It’s Time to Question Our Public School Curriculum

While a taskforce of educators and consultants works to envisage and create a new and sustainable Vermont State College System this winter, the dialogue about our public grade schools continues in the wake of Act 46. The demographic shifts driving consolidations, school governance, pandemic closings and inequitable broadband, and the loss of a community resource are all issues swirling about the future of El-Hi public education in Vermont.

Mandated in the Vermont State Constitution, public education, going back to Vermont’s founding as a republic before its admission to the Union, was understood as necessary for all our citizens to fuel the knowledge and judgement a functioning democracy would need.

But today what’s largely missing from the discussion – and arguably its most important issue – is the quality and relevance of our public school curriculum to the current and emerging needs of today’s Vermonters. Curriculum varies from district to district and classroom to classroom, but while it may ultimately be best measured by the quality, capacity, and flexibility of the individual teacher, the content taught is the key to educating tomorrow’s civically able citizens.

I had the combined good luck and misfortune to spend my high school years at Phillips Exeter Academy where I got a demanding education in the sciences, arts, and humanities. What I missed, however, was a host of lessons that any young person needs in life, such as learning to drive, managing finances, becoming prepared to vote, serve on a jury, cook a meal, or touch-type.

What follows is a prospective new curriculum for the world we live in today, to be deployed according to age and development. It’s partly the result of my own teaching experience in the late ‘60s at Mt Abraham Union High School in Bristol and partly the result of conversations with educators.

I offer this “game plan” for discussion, knowing full well that certain topics will be controversial and that there is ongoing professional scholarship in pedagogy and curriculum development. There are those who will insist that some of what follows lies wholly within the realm of parenting and not in our schools. But we must remember that much of current curriculum was developed when intact families and cohesive communities were much more the norm, and Internet access was a purview only of privilege. Our public schools today have had to pick up non-traditional school subjects and services where broken families and curtailed government services have otherwise failed our children. Meals, counselling, special ed, and healthcare come to mind.

When I was a child, with the exception of “hot lunch” (finite variations on excess agricultural commodities like “yellow cheese,” sugar, powdered milk, corn, and wheat) and primary screening for hearing, vision, lice, and worms from unpasteurized milk, healthcare was solely the province of our parents.

My goal here is to integrate established and emerging critical skills and issues facing citizens in communities, families, and the nation today so our children and grandchildren can be prepared to understand and manage them in the future.

I hope this prospective curriculum generates discussion, some change, and an enrichment of our current curriculum. And let’s include students in this discussion. Too often, we underestimate the insight and clarity our kids are capable of.

Have at it:

  • Humanities: Reading, writing, history, philosophy, ethics, world religions, ethnic and native American studies, world language systems (2d language), research, and writing an essay.
  • STEM: Biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, math, geology, ecology, artificial intelligence, technology, and engineering.
  • Civic Literacy: Citizen rights and responsibilities, political systems overview, community, state, and federal governance architecture (executive, legislative, judicial), embracing diversity, equity, & inclusion, criminal justice system, the essential role of education in civic participation, civic obligation to participate (vote & serve).
  • Arts and Culture: Performing arts, visual arts, generative arts (digital storytelling: film, music, writing), the role of the arts in social change, art history & appreciation.
  • Media Literacy: Journalism or opinion, trusted sources, social media, propaganda, fact-checking, censorship, blogs, podcasting.
  • Financial Literacy and Basic Economics: Managing personal finances, simple personal financial statements, rudiments of savings, banking, tax, & retirement, overview of economic theories.
  • Agriculture Food Supply Chain, Nutrition, and Hunger: farm-to-plate overview, regenerative agriculture, basic nutrition, animal welfare, and health maintenance.
  • Environment: Monitoring the wellbeing of our air, water, soils, flora, and wildlife, behavioral and advocacy roles in preserving a healthy planet.
  • Gender, Sexuality, and Pleasure: Reproductive physiology, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), puberty, LGBTQIA equity, privacy, eros vs.pornography, and family planning.
  • Sportsmanship: Individual and team sport options, (competitive & personal challenge), disability sports, and health risks and benefits.
  • Career Options Overview: Sectors: for-profit, nonprofit, government: employment ; trades, professional, services, entrepreneurship, artisan.
  • Personal Wellbeing and Health: Stages of development, basic health maintenance, exercise, check-ups, self-examination, substance and behavioral addiction science, understanding disability, mental health maintenance, and driver’s ed.

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