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The Shame of the Schools

Dewey soon referred to the goal of the project as the “New Education.” His teaching and publishing in philosophy and psychology did not come to a standstill, but education, pedagogy, and school administration devoured more and more of his time and energy. He ventured out himself in search of schoolroom desks and chairs not made to be screwed to the floor. He talked willingly to parents’ and teachers’ groups about plans for the school. Dewey’s modesty and dedication won him growing loyalty. He associated the mission of his laboratory school with the social ideas and reforms being tried out at that time by his friend Jane Addams at the Hull House settlement in the slums of Chicago.

Dewey also watched a little apprehensively as the celebrated educator Colonel Francis Parker, originally brought in from Quincy, Massachusetts, to direct the Chicago Normal School, was being set up by International Harvester money in his own private institute with an attached practice elementary school. Dewey recognized the flamboyant Parker, thirty years his senior, as the “father of progressive education.” Then the University of Chicago, in what looked like a brilliant move, incorporated Parker’s institute and elementary school and endowment into its own programs. Parker conveniently died the following year, in 1902. The two elementary schools merged for a year under the Deweys and then foundered in misunderstandings and inevitable turf wars. In 1904 Dewey accepted an offer from Columbia University in New York. His pedagogical experiment was over.

More seriously and consequentially than I have done by serving on a school board in Vermont, Dewey went back to school in his late thirties. He built and ran a laboratory, showplace, proving-ground school whose eight-year history has been told in one major book and a large number of biographies and articles. What concerns us here is what Dewey himself learned by going back to school in this enterprising, private, yet essentially democratic experiment. Fortunately, Dewey left reliable documentation allowing us to answer that question. Three major statements—two pamphlets and a lecture series—cover the life span of the Laboratory School. And they represent three critical points along the graph of Dewey’s evolving thought.

Barely a year after the opening of the University Elementary School, Dewey issued a short pamphlet, “My Pedagogic Creed” (1897), every paragraph of which begins “I believe….” One of the most widely republished and translated of Dewey’s writings, this brash manifesto displays the reformist zeal that fired his search and research for the “New Education.” Since the manifesto format required no discursive argument and no narrative or descriptive line, synopsis does not represent the pamphlet as well as judicious quotation. Here is Dewey in “My Pedagogic Creed” clearing the intellectual ground for his experimental school:

The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education.

I believe, therefore, that the true center of correlation on the school subjects is not science, nor lit-erature, nor history, nor geog-raphy, but the child’s own social activities.

I believe that there is, therefore, no succession of studies in the ideal school curriculum.2

My Pedagogic Creed” was a tendentious aberration in Dewey’s writings, one he soon put behind him. The editor of a widely available collection, John Dewey on Education (Modern Library, 1964), makes the error of giving this early essay unmerited importance by placing it last.

Two years later, in 1899, Dewey published The School and Society, a one-hundred-page book made up of three lectures and six related articles and talks. By this time Dewey’s school had provoked skeptical comments about undisciplined students running wild and learning only what they wished. The School and Society adopted a slightly defensive tone in discussing discipline, the need for carefully sequenced subject matter, and the deplorable “Waste” of duplication and omission that occurs without such a sequence of studies. This short book abandoned the edict-like declarations of “My Pedagogic Creed” and sought commonsense solutions to the problems of running an experimental school. In these pages one also be-gins to hear two new and unexpected verbs: to “direct” and to “control” the child’s activities.

After three more years at the Laboratory School, Dewey returned to the pamphlet format to set down his thoughts, but not to the earlier stentorian style. “The Child and the Curriculum” has been reedited and translated almost as frequently as “My Pedagogic Creed.” Here is a synopsis of the opening pages of “The Child and the Curriculum.”

According to Dewey, education rests on two interacting factors: the floating immature mind of the child and the organized knowledge of the adult. In practice, schools tend to separate these two factors into antagonists representing two opposing sides: the child versus the curriculum. These opposites thrust themselves forward by making extreme claims: “The child is the starting point, the center, and the end” versus “Subject-matter furnishes the end and it determines the method.” Each side asserts an educational reductionism that seeks to eliminate its rival.

Dewey seems almost to relish this joust. He prolongs it for two more paragraphs before issuing his own challenge: “What then is the problem?” he barks, deciding to break up the fight. He does not mean: “Why can’t you come up with a winner after all this fighting?” He means: “Why can’t you see that both sides must win?” Having observed the development of his Laboratory School for six years, Dewey now concludes that he wants it to be simultaneously child-centered and curriculum-centered. He is not proposing a compromise or an appeasement. He is promoting two complementary viewpoints. The logician in Dewey found the analogy of a continuum connecting apparent, not real, opposites. What he wrote deserves to be looked at carefully:

What, then, is the problem? It is just to get rid of the prejudicial notion that there is some gap in kind (as distinct from degree) between the child’s experience and the various forms of subject-matter that make up the course of study. From the side of the child, it is a question of seeing how his experience already contains within itself elements—facts and truths—of just the same sort as those entering into the formulated study; and, what is of more importance, of how it [the child’s experience] contains within itself the attitudes, the motives, and the interests which have operated in developing and organizing the subject-matter to the plane which it now occupies. From the side of the studies, it is a question of interpreting them as outgrowths of forces operating in the child’s life, and of discovering the steps that intervene between the child’s present experience and their richer maturity.

…The child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process. Just as two points define a straight line, so the present standpoint of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction. It is continuous reconstruction, moving from the child’s present experience out into that represented by the organized bodies of truth that we call studies.

Has Dewey now solved the problem of the child and the curriculum, either for 1902 or for 2005? No indeed. But something has happened. By going back to school, to his own school, Dewey allowed practice to guide theory to a sturdy synthesis. As Louis Menand has insisted in his fine discussion of Dewey in The Metaphysical Club (2001), this reconciliation of opposites, of half-truths, into one “organic circuit” or whole truth exhibits the basic mental move of Dewey’s soundest philosophy. Education in particular flourishes more on inclusion than on exclusion of elements. The Laboratory School under Dewey set and maintained a year-by-year curriculum to guide the developing experience of the children.

This major development in Dewey’s thought and practice points back to my original quandary and presents a balanced understanding of the role of “the organized bodies of truth that we call studies”—that is, a coherent curriculum. As I have shown, Dewey made contradictory statements on the subject. But “The Child and the Curriculum” grew directly out of his one substantial experience in running an elementary school. For that reason the essay is one of his most clearheaded statements on education.


Newly elected to a union school board in Vermont, I learned that in six hundred pages of official documents there is no attempt to lay out a curriculum; the pages contain hortatory statements about goals and teaching approaches. Though still apparently functioning, such a program of studies is essentially rudderless. I went on to explore Vermont statutes and regulations pertaining to curriculum. These perfunctory-sounding rules distribute power and responsibility among three parties: state, district, and individual schools.

The legislature has assigned to the State Board of Education the responsibility to set standards for student performance, and to the sixty supervisory union boards in the state the responsibility “to coordinate curriculum plans among the sending and receiving schools” in their districts. The School Quality Standards issued by the Vermont Department of Education stipulate: “Each school shall make continual and steady progress in the alignment of local curriculum consistent with the [State] Framework [of Standards] or comparable standards” and “each school shall evaluate and review the curriculum on a periodic basis.”

I interpret this overlapping legal language to mean that responsibility for setting curriculum lies with “each school,” subject to the “coordination” of the supervisory union board and in accordance with state standards. Thus the principle of local control remains unmentioned and presumably unchallenged. District boards can only “coordinate” the curricula of district schools; the state board can establish only “standards” for the schools’ curricula. Those state standards are deliberately kept vague, if not empty, for fear of infringing on local control.

In practice, the result is an elaborate game of “Après vous, Gaston.” Everyone gestures to the other parties to go first through the door of setting a genuine course of study. In my district, the Curriculum Guidelines in each content area are drawn up by a committee representing all five elementary schools, one high school, and the superintendent’s office. Great pains are taken to make the Guidelines “standards-based”—that is, attentive to (“aligned with”) the state Framework of Standards as well as “coordinated” among different schools. In this elaborate ritual of deciding on the curriculum at three levels—local, supervisory union, and state—all specific content drains away. Scores of people in Montpelier and in every one of the sixty Vermont districts spend weeks thinking up fuzzy professional language to compensate for the absence of a specific curriculum.

High over the general melee I have been describing hovers the great raptor: I refer to the elusive yet commanding term “standards.” No one can define them. No one can oppose them. No one can explain why they have virtually driven out curriculum. But is the mystery so great? In my understanding of our language, a standard (a required level of attainment in a defined activity) cannot exist in education without a curriculum to define the activity or field of study. We cannot “set the bar” higher or lower unless everyone involved knows the rules of the game and how to measure inches and feet.

Somehow the laborious, confusing, six-hundred-page “standards-based curriculum” drawn up for my Vermont district does not prevent a basic education from reaching a fair number of students in Vermont. Still, I’m convinced that we could do better and also save time and money.

All this I learned during four years sitting on two school boards.

What Dewey learned by going back to school can be told more briefly. He knew more to begin with. He learned to acknowledge not one but two centers in school: both the child and the subject matter to be taught to the child. He found the fit between those two half-truths. Between 1896 and 1902 in Chicago, Dewey changed his mind and recognized the need for a coherent K–12 curriculum.

Furthermore, his conversion to a sequenced, specific curriculum throws light on a complaint often heard today about standardized tests: namely, that tests oblige teachers to teach to the test. But just reflect for a minute. The reason for teaching to the test is not the mandated existence of tests. It is the lamentable absence of a clear curriculum. If there’s no coherent curriculum to teach to and to base tests on, then one has to teach to the test. Here lies the great pedagogical short-circuit and break-down, brought on by the empty promises and dummy documents called “standards.” Without a specific curriculum, there can be no standards.


I don’t have to go back to the Greeks and Romans, or to the trivium and quadrivium, in order to make the simple point that today the only way to assure sustained attention to a true liberal arts program in a school is to embed it in the curriculum adopted by the school. A teacher here and there trying out Ovid or Dickens or a chapter of Tocqueville may ignite the intellectual curiosity of a few students and deserves every encouragement. But a curriculum that specifies a judicious selection of great books and perennial topics will allow that intellectual excitement to spread farther and to attain the added rewards of “commonality.” Yet I have visited class after class in which the choice of reading is left entirely to the student. Commonality of reading and study, not to be confused with lock-step, is neglected in favor of student choice and personalized learning.

Now, I am not so optimistic as to believe that my supervisory union district will soon develop a genuine curriculum, and even a liberal arts program. I do not foresee that sixty-five teachers at Mt. Abraham Union High School, seconded by the district board and the Mt. Abe board and the teachers of the five feeder elementary schools along with their boards, will soon decide to draft a grade-by-grade, content-rich, specific, flexible, teacher-friendly, and teacher-proof curriculum—and then be able to adopt it.

Yet I believe that the accompanying deliberations would stir up the school and parents in a healthy and fruitful way. I would love to hear members of our community discussing the Founding Fathers and Huckleberry Finn, and the separation of Church and State.

There is an alternative. It’s even a legal and simple course of action, though uncommon. The overriding principle here, partly embodied as I have shown in statutory law, is local control. Each school sets its own curriculum, coordinates it with other schools’ curriculums in the district as directed by the superintendent, and bases it on Vermont’s Framework of Standards. Nothing says a school or a district has to draft and write its curriculum document from scratch. And right here my Vermont district displays a certain timidity and conformity in regularly revising its own curriculum guidelines. The existing documents are prevented from providing a specific grade-by-grade content by their arrangement into three clumps of four grades each. As can be seen from the excerpts presented here (excerpt 1), the very layout of these documents precludes a sequential curriculum.

The alternative would set aside existing Vermont curriculum documents. My district can examine and evaluate and finally select one from among a number of independent, off-the-shelf curricula now available, both public and proprietary. The New York State Board of Regents, the International Baccalaureate, New Standards, Success for All, the Edison Project, the Core Knowledge Sequence, Direct Instruction, America’s Choice, New American Schools—all these programs make differing claims, including comprehensive school reform. I have spent much time in the past three years searching for and scrutinizing these programs and their curricula.

I have found only one curriculum that moves grade by grade (in this case K–8), that uses simple lists of specific content, that does not prescribe teaching methods, that is cross-referenced, and that turns out to be informative and even a pleasure to read. The Core Knowledge Sequence (now in its third edition), prepared and published by the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia, accomplishes all this in a no-frills two hundred-page booklet adopted since 1986 by 480 schools and under consideration by four hundred. The moving spirit here is the dedicated teacher-scholar E.D. Hirsch.3 Everyone concerned about what is being taught in our public schools should examine the Core Knowledge Sequence. The considered selection of such a curriculum by my district would represent the full and proper exercise of local control and a means of coordinating the preparation of students in the five elementary schools feeding Mt. Abe.

The excerpts reproduced here (excerpt 2) from the Core Knowledge Sequence reveals how straightforwardly this curriculum document lists subjects and content items.4 For some schools and for some teachers, so specific a program of study represents a fundamental change, almost a conversion, and would have to be carefully implemented. With the help of the Core Knowledge Foundation School Department, hundreds of schools have made the transition. For the most part, teachers, students, parents, and administrators have been satisfied with the results. In a school setting it helps enormously when all parties can find out easily just what is being taught in any course and how the sequence fits together to cover the ground.5

Listen once more to the Vermont Department of Education “Quality Standards”:

Each School shall make continual and steady progress in the alignment of local curriculum consistent with the [State] Framework [of Standards] or comparable standards and articulated across all grades.

I have underlined “or comparable standards.” I read the offered alternative, “comparable standards,” as a virtual invitation to schools to do better than state and district documents have done in articulating the curriculum “across all grades.” Vermont has offered its school districts and schools the opportunity to choose the best off-the-shelf curriculum. I’m not a paid lobbyist. I merely hope to demonstrate to my district with its six schools and seven boards, and to anyone concerned with school curriculum, that the Core Knowledge Sequence embodies the dynamic balance that Dewey discovered while running the Laboratory School, the balance between the developing child and the mature curriculum.

And just think, students in my district and in other districts might learn to understand references to my proposal as “quixotic.” For, in the Core Knowledge Sequence that I am championing, episodes from Cervantes’s novel appear prominently in the fifth-grade English curriculum.

Excerpt 1
Excerpt 2
Excerpt 3
Excerpt 4


The Shame of the Schools’ September 22, 2005

  1. 2

    See John Dewey, Dewey on Education: Selections, edited and with an introduction by Martin S. Dworkin (Teachers College, Columbia University, 1959), pp. 20, 25, 27.

  2. 3

    For an article describing his general approach, see his “The Primal Scene in Education,” The New York Review, March 2, 1989.

  3. 4

    Additional extracts from this text as well as from Vermont’s Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities are published in the Web version of this article, excerpt 3 and excerpt 4. An earlier and shorter version of this essay appeared in The Journal of Education, Vol. 184 (November 2, 2003).

  4. 5

    Full information on the activities and publications (including videos) of the Core Knowledge Foundation is available at its Web site: www.coreknowledge .org.

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