This article explores the origins of a core curriculum and the debates that have ensued over the years regarding what should and should not be included as essential subject matter to study. "Core curriculum" refers to a specific set of identified courses that students need to take to provide the foundation for success in college and in later life. The core curriculum provides essential knowledge, skills, and understandings that students need for successful application in a variety of life contexts. Discussion focuses on the pressing issue of debate regarding what should be included in the core curriculum and then expands to explore the range of perspectives regarding whether or not the core curriculum is demanding enough, as well as how schools can make the core curriculum accessible to all students regardless of learning ability, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc. The article highlights a recent study regarding the inadequacy of the current core curriculum with regard to student preparation for advanced study and further illuminates the complexities introduced into the debate by federal legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
Keywords Achievement Gap; ACT (formerly known as American College Testing); Core Curriculum; A Nation at Risk; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Progressive Education Movement
History of Core Curriculum
The origins of the core curriculum can be traced back to the 1930s, when the Commission on the Relation of School and College of the Progressive Education Association began an eight-year study, and the state of Virginia designed the first core curriculum focused on social functions (Overton, 1966). The eight-year study involved numerous high schools and focused primarily on exploring new curriculum approaches to improve high school education (Caskey, 2006). Overton (1966) points out that as schools began to develop a core curriculum in the 1930s, the early designs focused on a departure from traditional separation of disciplines in high school toward a more integrated curriculum that directly addressed the issues pertinent to students in the twentieth century.
Caskey (2006) further asserts that during this time schools focused primarily on developing a core curriculum that organized student experiences in high school around social issues pertinent to students' lives. One of the most important movements of the 1930s and 1940s, the progressive education movement, emphasized student-centered, integrated curriculum that at the time was referred to as core curriculum (Vars, 1972; cited in Vars, 1991). Research regarding the core curriculum boomed during the 1940s and 1950s as schools worked tirelessly to develop a core curriculum they felt would address twentieth-century issues.
In 1983, A Nation at Risk was published, proposing that every high school in the United States require students to take a predetermined core set of courses to prepare them for the rigor and challenge of college and life after secondary school . The core curriculum, therefore, referred to a minimum number of courses that students needed to take in order to provide them with a foundation to be successful in life after school. This foundation would consist of a core set of knowledge, skills, and understandings that students could apply in a variety of life contexts regardless of what path they chose to pursue. McPartland and Schneider (1996) highlight the results of a set of studies in the 1980s conducted after the publication of A Nation at Risk that strongly encouraged high schools to increase the curriculum requirements for graduation.
Current Status of Core Curriculum
In recent years, research contends that the core curriculum required in most high schools across the nation does not adequately prepare students for post secondary education and life after high school. Research has strongly encouraged the development of a more rigorous high school core curriculum that directly addresses the knowledge, skills, and understandings that students need to be successful in future academic studies (McPartland & Schneider, 1996; Wolk, 2007). In response, a joint effort of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers produced the Common Core State Standards Initiative. In 2009, the initiative produced as set of math and English standards that as of 2014 had been adopted by forty-five states and the District of Columbia. Also as of 2014, Common Core standards for science and social studies had yet to be developed. A major challenge facing educators and policy makers today is how to make this core curriculum accessible to all primary and secondary school students regardless of ability, race, socioeconomic status, etc.
The debate regarding the core curriculum historically has extended beyond the walls of secondary education institutions into colleges and universities across the nation. For decades, colleges and universities required students to distribute their studies across a wide range of disciplines to ensure they developed into well-rounded individuals educated in a variety of academic areas. Green (2007) notes, however, that during the 1970s critics decided the core curriculum was too Western, too white, and too male dominated. In response, many colleges and universities added more diversity to their required courses. However, disagreement regarding what belongs in the core curriculum at the college level has continued. In general, educators agree that students need to leave college able to think critically, reason logically, compute, speak a foreign language, appreciate diversity, and speak and write well (Green, 2007). Beyond this general notion of what students should be able to do, the debate continues regarding how to achieve these results.
Throughout all of the debate regarding what should be included in the core curriculum and how to make the core curriculum accessible to all students, educators and researchers all agree that the core curriculum must reflect the needs of society and the needs of the learner, and include an exposure to a range of academic fields (Cawelti, 2006). Exactly what society needs, what the learner needs, and what academic fields are critical for success in life remains the crux of the debate. However, as Cawelti (2006) asserts, educators and policy makers must decide on a core curriculum that helps to perfect a democratic society and provides the foundational skills and understandings that students need to be successful participants in life beyond school.
What Belongs in the Core Curriculum?
Cawelti (2006) asserts that a major task for curriculum leaders and educators today involves deciding what should be added to the core curriculum and what should be left out. One of the major reasons for the ongoing debate is that educators and policy makers disagree about what should and should not be included. Talk of a centralized national curriculum — which is what critics say the Common Core State Standards Initiative is trying to impose — sparks much debate as states (such as Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia, who have not adopted the Common Core) argue to retain the right to determine for themselves what students should be able to know, understand, and do by the time they graduate from high school.
Murphy (2006) highlights some of the primary reasons why a core curriculum at the college level is unrealistic. His views regarding debates over core curriculum at the postsecondary level provide much insight into why it is equally difficult to agree upon a common core curriculum for all high school students. Murphy (2006) claims the notion of a core curriculum directly attacks the equality of all branches of knowledge and further diminishes the critical importance of student freedom of choice when it comes to what they learn in school. When schools tell students what is important for them to learn and what is not, they send the message that all branches of knowledge are not equally important. Moreover, as schools further cut down on student electives such as music, art, technology, etc. due to budget constraints or other factors, they continue to send the message to students that certain disciplines of knowledge are more important than others.
Murphy (2006) further illuminates the issues inherent in the effects of increasing diversity on the development of a core curriculum. As schools serve increasingly diverse student populations with regard to race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, the critical question of what is important to learn as core knowledge and what is not becomes even more complex.
Is the Core Curriculum Enough?
To complicate matters even more regarding the status of the core curriculum in our nation's schools, research indicates that a large gap remains between the perceptions of high school...
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