Curriculum, school

Ian Westbury

Contribution to James W. Guthrie (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Education, 2nd edition (New York: Macmillan).


In its organizational aspect the curriculum is an authoritative prescription for the course of study of a school or system of schools. In their traditional form, such prescriptions set out the content to be covered at a grade level or in a course or sequences of courses, along with recommended or prescribed methods of teaching. In their contemporary form such prescriptions have been re-presented as "standards," outlining outcomes to be achieved by schools without prescribing specific bodies of content to be covered or methods of teaching.

Curricula in both of these senses are seen as defining what schools purposefully do. However most scholars and administrators who work with curricula or evaluate the impact of curriculum prescriptions or reforms do not believe that curricula-as-documents direct the work of schools in significant ways. Curricula are more often than not developed after the fact, and are based on existing practices of teachers or a simple listing of the content of textbooks being used. Many teachers are not familiar with the curriculum their district has mandated. Nevertheless, curricula and curricular mandates are the objects of persistent and hotly-contested debates around schooling, and are widely taken to be important. Interest groups, governments, school districts and their staffs devote much time and attention to discussions of the curriculum. Why does the idea of the curriculum and curriculum reform assume such importance in educational discourse and policy-making? How is the direction of the work of schooling -- that curriculum policy-making does not in fact do -- brought about? This article will set out some current viewpoints on these questions.

Curricula, education and schooling.

All curricula emerge from ideas about what should be taught, and learned, and how such teaching and learning might best be undertaken, and then certified. As a result the fundamental question lying behind the prescription and development of all curricula is often seen as "What knowledge is of most worth?" -- because it is the knowledge that is of most worth that education should, seemingly, reflect. As a result, in its ideological or philosophical aspect, much curricular thought seeks to articulate reasoned starting points for one or another form of curriculum. Such work can be more or less accepting of the framework of contemporary understanding of the scope and nature of education and schooling. It can be "critical," seeking to articulate the hidden assumptions around, for example, race, gender and class that have driven, and drive, schooling in inappropriate, even morally wrong, directions.

However, looked at more analytically, the curriculum of the school reflects layered cultural understandings of what young people are seen as needing to know or experience if they are to take their place in the social and cultural order. Thus, as the central component of a pervasive modern institution, the curriculum is necessarily a part of all of the sociological and cultural ambiguities within societies. As such, the scope and nature of the curriculum are critically important for, e.g., teachers, parents, cultural critics, interest groups, and the employers of the graduates of the school. As the curriculum is seen through the eyes of all such groups, it becomes a mirror which reflects different visions of the society and culture, and the tensions within the society around, say, the "proper" nature of the work of schooling and/or status-attainment and employment possibilities. As a result inevitable and unresolved differences of viewpoint characteristically surface around all discussions of the curriculum as both a symbol of a normative order for education and of the quality and character of what schools do.

For these reasons the history of curriculum thinking and practice is marked, on the one hand, by popular and professional conflict and debate about what the curriculum should be and how teaching should be undertaken and, on the other hand, by rationalization of the good and/or bad consequences of one or another curriculum. Should, for example, the curriculum that is most appropriate for young people be based on the needs of the economy for human resources, on national or international ideals, on the need for societal and cultural change or preservation, on ameliorating pervasive distinctions of gender and race, on the set of perennially "essential" and fundamental forms of knowledge and ways of thinking, on the forms of a life that is most worth living, etc.? As a result of the competition between such starting points for thinking about the character of education, there is, and always has been, political, cultural and policy conflict around what should be being authoritatively prescribed in curricula, how teaching should be undertaken, and how schooling should be organized.

The classification of such different conceptions of education and educating has been one of the core approaches used to give both teachers and the lay people a framework for approaching the normative issues around the curriculum. Often, as with Eisner and Vallance’s (1974) classification, these issues are presented as involving perennial controversies. Thus in their frame there is a web of such controversy built around an unresolved conflict between five classical curriculum "conceptions:" curriculum as the development of cognitive processes; curriculum as technology; curriculum as self-actualization or consumatory experience; curriculum for social learning; curriculum for academic rationalization. But Eisner and Vallance also point to other ways of framing such debates: child-centered vs. society-centered; futurist, i.e., socially "reconstructive," vs. presentist, i.e., "adaptive;" values-centered education vs. skills-training; and humanist or existential vs. behaviorist models of education and teaching.

There are, of course, difficulties associated with such controversy-framed conceptions of the issues around the curriculum. Such overviews of curricular conceptions reflect ideas about the curriculum rather than the practices of schooling. Most centrally, they do not reflect the complexities of curricular thought and action and, as such, do not foreshadow, and cannot direct, action.

Doyle (1996) has sought to clarify such endemic questions around all curriculum thinking and action by pointing out that curricular discussion and action occurs at three distinct levels:


(1) institutional, where the issues center on policies at the intersection between schooling, culture and society;

(2) programmatic, where the issues center on (a) the specification of subject content for schools, school types and tracks, with their core and elective course requirements or expectations, subject specifications, etc. and (b) the construction of appropriate content for classroom coverage within these subjects; and

(3) classroom, where the issues center on the elaboration of the programmatic curriculum and its connection to the worlds of schools and classrooms in their real-world contexts.

All institutional work around the curriculum, around, for example, the scope and rationale of an optimal math curriculum or how the teaching of reading should best be undertaken, centers on metaphors which reflect idealized norms for an imagined social institution. More often than not the discourse is framed in terms of "reform" and the need for change if a convergence between a normative ideal and the ongoing work of schools is to be achieved. However, such discussions rarely, if ever, connect to the central issues around both programmatic and classroom curricula. There the effective delivery of existing procedures and practices, and not reform, is the overriding preoccupation. Nevertheless, the image-making that is characteristic of the curriculum policy debate within and between interest groups is important. Such debates symbolize and instantiate what communities should value. In this sense curriculum discussion, debate, and planning -- and the public and professional processes involved in such work -- is a social form for clarifying the role schooling as an idea plays in the social and cultural order.

Programmatic curriculum work has two tasks. On the one hand it is focused on the socio-cultural, political, and organizational processes through which educational visions which are accepted by élites or publics are translated into operational frameworks for schools. Thus a policy language of "excellence" becomes the introduction of gifted programs in elementary schools or Advanced Placement courses in the high school. Programmatic work also part of the search for solutions to operational problems, such as a mismatch between the capacity of a school system or school and enrollments, and thus the need to reconfigure a system around, say, middle schools. All such programmatic discourse and action seeks to precipitate social, cultural, and educational symbols into a workable and working organizational interpretation and framework. However, such organizational frameworks are only indirectly linked to actual classroom teaching. In such discourse and program-building teaching is necessarily imaged as a passive agency implementing or realizing both an organizationally sanctioned program and its legitimating ideology. Curriculum work in this programmatic sense frames the character of schools and classrooms organizationally, and the ways in which schools might be seen within their communities. It does not direct the work of schools or teachers in any straightforward way.

At the classroom level the curriculum is a sequence of activities, jointly developed by teachers, students, parents and communities, that reflects their understanding of the potential for them of the programmatic framework or curriculum. At this level teachers, and the schools they work within, are active interpreters, not passive agents, of the mandated or recommended policy, programmatic, or organizational frameworks. Their interpretations may or may not be well articulated with the curriculum as imaged or mandated at the policy and programmatic levels. However, the educational legitimacy of such local interpretations is not derived from the organizational framework of the curriculum. Instead it derives from the seeming match between what a local school is, and seems to be, doing and the understandings of its community about what their school can and should be doing. But consistency between what a community’s school does, the language and symbols used to describe and project that work, and the dominant ideologies and values is only one component of the framework for the school or district programs and curricula. Financial and/or personnel issues, state-sanctioned or -funded mandates for, e.g., special education or physical and health education, and the incentives for program change offered by governments and/or foundations are, more often than not, the immediate determinants of whether or not a school offers, e.g., a pre-kindergarten program, or upper-level "academic" courses.

In other words, the curriculum is the symbolic center of a loosely-coupled system of ideologies, symbols, organizational forms, mandates, and subject and classroom practices that instantiates collective, and often differing, understandings about what is to be valued about the idea and the ongoing practice of education. However, at the same time the myth of an authoritative and hierarchical framework by which legislative bodies determine classroom work, with the curriculum as the agent of the linkage, is necessary for the legitimacy of a public schooling that is subject to political control. It is this paradox which gives all discussion of the curriculum its emotional force.

Curriculum-making in the 20th century

In an essay written at the turn of the 20th century, John Dewey (2001) declared his pessimism about the implications for a needed educational reform of a "settlement" he saw between progressive educational "reformers," who controlled educators’ ideologies, and "conservatives," who controlled actual school conditions, and had little or no interest in "reform." The settlement he described has persisted, to control most of the conventional historical writing of the 20th-century curriculum of the American school. As a result the history of the American curriculum across the 20th century offers an account of the absence of real and lasting progressive curriculum reform in the school along with a search for explanations of the seemingly persistent failure of reform impulses. But it was fundamental change that marked the history of the curriculum in the 20th century. This reality is most clearly seen in the history of the secondary school and its curriculum.

In the late-19th century the significant curricular questions around the idea of what was later termed secondary education circled around the character of the cultures that would be reflected in secondary schools or academies -- with the conflict achieving its force from its interaction with the changing relationships between social groups. Should the curriculum offer as its core the traditional humanistic inculcation into the classical and liberal culture built around the teaching or Latin and Greek, or should it embraces "modern" subjects like science and English literature? Should the ideology of the high-status secondary school be exclusively "liberal," i.e., centered on high-status classical or modern academic knowledge, or should it be directly or indirectly vocational in the sense that it might embrace and give educational legitimacy to agriculture, engineering, applied sciences and arts, etc.?

The late-19th and early 20th-century programmatic resolution of these policy conflicts centered around the development of several secondary school types, e.g., classical and modern pre-university, technical/prevocational, and vocational schools with each type seeking legitimacy in terms of a different curricular ideology and a different clientele of parents and students. But the high-status pre-university schools were at this time only schools for an élite. Most adolescents who entered secondary schools sought employment well before graduation, or were enrolled in school types, like normal schools, that did not lead to matriculation to a university.

In the 1920s and 1930s this situation changed dramatically, and in a way that was not repeated in western Europe until the 1960s. Schooling began to assume a much greater significance in the pathway to adulthood, with the result that a new form of mass high school emerged as an alternative to apprenticeship as the way to work and adulthood. This new school offered the symbol of a high school diploma, along with a set of tracked four-year courses of study potentially open to the adolescent age cohort. This new school was, in Trow’s (1961) words, a "mass terminal" secondary school.

This new school required new legitimating ideologies, which could serve to make it appear inevitable and desirable to both the range of its external constituencies and to the teachers who would work within it. Schooling as a preparation for work and life, i.e., life-adjustment, citizenship, Americanization, and child-centeredness, and in the troubled years of the depression the vision of the school and the curriculum as a seed-bed for social and cultural reconstruction, emerged as new educational ideologies -- to submerge (but not replace) the older public and professional ideology of academic training and mental discipline as the legitimate core tasks of the high school. Seen in terms of program, however, these new schools offered re-interpretations of the "modern" curricular categories of the traditional high-status pre-university high school in their "new," non-university tracks, plus, as appropriate, pre-vocational or explicitly vocational courses. In other words, the program of the mass terminal high school did not build on the curricular potential of the technical or applied arts curricular traditions, or develop a new curricular form -- although its extra-curriculum of athletics and music did represent something quite new. It was, of course, the idea of the high school experience that its students and parents were seeking.

The years after the second world war saw the second major transformation of the American school as a mass college-preparatory high school emerged from the prewar mass terminal school. This new high school required a re-articulation of the ideology of the high school curriculum with the ideology of the university. This new situation created, in its turn, a need for new ways to frame popular and professional understandings of this new school. This required, in its turn, the rejection of the ideological platforms of the very different prewar high school. Thus, as the college-preparatory role of the school reemerged into public visibility, a visibility most clearly symbolized by the new comprehensive high schools being built in the new suburbs. In a recognition of the new mission of the high school, the work of this new forms of the school was presented in terms of academic development and the need to teach the intellectual structure of the symbolically important "new" sciences of physics and math, a goal for the school which was interpreted as having implications for national defense and the national welfare. New programs embodying the new ideologies were aggressively introduced as symbols of the new mission of the school, although the program-building practices of those years centered overwhelmingly on merely serving the expanding number of students enrolling in the traditional college-prep track.

The high school of the late 1960s and 1970s reflected the political and cultural turbulence, and the rejection of tradition, of those years. These years brought a renewal of the avant-garde, "progressive" ideologies and curricular platforms of the 1930s (often with a counter-cultural gloss) as well as of a vision of the school as a site for social, cultural and racial reconstruction, social justice, and the like. Programmatically, non-canonical works appeared in literature courses; environmentalism emerged as a topic in science; courses in film, black studies, etc. emerged in many schools. But with these changes the ordered institution of the school was being questioned symbolically and, as a result, appeared at risk. The subject categories of the school seemed to be losing their clear meaning and significance -- and the quality of, for example, urban schools became an issue as their student bodies changed from majority to minority. Public anxieties around the symbolic meaning and effectiveness of the high school as the way to adulthood surfaced as an issue to become the focus of demands for a restoration of more traditional understandings of the school. These tensions were symbolized by the Reagan Administration’s report of 1983, The Nation at Risk, a ringing symbolic endorsement of the symbols of the "traditional" academic model of the pre-university high school. But most observers of the contemporary school agree that while, programmatically, courses have been renamed and given new rationales, classroom work has continued on its own trajectory. Middle school math courses are renamed "Algebra," but traditional grade 8 math texts are used. And, to complete the picture of the stable ideological order around the curriculum, "constructivism" has come to serve as the educators’ counterpoint to the symbolic conservative restoration.

Rethinking curriculum discussions

In other words, seen historically, it is clear that much, if not most, public discussion of the curriculum should be seen as a rhetorical form that seeks to stake out positions in the ideological space around the school. Such discourse, as Dewey noted, does not directly influence programmatic or classroom practice, which have their own logics. Thus looked at across the 20th century, the "progressive" educational and curriculum philosophies, conceptions, platforms and developments that journalists’ and educators’ discussions have taken as significant have had little demonstrable impact on the day-to-work of the school. They are part and parcel of the changing parade of ideologies and platforms that have been invoked to legitimate one or another image of the school as an institution.

It is also clear when they are looked at analytically that the characteristic forms of normative educational and curriculum philosophy cannot have any significant directive force on the complexities of schooling and teaching. Almost invariably, such philosophies and platforms, with their simple moralizing dichotomies or undefined slogans, e.g., progressivism vs. traditionalism, liberal education vs. vocationalism, have been built around stereotypical images that do not reflect the complexities of life in communities, schools, or classrooms. Such ways of addressing the curriculum do not, and cannot, address either the complexity of the school as a pervasive social institution, or the always "local" character of the school as an institution that must satisfy the expectations of its clients and communities.

Most important, what such discourse also fails to offer is any explanation of the overwhelming "success" of the school as an institution across the divides of race, class, gender, etc. and of the ways in which the curriculum has both contributed to, and responded to, this success. The secondary school as an institution has achieved an increasingly dominant role in the lives of children and youth across all developed nations. This dominance is overwhelmingly accepted by the societies and cultures which host the modern school, despite the tensions which can circle around it.

McEneaney and Meyer (2000) have argued that all thinking and research around the curriculum, and by extension all policy-making and program development, must be grounded in the recognition of the overwhelming "success" of the school as an institution. For McEneaney and Meyer an understanding of the idea or model of the "modern" nation, and of the individually empowered citizen in the nation, lies at the heart of any understanding of the success of the school and the curriculum. Access to high-status forms of schooling has come to be seen as both as a right of citizenship and as a way of integrating citizens within the framework of a common national culture. This culture is, in its turn, seen as both inclusive and rational, a self-understanding that must be instilled by way of the curriculum that frames the knowledge and attitudes that are seen to undergird the modern nation, and modern society. As a result of this twofold mission of both incorporating the population and teaching an understanding of "modernity," both the curriculum and teaching have become, paradoxically, increasingly participatory and expressive, but at the same time increasingly "rational" in terms of their emphasis on math and science and tolerance of global and local diversity. Conversely, this modern curriculum has increasingly de-emphasized transcending (and often exclusionary) cultural or religious traditions as well as rigid patterns of allocation of student-citizens across schools or school types.

As the expression of the pervasive modern self-image of the citizen and nation, these changes have not, and do not, take place as a result of planned activity or reform. Instead, they come about as the model of society, and modern models for the curriculum, are incorporated, in routinized ways, in the work of teachers and policy makers. Of course, this instantiation of the model of society in the school and curriculum has not come about as a linear process. There are cycles of reform and resistance, the product of the tensions between older models of society and the school and the "new," between, e.g., the tension between the global and the local, the world-order and the nation. Organizational structures, as seen for example in the highly centralized French system, can make change sticky, and at times problematic. But in the American school system, with its loosely-coupled, locally-based structures, many of the tensions which create the need for major cycles of curriculum reform in other countries can be contained. Schools can both be required at the policy level to teach sexual abstinence and at the same time hand out condoms in the classroom. The policy curriculum can be an object of controversy; but the programmatic curriculum works in stable, deliberate ways at further incorporation of youth into the idea and institution of the school; while the classroom curriculum selectively incorporates a changing model of school work in unplanned and unorganized ways. The evolving, changing classroom curriculum can at times be celebrated symbolically at the programmatic level, and made very visible to local communities. Or it can be concealed by a skillful management of the programmatic models and symbols presented to local communities, with their diverse publics.

In one sense, such an "institutionalist" account of the curriculum can be seen as "progressive," in the way that that term has been understood by educators for over a century. But John Dewey (see Dewey, 2001), in common with most educational reformers of his time and since, bemoaned the absence in American society of what he saw as an appropriately progressive theory of education -- and insistently asked why this was the case in the face of the self-evident claims of the progressive ideal. However the "institutional" understanding of the curriculum outlined by McEneaney and Meyer suggests that the United States, in common with all developed societies, has in fact institutionalized a normative "democratic" understanding of the curriculum and the school. It is this understanding which has determined, and is determining, the actual form of both the structures and work of schools.

An institutional understanding of the curriculum, and of the school which gives it agency, presents a major challenge to most of the ways that are used by educators to discuss the school curriculum. It offers a framing context in which their conventional approaches to understanding the curriculum might be placed while at the same time explaining what those approaches cannot explain.



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