The Core Curriculum Law Debate

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - May 24, 2006
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The 2006 Legislature made a smart move in letting that Core Curriculum proposal sit and simmer while citizens decide if it’s really to their taste.

It’s not well enough understood. It’s divisive even among educators. It would lock us onto a track not easily untracked. It may be great for New Jersey, but not so great for Hawaii. Most teachers and their union dislike it. It’s main sponsor, oddly, is the state association of franchised new car dealers.

The Core Curriculum law would inject the legislative branch of our government into a function reserved to our Board of Education.

The proposal sounds harmless. It “requires the Department of Education to establish, provide and maintain a model curriculum for each grade level, with course content that meets the state performance standards and reflects the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.”

Who argues with that? Well, the key words are “model curriculum.”

What the auto dealers, through their education-reform-minded executive director David Rolf, are really promoting in sheep’s clothing is that bad old wolf called Core Knowledge. That’s a belief that there are certain things every educated American should know. Of course, whether you think something should be on that list and if I disagree - ah, there’s the rub.

Do I need to know the capitals of all the states or just how to Google them on my computer? Who’s more important, Descartes or Lao Tsu? Shakespeare always makes the reading lists, but how about Egypt’s Sailor and the Wonder Island from 2000 B.C.? Or the 12th century Arab Andalusian writer Abo Bakre Ibn Tafayl?

Most of us agree on a universal curriculum that allows any student to transfer to any school in any state, having studied the same basic material by grade level. But even that’s tough in some school districts where reading levels suffer because of home poverty or immigration issues.

Then we have locality issues - what’s really important for our students to accomplish, district by district. The car dealers are pushing the Great Western Society ideas of E.D. Hirsch Jr., the author of Core Knowledge. Two Hawaii schools, Solomon Elementary at Schofield Barracks, and Kauluwela Elementary, use Core Knowledge. But their students are mainly from military families, and their needs and parents’ wishes cannot be fairly weighed in all our public schools.

I’d certainly not argue that results in our schools are satisfactory. We’re well below the national average in every category that prepares students for success: comparison of high school standards with real-world expectations, alignment of high school graduation requirements with colleges and jobs, use of high school tests for college admissions, new systems to track students’ performance after high school and how high schools are held accountable.

But we do have new standards in place. Would a core curriculum make sense in a school where it’s not realistically possible for the students to master it? Should the Legislature be telling teachers what to teach? If so many teachers object to this core concept, shouldn’t that signal something to the rest of us? And why the car dealers?

Also, if it’s so good for us, why wasn’t the Board of Education applauding it?

The day may come when we embrace a universal curriculum (minus that Core Knowledge baloney) but it’s not this year and probably not next year, either.

This definitely needs more simmer time.

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