What are the goals of a good high school reading curriculum? (Part II – The Social Justice Era)

In the previous post, I began outlining the problem I’ve been having: What exactly are the goals of a good high school reading curriculum? Turns out, very few people know!

Below, I’ll continue with the thread I’d started in the previous post: The effect of the Trump era on public school reading curricula.

The Challenge of This Era

With the straight focus on skills during the Common Core era — and the dearth of any sort of thematic or temporal curriculum design on the one hand, and the total lack of any content-based justification (one book is better than another) on the other — the onus was suddenly very much on educators to justify and select the books in their curricula. This era, of course, was also very much a time of scripted, regimented curricula, in which decisions about book choices were made for instead of by educators, yes. But either way, the justifications for content, whether by educators or by central office bureaucrats, always carried a kind of arbitrary quality in a skills-first curriculum.

Then the Trump/Social Justice era ripped through all of this like a tornado.

Everything changed, almost immediately. It was as though, once Donald Trump was elected, suddenly the “college and career readiness” focus of the Core-era conservative reforms went right out the window.  When white-hooded men were marching on Charlottesville and a would-be authoritarian was running roughshod over the U.S. Constitution and his mobs were storming the Capitol trying to lynch the Vice President, the notion that we were going to let schools just laze along teaching apolitical, value-neutral content like “finding the main idea of some generic article about plants” or “analyze some random passage about nothing in particular” sounded a heck of a lot like siding with the golden-haired oppressor.  Suddenly the entire sub-field of English Language Arts education snapped straight to political attention. Newly-alarmed/woke teachers saw themselves as the last defense against the would-be white supremacists who were suddenly in the back (and possibly middle) rows of every classroom in America.  

Suddenly content mattered again.  Education has always been a moral profession, but by 2017 the dominant neoliberal notion that we were advancing social mobility for the “underserved” by doubling down on remedial math was over in about a half-second, replaced by a quickly radicalized corps of educators dedicated to enlisting their students in the fight against injustice.

The underserved became the oppressed, social mobility became social reconstruction, the god of Jaime Escalante was replaced by the god of Paolo Freire.  The multicultural debates of the 1990s, the questions of representation in the curriculum, the conversations about “disrupting” the “canon” — all were back with a vengeance.  The new terms were “equity” and “inclusion,” plus, of course, the old standby, “diversity.” Everywhere there was talk about “centering” the “lived experiences” of various “marginalized groups.” Culturally relevant pedagogy found its way to the forefront of the education world.  More and more educators were saying, in the age of Trump, “schools are not neutral places.” Critical theory stepped right to the front, its neo-Marxist focus on warring group identity fitting perfectly with the spirit of the time. Curriculum design was no longer a question of balancing competing priorities or different values; it was a question of justice, of moral clarity, and above all, of “equity.”

It was an odd time for well-meaning educators; suddenly the entire notion of being a good-hearted person who wanted to work with “at-risk” kids started to seem a lot like having a “white savior complex”; the desire to teach students important skills for the future in mainstream American society became practically synonymous with “erasing their heritage” and “perpetrating curricular violence.” The desire to help others was possibly racist, itself, and the whole notion that anyone needed any help was evidence of “deficit mindset,” which was probably “white supremacist.” The stakes were suddenly, alarmingly high.

A lot of this was fascinating to watch – especially to see who went all in on this stuff.  The librarians, in particular, got woke in a hurry.  Many once-placid public school libraries suddenly became “anti-racist spaces” dedicated to “rooting out” the “white supremacy” of children. If Robert Muller couldn’t bring down Trump, it would have to be done in the elementary school stacks. It wouldn’t have taken much – perhaps one left-wing parent of color to wander in, ask why there were pre-Woke Era books still allowed on the shelves – before one of these librarians would have solemnly doused the whole place (minus the Colson Whitehead section) in gasoline, including herself, and then lit the match, Fahrenheit 451-style.  In the high schools, the proximity of teenagers, who are always up for a good tribal war against the oppressor, led to a variety of temptations for would-be “liberatory” educators.  (And who will liberate the liberatory educators, one wondered?)

I jest. (And I like to think it’s time, under the grind of Omicron, that we can finally do that — humor being one of the things most in short supply during the Trump era.) And to be fair, every movement has its excesses, and this one, the Woke movement, was surely a genuine response to an unprecedented moment in American political life.  A Donald Trump has never existed before, and to respond to his breathtaking disregard for any measure of decency and republican norms by doubling down on the hardest hard-left ideology that one can find, is certainly an understandable position, particularly in the heat of the moment.

Even if you did not buy in all the way, as I did not, this hard-left progressive educational movement served an important purpose: it brought back to the forefront of the profession a number of topics that had gone dormant – chief among them the question of what political and moral values should schools aim to promote, and how explicitly should they aim to promote them.  Having to rethink these questions again after the numbing contentless-ness of the Common Core era was and is an important task for all of us.  The selection of content became a crucial proxy battle in this war.

It’s no longer good enough just to say we’re preparing kids for college and jobs; now we’ve got to consider why the entire goal of our curriculum shouldn’t be to promote a strict political and moral clarity, necessitated by a time of crisis.  The Woke era asked, Why aren’t we choosing books with an eye toward promoting marginalized authors, or toward inculcating explicitly progressive political values, or tailoring every unit toward explicit, resistance-style political activism — all of which is particularly necessary to save the republic?  These are questions that are still very much being asked, and by some of the most articulate and impactful voices in our own field.  It was so easy for those of us in the vaguely left-of-center mass of educators – the “smart” people, the “enlightened” moderates – to wave away – philosophically, if not practically – the whole neoliberal corporate reform era in education.  I did the same thing myself.  Those were the Idiot Republicans, or the Corporate Democrats. They were out of touch, they were clueless.  They weren’t in the classrooms.  They’d never taught.  Anybody who was anybody in the profession knew that standardized tests were no measure whatsoever of anything meaningful.  NCLB was a joke to those of us who were the smart ones, the insiders, the real educators out on the front lines.

But the woke criticism was different.  This was coming from our own ranks.  It was coming from the educational establishment, from some of the smartest people in our own schools and schools of ed.  Plus, it wasn’t calling us out as being lazy and ineffective, it was calling us immoral and racist – hitting us from just the place that most do-good, well-meaning – dare I say, “morally-upstanding” – educators can be hurt the most.  It made us uncomfortable because we wanted to be on the “right side” — we’d been used to being on the “right side” for so long. Of course the Common Core was nonsense. But does The Nickel Boys suddenly deserve to be included in every American Lit syllabus in America, even though, you know, it’s kind of, basically . . .  a YA book?  Does every single unit, month after month, need to be trained in, micro-focused on injustice and oppression?  And even if we agree with the goal, what really is the best way to bring these children, these future Trumpists around?  And what about those kids who are only too eager to chuck anything “problematic” from the curriculum and who suddenly don’t want to read anything pre-2017? And are we even allowed to ask these questions?


So it was that on the one hand, the Woke era pushed me to find a better understanding of what the goals of a good reading curriculum should be; but on the other hand, the content-free legacy of the Common Core era left me with little to fall back on, and the historical focus of curriculum design on thematic or temporal selection left me with few resources.  

So I went looking.  This process of trying to locate further frameworks to use in designing a reading curriculum in itself was fascinating, and well worth highlighting, because it’s a window into our profession that illuminates some important biases.  

I’ll do that next in the next post, before explaining what I finally came up with.