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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Curricular Wars Fought Again and Again: How Come?

Phonics vs. Whole LanguageOld Math vs. New MathKnowing Science Subjects vs. Doing Science.  Heritage Study vs. Doing History. Wars of words have been fought among politicians, parents, and educators over reading, math, science, and social studies in the past century. And those rhetorical battles reappear again and again over which way is best for teaching content and skills in a subject . Sure, these simplistic either-or choices (maybe simple-minded also) pump adrenalin into the veins of advocates and opponents in each “war.” Rest assured, however, few teachers get involved in these “wars” or design lessons clearly on one side or the other when they close their classroom doors. Nonetheless, for the media and bloggers, the vocabulary of war makes fine slogans, bumper stickers, and even cartoons.




These “wars” reveal the fact that educators since World War II have lost their influence in making curricular policy. Since the early 1950s policy elites including federal and state officials have slowly and steadily “educationalized“  national social, economic, and political problems. In short, policy elites have expected schools to “solve” alcohol, tobacco, and drug abuse, teen age pregnancy, and defend the nation against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Now policy elites and the general public expect schools to increase economic growth. reverse the decline in global market competitiveness, and get every graduate into college and a career that will pay well.

The process of drafting schools to “solve” national problems began slowly in the U.S. but proceeded quickly by mid-twentieth century. As early as World War I, the Smith-Hughes Act (1917) had the federal government, for the first time, pumping dollars into vocational education  to turn out skilled graduates for industrial and commercial jobs thereby making U.S. economically competitive with European nations. Consider the National Defense Education Act (1958) which pushed public schools to produce more engineers, scientists, and mathematicians to fight the Cold War in space and weaponry. Then in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson and Congress enlisted schools in the fight against poverty with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a law that was reauthorized by presidents and congresses every five or more years thereafter including the current incarnation called No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind is the poster child for “educationalizing” national problems. Test-driven accountability is expected to insure that students leaving school will be skilled and prepared to enter an economy where employers hunger for graduates who can make their companies more competitive in the global marketplace while helping the economy grow.  Since the 1960s, then, these coalitions of elected policymakers in concert with business and civic leaders have slowly wrested authority from educators  for answering two basic questions that  get at the heart of public schooling. What content and skills should be taught to U.S. children and youth? How should both be taught?

Answers to those questions account for the periodic curriculum struggles that have occurred time and again in reading, math, science, and social studies throughout the 20th century. With the Common Core Standards adopted by 45 states and endorsed by President Obama, the “wars” have been re-ignited (see here and here) as politicians, parents, researchers, and practitioners struggle anew in answering those two questions.

In subsequent posts, I will look more closely at the “social studies wars” and place the years in which I taught history in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. (1956-1972) into the larger context of these rhetorical wars and how, if at all, those back-and-forth volleys of words influenced how I answered both of the above questions when I taught history to my students.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...