Public School Curricula

What we teach our students matters. It is imperative for all students to have access to not only a free education, but to a high-quality education. What our students learn, and how they learn it, is at the core of the public school curricula. Unfortunately, the institution of public education is under attack, and the war on public school has many fronts. Attacking the public school curricula – what and how students learn – is a powerful tool.

Changes in Public School Teachings

In recent years, there has been a dynamic shift away from teaching our students about what they need to know to be informed citizens of a democratic nation. When public schools first emerged centuries ago, the local community was responsible for drawing up a curriculum for its students. Parents, teachers, and lawmakers gathered to determine what students needed to learn to become successful members of society. In most cases, this included formal instruction for reading, writing, and arithmetic. Local economy and jobs would also influence which life skills and knowledge students would be taught. This helped to not only educate students, but also prepare them for life in the working world.

Over the course of time, public education became more centralized. As a result, the state and federal government gained increased control over decisions about what and how students should learn. At first, this helped to encourage courses of action that supported discussion of democracy and public policy. In the 1960s, public high schools generally offered three different courses to help students prepare to become citizens of a democratic society:

  • Government, in which students learned about different forms of government and the inner-workings of democracy;
  • Civics, in which students learned about the responsibilities of being a member of a democratic nation; and
  • Problems of Democracy, in which students were able to discuss policy issues, current events, and other real-world problems that were relevant to them.

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find these courses in a public school. While you may find bits and pieces of each of these courses stuffed into a generic “American History” or “civics” class, these former cornerstones of the public school curricula are all but history. This is a relatively recent occurrence, thanks, in part, to the No Child Left Behind Act. Kids are forced to study for standardized tests, rather than prepare to become engaged members of society.

What Should Our Children Learn?

What should our children learn? Should we only focus on American victories, and limit the discussion of parts of our past that are dark and difficult to digest? Should we white-wash our past and allow our children to go through life without understanding the struggles of history? Or, should discussion about difficult topics be front and center? These are questions that have been at the center of debate for years.

As advocates for public education, we believe that it is important to allow our students to learn both the good and the bad. Critical thinking and independent analysis are crucial life skills. We must be able to present students will information, allow them to consider context, and provide them with the ability to derive an opinion and conclusion on their own. We cannot simply hand them an answer and force them to accept it as true. If we truly want our children to grow into active participants of an ever-changing society, we must equip them with the tools that can be of best use to them in that role. Preparation begins in the classroom with discussion of things that are difficult.

Teachers Hesitant to Discuss Current Events

The only way for students to hone their critical thinking and analysis skills is by putting them to the test. There is no better opportunity for this than the discussion of current events. In today’s society, there is certainly no shortage of topics to discuss. Unfortunately, many teachers are hesitant to open the floor for discussion of issues that impact students on a day-to-day basis.

Teachers feel pressure to stick to the curricula and not stray into conversations about current issues. In some cases, teachers are even hesitant to teach controversial books or ideas that have been part of our society for decades. Why? Teachers are always under scrutiny and often fear repercussions of allowing their students to have an open dialogue. Discussions can veer into areas with which parents are uncomfortable.  However, school may be the only place that some students can have open discourse with a diverse community about things that really matter.

Public School Curricula Must Include Difficult Topics

Public schools are under attack. One line of attack includes dismantling the components of public school curricula that allow our students to build a foundation of critical and independent thinking. We must fight to revamp our public school curriculum and shift it away from test-based teachings. We must also not shy away from discussing the blemishes on our history, controversial current events, or other topics that can help our students thrive.

Shifting Diversity in Schools

Multiple studies have proven that public education is essential to a thriving democracy. One reason for this is because public education helps to promote diversity and understanding. Students who are exposed to classmates and teachers from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and orientations are more likely to be successful as adults.

The world is a complex place, full of different people. Public education should be used as a tool to help children develop the skills they will need to thrive as citizens in an evolving society. Unfortunately, public education has suffered many setbacks in recent years, including decreased access to civics education. Another such setback involves public educations’ inability to keep up with shifting demographics.

Increase in Minority Students in America

Minority students are accounting for a larger percentage of the population. In 2003, minorities accounted for 41 percent of the student population in the country. Ten years later, half of all students in the country identified as a minority. This trend is expected to continue in coming years. By 2024, white students are expected to account for only 46 percent of the enrolled students in the country.

Lack of Diversity Among Teachers

While students are becoming more diverse, teachers are not. Today, 82 percent of the educators in America’s public schools are white. That’s less than one in five teachers. This means that the diverse student body is not being given the opportunity to learn from teachers who reflect our truly-diverse country. (We won’t even get into the diversity, or lack-thereof, of public school administration.)

Diversity Gap

The discrepancy between diverse students and diverse teachers is known as the diversity gap. Interestingly, the diversity gap varies significantly (a) with different backgrounds and (b) in different geographic locations.

The diversity gap tends to be most pronounced in urban areas and least pronounced in rural areas.

Urban Diversity Gap

  • Hispanic Teacher/Student Diversity Gap: 21.8%
  • Black Teacher/Student Diversity Gap: 9.7%

Suburban Diversity Gap

  • Hispanic Teacher/Student Diversity Gap: 14.5%
  • Black Teacher/Student Diversity Gap: 7%

Rural Diversity Gap

  • Hispanic Teacher/Student Diversity Gap: 5.6%
  • Black Teacher/Student Diversity Gap: 5.6%

Why is the diversity gap so much greater in urban parts of the country? Cities tend to be more heavily concentrated with minorities than towns and rural areas. As a result, the lack of diverse teachers is more pronounced.

The wealth of a public school district, regardless of its geographic location, also influences the diversity of the teaching staff. Studies show that high-poverty areas are more likely to employ minority teachers. Low-poverty and high-wealth areas, on the other hand, tend to employ mostly white teachers.

If diversity among peers and teachers is important for a well-developed and productive society, children raised in urban and/or high-poverty areas are statistically less likely to get the education they need.

Fighting For Diversity in Teaching

Students need to be exposed to students and teachers of varying backgrounds. It is only through this exposure that children can truly gain the skills they will need to be members of an informed and productive democratic society. If students are not given the opportunity to see minorities in positions of power, they are not receiving a full and beneficial education. The only way to change this is to shift the demographics of teachers in America.

How can we shift the demographics to reduce the diversity gap?

Proposal #1: Provide minorities with greater access to affordable post-graduate education.

One roadblock for minority educators is the price of a degree. Studies show that many black, Hispanic, and Asian high school graduates express an interest in entering the field of teaching. However, the educator pipeline loses a majority of the minority applicants along the way due to crippling financial costs. Making education degrees, which are now essentially required for all public teaching jobs, more accessible and affordable will help to close the diversity gap.

Proposal #2: Shift resources to education to support higher teaching wages.

Public teachers are one of the most important assets to a democratic society, but among those who receive the least in compensation. Minority applicants may be more inclined to (a) explore the field of teaching and (b) make their way through the educator pipeline if compensation were more appropriate.

Proposal #3: Limit charter schools that limit diversity.

While the overall enrolled student population is becoming increasingly diverse, many schools are actually becoming less diverse. Why? Charter schools are competing with public schools and drawing certain segments of the population.

Since these schools can determine which students enroll, and which don’t, they can essentially control the diversity of their own student body. A high-brow private school that enrolls mostly white students can adversely affect the diversity of a nearby public school. As a result, students are not able to learn and grow with others who come from different backgrounds.

The bottom line is that diversity is crucial to providing our students with a well-rounded education. Depriving students of the ability to learn with and from diverse individuals is a crippling disservice to them and the future of our country.