The Curriculum Wars Live On: Two Contemporary Flash Points

The following is an excerpt from What Lies Ahead for America’s Children and Their Schools, a new book edited by Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Richard Sousa for Hoover Institution Press. This excerpt comes from a chapter called “Strengthening the Curriculum,” by Tom Loveless.

Two powerful changes lie ahead that have the potential to provoke controversy by inflaming the old progressive-traditionalist philosophical debates.

New Technologies

The proliferation of computer-based instruction and online schooling has many observers excited by the promise of technology to fundamentally reshape education. Terry Moe and John Chubb [1] argue that once students are no longer dependent on brick-and-mortar schooling, the mammoth institutions built to deliver traditional instruction—and the entrenched interest groups (e.g., unions) that benefit from current institutional arrangements—will wither away. Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson argue in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns that technology will “change how the world learns.” [2] They foresee a digital storehouse of modular online learning activities that can be customized to each student. Although technology may indeed change how students learn, the curricular question is whether it will also change what students learn.

The Christensen book answers that question by invoking a romantic ideology with deep roots in educational progressivism. The theories of modern-day progressives are called on to endorse curricula based on students’ interests and strengths. [3] Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences asserts that conventional schooling only taps two intelligences (linguistic and logical–mathematical) and ignores six others. Christensen et al. embrace Gardner’s ideas and argue that curricula customized to students’ intelligences will enhance learning, mainly by boosting students’ motivation to learn. E. D. Hirsch points out in The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them that Gardner’s theory lacks empirical evidence and has few followers among cognitive psychologists; despite that, it appeals to those with “the benign hope for all children that they will be good at doing something and happy doing it.” [4]

Christensen, Horn, and Johnson also embrace a close cousin of multiple intelligences: learning styles theory, the notion that students learn material best that is presented “in ways that correspond to how their minds are wired to learn.” The authors call for new assessments that will accommodate different learning styles, describing a student who, “blessed with bodily-kinesthetic intelligence” but weak in mathematics, struggles to learn chemistry: “we’ll need to find ways to compare his mastery of a body of material with the mastery demonstrated by someone whose intelligence is in the logical-mathematical realm.” [5] This sounds an awful lot like a chemistry test for athletes and dancers.

Daniel T. Willingham has debunked learning styles. Writing in the Washington Post, Willingham explains:

The Big Idea behind learning styles is that kids vary in how they learn: Some learn best by looking (visual learners), some by listening (auditory learners), and some by manipulating things (kinesthetic learners).

The prediction is straightforward: Kids learn better when they are taught in a way that matches their learning style than when they are taught in a way that doesn’t.

That’s a straightforward prediction.

The data are straightforward too: It doesn’t work. [6]

The point here is that the proliferation of new technologies will not only affect instruction, the how of learning, but may also affect curriculum, the what of learning. That proposition is sure to ignite the historical conflict between educational progressives and traditionalists. Moreover, individualized instructional programs, whether delivered exclusively online or through “blended” regimes, are antithetical to the goal that all students learn a common body of knowledge and skills at approximately the same time. If individual interests and pre-existing cognitive skills determine what is learned and when it is learned (i.e., “each student learns at her own pace”), demographic characteristics that are correlated with personal interests and cognitive skills will mirror how far students proceed through the curriculum. Achievement gaps based on socioeconomic characteristics will surely widen and solidify.

Common Core

The Common Core State Standards project starts from a premise diametrically opposed to the technologists’ philosophy of individualism. Common Core supporters believe the content of learning should reflect what a society wants students to learn, that such content can be spelled out with specificity, and that assessments should measure whether students have learned, and schools have taught, the authorized content by a stipulated time. A math standard stating that by the end of second-grade students will know how to subtract one three-digit number from another three-digit number does not mean students will learn it at their own pace, with some mastering the idea in second grade and others taking two or three more years to learn it. Nor does it mean students will learn subtraction when they find it interesting or only after they have grown tired of drawing unicorns.

The description just presented casts the Common Core in terms appealing to education traditionalists. But many traditionalists are critical of the Common Core. Why? Because the Common Core also contains elements that are currently ambiguous as to the ends they are intended to accomplish. These elements are fuel for rekindling the progressive-traditionalist curriculum wars.

Keep an eye on these flashpoints:

1. Process over product. The Common Core can be used to justify many things, including questionable approaches to learning. When a particular activity comes under fire, local educators seek political cover by claiming that district or state policies (or the Common Core) made them do it. Recently, the Common Core project released “Standards for Mathematical Practice,” guidelines related to practice, not content. [7] Giving process equal status with content drew the ire of traditionalists in the 1990s math wars.

Consider the following anecdote. James V. Shuls, a blogger on education topics, pulled his son, a first grader, out of the local public school because of its interpretation of practice commensurate with the Common Core. [8] The school used a constructivist math textbook, Cognitively Guided Instruction, that was written during the heyday of the 1989 NCTM Standards. The book is now making a comeback as “aligned with the Common Core.”

Students in the class were forbidden to add numbers in a column. Instead, they were forced to decompose the numbers and show them graphically (draw them), as called for in the Common Core. The parents met with the teacher and principal. The teacher claimed this laborious approach (based on math theories from the Freudenthal Institute, also the founders of the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA test) revealed students’ conceptual understanding of addition, an example of the “deeper learning” called for in the Common Core. The school’s principal also defended the approach for reflecting the objectives of the Common Core.

2. Non-fiction texts. English language arts teachers are up in arms over the Common Core’s suggestion that teachers should try to balance the assignment of non-fiction and fiction readings. This criticism is mostly inside baseball, limited to English Language Arts (ELA) teachers. Common Core leaves the selection of texts to local educators. The real battles will come when stories surface of teachers assigning controversial texts as required readings. Controversial texts are assigned currently, of course. But in the future, the Common Core will be cited as justification (again, providing political cover).

3. Integrated math courses. Math reformers have long dreamed of eliminating year-long high school math courses taught by topic (algebra, geometry, calculus) in favor of integrated math courses that weave major topics together in composite courses called math I, math II, math III (equivalent to freshman math, sophomore math, junior math, etc.). Most of the world’s countries currently organize math curriculum in the integrated way; the United States is an outlier in not doing so. But this reform has been tried repeatedly (most recently in the state of Georgia) and it has repeatedly failed after stern public opposition. Many teachers are not comfortable teaching an integrated math course, and parents fear taking such a course will jeopardize their children’s preparation for college. Currently only 3–4 percent of US high school students in any particular grade (and less than 10 percent of all graduates) take an integrated math course. And yet, the Common Core accords integrated math and topic-oriented math courses equal standing, with standards and assessments written for both. This is understood to be a way of encouraging the use of integrated math courses. Seattle schools have already announced their intention to switch to integrated courses. Watch for a firestorm of opposition in many communities.

4. Tracking. William Schmidt of the University of Chicago has declared that the Common Core means an end to tracking in math through eighth grade. Tracking typically starts in seventh or eighth grade, placing kids in courses that match the hierarchy of the math curriculum. Nationally, about 6 percent of seventh graders take algebra I. Students who take and pass algebra I typically then take geometry or algebra II in eighth grade because, presumably, they are prepared for it. That would end. De-tracking created political turmoil in many communities in the 1990s. Look for controversy to return if the Common Core is interpreted as meaning all students will take the exact same courses.

Future Research

The phenomena described in this essay are political in nature. They stem from ancient philosophical disagreements over what students should learn. Progressives and traditionalists battled over the curriculum in the first two decades of the twentieth century (practical vs. “book-based” learning), in the 1920s (project-based, experiential learning vs. traditional intellectual disciplines), in the 1940s (curriculum for personal adjustment vs. curriculum for knowledge and skills), in the 1960s and 1970s (student-centered, open classrooms and inquiry learning vs. teacher-led classrooms and basic skills), and in the 1990s (over standards, as described above). It is reasonable to believe that the politics of curriculum, which have been relatively dormant in the past decade, will become heated once again.

Tom Loveless is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution


1. Terry M. Moe and John E. Chubb, Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).
2. Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 2008).
3. In addition to Howard Gardner, the book favorably cites Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Needand What We Can Do About It (New York: Basic Books, 2008) and Larry Rosenstock, principal of technology-oriented, inquiry- and project-based High Tech High in San Diego. Rosenstock says that High Tech High grew out of his work with Ted Sizer, a progressive legend, former dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education, and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools.
4. E. D. Hirsch Jr., The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 261.
5. Christensen, Horn, and Johnson, Disrupting Class, 112.
6. Daniel Willingham, “Student Learning Styles Theory is Bunk,” Washington Post, September 14, 2009.
7. Common Core State Standards Initiative, “Standards for Mathematical Practice,” 2012,
8. James Shuls, “Why We Need School Choice,” Education News, January 16, 2013,

Reprinted from What Lies Ahead for America’s Children and Their Schools, edited by Chester E. Finn Jr. and Richard Sousa, with the permission of the publisher, Hoover Institution Press. Copyright © 2014 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.

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