Curriculum, School

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ian westbury

core knowledge curriculum
e. d. hirsch jr.

hidden curriculum
catherine cornbleth


In its organizational aspect the curriculum is an authoritative prescription for the course of study of a school or system of schools. In their traditional form, such prescriptions set out the content to be covered at a grade level or in a course or sequences of courses, along with recommended or prescribed methods of teaching. In their contemporary form such prescriptions have been re-presented as national and state standards, outlining outcomes to be achieved by schools without prescribing the specific bodies of content to be covered or methods of teaching to be used.

Curricula in both of these senses are seen as defining what schools purposefully do. However, most scholars and administrators who work with curricula or evaluate the impact of curriculum prescriptions or reforms do not believe that "curricula-as-documents" direct the work of schools in significant ways. Curricula-as-documents are more often than not developed after the fact, and are based on existing practices of teachers or a simple listing of the content of textbooks being used. Further, many teachers are not familiar with the curriculum their district has mandated.

Nevertheless, curricula and curricular mandates are the objects of persistent and hotly contested debates around schooling, and are widely taken to be important. Interest groups, governments, school districts, and their staffs devote much time and attention to discussions of the curriculum. Why does the idea of the curriculum and curriculum reform assume such importance in educational discourse and policymaking? Is it possible to direct the work of schooling?

Curricula, Education, and Schooling

All curricula emerge from ideas about what should be taught and learned, and how such teaching and learning might best be undertaken and then certified. As a result the fundamental question lying behind the prescription and development of all curricula is often seen as "What knowledge is of most worth?"because it is the knowledge that is of most worth that education should, seemingly, reflect. In its ideological or philosophical aspect, much curricular thought seeks to articulate reasoned starting points for one or another form of curriculum. Such work can accept the framework of contemporary understanding of the scope and nature of education and schooling. It can be critical, seeking to articulate the hidden assumptions around such categories as race, gender, and class that have driven, and drive, schooling in inappropriate, even morally wrong, directions.

However, looked at more analytically, the curriculum of the school reflects layered cultural understandings of what is considered necessary for young people to know or experience if they are to take their place in the social and cultural order. Thus, as the central component of a pervasive modern institution, the curriculum is necessarily a part of all of the sociological and cultural ambiguities within societies. As such, the scope and nature of the curriculum are viewed as critically important for teachers, parents, cultural critics, interest groups, and the employers of the graduates of the school. As the curriculum as an idea is seen through the eyes of all such groups, it becomes a mirror that reflects different visions of the society and culture, and the tensions within the society around, say, the proper nature of the work of schooling and/or status-attainment and employment possibilities. As a result inevitable and unresolved differences of viewpoint characteristically surface around all discussions of the curriculum as a symbol of both a normative order for education and of the quality and character of what schools are understood as doing.

For these reasons the history of curriculum thinking and practice is marked, on the one hand, by popular and professional conflict and debate about what the curriculum should be and how teaching should be undertaken and, on the other hand, by rationalization of the good and/or bad consequences of one or another curriculum. What, for example, should the curriculum that is most appropriate for young people be based on?

  • The needs of the economy for human resources
  • National or international ideals
  • The need for societal and cultural change or preservation
  • Ameliorating pervasive distinctions of gender and race
  • The set of perennially "essential" and fundamental forms of knowledge and ways of thinking
  • The forms of a life that is most worth living

As a result of the competition between such starting points, there is political, cultural, and policy conflict around what should be authoritatively prescribed in curricula, how teaching should be undertaken, and how schooling should be organized.

The classification of such different conceptions of education and educating has been one of the core approaches used to give both teachers and laypeople a framework for approaching the normative issues that circle around such starting points for education and curriculum building. Often, as with Elliot Eisner and Elizabeth Vallance's 1974 classification, these issues are presented as involving perennial controversies. Thus in their frame there is a web of controversy built around an unresolved conflict among five classical curriculum "conceptions": (1) curriculum as the development of cognitive processes; (2) curriculum as technology; (3) curriculum as self-actualization or consumatory experience; (4) curriculum for social learning; and (5) curriculum for academic rationalization. But Eisner and Vallance also point to other ways of framing such debates: child-centered versus society-centered; futurist, that is, socially reconstructive, versus presentist or adaptive; values-centered education versus skills-training; and humanist or existential versus behaviorist models of education and teaching.

There are, of course, difficulties associated with such controversy-framed conceptions around the curriculum problem. Such overviews of curricular conceptions reflect abstractions about the curriculum rather than the practices of schooling. Most centrally, they do not reflect the complexities of curricular action.

Walter Doyle has sought to clarify the endemic questions around all curriculum thinking by pointing out that curricular action occurs at three distinct levels.

  1. Institutional, where the issues center on policies at the intersection between schooling, culture, and society.
  2. Programmatic, where the issues center on (1) the specification of subject content for schools, school types and tracks, with their core and elective course requirements or expectations, subject specifications, and so forth; and (2) the construction of appropriate content for classroom coverage within these subjects.
  3. Classroom, where the issues center on the elaboration of the programmatic curriculum and its connection to the worlds of schools and classrooms in their real-world contexts.

For instance, all institutional work around either the scope and rationale of an optimal mathematics curriculum or how the teaching of reading should best be undertaken centers on metaphors that reflect idealized norms for an imagined social institution. More often than not the discourse is framed in terms of reform and the need for change if a convergence between a normative ideal and the ongoing work of schools is to be achieved. Such discussions rarely, if ever, connect in any immediate way to the central issues around either programmatic or classroom curricula. There the effective delivery of existing procedures and practices, and not reform, is the overriding preoccupation. Nevertheless, the image-making that is characteristic of curriculum policy debates within and among interest groups is important. Such debates symbolize and instantiate what communities should value. In this sense curriculum discussion, debate, and planningand the public and professional processes involved in such workis a social form for clarifying the role that schooling as an idea plays in the social and cultural order.

Programmatic curriculum work has two tasks. On the one hand, it is focused on the sociocultural, political, and organizational processes through which educational visions that are accepted by elites or publics are translated into operational frameworks for schools. Thus a policy language of "excellence" becomes the introduction of gifted programs in elementary schools or Advanced Placement courses in the high school. Programmatic work is also part of the search for solutions to operational problems, such as a mismatch between the capacity of a school system or school and enrollments, and the need to reconfigure a system around, for instance, middle schools. All such programmatic discourse and action seeks to precipitate social, cultural, and educational symbols into a workable and working organizational interpretation and framework. Such organizational frameworks, however, are only indirectly linked to actual classroom teaching. In such discourse and program building, teaching is seen as a passive agency implementing or realizing both an organizationally sanctioned program and its legitimating ideology. Curriculum work in this programmatic sense frames the character of schools and classrooms organizationally, as well as the ways in which schools might be seen within their communities. It does not direct the work of schools or teachers in any straightforward way.

At the classroom level the curriculum is a sequence of activities, jointly developed by teachers, students, parents and communities, that reflects their understanding of the potential for them of the programmatic framework or curriculum. At this level teachers, and the schools they work within, are active interpreters, not passive agents, of the mandated or recommended policy, programmatic, or organizational frameworks. Their interpretations may or may not be well articulated with the curriculum as imaged or mandated at the policy and programmatic levels. The educational legitimacy of such local interpretations, however, is not derived from the organizational framework of the curriculum. Instead it derives from the seeming match between what a local school is, and seems to be, doing and the understandings of its community about what its school can and should be doing.

But consistency among what a community's school does, the language and symbols used to describe and project that work, and the dominant ideologies and values is only one component of the framework for the school or district programs and curricula. Financial and/or personnel issues, state-sanctioned or state-funded mandates for programs such as special education or physical and health education, and the incentives for program change offered by governments and/or foundations are, more often than not, the immediate determinants of whether or not a school offers a pre-kindergarten program or upper-level "academic" courses.

In other words, the curriculum is the symbolic center of a loosely coupled system of ideologies, symbols, organizational forms, mandates, and subject and classroom practices that instantiates collective, and often differing, understandings about what is to be valued about the idea and the ongoing practice of education. At the same time the myth of an authoritative and hierarchical framework by which legislative bodies determine classroom work, with the curriculum as the agent of the linkage, is necessary for the legitimacy of a public schooling that is subject to political control. It is this paradox that gives all discussion of the curriculum its emotional force.

Curriculum-Making in the Twentieth Century

In an essay written at the beginning of the twentieth century, John Dewey declared his pessimism about the implications for educational reform of a "settlement" he saw between progressive educational reformers, who controlled educators' ideologies, and conservatives, who controlled actual school conditions, and had little or no interest in reform. The settlement he described has persisted and has controlled most of the conventional historical writing on the twentieth-century curriculum of the American school. The histories of the American curriculum across the twentieth century offer accounts of the absence of real and lasting Progressive curriculum reform in the school, along with a search for explanations of the seemingly persistent failure of reform impulses. But it was fundamental change that marked the history of the curriculum in the twentieth century. This reality is most clearly seen in the history of the secondary school and its curriculum.

In the late nineteenth century the significant curricular questions around the idea of what was later termed secondary education centered on the character of the cultures present in secondary schools or academiesthe conflict between cultures achieving its force from its interaction with the changing relationships between social groups. Should the curriculum offer as its core the traditional humanistic inculcation into the classical and liberal culture built around the teaching of Latin and Greek, or should it embrace "modern" subjects like science and English literature? Should the ideology of the high-status secondary school be exclusively liberal (i.e., centered on high-status classical or modern academic knowledge), or should it be directly or indirectly vocational in the sense that it might embrace and give educational legitimacy to agriculture, engineering, applied sciences and arts, and so forth?

The late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century programmatic resolution of these policy conflicts centered around the development of several secondary school types (e.g., classical and modern pre-university, technical/prevocational, and vocational schools), with each type seeking legitimacy in terms of a different curricular ideology and a different clientele of parents and students. At this time the high-status pre-university schools were schools for the elite only. Most adolescents who entered secondary schools sought employment well before graduation, or were enrolled in school types, such as normal schools, that did not lead to matriculation to a university.

In the 1920s and 1930s this situation changed dramatically in the United States in a way that was not repeated in western Europe until the 1960s. Schooling began to assume a much greater significance in the pathway to adulthood, with the result that a new form of mass high school emerged as an alternative to apprenticeship as the way to work and adulthood. This new school offered the symbol of a high school diploma, along with a set of tracked four-year courses of study potentially open to the adolescent age cohort. This new school was, in Martin Trow's words, a "mass terminal" secondary school.

This new school required new legitimating ideologies that could serve to make it appear inevitable and desirable to both the range of its external constituencies and to the teachers who would work within it. Schooling as a preparation for work and life, (i.e., life-adjustment; citizenship; Americanization; child-centeredness; and, in the Great Depression, the vision of the school and the curriculum as a seedbed for social and cultural reconstruction) emerged as new educational ideologies to submerge (but not replace) the older public and professional ideology of academic training and mental discipline as the legitimate core tasks of the high school.

Seen in terms of their programs, however, these new schools offered reinterpretations of the modern curricular categories of the traditional high-status pre-university high school in their new, nonuniversity tracks, plus, as appropriate, prevocational or explicitly vocational courses. In other words, the program of the mass terminal high school did not build on the curricular potential of the technical or applied arts curricular traditions, or develop a new curricular formalthough its extracurriculum of athletics and music did represent something quite new. It was, of course, the idea of the high school experience that its students and parents were seeking.

The years after World War II saw the second major transformation of the American school as a mass college-preparatory high school emerge from the prewar mass terminal school. This new high school required a rearticulation of the ideology of the high school curriculum with the ideology of the university, creating, in its turn, a need for new ways to frame popular and professional understandings. This required the rejection of the ideological platforms of the very different prewar high school. Thus, the college-preparatory role of the school reemerged into public visibility, a visibility most clearly symbolized by the comprehensive high schools being built in the new suburbs.

The new mission of the high school was presented in terms of academic development and the need to teach the intellectual structure of the now symbolically important sciences of physics and matha goal that was interpreted as having implications for national defense and the national welfare. Programs embodying the new ideologies were aggressively introduced as symbols of the new mission of the school, although the program-building practices of those years centered overwhelmingly on merely serving the expanding number of students enrolling in the traditional college-prep track.

The high school of the late 1960s and 1970s reflected the political and cultural turbulence, and the rejection of tradition, of those years. These years brought a renewal of the avant-garde ideologies and curricular platforms of the 1930s (often with a countercultural gloss) as well as of a vision of the school as a site for social, cultural, and racial reconstruction, social justice, and the like. Programmatically, noncanonical works appeared in literature courses; environmentalism emerged as a topic in science; courses in film, black studies, and so forth, emerged in many schools. With these changes the ordered institution of the school was being questioned symbolically and, as a result, appeared at risk. The subject categories of the school seemed to lose their clear meaning and significance, and the quality of, for example, urban schools became an issue as the racial and ethnic makeup of their student bodies changed from majority to minority students. Public anxieties around the symbolic meaning and effectiveness of the high school as the way to adulthood became the focus of demands for a restoration of more traditional understandings of the school.

These tensions were symbolized by the National Commission on Excellence in Education's 1983 report A Nation at Risk, an endorsement of the symbols of the "traditional" academic model of the preuniversity high school. But most observers of the contemporary school agree that while, programmatically, courses have been renamed and given new rationales, classroom work has continued on its own trajectory. Middle school mathematics courses are renamed algebra, but traditional eighth-grade mathematics texts are used. And, to complete the picture of the stable ideological order around the curriculum that Dewey described, constructivism has come to serve as the educators' counterpoint to the symbolic conservative restoration.

Rethinking Curriculum Discussions

Seen historically, it is clear that much, if not most, public discussion of the curriculum should be seen as a rhetorical form that seeks to stake out positions in the ideological space around the concept of the school. Such discourse, as Dewey noted, does not directly influence programmatic or classroom practice, which have their own logics. Thus looked at across the twentieth century, the Progressive educational and curriculum philosophies, conceptions, platforms, and developments that journalists' and educators' discussions have taken as significant have had little demonstrable impact on the day-to-day work of the school. They are part of the changing parade of ideologies and platforms that have been invoked to legitimate one or another image of the school as an institution.

When the characteristic forms of normative educational and curriculum philosophy are looked at analytically, it is clear that they cannot have any significant directive force on the complexities of schooling and teaching. Most important, what such discourse also fails to offer is any explanation of the overwhelming success of the school as an institution across the divides of race, class, gender, and so forth, and of the ways in which the curriculum has both contributed to, and responded to, this success. The secondary school as an institution has achieved an increasingly dominant role in the lives of children and youth across all developed nations. This dominance is overwhelmingly accepted by the societies and cultures that host the modern school, despite the tensions that can circle around it.

Elizabeth McEneaney and John Meyer have argued that all thinking and research around the curriculum, and by extension all policymaking and program development, must be grounded in the recognition of the overwhelming success of the school as an institution. For McEneaney and Meyer an understanding of the idea or model of the modern nation, and of the individually empowered citizen in the nation, lies at the heart of any understanding of the success of the school and the curriculum. Access to high-status forms of schooling has come to be seen as both as a right of citizenship and as a way of integrating citizens within the framework of a common national culture. This culture is, in its turn, seen as both inclusive and rational, a self-understanding that must be instilled by way of the curriculum that frames the knowledge and attitudes that are seen to undergird the modern nation and modern society.

As a result of this twofold mission of incorporating the population and teaching an understanding of modernity, both the curriculum and teaching have become, paradoxically, increasingly participatory and expressive, yet increasingly rational in terms of their emphasis on mathematics and science, and tolerance of global and local diversity. Conversely, this modern curriculum has increasingly deemphasized transcending (and often exclusionary) cultural or religious traditions as well as rigid patterns of allocation of student-citizens across schools or school types.

As the implicit expression of the pervasive modern self-image of the citizen and nation, these changes have not, and do not, take place as a result of planned activity or reform. Instead, they come about as the model of society, and modern models for the curriculum, are incorporated, in routinized ways, in the work of teachers and policymakers. Of course, this instantiation of the model of society in the school and curriculum has not come about as a linear process. There are cycles of reform and resistance, the product of the tensions between older and newer models of society and the school and between the global and the local. Organizational structures, as seen for example in the highly centralized French system, can make change problematic at times. In the U.S. school system, with its loosely coupled, locally based structures, many of the tensions that create the need for major cycles of curriculum reform in other countries can be contained. As McEneaney and Meyer point out, schools can be required at the policy level to teach sexual abstinence and at the same time hand out condoms in the classroom. The policy curriculum can be an object of controversy; but the programmatic curriculum works in stable, deliberate ways at further incorporation of youth into the idea and institution of the school, while the classroom curriculum selectively incorporates a changing model of schoolwork in unplanned and unorganized ways. The evolving, changing classroom curriculum can at times be celebrated symbolically at the programmatic level, and made very visible to local communities. Or it can be concealed by a skillful management of the programmatic models and symbols presented to local communities, with their diverse publics.

In one sense, such an "institutionalist" account of the curriculum can be seen as Progressive, in the way that that term has been understood by educators for over a century. But Dewey, in common with most educational reformers of his time and since, bemoaned the absence in American society of what he saw as an appropriately Progressive theory of education, and insistently asked why this was the case in the face of the self-evident claims of the Progressive ideal. The institutional understanding of the curriculum outlined by McEneaney and Meyer, however, suggests that the United States, in common with all developed societies, has in fact institutionalized a normative democratic understanding of the curriculum and the school. It is this understanding that has determined, and is determining, the actual form of both the structures and work of schools.

An institutional understanding of the curriculum, and of the school that gives it agency, presents a major challenge to most of the ways that are used by educators to discuss the school curriculum. It offers a framing context in which their conventional approaches to understanding the curriculum might be placed while at the same time explaining what those approaches cannot explain.

See also: Curriculum, School, subentry on Hidden Curriculum; Elementary Education, subentries on Current Trends, History of; Secondary Education, subentries on Current Trends, History of.


Cohen, David K. 1988. "Teaching Practice: Plus Ça Change." In Contributing to Educational Practice: Perspectives on Research and Practice, ed. Philip W. Jackson. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.

Cohen, David K., and Spillane, James P. 1992. Policy and Practice: The Relations between Governance and Instruction. Review of Research in Education 18. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Cuban, Larry. 1996. "Curriculum Stability and Change." In Handbook of Research on Curriculum, ed. Philip W. Jackson. New York: Macmillan.

Dewey, John. 2001. "The Educational Situation: As Concerns the Elementary School" (1902). Journal of Curriculum Studies 33:387403.

Doyle, Walter. 1996. "Curriculum and Pedagogy." In Handbook of Research on Curriculum, ed. Philip W. Jackson. New York: Macmillan.

Eisner, Elliot W., and Vallance, Elizabeth, eds. 1974. Conflicting Conceptions of Curriculum. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.

Fuhrman, Susan H., ed. 2001. From the Capitol to the Classroom: Standards-Based Reform in the States. 100th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part 2. Chicago: National Society for the Study of Education.

Hopmann, Stephan. 1999. "The Curriculum as a Standard in Public Education." Studies in Philosophy and Education 18:89105.

Kliebard, Herbert M. 1996. "Constructing a History of the American Curriculum." Handbook of Research on Curriculum, ed. Philip W. Jackson. New York: Macmillan.

McEneaney, Elizabeth H., and Meyer, John W. 2000. "The Content of the Curriculum: An Institutionalist Perspective." In Handbook of the Sociology of Education, ed. Maureen T. Hallinan. New York: Kluwer.

Pinar, William F.; Reynolds, William M.; Slattery, Patrick; and Taubman, Peter M. 1995. Understanding Curriculum: An Introduction to the Study of Historical and Contemporary Curriculum Discourses. New York: Lang.

Trow, Martin. 1961. "The Second Transformation of American Secondary Education." International Journal of Comparative Sociology 2:144165.

Tyack, David, and Tobin, William. 1994. "The 'Grammar' of Schooling: Why Has It Been So Hard to Change?" American Educational Re-search Journal 31:453479.

Westbury, Ian. 1988. "Who Can Be Taught What: General Education in the Secondary School." In Cultural Literacy and the Idea of General Education, ed. Ian Westbury and Alan C. Purves. 87th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ian Westbury


More properly termed "the Core Knowledge Sequence," Core Knowledge is a grade-by-grade specification of topics in history, geography, literature, visual art, music, language, science, and mathematatics for grades pre-kindergarten through eight. These topics are set forth with some specificity in a publication called The Core Knowledge Sequence, available from the nonprofit Core Knowledge Foundation.

The following is an example of the sequence in grade two history and geography:

  • II. Early Civilizations: Asia
  • A. Geography of Asia
  • 1. The largest continent with the most populous countries in the world
  • 2. Locate: China, India, Japan
  • B. India
  • 1. Indus River and Ganges River
  • 2. Hinduism
  • a. Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva
  • b. Many holy books, including the Rig Veda
  • 3. Buddhism
  • a. Prince Siddhartha becomes Buddha, "The Enlightened One"
  • b. Buddhism begins as an outgrowth of Hinduism in India, then spreads through many countries in Asia
  • c. King Asoka (also spelled Ashoka)

This example illustrates the specificity and the selectivity of the sequence, as well as its unique feature of providing solid content in the primary grades.

The selectivity of the sequence is partly a result of expert consensus on the importance of topics within a domain, but is mainly determined by whether or not this knowledge tends to be taken for granted in books addressed to a general reader, and whether or not it tends to be possessed by the top economic tier of U.S. society, but not by the bottom economic tier. The sequence is premised on the belief that if schools teach this enabling knowledge, the knowledge gap and the related income gap between the lowest and highest economic groups would be reduced.

The contents of the sequence have evolved as the result of field testing and consensus building, starting in March 1990, with a conference of some 150 teachers, scholars, and administrators meeting in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Goals of the Core Knowledge Curriculum

The basic goals of the Core Knowledge Curriculum are congruent with the basic goals of education in a democracy: fostering autonomous and knowledgeable citizens, giving every person an equal chance, and fostering community. These basic goals are intertwined, and all of them depend upon shared knowledge. The acquired abilities that give people an equal chance in life are the same abilities that make for autonomous citizens and a cohesive society. That is because the ability to communicate and to learn is based upon the same foundation of shared knowledge as the ability to earn a living and to vote intelligently, as well as to communicate with fellow citizens. The founding theory of the Core Knowledge Curriculum was that an inventory of this shared knowledge could be taken, and that imparting this knowledge to all rather than a few would foster all the democratic aims (including the equity aims) of public education.

Assessments of Effectiveness

Where Core Knowledge is implemented, the effects on achievement and equity have been highly significant both statistically and from the standpoint of effect size. The most important studies of actual school effects include a three-year study conducted by a team from Johns Hopkins University, and a large-scale study conducted by the Oklahoma City public schools. In the Hopkins report, "the gain difference on standardized tests between low and high implementing schools varied from 8.83 NCEs to 16.28 NCEs. That is an average rise of about 12 NCEs (similar to percentile points) over the controls, more than half a standard deviationa very significant gain" (p. 26). (NCEs are Normal Curve Equivalents, a way of measuring where students fall along the normal curve when the mean is 50 and the standard deviation is 21.06.) The Oklahoma City study analyzed the effects of implementing one year of Core Knowledge in grades three, four, and five using the well-validated Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The study paired some 300 Core Knowledge students with 300 students not in the Core Knowledge program that had the same characteristics on seven variables:

  1. Grade level
  2. Pre-score
  3. Sex
  4. Race/ethnicity
  5. Free-lunch eligibility
  6. Title I eligibility
  7. Special-education eligibility

Given the precise matching of these 300 pairs of students, the expectation would be that the end-of-year results of both groups would continue to be similar on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. But, in fact, the Core Knowledge students made significantly greater one-year gains in reading comprehension, vocabulary, science, mathematics concepts, and social studies. The greatest gainsin reading, vocabulary, and social studieswere computed to be statistically highly significant. The vocabulary gain was especially notable, because vocabulary is the single best predictor of academic achievement and the area where the gap between ethnic and racial groups has proved to be especially difficult to overcome.

See also: School Reform.


Cunningham, Anne E., and Stanovich, Keith E. 1997. "Early Reading Acquisition and Its Relation to Reading Experience and Ability 10 Years Later." Developmental Psychology 33 (6):934945.

Hofstetter, C. Richard; Sticht, Thomas G.; and Hofstetter, Carolyn Huie. 1999. "Knowledge Literacy, and Power." Communication Research 26 (February):5880.

Kosmoski, Georgia J.; Gay, Geneva; and Vockell, Edward L. 1990. "Cultural Literacy and Academic Achievement." Journal of Experimental Education 58 (4):265272.

Pentony, Joseph F. 1992. "Cultural Literacy: A Concurrent Validation." Educational and Psychological Measurement 52 (4):967972.

Pentony, Joseph F. 1997. "Cultural Literacy." Adult Basic Education 7 (1):3945.

Stanovich, Keith E.; West, Richard F.; and Harrison, Michele R. 1995. "Knowledge Growth and Maintenance across the Life Span." Developmental Psychology 31 (September):811826.

internet resource

Core Knowledge Foundation. 1999. The Core Knowledge Sequence. Charlottesville, VA: Core Knowledge Foundation. <>.

E. D. Hirsch Jr.


Hidden curriculum refers to messages communicated by the organization and operation of schooling apart from the official or public statements of school mission and subject area curriculum guidelines. In other words, the medium is a key source of messages. The messages of hidden curriculum usually deal with attitudes, values, beliefs, and behavior. There are numerous such messages conveyed indirectly. For example, that reading and mathematics are the most important elementary school subjects is clearly if implicitly communicated by scheduling more time for these subjects than for others, such as science and social studies, scheduling them in morning prime time rather than in the afternoon, and testing them more often than other subjects or skills.

The messages of hidden curriculum may complement or contradict each other as well as the official curriculum. For example, while school social studies curriculum typically emphasizes and even celebrates democratic political systems and principles, such as one person-one vote, majority rule and minority rights, separation of church and state, equality before the law, and due process, these principles are not always practiced in public school classrooms and corridors. Hidden curriculum can support or undermine official curriculum. Prominent displays of athletic trophies in the hallway near the school's main officebut not recognition for debate or music or scholarshipcommunicates a hierarchy of valued accomplishments that puts sports ahead of academics. It is likely that hidden curriculum has the most impact when there is an aggregate or a pattern of consistent messages. When hidden and explicit curricula conflict, it may be that hidden curriculum, like nonverbal communication, carries more weight.

Much of the organization and culture of schooling now referred to as hidden curriculum was once explicit assertive socialization according to a 1977 study by Elizabeth Vallance. The nineteenth-century McGuffey readers, for example, were intended to inculcate good behavior, such as passivity, punctuality, and respect for authority, through their stories, Protestant Christian prayers, and direct admonitions. Such teachings became implicit, if not hidden, by the early twentieth century because they were seen to be working and could be taken for granted as natural and normal. Students new to U.S. public schools, such as recent immigrants, were expected to adapt and fit in, for example, by looking at the teacher when spoken to, learning and using standard English, waiting (to speak, for the teacher's attention, for permission to use the toilet), and working hard.

Thus, a major purpose of the hidden curriculum of U.S. public schools has been cultural transmission or teaching students the routines for getting along in school and the larger society. In other words, hidden curriculum usually serves to maintain the status quo, specifically the dominant culture and prevailing socioeconomic hierarchy. It is this conservative bias, portrayed in articles by Jean Anyon and Michael Apple, that has been targeted by critics concerned about aspects of hidden curriculum, which work against diversity, equity, and social justice. Nonpublic schools, in contrast, such as Quaker or elite private schools, convey different hidden curriculum messages.

Earlier studies of hidden curriculum were conducted primarily in public elementary schools with a focus on academic classrooms. More recent work also has examined physical and business education and student cultures, with attention to messages about race/ethnicity, disability, and gender/sexual orientation as well as social class, politics, and culture. For example, Annette Hemmings investigated what she calls a "hidden corridor curriculum" that students have to negotiate in one way or another. Played out in hallways, lunchrooms, restrooms, and other nonclassroom spaces in two urban high schools she studied, it was dominated by a hostile, alienated youth culture antagonistic to typically middle-class school and social norms.

Two related aspects of hidden curriculumor sources of hidden curriculum messagescan be distinguished: the structural or organizational and the cultural. These categories and the illustrative examples that follow can be useful guides to what to look or listen for in examining the nature and extent of hidden curriculum at a particular school.

Structural or organizational aspects of hidden curriculum include time scheduling of classes and other school activities; facilities provided; materials, such as textbooks and computer software; examinations; required courses; special programs, such as speech therapy or advanced placement; extracurricular activities and services; and grading and grouping policies.

Cultural aspects of hidden curriculum include school norms or ethos; décor and wall decorations; roles and relationships, including intergroup relations (within and between teachers and students); student cliques, rituals, and celebrations; and teacher expectations of various groups of students.

Mediation and Effects

While considerable attention has been paid to the messages of hidden curriculum, relatively little has been directed to whether they are received, how they are interpreted, and what effects they have on individuals or groups. Messages sent are not necessarily received or interpreted as intended by the sender. Particularly when a school's hidden curriculum offers varied or contradictory messages, as all but the smallest and most homogeneous tend to do, students have choices regarding which messages to act on and how to do so. Most students appear to neither totally accept nor completely reject the various messages of schooling. Numerous students become adept at "playing school," that is, keeping up appearances and seeming to go along in order to gain advantage, such as good grades, without internalizing the school's values or views of the world.

While the incorporation or Americanization of generations of immigrants and their children attests to the effectiveness of hidden curriculum, evidence of specific effects on individuals or groups of students remains sketchy. Illustrative evidence comes from the political socialization and citizenship education literature. For example, according to a 1980 article by Lee Ehman, a classroom setting in which controversial issues are freely discussed and students believe that they can influence classroom events shows a consistently strong relationship with political and participatory attitudes, including higher political efficacy and trust and lower political cynicism and alienation.

In sum, the primary value of the concept of hidden curriculum is that it calls attention to aspects of schooling that are only occasionally acknowledged and remain largely unexamined. Messages communicated by schools' organization and culture can support or undermine their stated purposes and official curricula.


Anyon, Jean. 1979. "Ideology and United States History Textbooks." Harvard Educational Review 49:361386.

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Catherine Cornbleth

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Curriculum, School