National Writing Project

Student Slayer: The Imposed Curriculum

By: Kevin Lavey
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 3
Date: Summer 2000

In 1990, the Maryland State Department of Education decided on a strategy to create higher standards throughout the state public school system. The accountability system put in place was Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP). Quite simply, MSPAP is an assessment given over several days in May to students in the third, fifth, and eighth grades. The aim of the tests is to measure higher-level thinking skills in an interdisciplinary way. I teach in the city of Baltimore, where the 1999 composite index for eighth grade is 15.3 percent (statewide it is 43.7 percent). At my school, Arnett J. Brown Jr. Middle School, the composite index is 10.1 percent.

Baltimore's response to the abysmal test scores has been to standardize the curriculum. All of us language arts teachers were given a three- or five-day training (depending on when you took it) on the McDougell Littell Language of Literature, then sent on our way. It was our tool, our curriculum, to help the kids do better on MSPAP.

Well, I teach a population of eighth-grade students who, as a class, scored between the third- and fourth-grade levels on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills given in October, from a text which is many grade levels higher than most of them read. The Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS) decided which stories, plays, non-fiction pieces, and poems we are to teach. Supposedly, we are armed with the proper weapons to kill the ugly beast of low test scores. And those test scores need to come up quickly and dramatically or schools within BCPSS will be taken over by the state.

Why do I have a problem with a curriculum imposed on a population of students who historically have done miserably on the statewide test? Why do I find it offensive when principals, language arts department heads, and specialists speak with such authority about "reading stances," the "three outcomes of writing," and "the writing process"? Those people are charged with the Herculean task of raising test scores no matter the culture of the school. Many spend long hours at their schools or in their supervising areas training staff and doing endless battle with paperwork. But I view them, those people above the teacher level, as acting like supervisors over a group of mechanics. They see it as their responsibility to break our work into functions that they can check off on a task sheet.

I believe that the imposed curriculum that has been inflicted on language arts and other disciplines puts learners in the posture of receivers rather than creators. It denies them choice over their learning and, therefore, before the moment they enter the classroom, they are denied ownership.

On a fundamental level, if one considers choice the essence of democracy, the imposed curriculum is antidemocratic. Those in charge have decided that these learners are incapable of choice, or perhaps more insidiously, they have decided that if learners or even teachers are given choice they would make "the wrong" ones. After all, the majority of students in BCPSS qualify for federally funded lunches, are African American, are poor, often come from single-parent homes, and enter middle school with breathtaking skill deficiencies. (How can a student get to eighth grade and write a two-page paper without using a single punctuation mark?)

Students identify us teachers as part of the authority group, the choice makers, though we, of course, had no voice in the decision making. Since those in authority have decided what is important to learn, it follows that if students have not mastered how to be good receivers of the imposed curriculum, then they are to various degrees failures, punished in their nonmastery by low grades. It is interesting to note the close relationship between the imposed curriculum and punishment. One senses the issue becomes conformity rather than learning. The imposed curriculum demands that certain skills be taught along with certain stories or poems or nonfiction pieces and that other skills be taught with other readings.

On a simpler, more basic level, there is the issue of sequence. One would wish that the curriculum developers had created a sequence in which one piece flows smoothly and logically into another. Readings would link together and form a whole. The least the imposed curriculum could do would be to create a sense of orderly progression, no matter how disagreeable the content might be to students. Surely the imposed curriculum would establish a rationale for its existence by its sound linear trajectory. If students and teachers have no choice in the matter, surely the creators of the imposed curriculum recognize the value of one of the core Foxfire practices: New activities spiral gracefully out of the old, incorporating lessons learned from past experiences.

Instead, the first unit for eighth graders in language arts contains the following readings in this order, which we're asked to teach lassoed together under the almost defensive covering theme of Changing Perspectives: "The Treasure of Lemon Brown," a short story about a homeless man and an adolescent boy; from Reflections on the Civil War, a nonfiction piece about the life of soldiers during the Civil War; "The Clown," a memoir written about the middle-class author's eighth-grade math class; from All Things Bright and Beautiful, an excerpt from the author's experiences as a veterinarian in England; "Collecting Team," a sci-fi story; and "Simile: Willow and Ginko," a poem. Certainly lots of changing perspectives in that unit!

Such a fractured presentation of curriculum feeds into students' general belief in the irrelevance of schooling. The imposed curriculum defies or at least disrupts relationships between students and material because there's no logical basis for a relationship. What background can my African-American students call on that would give them insight into the humor and tender moments of James Herriot's difficulties as a young veterinarian? They do receive on some level the insidious message that because they can't relate to this big important-looking book in front of them that they just aren't smart enough to be good students. Because the imposed curriculum steals away the connections between who they are and what they read, their belief in themselves as learners within school gets chipped away. The imposed curriculum stands as the agent of power rather than a mere resource. They don't feel that they have authority over their learning. That becomes a lesson they learn. It is not up to them to figure out what they want to find out about. They know that if they show up it will be imposed on them.

I believe that the imposed curriculum is especially detrimental to students at inner-city schools. Middle- to upper-class students have access to a variety of resources that help them create a more complex context for their understanding of the world: educated people, computers, travel, literature, magazines, the Internet. For inner-city students, the outside-of-school resources are severely limited. School has a central role in making their worlds bigger, varied, adventurous, and brimming with possibilities.

Why not take students on both physical and intellectual adventures starting right where they live? Why not build a curriculum that takes into account their interests and values? Why not start with, say, the fashion industry, because God knows the kids inspect each other's clothing like high-strung Cosmo critics. We could have a lot of fun studying Timberland shoes, of which they are aficionados, and from there we could branch into studying sources of raw materials, demographics, supply and demand, current social trends, and advertising. They could enlighten themselves on how big industries have a vested interest in programming them to desire overpriced shoes just to maintain a place of status among their peers. One can easily see how a curriculum can be built that honors the students rather than their test scores—a curriculum that teaches skills, yes, but in a context that connects to students' lives.

Instead, we impose a curriculum on the kids, repeating the mantra to ourselves that we're teaching them higher-level thinking skills along the way. The real higher-level thinking skill I see too many of them employing is figuring out how to negotiate their way through middle school, then high school, by doing a minimum of work while playing the school game to keep their teachers—the human toggle switches which deem them successes or failures—happy. The school system has become filled with decision makers for whom numbers are a kind of religion: their belief in numbers as a measurement of success has hardened to such a degree that if you begin talking about good teaching practices that don't genuflect to MSPAP, you're considered a not-with-it throwback to a groovy era before data-driven thinking.

If you take numbers thinking to its extreme, you could make a case that if my school, currently with a composite index of 10.1 percent, was able to get 40 percent of its students at a satisfactory level on the MSPAP tests next year, it would be considered wildly successful. We would have people calling us from all over the state wondering how we did it. It wouldn't matter if we didn't teach the other 60 percent anything, as long as we made such a huge gain with 40 percent of them. The number gods overshadow the students themselves.

I recognize that there are no simple answers to the problem of poor achievement. However, when the premise of finding solutions rests on a lack of trust in teachers and students, the outcome necessarily becomes rigid standardization. When are we going to find a methodology of creating curriculum built from the bottom up rather than the top down? It's not a new idea.

About the Author Kevin Lavey is a teacher-consultant (1997) at the Maryland Writing Project, where he has been a student writer workshop teacher. He teaches at Arnett Brown Jr. Middle School in the Baltimore City Public School System.

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