A History of American Curriculum Aiming Toward Today’s Accountability Climate

For the sake of sharing, if you’re interested in this kind of thing, here’s everything I know right now about the history of curriculum in America–whew!  It’s a work in progress, still.


The 1983 report A Nation at Risk, began with a simple, yet stunningly frightening phrase: “Our Nation is at risk.”  Those five words would shift American education away from an institution replete with variety and diversity to one of standardization and accountability.

By its definition, to standardize means, “to change (things) so that they are similar and consistent and agree with rules about what is proper and acceptable” (Merriam-Webster, 2015). In the context of education, standardization has been defined as, “a method of educational quality control…where the ‘process of teaching and learning is predetermined’” (Rubin & Kazanjian, 2011), and as a paradigm of standardized management: “It is an appealing paradigm because of its simplicity of purpose…Administrators manage teachers through the creation and maintenance of an accountability system geared to students’ learning achievement as measured by carefully selected standardized tests” (Henderson & Gornik, 2007, pg. 8).

In the current state of education, one of the ways standardization manifests itself is in both national content standards, currently called the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English and math, and state content standards in other subject areas.  According to their website, the CCSS were created by “state leaders, including governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia, through their membership in the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)” (“Development Process”, 2015).

Though standards have existed in America since the 1990’s, previous standards and associated “proficiency” levels on standardized assessments were determined completely at the state level, meaning each state had its own definition of appropriate achievement.  States were in complete control over their own standards and tests as well as teacher education and what requirements were necessary for a teacher to be considered highly qualified.  According to Goldstein (2014), “many states followed the letter but no the spirit of the law and made their new tests absurdly easy for kids to pass” (pg. 186).  In fact, in a 2012 conference presentation by Michael Sawyers, then-Deputy Superintendent of schools for the state of Ohio, the Ohio Department of Education reported that state-set proficiency levels on seventh grade math tests equated to 32 percent correctness; similarly, sixth grade reading proficiency required a mere 35 percent correctness (Hank, 2012).  Disparities such as these across states in implementing legislation amounted to purported significant disparities in actual achievement across the nation.  According to CCSS (“Development Process”, 2015), this apparent lack of between-state standardization was the starting point for moving to a more common set of standards.  CCSS are the most recent move in academic content standards–their 2010 adoption in English and math in Ohio replaces previous Ohio Academic Content Standards that were in effect since legislated in 1997 and implemented in 2001.  Since their initial introduction to educational policy in 2009, CCSS have been adopted in 45 states.

The CCSS have become America’s first viable attempt at national academic standards.  The purpose in setting standards that cross city and state boundaries is to ensure students “know and are able to do” (a colloquial standardized phrase) similar achievements despite their geography.  The premise behind this need for standardization harkens back to the Nation at Risk report, which cited underperformance on international test scores as an indicator of failing local school systems in America.  Failure to perform is often linked to an epistemological failure either in scope or size of a local district’s academic content coverage; such failure is counteracted by setting national standards.

Another way standardization manifests itself is through standardized assessments.  Currently, states that have adopted the CCSS have two testing consortia from which to choose for their standardized assessments: the Partnership for Assessment for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced.  Both consortia were awarded multi-million dollar grants from the federal government in 2011 to create a “new generation” of assessments.  These assessments differ from previous state assessments in many ways, including their association with the CCSS, purported increase in rigor and depth of content, and computer-based format enabling technology-enhanced assessment items that could not be created using paper-and-pencil tests of the past.

Like the CCSS, standardization of assessments is an attempt to ensure equity for student exposure to the content standards and to verify the CCSS are implemented with fidelity.  Standardized assessments are a central element of accountability systems, which holds teachers and schools (not parents, communities, or students themselves) responsible for student performance on assessments (Pinar, 2012).  With their first year of widespread implementation in the 2014-2015 school year, we have yet to receive any initial results of how students across the nation performed, but preliminary and projected reports since inception of CCSS in 2009 have predicted significant drops in nationwide achievement.  Many states have adopted some form of consequential accountability in which standardized assessment scores are tied to either teacher performance, school performance, or school funding formulas.

How did we get here?

The accountability and standardization climates of today are simply one more reform effort in a long line of reforms to American education throughout the twentieth century.  Perhaps not surprisingly, reform has been one of the only constants in education while every other aspect of the system has remained in flux, in a never-ending reactionary state while each new reformation comes and goes.  Critical to understanding the current state of affairs is a historical look at curriculum history as it has lead to the current climate.  Pinar (2007) calls this “verticality,” which he defines as, “the intellectual history of the discipline,” including consideration for “What ideas formulated in earlier eras inform those in ours?” (pg. xiii).

A look at educational reforms through the twentieth century reveals certain themes.  Reforms are born in a specific social-historical context out of a belief that something is wrong or inadequate within schools, be it teacher quality, pedagogy, academic achievement, or instructional content.  From a historical perspective, curriculum study projects are situated within a specific context, including what Pinar (2007) calls “sounds of events outside the field–cultural shifts, political events, even institutional reorganizations,” which “influence what we say to each other and to schoolteachers.” (Pinar, 2007, pg. xiv). Once a problem is established in a given social-historical context, a sense of urgency is created–the something that is wrong is very wrong and needs corrected immediately.  From here, theories pulled from leading theorists in various fields (sociology, psychology, education, politics) of the time contribute to conversations about the functioning of schools, focused on several key questions:  What is the purpose (today) for American education?  What should children be taught (today) in American schools?  What is the teacher’s role in (today’s) society?  How should we teach given what we know (today) about instruction and learning?  Answers to these questions become specific to the reform movements and the context out of which it is born.  The pragmatic presentness of these reform-oriented questions reflects the situational temporality of their answers–meaning, the barrage of educational reforms we see in the twentieth century leading to today’s accountability culture are a result of their contextual boundedness.  As society changes, needs change, goals change, reforms change, education changes.

Overshadowing all of these reforms is the debate between progressive and traditionalist perspectives on curriculum.  Walker and Soltis (2009) define progressive educators as those in the first half of the twentieth century “who saw in the ideas of Dewey and other progressives new ways to think about curriculum,” and traditionalists as those “who were sure that the basic curriculum did not need change because it had proven itself essential to the education of individuals who would maintain an intellectually sound and civilized society” (pg. 18).  Complicating the binary nature of this definition, some “progressives” held traditionalist views, and some “traditionalists” were progressive in pushing for reform. The blurring between perspectives amounts to what Kliebard (1986) describes as puzzling the definition of progressive:  “The more I studied…the more it seemed to me that the term encompassed such a broad range, not just of different, but of contradictory, ideas on education as to be meaningless” (pg. xi).

Nonetheless, Walker and Soltis draw strong differentiations between progressive thinking and traditionalist thinking.  “Progressives,” they state “shared [belief in] opposition to prevailing school practices such as rote memorization, drill, stern discipline, and the learning of fixed subject matter defined in adult terms with little relation to the life of the child” (pg. 19).  They prefer change and see the present as “decidedly imperfect” with a need to be improved (Walker & Soltis, 2009, pg. 22).  According to Kliebard (1986), “progressive” was associated with “modern” and “new” and used to “designate something other than traditional practice or in some cases simply as a positive term” (pg. 227).  The quintessential problem of progressivism lies in this steadfast belief in change and the multitude of suggestions for change posed by progressive thinkers at any given time.  These varied ideas result in a “rich outpouring of ideas about curriculum and aims” (Walker & Soltis, 2009, pg. 19), but as was the case with Dewey’s Laboratory School (Kliebard, 1986), an inability to establish credible ideas that will be widely accepted and can last.  Pinar (2012), clearly aligning contemporary progressivism with liberal political mindsets, recognizes progressives in “the present historical moment” as those who “endorse academic study as valuable for its own sake, not for its ‘cash value’ in the market, not for its capacity to correct this historical injuries and present injustices right-wing politicians have deflected on schools” (pg. 232).

Traditionalists, on the other hand, are suspicious of change and believe the knowledge and culture developed over centuries are “too precious to change at the drop of a hat” (Walker & Soltis, 2009, pg. 23).  Progressives also believe social functions, such as the economy, society, and politics, are constantly changing, whereas traditionalists view the past with “reverence and respect” as something to be learned about and passed on to future generations (Walker & Soltis, 2009, pg. 23).  In regards to learning, progressives tend to align themselves more with children and their needs, “Youth is seen as likely to be innocent and good, whereas bias and evil are more likely to arise with age,” (Walker & Soltis, 2009, pg. 23); freedom and original exploration are more important than academic disciplines, and “individuals must learn to think for themselves” (Walker & Soltis, 2009, pg. 23).  On the other hand, traditionalists tend to align with the wisdom of adults and a belief that academic disciplines are “training for the mind” in rationality and “main forms of human knowledge” (Walker & Soltis, 2009, pg. 23).

Three distinct, significant epochs in the nineteenth century set the stage for today’s accountability climate.  The first of these began at the turn of the century when industrialization caused the disconnected, still-recovering nation to experience unprecedented rapid social, economic, and cultural growth and change.  The social efficiency movement began as a primarily industrial model with theories based in practical application to factories, but it quickly made its way into directing the course of American education.  The focus during this time was on the what of curriculum: What do students need to know?  Sentiments from this period still influence the what of curriculum today.

The second movement ushered in a culture of assessment in education in which some theories of learning focused on a process-product mindset.  Whereas the previous epoch addressed the what, and though the what was still in discussion, this period focused on the how of curriculum: How should information be delivered and assessed?  Again, sentiments derived from this period lingered throughout the remainder of the century.  During this time, the Tyler Rationale became a leading framework for designing curricular objectives and assessing students progress toward those targets.

Building on the previous two epochs and continuing the momentum of social efficiency and scientific management, the third epoch began with the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957.  During this time, the what and how of previous times were synthesized into what would become the contemporary understanding of education.  This third epoch built up to its culminating event with the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk, which served as the impetus for today’s accountability climate.

The “What” of Curriculum: Social Efficiency

Curriculum efforts leading into the industrial revolution were primarily dominated by Hall’s conception of learning via the natural developmental order of the child and Dewey’s idealization of educative experiences through scientific inquiry and reflective thinking (Kliebard, 1986).  However, at the turn of the century, with factories booming in growing urban centers, efficiency and scientific measurement to manage efficiency for the purpose of increased production became a general socio-cultural mindset.  Kliebard (1986) credits American sociologist Edward A. Ross with establishing the theoretical foundations at play in the social efficiency reform movement.  According to Kliebard (1986), Ross “saw civilized society teetering on the edge of a precipice,” whereby American individualism needed to be “curbed” to enable welfare of the collective (pg. 91).

His focus, then, was on social control and obedience to external law–to make use of those he identified as “wield[ing] the instruments of control,” such as teachers, clergymen, editors, law-makers, and judges in order to elicit social restraint (as cited in Kliebard, 1986, pg. 92).  Specifically, he believed schools had replaced religious organizations and families as the primary institution by which Americans received their moral upbringing, and instead of honoring the collective needs of society, schools were perpetuating American individualism, “becom[ing] less an instrument of social control than an aid to individual success” (as cited in Kliebard, 1986, pg. 92).  The need was urgent to redefine American schools to lessen emphasis on individualism and increase emphasis on social efficiency and control.

To do this required a model of efficiency, a framework, that would work in schools.  This was born out of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management model created for use in increasing production at lower costs in industry.  Kliebard (1986) credits the scientific management movement with the creation of formal curriculum studies: “The field of curriculum as a distinct area of specialization within the educational world was born in what may be described as a veritable orgy of efficiency, and the after-effects of that orgy have been felt throughout the twentieth century” (pg. 94).  Using his model, Taylor aimed for industry managers to carefully analyze every movement of each of their employees with the goal of uncovering which movements and series of movements were most efficient toward meeting the standard of the work and eliminating wasteful, and potentially costly, extraneous movements (Kliebard, 1986).  He believed that such scientific management could create a more orderly society that would ultimately engage in less wars, contention, and conflict.  (Kliebard, 1986).

Paralleling the social efficiency movement, an undercurrent of American thinkers, such as Francis Wayland Parker and John Dewey, believed “progressivism” in education could be achieved through other means.  Parker, for example, was opposed to textbooks, and believed teachers should have more control over their own lessons and units (Goldstein, 2014).  Dewey, at the same time, was in the process of opening his own Laboratory School in Chicago, which was founded on alternative models of education including learning within experiences, meaning exposing students to academics as they were necessary to a particular task.  Dewey, according to Goldstein (2014), expressed “horror” at the models of instruction in use at the time “in which children read textbooks, memorized their contents, and studied each subject…in isolation from the others” (pg. 81).  Dewey, along with Chicago’s first female Superintendent Ella Young, believed teachers should have active roles in instruction with more autonomy over their class lessons (Goldstein, 2014).  While Young believed teachers should at least have some say over the textbooks to be used, Dewey aimed for teachers to pose interesting questions and to provide experiences that would help students answer such questions (Goldstein, 2014).

Despite the efforts of this “other” camp of progressivists, by the 1920s, led by John Franklin Bobbitt, Taylorism made its way into school curriculum  as a method for creating more orderly schools by which the curriculum became “a direct and potent force in the lives of future citizens and, ultimately, an instrument for creating a stable and smoothly functioning society” (Kliebard, 1986, pg. 97).   In his first major publication, Bobbitt (2012) applied principles of scientific management to various facets of school operations including building construction, daily schedules, division of time across academic and special subjects, operations of the building to maximize efficiency (including opening the building on weekends to avoid “street and alley” (pg. 263) effects on children), and responsibilities of teachers including doing all work within their work day and having both male and female teachers to meet the masculine and feminine task requirement needs of their male and female students.  The most important and lasting of his early suggestions was the idea that curriculum should be constructed for individual variations and future prospects of individuals, meaning educators needed to find a way to predict their students’ future roles and teach them according to these future roles (Kliebard, 1986).  Specifically, once psychologists of the time determined a human’s ability to transfer knowledge and skills between tasks was much less than previously believed, Bobbitt (and others) believed curriculum needed to teach specific and direct skills related to a student’s future life role (Kliebard, 1986).  The curriculum necessary for a student who would ultimately work in a factory was very different from the curriculum necessary for a student who would ultimately become a doctor.  To meet this curricular objective, Bobbitt is credited with writing one of the most explicit definitions of social efficiency in curriculum:

The central theory is simple.  Human life, however varied, consists in the performance of specific activities.  Education that prepares for life is one that prepares definitely and adequately for these specific activities.  However numerous and diverse they may be for any social class, they can be discovered.  This requires only that one go out into the world of affairs and discover the particulars of what these affairs consist.  These will show the abilities, attitudes, habits, appreciations, and forms of knowledge that men need.  These will be the objectives of the curriculum.  They will be numerous, definite, and particularized.  The curriculum will then be that series of experiences which children and youth must have by way of attaining those objectives. (as cited in Kliebard, 1986, pg. 116).

Using Taylor’s model, Bobbitt envisioned curriculum as a series of steps through scientific technique that would first, identify current jobs comprising adult life, and second, establish a series of experiences for students who would fulfill these various jobs in the future (Kliebard, 1986).

Paralleling the work in social efficiency and scientific management were psychological movements in measuring mental processing, which made way for educational assessments to support the kinds of tailored curriculum advocated by Bobbitt (Kliebard, 1986).  Specifically, the creation of I.Q. tests by Francis Galton in England became an American source for sorting and regulating society in schools (Kliebard, 1986).  Using I.Q. scores as a basis, various curriculum ideas developed including Ross Finney’s differentiation of those cognitively capable of leading and those cognitively capable only of following into curricula geared at these two “predestined” life stations, and David Snedden’s description of curriculum strands for different segments of student populations (Kliebard, 1986).

The fundamental basis for curriculum based in the scientific curriculum making tradition is a belief that the purpose of education is to prepare for something in the future.  Using Walker and Soltis’ (2009) definitions of progressive and traditional, we see mainly traditional values in social efficiency despite progressive inclinations toward changing the system.  Reflecting the traditionalist’s preference for adulthood over childhood, Bobbitt declared, “Education is primarily for adult life, not for child life.  Its fundamental responsibility is to prepare for the fifty years of adulthood, not for the twenty years of childhood and youth” (as cited in Kliebard, 1986, pg. 121).  With this objective in mind, curriculum during the early twentieth centuries aimed to determine students’ future adult roles through assessments such as the newly-created I.Q. tests and to teach solely to these predestined positions while eliminating “wasteful” learning.  Children, therefore, were viewed not for their potential in the present moment, but for their future contributions to society, and their entire educational experience was aimed at preparing them for these future contributions.

The “How” of Curriculum:  Objectives and Assessment

Social efficiency and scientific management did not lose their momentum in the early 1930s.  In fact, supporters of the cause were still arguing to do away with traditional subjects for students whose life paths did not deem such subjects to be necessary (Kliebard, 1986).  The idea that social control could be achieved through education by teaching students to manage their own natural impulses morphed into a belief that educational objectives should be connected specifically to the kinds of behaviors schools expected out of students (Kliebard, 1986).  Kliebard (1986) further describes how outcome-based learning reflected ideas of social efficiency, propelling the factory-model of schooling into the 1930s:

The idea that, in curriculum development, exact specifications ought to be drawn up in advance and that success would be measured in terms of the extent to which those blueprints were followed is derived from the root metaphor of social efficiency, production, by which educational products are manufactured by the school-factory according to the particulars demanded by a modern industrial society. (pg. 221)

Given the focus on efficiency and measuring successful attainment of outcomes, it was only a matter of time before American society connected outcomes and their assessments to value of school systems.

Ralph Tyler, educational leader and statistician during the 1930s and 1940s, established a set of guiding questions that he advocated should be considered in any curriculum making:

  1. What educational purposes should the school seek to attain?
  2. How can learning experiences that are likely to be useful in attaining these objectives be selected?
  3. How can learning experiences be organized for effective instruction?
  4. How can the effectiveness of learning experiences be evaluated? (Null, 2011, pg. 139)

This “Tyler Rationale,” according to Walker and Soltis (2009) became the “most influential set of ideas about how to make a curriculum” (pg. 57).  According to Null (2011), Tyler’s “agnosticism” (pg. 140) according to the actual aims of curriculum is apparent in the statement of these questions.  Each question proposes that schools should have some purpose with some learning experiences, but the questions themselves do not attempt to define what these purposes and experiences should be.  Instead, Tyler aimed for schools to use these questions as a guide in their own work to develop local curriculum (Walker & Soltis, 2009;  Null, 2011).  To this end, Tyler suggested four sources for consultation in developing local curriculum: subject matter, children, societal problems, and education values (Null, 2011).  Unlike his contemporaries and predecessors who focused on one source for curriculum making over another, Tyler advocated integrating the four sources in aspects of curriculum (Null, 2011).

In examining his guiding questions, we see a basic, simplistic procedure for constructing curriculum: 1) Determine the learning objectives (“stated in such a way that they specify precisely and unambiguously just what is supposed to be learned” (Walker & Soltis, 2009), 2) Determine what experiences meet these specific objectives, 3) Organize and sequence learning experiences programmatically, and 4) Evaluate the success of the curriculum with assessments aligned to learning targets. Being a statistician, Tyler connected learning to measurable and observable outcomes in students.  Although he did not focus on what those outcomes should be (as mentioned previously), he believed in behaviors that exhibited learning, which was in keeping with the behavioral shifts in psychology at the time (Null, 2011).  Evaluation of curriculum, however, was intended as a “process for determining whether the curriculum is achieving the desired result” (Walker & Soltis, 2009, pg. 60). A perspective on evaluation through standardized assessments that exists through today.

Synthesis of the What and How:  Standardization

The 1950s in America were characterized by an ongoing technological “space race” with the Soviet Union to be the first country to launch a satellite into orbit.  In this context, Americans began to prize intellectual endeavors over purely pragmatic educational experiences (Kliebard, 1986).  Intelligent action, according to Kliebard (1986), was viewed culturally and politically as “The road to prosperity, social reform, and even national security” (pg. 264). Such thinking was significantly intensified by the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik on October 5, 1957 resulting in comparisons between the failures of American schools as compared to the Soviet Union’s educational system.

Post-Sputnik criticisms of American education centered on two main beliefs: that it was generally anti-intellectual, and those that it lacked focus on the sciences (Pinar, 2012).  A key difference between this epoch and that of the early 1900s industrialism was the speed at which these criticisms could permeate society, creating even more urgency among the general population.  These criticisms, therefore, quickly made their way into the mainstream, as recounted by Hofstadter:

The Sputnik [launching] was more than a shock to American national vanity: it brought an immense amount of attention to bear on the consequences of anti-intellectualism in the school system… Cries of protest against the slackness of American education, hitherto raised only by a small number of educational critics, were now taken up by television, mass magazines, businessmen, scientists, politicians, admirals, and university presidents, and soon swelled into a national chorus of self-reproach. (as cited in Pinar, 2012, pg. 104).

The failure of the nation to compete in such an epic technological achievement created a sense of blame placed squarely on the backs of educators.  Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, an intellectual of the time with clout among members of Congress, believed American education had “gone soft” (Kliebard, 1986, pg. 265).  He thought schools “must return to the traditional task of formal education in Western civilization–transmission of cultural heritage, and preparation for life through rigorous intellectual training of young minds to think clearly, logically, and independently” (as cited in Pinar, 2012, pg. 103).  As Pinar (2012) states, this focus on criticizing the failures of schools “deflected responsibility from those most obviously responsible for this state of affairs, that is, military leaders and scientists” (pg. 103), beginning what Pinar calls the “an era of scapegoating public schools” (pg. 105).

The period from 1950 through the 1980s was rife with multitudinous curriculum projects from the New Curriculum movement (ushered in with the American reaction to Sputnik), which lasted from 1958 to the mid-1960s and focused on math, science, and foreign language; to Open Education in the early 1970s, which focused on giving children more choice in school activities; to reforms aligned with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s through 1980s, which aimed to provide better education for disadvantaged populations (Walker & Soltis, 2009).

Paralleling these social and educational reforms was the passage of federal legislation gaining evermore federal jurisdiction within the local operations of schools.  The first of these was the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which according to the United States Senate, was a revision of previous education legislation whose name had been changed to include “defense” under the pretense that post-Sputnik conditions would respond approvingly to a “defense” Act (“1941: Sputnik”).  The first paragraph of the Act clearly connects national security and American education:

The Congress hereby finds and declares that the security of the Nation requires the fullest development of the mental resources and technical skills of its young men and women.  The present emergency demands that additional and more adequate educational opportunities be made available.  The defense of this Nation depends upon the mastery of modern techniques developed from complex scientific principles.  (as cited in Kliebard, 1986, pg. 266)

The Act was aimed at improving opportunities for the best and brightest American students in sciences, math, engineering, and foreign languages (Goldstein, 2014).  Key to how this Act was implemented was the disbursement of government funds to implement curricular changes–instead of giving funds to local school districts, money was provided to larger organizations, such as universities (Kliebard, 1986).  This political move effectively removed local control over curriculum efforts, and instead, placed it in the hands of content experts (Kliebard, 1986).

In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, precursor to No Child Left Behind) placed control over state and local schools in the hands of the federal government.  For the first time, local schools could be rewarded or punished through additional or withheld federal funds for implementing federal policy initiatives, such as “supplying low-income schools with up-to-date textbooks, establishing school libraries, and pulling at-risk students out of class for supplemental tutoring” (Goldstein, 2014, pg. 114).  ESEA was passed as a “gap-closing” measure, attempting to provide better access to educational opportunities for all students.  Whereas NDEA was aimed specifically at the best and brightest, the ESEA was aimed specifically at low-income students, especially black and Hispanic children.  Despite the attempts of President Reagan to undo the ESEA in the 1980s and close the U.S. Department of Education, the federal role in controlling schools increased with the 1983 A Nation at Risk report.  T.H. Bell, Regan’s appointed Secretary of Education, established the National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1981 to “examine the quality of education in the United States” and report their findings within 18 months of their first meeting (A Nation, 1983).  This committee, like the “new reformers” of the time, relied on data as a weapon to wage “a battle cry against the country’s supposed educational mediocrity” (Goldstein, 2014, pg. 165).  Their charge was:

  • assessing the quality of teaching and learning in our Nation’s public and private schools, colleges, and universities;

  • comparing American schools and colleges with those of other advanced nations;

  • studying the relationship between college admissions requirements and student achievement in high school;

  • identifying educational programs which result in notable student success in college;

  • assessing the degree to which major social and educational changes in the last quarter century have affected student achievement; and

  • defining problems which must be faced and overcome if we are successfully to pursue the course of excellence in education. (A Nation, 1983)

Relying primarily on testimony, research of the time, letters from “concerned citizens” and “existing analyses of problems” (A Nation, 1983), the committee published a scathing report that created a public moral outcry for immediate reform.

What we see in American curriculum history from the 1950s through the 1980s was the federal government’s increasing movement into controlling local schools.  With a reliance on previous educational practices based in Taylorism and the Tyler Rationale, the 1983 report became the beginning of a “new age” social efficiency model setting standards for what students should “know and be able to do” while also linking student performance on standardized assessments to teachers–a model that would ultimately dictate curriculum nationwide because the logical reaction from schools would be a narrowing of their curricula to begin teaching only that which is on the test.  By making education a moral imperative concerned about the sanctity of American identity and eliciting public outcry against “failing” schools, federal policy effectively gained support of the general public and standardizing the “what’s” and “how’s” of education became a national initiative:

And perhaps most important, citizens know and believe that the meaning of America to the rest of the world must be something better than it seems to many today. Americans like to think of this Nation as the preeminent country for generating the great ideas and material benefits for all mankind. The citizen is dismayed at a steady 15-year decline in industrial productivity, as one great American industry after another falls to world competition. The citizen wants the country to act on the belief, expressed in our hearings and by the large majority in the Gallup Poll, that education should be at the top of the Nation’s agenda. (A Nation, 1983, emphasis added).


What does it mean?

This vertical, historical look at three epochs has examined three significant and influential periods leading America toward today’s accountability climate.  Further exploration of the contemporary effects of these epochs is established through what Pinar (2007) calls horizontality, which enlists “analyses of present circumstances,” through “not only…the field’s present set of intellectual circumstances…but as well to the social and political milieus which influence and, all too often, structure this set”  (Pinar, 2007, xiv).  There are many various forces acting for, against, and within the American education system today, continually defining and redefining the conflicting values directing the course of epistemological underpinnings for today’s student learning experiences.  We are in an age of what Pinar (2012) and others call school “deform”–defined as an era “in which educational institutions devolve into cram schools focused on preparing students for standardized exams” (pg. xiii) and “in which educators have no formal control over the curriculum, the very organizational and intellectual center of schooling” (pg. 5).  Contributing to this contemporary model of deform are lingering sentiments from each of the three examined epochs.

Social efficiency and scientific management remain in today’s accountability climates, still setting the foundations for what is to be taught in schools.  From its own description, the CCSS reflect the need to prepare students for adult futures:

Today’s students are preparing to enter a world in which colleges and businesses are demanding more than ever before. To ensure all students are ready for success after high school, the Common Core State Standards establish clear, consistent guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade…The standards were drafted by experts and teachers from across the country and are designed to ensure students are prepared for today’s entry-level careers, freshman-level college courses, and workforce training programs. The Common Core focuses on developing the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills students will need to be successful.  (“What Parents Should Know”, 2015)

What we see in this description is clearly a focus on the future roles students will fulfill, whether they are “entry-level careers,” college, or the workforce-oriented.  This focus is repeated throughout the CCSS website:  “State school chiefs and governors recognized the value of consistent, real-world learning goals and launched this effort to ensure all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career, and life” (“Development Process, 2015); “The evidence base includes scholarly research, surveys on what skills are required of students entering college and workforce training programs, assessment data identifying college‐ and career‐ready performance” (“Myths vs. Facts”, 2015); “High standards that are consistent across states provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations to ensure that all students have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life upon graduation from high school, regardless of where they live” (“Frequently Asked Questions”, 2015).  Such focus on the future and creating curricula that will prepare for futures as the ultimate aim and objective of education harkens back to Bobbitt and his contemporaries.

Additionally, the contemporary use of data to determine students’ curricular needs (what we call “tracking” today) has withstood the test of time.  While I.Q. scores are more commonly used specifically for identification of giftedness in students, and moving gifted students into an honors or advanced track, schools use other forms of data to determine students’ placements.  These data may come from standardized achievement test scores, Intervention Assistance Team data analysis, and in-class grades.  Data may not be explicitly used to “predetermine” a student’s ultimate occupation, but it is considered when deciding which courses might best “serve” his academic needs.

The Tyler Rationale is also alive and well in curriculum making of today, with a resonating influence on the how of education.  In fact, Walker and Soltis (2009) contend it has become the understood paradigm in education: “The concept of a paradigm often carries with it the idea that it is difficult, if not impossible, for those in a given field to think about their subject in non-paradigm-structured ways” (pg. 57); this is certainly true in an educational reality wherein Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) guides all facets of curriculum development in schools.  Backward design is described as curriculum design which “involves thinking a great deal, first, about the specific learnings sought, and the evidence of such learnings before thinking about what we, as the teacher, will do or provide in teaching and learning activities” (Wiggins & McTighe, pg. 14).

The basic premise of the American accountability system reflects the Tyler Rationale on a national scale.  The CCSS have created a set of standards (learning outcomes) to be applied across state boundaries.  The CCSS describe themselves as such:

Educational standards are the learning goals for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. Educational standards help teachers ensure their students have the skills and knowledge they need to be successful, while also helping parents understand what is expected of their children. (“Frequently Asked Questions,” 2015)

It is, however, within the realm of the state and local districts to determine necessary learning experiences and to sequence these experiences to best meet those learning standards, as indicated by the CCSS documentation: “[standards] do not dictate how teachers should teach. Teachers will devise their own lesson plans and curriculum, and tailor their instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms” (“Frequently Asked Questions,” 2015).  The problem in the contemporary American accountability climate occurs when we fit these pieces against the Tyler Rationale.

In his procedural first step, Tyler advocates for locally-developed curricular objectives; the CCSS, however, are developed by those outside of local school districts, which leaves them open to interpretation and misinterpretation (despite the various clarifying documents and appendices released to counter these misinterpretations).  Steps two and three of the Tyler Rationale are intact in that local districts determine learning experiences and sequencing; however, if they have misinterpreted the intent of standards, it will affect performance in step four of the Tyler Rationale.  The fourth step requires evaluation of curricular programs, which has been established nationally via nearly-national standardized achievement tests (PARCC and Smarter Balanced) in English and math.  The distance between those enacting curriculum in classrooms and those creating standards and accountability measures lends the process to significant distortion and misinterpretation.  This begets the question:  How much of what is measured by these assessments reflects misinterpretations of standards rather than quality of learning experiences?

Regardless of its efficacy or lack thereof, after the 1983 A Nation at Risk report and later legislation via the reauthorization of 1965’s ESEA as the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act and the 2009 Race to the Top (RttT) federal competitive grant fund, the American federal government has embarked heavily into reforming the system of education while also engaging Tyler’s first and fourth steps in controlling American curriculum: setting targets and assessing them.  Systemically, using funding through RttT, policy was able to firmly establish a market-based competitive system of education by disallowing states who limited establishment of charter schools from competing for the funds; therefore, states who wanted grant funding had to allow more charter schools, creating more competition at the local level for students and funding associated with students (Pinar, 2012).  Academically, creation and implementation of the CCSS in 45 states and funding for and implementation of national standardized achievement assessments have helped to solidify the federal government’s stronghold over local schools.  America has also established a system of consequences (consequential accountability) tied to these two elements of the Tyler Rationale, including state-level adoptions of merit pay systems, teacher evaluation systems based primarily on student test data, and funding formulas tied to standardized assessments.

Consequential accountability and federal overreach into local districts is the summit of the climb toward control over American curriculum since the 1900s.  According to Pinar (2012), “By linking the curriculum to student performance on standardized examinations, politicians have, in effect, taken control of what is to be taught:  the curriculum,” which “demote[s] teachers to technicians in service to the state” (pg. 2).  Teachers have become semi-skilled workers, reminiscent of factory-models in the 1920s, who deliver information in such a way as to prepare students for standardized tests in order to avoid consequences of poor student performance on such tests.


Where do we go from here?

As Kliebard (1986) alluded to, the idea of progressivism has become a farce, particularly in contemporary American education.  While advocates for consequential accountability today may see their efforts as progressive in nature, supporting change, “fixing” the system, “new”–the foundations for this system existed far back into the 1920s and 30s, a fact which makes them traditional and, in actuality, old, a reinvention of status quo.  Under the guise of “equity of access” and better preparation for tomorrow’s “college and career readiness,” local curriculum has been narrowed and assessed (with subsequent consequences) into a modern-day social efficiency model:  that which is tested will be taught; that which is not tested will not be taught.  Equity is hardly the case as such accountability systems have only further differentiated affluent schools from poor schools.  Out of fear from consequences, teachers have been forcefully devolved into simply technicians of curriculum (Pinar, 2012), constantly reactively revising curriculum as assessments change over time.  If the curriculum continues to narrow to just what is testable on national tests, the kinds of “risks” facing our nation will be nearly a self-fulfilling prophecy of those depicted in 1983.  There are many unanswered questions about the direction of education:  How will the accountability climate continue to impact teachers?  What influence will it have over teacher education programs?

Despite the current bleak forecast for curriculum in American education, all is not lost.  There is an undercurrent of discontent from the general public, teachers, businesses, people who are “opting out” of testing for their children as a result of the sheer volume of tests currently administered.  Backlash against the common core and federal overreach into local curriculum matters is brewing in parent and teacher organizations across the country.  The hope for future curriculum theories is still relevant despite bureaucratic and political efforts to keep trudging along through this accountability climate.  What Dewey (and Superintendent Young) began in the early twentieth century as progressives during their time still exists loosely among those involved with schools today.  Hope for tomorrow lies in Henderson and colleagues’ (2015) conception of teachers as lead learners in which teachers find “wiggle room” within contemporary policy climates to teach for democratic understanding.  Hope lies in Pinar’s (2012) depiction of curriculum as a “complicated conversation,” rather than a dictate from policy.  Hope lies in the changing mindsets of politicians such as Diane Ravitch (2010) who once extolled the virtues of standardization and accountability and now see the devastating consequences of such policies on American education.  Progressive education still exists within these hopeful ideas for the future–it is not, thankfully, a bygone conclusion that American education will always be a system of external control and accountability.


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