedback on these ideas and look forward to further refining them with your assistance.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.