ELEMENTARY CURRICULUM: A JANUS LOOK
By Louise "Jody" Barnett
[This paper was written as part of the requirements of EDE 6205, taught at
Florida Atlantic University, Fall, 1998]
Curriculum today is an amalgam of our past and present efforts to educate
our youth. The word itself, 'curriculum', is Latin for 'race-course'. It is a
course whose direction is set by several factors: our cultural standards, the
power of current political persuasion, the global arena in which we compete, the
corporate world in which our children must make a place.
With the advent of compulsory schooling in our country around 1850,
curriculum was established and went through very little change until the Eight
Year Study, done from 1933 to1941. This was the most significant curriculum
study ever made, and it cast doubt upon the rigid pattern of subjects being
taught as the best way to prepare students for college and the future. The
fabric of knowing conclusively what students needed to know had begun to
The Fifties to the Sixties - On the Road to Change
During the fifties and sixties, several events shaped the curriculum. In
1956, Benjamin Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, and later his
Taxonomies, laid out a schema of knowledge and thinking processes which
translated into a closer view of children's exceptionalities. This, in turn,
created legislation to provide funding for the education of these children and
adaptation of the curriculum to accommodate them. Another event which had a
profound effect on the curriculum was the launching of Sputnik 1 by the Russians
on October 4, 1957. This officially opened the "space race", and America
responded by immediately strengthening its curriculum in the areas of math,
science, and foreign languages. Humanitarian efforts also had an impact on
curricula. Many programs were introduced that attempted to engage the
economically deprived child.
"During this era many higher court decisions affected education in such areas
as integration, accountability, student rights, school financing, and religion."
(Wooten and Reynolds, 1977) For example, the practice of Bible reading in
school, heretofore never questioned, was found to be unconstitutional during the
sixties. This decade saw more legislative, judicial, philanthropic and corporate
input into public education than ever before.
Along with innovations affecting the curriculum came increased concern for
the lack of accountability and a demand that accountability measures be
introduced and enforced in our schools at all levels.
From the Mid-Sixties to the Present: How Did We Get From There to Here?
In the mid sixties the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed,
giving federal aid to all levels and areas of the curriculum, provided the
programs focused on the underprivileged. From that time until the present, new
strategies have been introduced to engage the disadvantaged including Head
Start, reading recovery groups, bilingual education, ESOL and ESE classes, peer
tutoring, and free/reduced breakfast and lunch programs, to name a few.
However, statistics prove these programs are not making a
difference in the measurable area of test scores when
compared on an international level. "On 24
February 1998 the Third International Math & Science series showed that U.S.
12th graders scored behind every nation, except Cyprus and South Africa. In
physics we were at the very bottom." (Hodges, 1998) This is not just a secondary
school problem; it begins at the elementary level where the foundation is laid.
Money is not the issue, either. Today the U.S. spends more per capita on
education than was spent three decades ago, yet the measurable indices show
performance in our public schools is down drastically from where it was in the
sixties. Milton Friedman, economist and Nobel Laureate, states, "There is an
inverse relationship between spending and quality" in regard to our public
It seems that public education has become somewhat like a rudderless ship
battered by winds of unproven social agendas which translate into curricula. The
crew dashes madly to the port when international scores show American children
lagging behind in mathematics and sciences; it then scrambles in horror as the
starboard side lurches violently; American children cannot read anywhere near
their grade levels!
In the 1990s, not only children but schools have been placed on the critical
list. Both must be "cured" for U.S. education to experience a resurgence of
confidence and health nationally and globally.
Teachers across America who have been asked to grade their schools' curricula
have been hard-pressed to give it higher than a 'D'.
The Road Ahead
In the 1980s, Dr. Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education,
and his colleagues, came up with the theory of multiple intelligences. In a
nutshell, this theory states that everyone has at least seven intelligences (and
possibly more). Each person has greater development in one or some of the areas
of intelligence than in the others. However, there are ways to develop
intelligence in each of the areas. This has tremendous implication for future
Marion Brady, a long-time Florida educator, has done extensive thinking on
curriculum revision and rejects what he has found in today's schools. His vision
is a "seamless curriculum - a single, systematically integrated whole, every
part of which relates logically to every other part." (Brady, 1997) Mr. Brady
believes true education is the discovery of relationships between aspects of
life/experience, rather than a transfer of information from one person's head
(the teacher's) to another person's head (the student's). The questions who,
what, when, where and why would be the conceptual organizers of this core
There are success stories in public education amid the dissatisfaction.
Administrators who have chosen to empower their teachers and students with
opportunities to make curricular choices and have opted for alternative ways of
assessing the learning have been rewarded by tangible evidence: greater student
participation, lower absenteeism, higher ratings on performance indicators such
as standardized tests.
The elementary curriculum of the future will not look as it does today or in
previous years because of the impact of the many studies on intelligence and how
learning occurs. The curriculum will be tailored more to individual needs with a
weaving of the subjects into a coherent, integrated whole. Fewer subjects will
be taught and they will be explored in greater depth. Each will be presented
from the vantage points of the seven - and possibly more - intelligences
identified, so that each child will experience success in his/her strong
area(s), while experiencing growth in the weaker areas. The 'real world' with
its myriad wonders and problems will be the focus of exploration. Tangible
evidence in the form of project displays, computer simulations, books created,
experiments performed and explained to parents and students in other grades and
the community at large, would be strong indications of the strength/weakness of
the curriculum in general and the approach to teaching it in particular.
Though technology is becoming an integral part of each classroom today, there
are presently no studies indicating that it increases student learning or
performance. Knowledge of computer function and use will be mandatory and needed
for data storage, compilation of information, etc., but the emphasis will be on
students collaboratively solving and presenting projects in a coherent,
knowledgeable way. Current studies indicate that children whose first language
is not English learn our language better in classes without any special
education features. The curriculum of the future will not focus on special
needs, but will focus on that for which it was designed: to impart knowledge and
foster understanding based on the who, what, when, where and why model.
The teacher of the future will be a facilitator. S/He will model the "how" of
integrating the "who", "what", "when", "where" and "why" into a coherent whole,
stir up interest by presenting challenging questions requiring the use of higher
order thinking skills, and be a resource person for the various groups in the
The curriculum of the future will allow students to graduate with knowledge
based on real-world situations/problems studied and solved (or valid attempts
made to solve them) in the classroom.
In my opinion, none of these innovative solutions will solve the problem.
Students today not only cannot compete globally, they cannot compete with past
generations of their peers in our own country.
There was a time when the majority of the U.S. population was literate.
Children read real literature, not watered down versions. Penmanship was
important and a reflection of one's upbringing. Look for a moment at the letters
written by soldiers during the Civil War. These letters to family and
sweethearts were examples of a command of the language and an ability to express
well the longings of the heart and to make astute observations of conditions
around them. They were also masterpieces of fine penmanship.
The Bible, once read in homes and classrooms throughout the land, in itself a
literary masterpiece, was the bedrock of sound moral doctrine for many
generations. Rather than change our curriculum every few years, perhaps we
should head the advice of Jeremiah, one of the prophets who foretold of Israel's
doom at the hands of the Babylonians. He wrote: "Ask for the old paths, where
the good way is, And walk in it; Then you will find rest for your souls."
Many of today's programs, though beneficial for students, undermine family
responsibility. For example, parents no longer need to feed their children
breakfast on school days, as a free breakfast program is offered. They no longer
need to concern themselves with packing a lunch for their children or providing
money to buy lunch; schools offer free or reduced lunch plans. Parents who no
longer choose to teach moral responsibility will have children who are taught "I
Care" rules and given free school-based counseling for their inappropriate
behavior. Surely neglecting to feed one's children or failing give them
instruction in right from wrong is a form of abuse.
A basic curriculum focusing on accurate computation and scientific knowledge,
an ability to read complex literature and documents with comprehension, and the
capacity to express ideas in writing clearly and fluidly are goals needed and
wanted at all times in all stages of a child's development.
Brady, M. (1997). A seamless curriculum. http://ddi.digital.net/~mbrady/page1.html
Distance Learning and Resource Notebook. (1997). www.wested.org/tie/dlrn/blooms.
Flinders D. & Thornton, S. (Ed..) (1997). The curriculum studies reader. New
Gatto, J. T. (1992). Dumbing us down: the hidden curriculum of compulsory
education. Pennsylvania: New Society Publishers.
Goodlad, J., Stoephasius, R., & Klein, F. (1996). The changing school
curriculum. New York: The Georgian Press.
Hodges, M. and Mechlenburg, B. (1998). The grandfather international report.
The Grandfather Report.
Hodges, M. and Mechlenburg, B. (1998). Bilingual education. The Grandfather
Mason, C. (1989). School education: developing a curriculum. Illinois:
Tyndale House Publishers.
Taba, H. (1962). Curriculum development: theory and practice. California:
Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich.
Tyler, R.W. (1949). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Illinois:
University of Chicago Press.
Wooten, L. & Reynolds, J. (Ed.) (1977). Trends and issues affecting
curriculum. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America.
Respond to Author