June 17, 2022
Depending on your viewpoint, you may need to breathe a sigh of relief or exasperation regarding the next statement: In general, very little has really been accomplished as a result of recent DEIJ plans at schools, and it looks to stay that way unless schools can forge a path between curriculum, pedagogy, and compromise to create truly impactful programs.
The likely outcome is that DEIJ work, despite its relative attention and extrinsic celebrations on websites and school materials, will go the way of PBL (project-based learning): a program with great potential, relegated to being a bad date for the standards-driven scope and sequence heavy curriculum that has embedded itself into American K-12 education over the past 30 years. Schools realized at the dawn of the pandemic that this lack of progress on PBL, as well as SEL, left them exposed to a poorly conceived offspring of PBL, project-oriented assessment, and at the time of George Floyd, to a similar offspring of SEL, context-poor advisory support with discrete workshops. The traditional curriculum remained largely untouched. To better understand these scenarios, let’s review the history of American curricular ideologies in our education system.
The American education system has been driven by four ideologies describing the purposes of curriculum over the past 150 years: the Scholar Academic ideology focuses on knowledge and truth within the disciplines, the Social Efficiency ideology on preparing students with the skills and knowledge to serve useful, productive, and prosperous lives as adults, the Learner-Centered ideology on the growth and self-actualization of the individual through experience and the meanings they are able to construct from their environments, and the Social Reconstruction ideology on using education to build a fairer and more just society with a focus on social values rather than personal, normative or objective values.Michael Stephen Schiro, Curriculum Theory, Conflicting Visions & Enduring Concerns: Sage Publications, 2013.
Although John Dewey looms large in the annals of Progressive Education as the protagonist of Learner-Centered approaches, of equal stature is George Counts, who is less well-known today. Around a decade after the founding of the Progressive Education Association, Counts gave a 1932 speech to the association that caused what would ultimately be a terminal split in the members and the movement. He argued forcefully for the Social Reconstruction ideology in a series of speeches that now comprise the book, Dare the School Build a New Social Order? His work benefited initially from the prevailing political climate of desperation during the Great Depression but took a major interlude with the ructions and needs of World War II, coming into fuller force during the feminist and civil rights eras of the 1960s. It was, however, not to prevail or embed in the curriculum because it had failed to find a suitable accommodation with other curriculum ideologies—the Scholar Academic and Social Efficiency, in particular, that held dominance given the requirements of colleges and the business needs of capitalism.
The angst around the lack of literacy in math and reading, as exposed by World War II, and the quantitative anxieties unleashed by Sputnik, gave the Scholar Academic and Social Efficiency ideology much greater prominence and funding. Similarly, they both received a major bump in acceptance through the standards movement in the last quarter of the 20th century, with proponents like E.D. Hirsch, fears about American decline through globalization with China and the “Tiger” economies, and the accountability movement of NCLB. The disciplines were back in vogue as bastions of intellectual power and rigor driving American leadership and research.
And here we are again in similar circumstances. Recent events like the death of George Floyd have brought Social Reconstruction and social justice to the fore, but the Ukraine war, a global food crisis, and inflation out of control across the planet all serve as reminders of the fleeting popularity of social justice focused educational thought in the 1930s and 40s. By 1955, the Progressive Education Association had failed to reconcile its differences and “collapsed in the mid-1950s amidst rising anti-progressive education sentiment in cultural trends, including political conservatism and anti-intellectualism, school standardization, and emphasis on vocational education”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_Education_Association#cite_note-Cohen. Yes, associations do collapse when they fail to either solve problems or create realistic solutions, and being a non-profit helps little in “co-creating the future.”NAIS new mission statement.
So what might make the Social Reconstruction ideology or DEIJ or social justice a less than ideal curriculum date for the other ideologies? Let’s first look at the potential relationship from the point of view of its established potential partners, and then look at where there may be room for a marriage of sorts. In the table below you will see my précis of the values and practices of each curriculum ideology, drawing from Michael Stephen Schiro’s book, Curriculum Theory, Conflicting Visions & Enduring Concerns.
Table 1: Distillation of Schiro survey of Curriculum Ideologies
|Ideology >>||Scholar Academic||Social Efficiency||Learner-Centered||Social-Reconstruction|
|Advocates||The Colleges, |
|NCLB, Bobbitt, Gagne, Behavioral psychologists||Rousseau, Froebel, Dewey, Francis Parker, Steiner, Montessori||George Counts, Derrick Bell, Crenshaw, Kendi|
|Purpose||Transfer of accumulated cultural knowledge to advance the disciplines.||Preparation for productive lives and the needs of a functioning society and economy.||Releasing the unique capacities of the individual to grow by experience and knowledge construction.||Releasing the potential of society to grow through better understanding of what is and should be.|
|Learning||Transferred, developmentally modularized and intellectually internalized.||Transferred, developmentally modularized and externalized through prescribed skills and behaviors.||Received, experienced as a whole, and self-actualized into attitudes, skills, and behaviors.||Received, contextualized, experienced as a whole, and self-actualized into attitudes, skills, and behaviors that change social behaviors.|
|Knowledge||Objective reality from the disciplines||Normative reality through societal skills||Subjective meaning through experience||Social constructs with actionable imperatives|
|Childhood||In need of filling with norms related to disciplines||In need of filling with norms related to current societal needs||Having capacities they can discover in larger contexts||Having capacities to develop norms related to future societal needs|
|Assessment||Objective ranking for discipline content/skills||Objective ranking for criterion skill standards||Subjective diagnosing of personal growth||Subjective measurement of criteria of societal value|
Let’s first look at the potential “date” that Social Reconstruction might arrange with the two major curriculum incumbents, Scholar Academic and Social Efficiency, and see what the problems might be. I say incumbents because unless you are a Learner-Centered school such as a Waldorf or Montessori school, these two ideologies very much rule the roost (in Part 2 we look at a DEIJ date with Learner-Centered).
- Assessment. Just as with PBL (project-based learning) there is no interdisciplinary assessment umbrella with which to evaluate DEIJ programmatic knowledge, content or skills. For teachers who are asked to assess everything on normative or objective criteria, this is about as loose, imprecise, and nebulous as asking them to evaluate personal meaning. I have yet to see a learning standard that relates to recent anti-racism definitions of skills that could be adopted across the disciplines. Let’s take Ibram Kendi’s definition of anti-racism requiring more than just being non-racist but actually being an activist for anti-racist policies. How does that fit into the current writing and reading standards, let alone math and science standards? Standards are built on sequence, they are scaffolded and reinforced alongside other skills, and they are assessed normatively and/or objectively in the Scholar Academic and the Social Efficiency worlds. Standards are not just content, they link content with skills. So assume that you have added several more social justice-related texts to your reading lists. What will be assessed on those texts? Close reading skills or whether the student has actualized a plan to advocate for an anti-racist policy after relating to a character’s suffering (as Ibram Kendi would require)?
And what policy-making skills do students or teachers have? Protesting or activism is not a policy, and barely a skill unless courage has been defined with indicators of performance. Has your DEIJ team engaged you in a conversation about exactly how they plan to provide anti-racism standards and how they should be assessable? Does your DEIJ team have curricular formulation and integration expertise? Was it in their job description? No matter how good the intentions, a bad curriculum and low standards do more to harm the cause than exposure to the ideas might advance it.
- Time. Independent schools have gone down a full-scale Social Efficiency route because they have been led to believe that brand management benefits from more content choice and that’s what the ultimate client (parent or college) wants. In doing so, teacher time is consumed with the completion of an expanded set of curriculum standards that not only impact their own delivery but if they fail to achieve completion, the delivery of the courses their students move into the following year. If there are Social Reconstruction anti-racism curriculum standards, where will teachers find the time to integrate them? Will it be okay that as a result of social justice content the pre-requisites of the Honors courses students were hoping to get into might be impacted? If your DEIJ team has failed to build such consensus on the use of time, then the result will be banishment to the outside (extra) curriculum: to advisories, to affinity groups during club time or after school, or to developing teacher skills to be anti-racist and avoid implicit bias during their PD sessions or departmental meetings.
- Critical Thinking. It can be a bit dangerous to go on a date and then start criticizing that date, but it will be essential to know whether you can communicate on the same terms. And here it looks like we might have a perfect match. After all, Social Reconstruction is based on critical studies (like critical race theory) and Scholar Academic and Social Efficiency have also elevated critical thinking: it is a fundamental part of the scientific process, it’s part of the great classical Socratic tradition, it’s a well-recognized tenet of a liberal arts education, and it’s a stalwart of decades of thinking about how the diversity of thought benefits everyone. But Social Reconstruction ideology in its present incarnation, after thinking critically and drawing on its own experience, seems less concerned with the critical thinking of others. The problem, ironically, can be found in the adherence of Social Reconstruction to a different set of views on the purpose of school and childhood, the use of language, and the nature of truth or reality. It argues that the voices and grievances of oppressed groups should be elevated, perhaps at the expense of discourse, and the purpose of school is to create greater equality in society, not improve learning at an individual level.
Critical Thinking requires free expression, but the Social Reconstruction movement at independent schools has intentionally or unintentionally dampened that and led to the results below from our recent survey of 84 Heads of School. This is why, at OESIS, we are sure there is misalignment at most schools between faculty, students, parents, and the Board. That is usually manifest in self-censorship, not a core tenet of any sustainable pedagogical or curricular ideology, and, by the way, not a recipe for retention, enrollment, or recruitment. Would you set acceptable concepts or topics or questions or words or theories on a first date? Or would you build a bottom-up plan for them? Only 11.9% of Heads in our survey think that there is a lot of psychological safety and freedom of speech at their school!
The Social Reconstruction movement that suddenly reignited with the death of George Floyd will suffer the same fate as the 1940s and 50s progressive movement if it keeps dating the wrong ideologies. Scholar Academics and Social Efficiency are not looking for a long-term relationship; only at best, a fling. They represent the accumulated knowledge of the past (Scholar Academics) and the pragmatic needs of the Present (Social Efficiency). With them, DEIJ, like PBL, will be somewhere between the occasional tryst and the same-time-next-year affair. In the process, an expensive and extrinsic DEIJ silo will simply be added to the already top-heavy administrative structure of the school and resentment will build. Unless schools pull away from Scholar Academic and Social Efficiency and pursue Learner-Centered and Social Reconstruction, DEIJ has no future.
In “Part 2: DEIJ dates an Old Girlfriend,” we write about how Social Reconstruction may actually have a Cinderella: Learner-Centered Curriculum. This will not be a cheap date. When George Counts so forcefully delivered his speech at the Progressive Education Association convention in 1932 criticizing Learner-Centered approaches, the rest of the conference was abandoned to discuss his points. I am firmly in the Learner-Centered camp but smiled when I read his speeches because they were of a higher caliber than the critical theory advocates of today. He would have certainly been welcomed for his courage as an Intrepid columnist or an OESIS keynote. To close, we have work to do. The bright new future that seemed to be in reach when the Progressive movement split 75 years ago might yet be attainable. We will also focus on this subject at OESIS Baltimore Heads & Leaders Conference on October 24th and 25th.
Note: At OESIS our 2022 summer reading book is Curriculum Theory: Conflicting Visions & Enduring Concerns by a retired Boston College Professor Michael Stephen Schiro. We encourage you to read it. We will use his lens in much of our work this summer including the recent OESIS National Teacher Survey open till June 30th and in our new Faculty Placement screening practices.
You may also be interested in other articles written by OESIS President Sanje Ratnavale for Intrepid Ed News.