January 2013 • Volume 44 • Number 3 • Pages 6-14
A Common Core of a Different Sort: Putting Democracy at the Center of the Curriculum
The values and skills associated with life in a democratic society should constitute the core curriculum.
|This article reflects the following This We Believe characteristics: Value Young Adolescents, Challenging Curriculum, Shared Vision
James A. Beane
A friend who teaches in a nearby state recently told me that his county had been designated as a "zone" where schools would exclusively use textbooks, assessments, and professional development consultants from a prominent company whose products are closely aligned with the Common Core State Standards. A fair number of teachers and some parents had objected to this arrangement but were unsuccessful because, as school officials pointed out, becoming a "zone" would help secure federal Race to the Top funds. This story is not unique. Schools throughout the United States are being urged to adopt a new set of requirements for all students, the so-called Common Core State Standards. Sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, these "new" requirements speak mainly to capacities and skills in English and mathematics but also to literacy requirements embedded in other school subjects (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). Tied, as the standards are, to eligibility for federal Race to the Top funding, all but a few states have quickly adopted them.
However, many policymakers, curriculum specialists, teachers and administrators, bloggers and other commentators have raised serious questions about the Common Core State Standards. One set of questions asks whether states and districts have the money for professional development, curriculum materials, planning time, and other logistics that would be needed to implement the standards. Another set of questions asks about the content of the Common Core State Standards Initiative and where it might lead: Is this really what ought to be required of all young people? Is it enough or too much to ask of students? What is its purpose? Who created it and what was their motivation? Despite the claim that such standards are not "the curriculum," is it possible they could eventually become one by squeezing everything else out, just as they have replaced most state standards? The first set of questions is extremely important, as financial issues will probably determine the extent to which these new standards have any chance at genuine implementation. But the second set deserves even more attention because requiring anything of "all" young people is a very serious matter involving fundamental questions about what is of crucial importance for them and the larger society.
To answer questions like those in the second set, we need to understand something about how and why proposals for required "common" learnings have come about, how they differ, and what seems to come from them. By doing that, we can place the Common Core State Standards in some kind of historical and philosophical context, so as to help figure out what this proposal is about and whether we should buy into it.
The search for common learnings
We could trace the search for required common learnings back to the first time anyone, in any language, began a sentence with the phrase, "All children should know …" Our concern here, though, is with the form and substance of proposals for what all young people should learn in American schools. To begin, consider two typical versions of required common learnings.
Social efficiency. Young people need to be prepared to function effectively in social and occupational roles in the larger world outside the school. For this reason, they should be required to learn the information and skills necessary to fit into such roles. How can we know what information and skills are needed? By studying what adults in various social and occupational roles need to know or be able to do at present, and scanning the economic scene to see what kinds of occupations might be necessary in the future. Based on that, we can determine the appropriate information and skills to be taught to young people. We can also help students know the kinds of careers or social roles for which they might be suited through various aptitude tests and interest inventories. In this way, the school and the various subjects it offers can operate most efficiently for students and the society.
Liberal studies. The major purpose of schools is to disseminate content and skills from the most important intellectual and cultural resources available to us. Through knowledge of these resources, young people can appreciate the past, be in a position to dig deeper into those intellectual and cultural resources, and be inclined to live a more intellectual life. Where are these resources found? The most reliable source is in the traditional disciplines of knowledge, because it is here that we find what scholars and other intellectuals have accomplished, discovered, and decided. Thus, all students should be required to learn the basic skills and ideas contained in the traditional disciplines by taking a sequence of subjects or courses based on the disciplines. Once this sequence has been completed, students will have is the knowledge and skills necessary to proceed along any path they might eventually follow. Those going on to college will have the necessary preparation for the disciplines-based college curriculum, while those not going to college will at least have a basic knowledge of the most valued intellectual and cultural resources.
These two positions are behind almost all the major versions of required common learnings proposed over the last century. While most educators seem to think their ebb and flow results from a "swinging pendulum" of ideas, they are actually ever-present strands in what Kliebard (1986) described as a struggle for the American curriculum. Examples of each, alone or in blended form, can always be found in curriculum policies and practices. The popularity of one or another at any given time depends on a number of factors. To gain favor, a proposal must appear to respond to some crisis, either real or imagined. Generally, it must appear to include, to some degree, components of the other position. It must have sponsors with some kind of political, academic, or popular authority, and preferably some of each. Finally, it must appear to have some reasonable sense of possibility: If what is proposed really were required of all young people, both they and the general society would benefit as promised.
The first option described above, known as "social efficiency," emerged early in the 20th century in relation to larger efficiency movements in business and industry. If we think about time-motion studies of workers, assembly lines, and cost effectiveness measures applied to education, it is easy to see how schools ended up with Carnegie units of study, student tracking systems, placement tests, time schedules run by the bell, and other mechanisms meant to keep the system running smoothly. It is no wonder that older schools are sometimes mistaken for factories, while many newer ones have an uncanny resemblance to office building designs.
From a curriculum standpoint, the social efficiency movement in education brought a number of programs and arrangements to the schools: the vocational track, job skills programs, business education classes, domestic science and child development classes for girls, career education, and more. In some ways, programs that grew out from social efficiency gave the schools and many students a kind of social and vocational relevance that college preparation classes did not, but they were also part of a tracking system used for sorting and selecting students. Through this system of sorting and tracking—supported by culturally biased placement tests—working class and poor students and students of color were denied access to college preparation programs. Moreover, programs designed for social efficiency held to the belief that the status quo in social and career roles was both acceptable and permanent. The job of the school was to keep things going just the way they were.
The major goal in the second option, known as "liberal studies," is for students to master the content and ways of thinking involved in the academic disciplines of knowledge. In this way, students are introduced to the accumulated wisdom of civilization, which is defined by and contained within the disciplines. Until the emergence of the social efficiency movement, liberal studies was simply taken for granted as the definition of required learnings in secondary schools, since college preparation was the eventual goal for all who attended. What could make more sense than preparing for college through a program that looked just like the course structure of the typical college curriculum? Beyond mere content acquisition, though, many advocates of liberal studies also claimed that such studies properly trained the mind for general intellectual functioning. Studying mathematics, for example, supposedly led to skill in logical thinking that would apply across all areas of living. Though this "transfer of training" claim was discredited nearly a hundred years ago, it still has staying power in the minds of many educators, as they use it to inflate the status of the subjects they teach.
Even more formidable is the staying power of the academic disciplines as a dominant version of required learnings. Rare is the high school that has strayed from the separate-subject approach. And while middle level educators have long talked about interdisciplinary and integrative approaches to curriculum, the separate subject approach still dominates, affirming the fact that, while the name of their schools may have changed to "middle," the curriculum therein is still that of a "junior high" school. Even the daily schedules of single-teacher, self-contained, elementary school classrooms divide up the day by subjects. And why not? Given the academic prestige accorded the separate-discipline college curriculum, the organization of textbooks, the content of standardized tests, and the expectations of adults inside and outside the school who never experienced anything else, it is hard to imagine how any other approach could gain a foothold. If that is not enough to demonstrate the power of liberal studies, one only has to look at the shelves of books that have been published around programs like "Core Knowledge" and "Great Books" and the anxious and ambitious parents who buy them.
Despite its formidable status, the liberal studies version of required common learning has not been without criticism. One criticism is that the standard texts and histories usually favored in this approach emphasize the works and accomplishments of white, European, upper middle class males. Only in the past few decades have those from less dominant racial, ethnic, and economic groups found a place in the curriculum, and often only in token ways (see, e.g., Hanley & Noblit, 2009). Additionally, the liberal studies emphasize an uncritical and impersonal approach to literature and history, avoiding controversy and discounting any interpretations outside those of academic authorities. Yet another criticism faults the approach for looking only to the past and ignoring contemporary materials and the pressing social issues to which they speak. Ironically, though, when critics offer alternative visions of required common learnings, they must always show how the academic disciplines will still have a place. Such is the power of the disciplines. No matter what the proposal, social efficiency or otherwise, to ignore the disciplines is to invite certain trouble.
The Common Core State Standards
The Common Core State Standards offer a combination of social efficiency and liberal studies. Their purpose is to prepare young people for future roles in college and/or work, to meet the labor force skills the sponsors believe are needed, and to enhance the United States' role in global economic competition. In the early days of the social efficiency movement, a leading proponent defined training for various roles and occupations in terms of prescribed sequences of discreet skills he mysteriously called "peths" (Snedden, 1925). The number of "peths" on the path to success in various roles or occupations might vary from the tens to the hundreds. The way the Common Core State Standards are detailed and parsed out by grade levels suggests that literacy and numeracy skills are the "peths" of the new, technical world.
If the standards were limited to skill development, the entire project would be open to severe criticism from the powerful academic proponents of liberal studies. But no distinction is made between standards for college and workforce preparation. In addition to the centerpiece skills in mathematics and English language arts, certain literacy skills are also spelled out in standard separate subject areas of history and science as well as technical subjects. In some ways, though, the emphasis on literacy skills in subject areas rather than content in subject areas makes this a kind of "Liberal Studies Lite" compared to earlier proposals in this tradition that offered far more detailed subject demands. By sticking to skills, though, political controversies over curriculum content are avoided (Apple, 2001). To be caught in the crosshairs of cultural critics who reject things like standard, established scientific evidence; exploration of alternative economic systems; or multicultural studies is a dangerous spot for any curriculum proposal.
In another politically savvy move, the sponsors of the Common Core State Standards were careful to say their lists tell what to teach, but not how to teach it. This was necessary, of course, to create the impression that schools still would have lots of flexibility in implementing the standards and allay fears that teachers would be "deskilled" by prescriptive teaching methods (Apple, 1985). But because the whole document is organized in a way that tightly sequences skills to be taught by grade level in separate subjects, it is almost impossible to imagine that the curriculum will be organized or taught any other way. Along those same lines, the sponsors caution that these are standards and not a curriculum—another savvy move to avoid sounding too heavy handed. But to say that the standards are unlikely to become pretty much the whole curriculum is either naïve or disingenuous. If the skills and testing programs of the last few decades have taught us anything, it is that a required "minimum" has a habit of becoming the maximum by squeezing out almost everything else. And standards have a habit of leading standardized tests, which, in turn, point straight in the direction of standardized methods and lessons. There is nothing profound about that. Just follow the root word "standard."
None of that is to say that the standards themselves are bad education. In fact, it would probably be a good thing if everybody had the capacities and skills they describe. However, the curriculum and teaching issues outlined above should give us reason to worry, as should the reasons given to justify the standards. Much is made of what is required for college entrance exams and to negotiate college reading demands. For example, the literacy requirements call for use of close reading of "rigorous" fiction and non-fiction texts, rejecting what the authors believe to be too much narrative and interpretive work with texts in schools. This shift in emphasis tends to marginalize contemporary children's, young adult, and multicultural literature (Zemelman, Daniels, & Hyde, 2012). But more important are the fundamental questions of whether the preferences of tradition-bound college professors should drive what happens in the K–12 schools or whether there might be good reasons for higher education and K–12 education using different approaches. In making a case for standardization, such questions are conveniently avoided.
Moreover, the urgency suggested by proposals like the Common Core State Standards is created, in part, in response to comparison of countries on international tests of student achievement. By insisting that U.S. students score below other economically developed countries, a sense of crisis is created, followed by demands that U.S. students must do better if the country is to compete on the global economic stage. This generalization of data, however, glosses over the fact that students in relatively affluent schools (i.e., few students on free and reduced-price lunch) score very well on literacy tests, compared to those in other countries, while students in high-poverty schools compare poorly (Fleischman, Hopstock, Pelczar, & Shelley, 2010). With that evidence, we should ask where the "crisis" really is—at the international level or in the social and economic class disparities within our own communities and schools.
Where it focuses on job preparation and U.S. economic development, the Common Core State Standards proposal offers a prime example of the "social efficiency" tradition. But this proposal is of a special, evolved kind of social efficiency. Unlike many of its predecessors, it has pronounced ties to a small group of powerful publishing companies and is aligned with a growing consulting and testing industry. One example is the "zone" designation my teaching friend described. Another is the website of a major publishing company that claims several of its authors were intimately involved in writing the standards. Yet another is the way a few companies dominate the production and ownership of standards assessment tests. On top of that, the Common Core State Standards are, like virtual schools and voucher programs, an example of how far we have drifted from an understanding of education as a human, professional endeavor toward a more technical, impersonal, corporate model. There is definitely some big money to be made here. And for that reason, it might not be too far-fetched to rename the Common Core State Standards "The Corporate Core."
Other criticisms of the Common Core State Standards reflect different concerns. For example, some critics say the standards do not properly portray career skills (e.g., Association for Career and Technical Education, 2010). Others accuse the developers of relying on the mantra of standards, standardized tests, and standardized curriculum (e.g., Kohn, 2010). Still others note that the standards are not as rigorous as the proposal's sponsors suggest (e.g., Porter, McMaken, Hwang, & Yang, 2011). And some suspect that this is just one more step, for better or worse, toward a national curriculum, no matter what the proposal's sponsors claim (e.g., Eitel & Talbert, 2012).
But the real problem with the Common Core State Standards is that they reduce whatever high hopes we have had for our schools to just two: (1) college preparation and (2) employability for individuals and economic dominance for the nation in the global marketplace. Even if this twosome was desirable as the central purpose for our schools, there is surely no certainty that accomplishing the standards would guarantee either one of these aims, and definitely not enough certainty to warrant the rush to adopt them. Moreover, the rhetoric of the Common Core State Standards suggests that the individual employability goal may actually have more to do with creating a skilled labor pool from which business can draw than with personal economic security for young people as they go forward. If we were not in a dismal economic time when so many people long for decent jobs and reasonable financial security, it is possible there would not have been such a rush to adopt the Common Core State Standards. Under better economic conditions, their focus on skill needs in the business sector might well have be seen as benefiting too narrow a set of interests. Times change and so do circumstances–even troubling economic ones. The central focus of a proposal about something as important as what all young people should learn should be values and skills that are crucial across the whole society and transcend time and circumstances.
A third way
While social efficiency and liberal studies have dominated our thinking about required common learnings throughout the past several decades, there is a third tradition we seem to have all but forgotten.
The democratic core. When young people leave school they may follow many different paths: where they live, how they make a living, whether they go to college or not, and so on. Regardless of the paths they take, all will be citizens in our democratic society, sharing in the roles and responsibilities for maintaining and improving that society. Since the one common experience shared by virtually all young people is attending school, it is incumbent upon the schools to foster the values and skills involved in democratic living. These include values such as respect for human dignity, equity, freedom, and social responsibility, as well as skills like critical thinking, problem solving, collaborating, information and data gathering, reflecting, participatory planning, and the like.
Such values and skills can best be learned in school programs designed around democratic living in which students use democratic skills and values in two complementary ways. One is to study, analyze, and work with social, political, and other kinds of pressing issues that are of wide social concern. The second is to use the values and skills in their day-to-day classroom life to create a democratic community within the school. By living and learning the democratic way in school, young people will be in an informed position to maintain and improve the democratic society outside the school (Beane, 2005; Dewey, 1916; Meier, 2009). More than economic matters and academic credentials, bringing democracy to life should be the most profound purpose for our schools, and it is from this source that we should draw the standards expected of all young people.
Beginning in the 1930s, that line of reasoning gave rise to what was then called "core curriculum" and the programs that emerged from it, "core programs" (Faunce & Bossing, 1951; Vars, 1969, 1972, 1991). Over the years, the term "core" has been appropriated for very different uses that have little to do with, and are often contradictory to, the original meaning, such as college "core requirements," the litany of cultural factoids called "core knowledge," and now Common Core State Standards. To distinguish our third version of common learnings from these other uses of "core," perhaps we now need to rename it. A good term might be "democratic core."
Advocates for a democratic core argued that this portion of the school program ought to be required of all young people. As a result, democratic core programs were usually carried out in a block of time in the school day, and because they were meant for all young people in a diverse, democratic society, they almost always involved heterogeneous groups of students. Classroom life leaned heavily on the hallmarks of democratic living, with issue-oriented themes, large- and small-group discussions, group research, critical analysis, community service projects, and student involvement in planning and assessment. At the same time, general content and skills from various disciplines would be integrated, learned, and applied to work on pressing social issues, offering a real-life context more meaningful to young people than the separate subjects so many find remote and abstract (Beane, 1997). And, ironically, this approach would involve more intellectual challenge, since actually applying content and skills—including those like the Common Core State Standards—to authentic issues and situations requires more depth and substance than simply acquiring them for their own sake or for some detached purpose like global economic competition.
In arguing for a block of time to be set aside for the democratic core, its advocates offered that other more specialized interests, such as personal career goals or advanced college preparation, could be addressed through various subjects and programs during other parts of the day. In this way, they generally sought not to omit the aims of liberal studies or social efficiency but rather to suggest that neither was a scheme that spoke to what was really common to all young people: membership in a democratic society and the need to participate responsibly and skillfully in it.
Over time, in keeping with the reality of curriculum as a struggle rather than a pendulum, the democratic core curriculum, although highly successful in some places, was either swept away or pushed aside by the academic dominance of liberal studies or the crisis mentality of social efficiency. In addition, it was, and still is, an object of scorn among individuals and groups who claim that values like equity, diversity, and collaboration run counter to their own private beliefs. It is no wonder, then, that the skills and values called for in a democratic core now live only on the margins of the school curriculum and are rarely included in policy discussions. Pieces can certainly be found in some public school classrooms and small charter schools where an individual or small team of teachers is keeping the idea alive (Apple & Beane, 2007). Other remnants survive in service-learning projects, issue-oriented STEM projects, place-based education, real-world problem-solving programs, critical discussions of contemporary and controversial issues, Project Citizen, and more. But these kinds of programs and practices are hardly considered to be part of the mainstream, general education curriculum; there is no certainty they will be found from school to school. Even if they were, the goal of bringing the skills and values of democracy to the school is not a matter of revamping a social studies or science course, or throwing in a problem-centered unit now and then. The goal is for the democratic core to be at the heart of the curriculum in all schools and experienced by all young people.
Common core and the middle level
While concerns about the Common Core State Standards apply to all school levels, they have special significance for the middle level. It is true that the ideas of child development researchers were among those that helped create early junior high schools a century ago. But they were hardly the most influential. Two other factors were far more important. First, almost two-thirds of students dropped out of school during grades seven and eight, which were then part of K–8 schools. At the time, there were few child labor laws to keep them from working or compulsory attendance laws to stop them from leaving. Social reformers argued that something had to be done to keep young people in school. Second, university officials had been insisting that their students needed more and better college preparation. The "new" junior high schools, including grades 7–9, provided a solution, especially as child labor laws were enacted and the school leaving age was raised.
For those students who normally would have dropped out of school, vocational preparation courses could provide training for factories or the trades, thus giving them a reason to stay. Since these students were mostly poor immigrants, some exploration of traditional school subjects was also required to give them the basics of "American culture." For those going on to higher education, college preparation courses could be introduced earlier, as grades 7 and 8 could now be organized around separate subjects rather than self-contained classrooms. Advocates for the formation of junior high schools certainly used arguments in favor of giving young adolescents their own schools, but the main arguments focused on sorting out which students would go on to college and which would be placed in vocational tracks, and then differentiating the curriculum accordingly. In other words, the junior high school, as it evolved in practice, was created by mixing social efficiency and liberal studies, with a dose of child development theory thrown in for good measure.
In the 1930s, however, when progressive educators began to push for alternatives to both social efficiency and liberal studies, many educators dissatisfied with the condition of junior high schools signed on. Those who pushed the edges of progressive democracy created democratic core programs in which they engaged with ideas like curriculum integration, student participation in classroom planning, group work, action learning, interactive discussions, and other signature pieces of "progressive education" (e.g., Giles, 1941; Hopkins, 1937; Hopkins, 1941; Noar, 1948). In addition, they demonstrated through various research projects that students involved in such programs did just as well or better on standardized tests and in college as peers who were involved in traditional separate-subject classes (e.g., Aikin, 1942; Wrightstone, 1935).
Meanwhile, as expected, advocates for traditional liberal studies pushed back against this intrusion on their dominant position in junior high schools. They were joined by many teachers and administrators within junior high schools who had come to love the subjects they had traditionally taught and, thus, disapproved of democratic practices in their classrooms. And when social conservatives began attacking the values promoted and methods used in democratic core programs, the programs were doomed. By the 1960s, as middle schools were starting to replace junior high schools, such programs had largely disappeared. Soon thereafter, a prominent journalist who had toured American schools concluded that "the junior high school, by almost unanimous agreement, is the wasteland—one is tempted to say cesspool—of American education" (Silberman, 1970, p. 34).
Some educators involved in the early middle school movement called for a rebirth of democratic core programs, either in their traditional two-period, block-time format or as part of the increasing popular interdisciplinary teaming arrangements (e.g., Beane, 1975; Lounsbury &Vars, 1978). Such hopes were not to be realized, however, as the subject-centered liberal studies continued to dominate, and most interdisciplinary teams simply divided their block schedule into separate-subject slots. What little interdisciplinary work did take place generally involved various separate-subject teachers adding some skill or content to a topic taken from history or science.
It was not until the 1990s that some semblance of a democratic core reappeared in middle schools. During those years, initiatives emerged around renewed interest in integrative curriculum, problem-centered themes, student involvement in planning and assessment, and other progressive ideas (Beane, 1993). Books, articles, and conference sessions featured accounts from teachers of how they used these ideas and how their students seemed to have more academic success with this approach (e.g., Alexander, with Carr, & McAvoy, 1995; Brazee & Cappeluti, 1995; Brodhagen, 1995).
But the timing was off. Stellar as those accounts were, they appeared just as federal and state groups started issuing new academic standards featuring long lists of skills and information to be mastered in the traditional subject-centered divisions and assessed by accompanying standardized tests. For many middle level teachers who had resisted the move away toward a democratic core, this must have been a great relief, as it promised a return to familiar routines. And when the "No Child Left Behind Act" of 2001 promised punishment for those who strayed from its standards and testing regime, the democratic core was once more sent back to the margins of the curriculum (Vars & Beane, 2000).
The move to focus education policy on global economic competition, labor force skill needs, and international test score comparisons began in earnest with the publication of the federal report, "A Nation at Risk" (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). Thirty years later, it is the dominant theme of the Common Core State Standards. Whether those teachers or small teams who try to keep the democratic tradition alive can continue to do so remains to be seen. But this much is clear: readers of the century-long history of middle grades schools know that too much of the story is a dismal account of "junior" high school drudgery, social and academic tracking, teacher-student conflict, disinviting curriculum plans, and teachers waiting to transfer to the high school. The brightest moments in that history surface almost entirely in the high hopes of democratic core advocates and in teacher accounts of democratic core programs.
Knowing that, how can we expect to get excited about the Common Core State Standards? Yes, it is important for young people to develop skills in mathematics and English language arts as well as those skills necessary to access other subject areas, for both college and career preparedness. But these standards are insufficient to define the values and skills that ought to be the center of the curriculum in our nation's schools and learned by all students. To qualify for that position requires values and skills that speak to fundamental principles in our society and essential goals for our schools, applicable across time and place, across occupations and economic circumstances, across social settings and situations. For values and skills of this significance, we must turn to the idea of democracy and the nearly forgotten tradition of the democratic core.
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The content of this paper is partly based on the author's last conversation with the late Gordon F. Vars. For comments and suggestions the author wishes to thank Barbara Brodhagen, Bruce King, Gary Weilbacher, John Lounsbury, David Virtue, Michael Apple.
Copyright notice for this article: © 2013 James A. Beane.
James A. Beane is a former teacher and professor and the author and coauthor of a number of books, including
A Reason to Teach: Creating Classrooms of Dignity and Hope (Heinemann, 2005),
Curriculum Integration: Creating the Core of Democratic Education (Teachers College Press, 1997), and
A Middle School Curriculum: From Rhetoric to Reality (National Middle School Association, 1990). E-mail: email@example.com
Copyright © 2013 Association for Middle Level Education