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Diane Ravitch's Blog: David Berliner: The “Required Curriculum” vs. “The Not Required” Curriculum

David Berliner has devoted his life to the study of education. He has achieved the pinnacle of his profession as a researcher and statistician. He is currently Regents Professor Emeritus at the College of Education at Arizona State University. His list of honors is too long to mention. I welcome his original contributions to the blog and am honored to present them to you. His title for this post is: “Learning Losses Associated with the ‘Required Curriculum’ Can Be Easily Offset by Gains in Learning in the ‘Not-Required Curriculum.'”

Parents currently worry that their children have not or will not learn enough by participating in the non-standard styles of schooling associated with our pandemic. Some worry, particularly, that their children will not test well if they miss too much of what we have come to regard as “regular” schooling. The regular or standard school curriculum differs slightly by state, but it is what teachers try to deliver in each grade. It is the curriculum designed to prepare children for their states’ tests, and for the SATs and ACTs taken near the end of high school.

The pandemic also has teachers and administrators worrying about safety, and the arrangements needed for instruction as our crisis continues: In-class? On-line? Hybrid? What? Educators are afraid that the reputation of their schools could suffer, if their students don’t test well because of missed schooling, or because instruction appears not to be as effective on-line as it is when it occurs in classrooms, the historic and preferred mode of delivering instruction. In addition, a reduction in test scores could easily reduce housing values in the school catchment area, eventually changing the pool of students that they work with. Worry, worry, everywhere, and no solution apparent. 

But much of this worrying can easily be relieved. Think of it this way: If we stop worrying about learning the “required stuff” in the ordinary, test-prep oriented curricula now in place in most American schools and districts, and instead started thinking about learning, just learning good stuff, the problem disappears. The issue for every parent and every educator should be about students learning. Period (cf. Westheimer, 2020).

Learning, growing, forming beliefs that are factually based, gaining deep insights into particular subject matters, extending ones’ horizons, and mastering something complex is really what is important. Surely, we can all agree that there is a plethora of ‘stuff’ worth learning out there, things that are of interest, utility, or beauty. Much of this is not found in the standard/ordinary school curriculum. If we can accept that there are countless worthwhile things to learn that are not in the accepted/normal/required/test-prep school curriculum, we might worry less about our students, as long as they are learning many of these other acceptable things. Actually, some of these other things may not just be acceptable, but quite desirable to learn.

I simply can’t get as distressed, as so many others do, when we believe kids are missing the “proper” time in their development to learn gerunds and the role of apostrophes, long division and simple algebra, or the date the constitution was signed. These certainly may all be worthy goals in our youths’ passage to a competent adulthood through our public schools. But what if a good part of the thinking and learning they are engaged in during these unusual times is, instead, based on a project the student chooses, or is assigned and willingly accepts? What if they had a topic to study and become highly knowledgeable about? And what if students must eventually report on their project or topic of study? 

Even first graders are quite capable of learning sophisticated information about, say, dinosaurs. In fact, many of them do this spontaneously, and are quite capable of knowing more about dinosaurs and the lives they led than the vast majority of adults (Chi and Koeske, 1983). Sophisticated domain knowledge, the knowledge of experts, can easily be learned in a child’s study of rainfall, global warming, dog breeding, or a hundred other topics. What if our children began to learn these other good things, as well as whatever on-line instruction a teacher or school provides during the pandemic? Would America’s children lose anything? Or, might our students actually gain from such experiences? 

On-line contact with their classroom teacher is likely not to be for the six hours per day that the child experiences during regular classroom instruction. But on-line contact about projects or topical areas will allow teachers to individually assist, tutor, critique, and advise on each project or topical area studied. After a semester or a school year, the child should be ready to present a project or topical inquiry to an audience of peers, teachers, and parents. 

The beauty of these kinds of inquiries is that there would be little down time for students during education in this time of pandemic. Students will be learning about something of interest to them, though just not necessarily everything that is in the state required curriculum for their age group. Since not everyone is likely to have access to the full, required curriculum for their grade, the validity of any test scores at that grade level is greatly compromised and thus of little use. No attention should be given to invalid tests of the “required stuff” for students of a certain age and grade. But I certainly do want a way for students to learn “good stuff,” when limited in their getting access to the “required stuff”. Learning something in depth, and sharing it with others, may be an excellent replacement to the losses in learning the “required stuff” that are likely to occur in this pandemic.

Let us take a closer look at project based learning. Imagine if one or a few students had some months to turn in a project on whether: the climate is changing in their community, the air or water in their community is breathable or drinkable, their schools are adequately funded, their food is safe to eat, or a robot could be built to help the school cafeteria staff. Or the students investigated the causes of homelessness or asthma, or the need for public transportation in their community. There exists an endless supply of challenging projects, local and otherwise, worthy of study. Many will be appropriate for a particular age group, and some will require sustained effort over a moderately long time period to master the material at an age appropriate level. 

A project not only teaches an individual, but if done with another it can substantially remove the feelings of loneliness that many of our students are feeling because of virus-caused school shutdowns. Moreover, two things are frequently noticed when students present their research projects or topical research to peers, teachers, and parents. First, students show evidence that they have learned how to organize and reorganize their ideas to prepare presentations from which others could learn. Second, their presentations regularly demonstrated that deep learning in the domain of study had taken place. The remarkable educator Debbie Meier (1995) describes successful schools where this has happened on a regular basis. The schools she describes didn’t wait for a crisis to incorporate the idea that children can direct their own learning with some adult scaffolding. Her experience and the testimony of others who studied her schools, convincingly established that students can and do dig deeply and happily into subject matter that they want to learn and share with others! 

Topics to study. What if students negotiated with their teachers a topic: Birds, automobiles, penguins, glaciers, honey bees, artificial intelligence, the civil rights movement, internment camps during WWII, comets, and so forth. The topics investigated by a particular student might be of interest for them, or even assigned. The students’ job is to become expert in that topic and present a talk on that topic at the end of the school year, conveying to their classmates and others what is exciting and important to know about that topic. A version of how this approach might work schoolwide and across grades is described by Kieran Egan (2011), a most creative philosopher of education.

If learning from projects and topical studies as I have described was made more salient in the educational experiences of our youth, while the ordinary/standard curriculum was taught whenever and however it could be taught, what might happen? 

We actually have some data related to this kind of arrangement. It comes from a classic, long-term, highly creative study conducted many years ago (Aikin, 1942). As the push to standardize the American curriculum gained traction, history has forgotten this study. But it is still quite instructive. 

Students in 30 unique high schools, “progressive” schools, were studied. These 30 schools had agreed to let their students take a non-standard curriculum. The students studied some of what the school wanted them to, as current on-line instruction is meant to do. But these students also received high-school credits for choosing to study, think, write about, and to build, almost anything they wanted. The high school gave them credits for doing some highly unusual, self-determined projects and papers, few of which would have been approved had these students been subject to the standard high school curriculum of their time. 

The students of these progressive schools, taking a very non-standard high school curriculum, went on to about 300 colleges and universities that had agreed to monitor and document their progress and achievements. They were also to monitor students’ deficits as well, since they had not been “properly prepared” for their college experience. They clearly had not studied the regular, standard, state sanctioned curriculum, so how could they compete in college? 

From Aiken (1942) and the High School Journal (November-December, 1942), we learn that when each of the progressive school graduates was matched with a traditional school graduate who shared many similar background characteristics, the graduates of “progressive” schools showed: more leadership; joined and led more clubs; were rated as thinking more clearly; demonstrated a better understanding of democracy; had greater interest in good books, music, and art; got slightly better grades in college than those from traditional schools; and won more academic honors (e.g. Phi Beta Kappa, and honor roll designations). A special sub-study of the graduates of the six most progressive schools, what traditionalists thought of as the “wildest”, revealed that those students were superior to their peers from the other progressive schools! Thus, they scored well above the traditionally educated students on all the indices used for comparison. These poor students, deprived of the regular curriculum, achieved the highest college grades, and were rated the highest in intellectual drive, highest in thinking ability, and highest in extracurricular activity participation.

All I have written on this topic, above, now comes to this: The scholars reporting on the 8-year study said that the belief that students must have a prescribed school curriculum is not tenable. Studying almost anything in depth and breadth, with some (but not necessarily a lot of) teacher support, and reporting it out, prepares a child for the highest levels of scholarship at the next levels of their learning. There were no apparent negative effects from studying “this”, instead of “that”, if it was studied well. Learning seriously, deeply, and sharing that knowledge through papers and presentations (perhaps with power-points and YouTubes, maybe via film, television, music or art,) to one’s peers, parents, and the school faculty, apparently has no long-term ill effects, when compared to learning the “required” curriculum. 

So to all the worried parents, teachers, and school administrators concerned that our youth will not learn about gerunds and the role of apostrophes, or long division and simple algebra, or the date the constitution was signed, “on time,” relax! Let us instead make sure our children are learning though projects and topics that capture their fancy during the time they have open. That should more than suffice for what they might miss of the traditional curriculum. 

Aikin, W. (1942). The Story of the Eight-Year Study. New York: Harper.

Chi, M. T. H., & Koeske, R. D. (1983). Network representation of a child’s dinosaur knowledge. Developmental Psychology, 19(1), 29–39. https://doi.org/1031037/0012-1649.19.1.29

Egan, K. (2011). Learning in Depth. A Simple Innovation That Can Transform Schooling. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 

Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas: Lessons from a small school in Harlem. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. 

The High School Journal, Nov.-Dec., 1942), 25 (7), 305-309.

Westheimer, J. (2020, March 21). Westheimer: Forget trying to be your kid’s substitute school teacher during COVID-19. Ottawa, Canada: Ottawa Citizen.

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for Publi...

David C. Berliner

David C. Berliner is Regents’ Professor of Education Emeritus at Arizona State University. He has also taught at the Universities of Arizona and Massachusetts, at...