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opinion | David D. Brown V

The crushing boredom of a tired curriculum

(istockphoto/globe staff illustration)

My AP Literature teacher had a minor breakdown in class a few weeks ago. She doubles as an English 11 teacher, and in a moment of weakness she admitted that she hates “The Great Gatsby,” the standard text for junior year English classes at my school. I can sympathize. I have no love for it, and I only had to read it once — she teaches it to two sections of 11th graders every semester. But such is the lot of English teachers, particularly at public schools like mine. Here, as in most public schools across the country, the English language arts curriculum is strictly dictated. Teachers do not choose what they teach, nor do they have much leeway in the way they teach it. To put it lightly, the system is less than ideal.

To put it less lightly, it barely works. Ours is the kind of curriculum that lets the United States, the biggest spender per student in the world, trail behind Estonia in international educational rankings for reading. Like its equivalents in public schools across the county, state, and country, the Commonwealth’s English curriculum framework is ineffective, outdated, and almost universally loathed. One teacher openly told me that he would quit if the curriculum were any more strictly mandated, and that many of his colleagues would probably leave with him. “It’s a travesty,” he said. “I’ve seen so many young, gifted teachers leave the profession because they can’t take it.”

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Much of the problem seems to be with the central philosophy of the American English class. The model is built around uniformity — all classes are expected to teach the same material to all students to the same standards of proficiency. That blanket expectation can make teaching a compelling class difficult.

For starters, not all students will relate to the same texts, and not all teachers can teach them well. A standardized and enforced curriculum takes away teachers’ freedom to correct for individuality and play to their and their students’ strengths. I’d have preferred, for example, to have read books that held more relevance to me as a teenager — works like Russell Banks’s “Rule of the Bone” or Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses.”

But even more damaging than that, uniformity between classes leads to reluctance to take risks in the classroom. When all classes are subjected to the same curriculum — often set as much by preparing for standardized test preparation as anything else — there is very little possibility for experimentation. Innovation becomes rare. Originality becomes a liability. Ultimately, curriculum designers become wary of change, and they wear the beaten path down into a trench.

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This is the environment that produced the English classes I came to loathe. I came into high school 3½ years ago wanting to read and write, because I loved to read and write. But, as I soon found out, the things I love about books are rarely taught, and the things I love about writing are actively penalized. A few months in, despite the desperate efforts of teachers to breathe life into lifeless curricula, my classmates and I were ready to be done. Many checked out in class, some stopped reading the assigned texts altogether, and very few actually learned to enjoy reading. Furthermore, I would argue that only a very small percentage of my classmates learned to write well. Mostly, we learned how to do high school English classes.

I have taken hobbled English classes for four years now. I have read countless dispassionate essays and taken notes on countless mind-numbing lectures. But for me the most cringe-worthy part of the ineffective curriculum I am about to leave behind is how easy it could have been to fix. Most unsolved educational issues remain unsolved because their solutions represent significant investments of valuable capital — money, talent, or space. A remedy to a English class crippled by numbing rules and inflexible curricula would only require a willingness to think creatively and, perhaps, a little bravery.

For the educational bureaucracy, giving teachers more autonomy — not necessarily total autonomy but enough to improve the quality of English classes — should be as easy as saying the word: There would be no new buildings to construct, no new textbooks to buy, and no new staff to hire. In effect, the refusal to take what could be a crucial step toward a better curriculum and a more meaningful education for public school students across the country at very little expense is not only ridiculous, it is a betrayal of the trust that I and my peers put in it as students.

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Related:

Paul Reville: The next steps in education reform

Scot Lehigh: Joel Klein’s advice for Mass. education reform


David D. Brown V is a high school senior in Cambridge.