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When children attain the age of going to school, parents have the obligation to take them to school. This crucial duty of parents is part of the children’s fundamental rights. The government has an interest in ensuring that all children have access to quality education. When parents take their children to school, they expect them to be taught by qualified teachers using a state-enforced and authorised curriculum.
Who influences the process of making curriculum? What roles does it serve? Who makes the important decisions on what is to be taught? These questions hardly appear in the parents’ minds. This suggests that people take children to school or any institutions of higher learning without adequate knowledge of who controls the decisions that involve the curriculum within a nation or a state.
This paper reveals that curriculum comprises immense political battlegrounds in any education system of a nation. The battle on what a curriculum needs to deliver emanate from all directions in society. Various business groups, religious organisations and/or groups, and educational radical reformers among other groups have stakes in a curriculum. They want it to fulfil their interests by offering programs and subjects which meet their interests.
The American curriculum has been dominated by social, political, and economic motivations since early 1900 up to date. Cognition of this battle makes any curriculum leader explore the struggles of curriculum from four main approaches, which have taken a central dominance in shaping the American curriculum throughout its history. These include the humanistic approach, developmentalism, social efficiency, and social meliorism.
Each of these schools of thought has its concerns on what the curriculum should deliver. Consequently, “curriculum leaders who are grounded on the understanding of cultural politics and curriculum theory recognise any curriculum as a complicated conversation and decisions…and must have such understanding to navigate within a broader and increasingly conservative political sphere” (Ylimaki, 2012, p.305). This paper analyses the curriculum as a cultural-political undertaking based on Ylimaki’s claim raised above.
Making Curriculum Decisions
Making curriculum decisions is a splendid and a monumental task. In this process, curriculum developers have to take into consideration various opinions of economic, social, and political actors who have an interest on what curriculum should deliver.
This reduces the entire process to involve complicated conversations and decisions, which are similar to political acts. Making political decisions requires decision-makers to ensure that the decisions made fulfil the interests of all interested parties. Curriculum leaders experience a similar dilemma while making curriculum decisions.
From one dimension, curriculum leaders are required to address the concern of social efficiency paradigms of curriculum theoretical approaches. Proponents of the social efficiency school of thought struggle to have curriculum address and serve the principal functions of meeting economic needs (Richards, 2005, p.242).
Curriculum leaders need to implement curriculum in a manner that prepares people to perform efficiently and effectively in the work environment. While this concern is essential for curriculum leaders to pay attention, they also have to consider the curriculum from the context of political issues raised by social meliorism.
The advocates of this school of thought argue that the curriculum needs to serve the function of bringing about social changes through fostering societal improvements. School curriculum should then produce political, social, and economic reformers. Social meliorism also advocates for the school curriculum to serve the function of solving prevalent problems in societies such as drug and substance abuse, racism, and sexism, among others.
The political nature of the process of making curriculum decisions is more pronounced where curriculum leaders have to make decisions to satisfy the interest of two groups subscribing to two opposite schools of thought on the functions of curriculum.
For instance, the humanist theoretical paradigm claims that the curriculum has the central prerogative to expose students to their cultural traditions (Brady & Kennedy, 2010, p.29). They reject in totality the idea of social efficiency proponents that school curriculum needs to prepare students for the workforce.
One of the most challenging tasks for a curriculum leader is to ensure that any curriculum satisfies the concerns of cultural politics. These politics emerge from different anticipations for the purpose and need that a curriculum should serve in the society.
While meliorists want school curriculum to serve the needs of the society in general, developmentalism argues that the curriculum should lead to individual development of learners. Thus, it should principally focus on individual needs (Brady & Kennedy, 2010, p.33). School curriculum leaders should ensure that the curriculum is integrative of all concerns of the potential sources of influence. This concern subjects them to engage in curriculum politicking.
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For instance, a dilemma emerges on whether to contend with proponents of humanistic, social efficiency, and social meliorism that developmentalists’ approach to school curriculum is invalid due to the lack of intellectualism together with the provision of learners with vital skills to work and live in a society. The main issue that curriculum leaders have to address is identifying one of the four theories as the best in the approaches of curriculum development and implementation process.
Political aspects are substantial contributors of the curriculum theory that determines the type of curriculum in operation at any particular time. Different theories take central roles in influencing curriculum depending on the prevailing economic and political conditions.
In a politically charged environment, curriculum leaders cannot fail to appreciate that curriculum must serve the current political regime’s philosophies and ideologies. External groups also influence curriculum implementation and development decisions. For instance, parents who have been known traditionally to support schools unconditionally now demand schools to resolve various issues that influence their children in the future (Richards, 2005, p.245).
In the modern scenes of education, political action manifests itself in the form of lobbying and incidental persuasions in making curriculum decision. This makes curriculum for district schools immensely politically motivated and manipulated (Richards, 2005, p.248).
Curriculum leaders should learn to operate within such an intensive political atmosphere. However, political interventions emanating from a myriad of sources that are not checked can influence negatively the quality of education. Nevertheless, global societies are shaped by politics. Consequently, consideration of political ropes may increase the ability of curriculum leaders to strengthen curriculum.
In a politically motivated process of curriculum implementation and development, enormous differences exist on what pressure groups and professionals in education view as requisite requirements for any curriculum. Curriculum leaders can take advantage of political contributions in the process of curriculum development and implementation to initiate changes that can make the curriculum more responsive to the needs of the society.
Political Discourses in Curriculum Development
The process of making curriculum encounters an immense influence from various groups with stakes. Investigating the current curriculum leadership and discourses, Ylimaki (2012) argues that policies for curriculum reforms are highly influenced by a specific set of ideologies, which acerbate conservatism (p.307).
Earlier studies, for instance, Apple (1996), confirms that the battlefield of curriculum development and leadership is influenced by ideological theoretical perspectives such as neoliberal, neo-nationalist, and neoconservative theoretical approaches to curriculum policy-making processes.
Ideological perspectives prescribe certain pedagogical elements concerning curriculum leadership in schools (Ylimaki 2012, p.307). The ideological perspective that gains the highest stake in influencing the curriculum formation and implementation process is dependent on political forces and philosophies of the political regime in administration.
Curriculum leadership cannot be alienated for political influences. Indeed, the history of curriculum struggles in different nations often narrow down to curriculum function interpretations based on political ideologies. Literature on curriculum development discourses strongly supports the contribution of politics in curriculum development and leadership. The first endeavour to interpret curriculum from the context of political discourses depended on the concepts of correspondence together with reproduction (Pinar & Bowers, 1992, p.164).
For instance, Pinar and Bowers (1992) quote Bowles and Gintis as having interpreted the process of the functioning of schools as being influenced heavily by the superstructure stratum established through economic bases of various societies (Pinar & Bowers, 1992, p.164). This suggests that the process of curriculum leadership is highly hierarchical in the sense that causality took place in only one direction depending on power allocation levels in the superstructure.
The above approach to curriculum leadership replicates the concept of power struggles between various political hierarchies characterising the authoritative political system of administration. In such a system, the curriculum leaders are required to lead the process of curriculum development and implementation so that it satisfies the needs of the society while at the same time complying with political pressures.
The interrogative that a curriculum leader has to face is the purpose that a curriculum should serve. Should it satisfy the needs of the society while ignoring the political pressures, or should it meet the ideologies and philosophies of the political regime? However, it is essential to note that a political system is a key player to the determination of the kind of public goods to be delivered to the society and the procedure or process that is used to deliver them.
Education is one of such public goods whose process of delivery is determined by what is taught in schools as stipulated in the curriculum. This interplay of curriculum leadership and politics reveal why curriculum leaders need to understand that a curriculum embraces conversations and debates organised around political acts.
Curriculum dictates the functions of education. People construct such functions based on their understanding of what is required in the environment that students are exposed to after they finish various educational levels.
This environment is shaped by economic, social, and political values. Pinar and Bowers support this assertion by insisting, “structures of social relations in education not only nurture students to the discipline of the workplace, but also develop the types of personal demeanour, modes of self-presentation, self-image, and social class identification that act as crucial ingredients of job adequacy” (1992, p.164).
The interpretation of the purpose of education favours the social efficiency school of thought on the purpose of education within any state or nation. As revealed before, various schools of thought that address the function and purpose of education and/or how curriculum should be organised are either validated or invalidated by political acts and philosophies of the current political regimes.
The principle of correspondence is crucial in the interpretation of curriculum from the political context. Scrutiny of the formal organisational approach of schools confirms an organisation that replicates the hierarchies of social labour divisions (Pinar & Bowers, 1992).
A school is characterised by vertical lines of authority flowing from school leaders to teachers, ending at the lowest level that constitutes the students. Similar to citizens who lack control of political decisions, students do not have control of the curriculum. Hence, curriculum hardly serves to achieve the individual needs of students.
Curriculum is designed to ensure that education improves the standards of living of students. In this sense, curriculum is influenced by various ideologies. Pinar and Bowers (1992) are also inclined to this line of thought by maintaining, “curriculum itself is conceptualised as ideological mystifications” (p.165). Political aspects are the key players in the formation of various ideologies and pedagogies of curriculum interpretations.
Curriculum dictates the learning outcomes in schools. In the determination of the outcome, culture and ideologies possessed by the dominant classes of people within society play a big role in influencing the ideas on the desired goal of education reflected in the curriculum content. In a Marxist nation, as an element of political mighty and an indicator of economic status of different people, power determines social classes. Hence, it determines the levels of dominance of different classes of people.
The ideas on the function of education in different states as they are incorporated in the curriculum development and implementation process are politically motivated and hence a manifestation of political influences in the curriculum development and leadership. Therefore, curriculum leaders and implementers manage the process of successful implementation of curriculum in schools to meet the ideologies of the dominant social groups, which are political in nature.
Through the deployment of the arguments of Bowles and Gintis, Pinar and Bowers (1992) cite four main practices of the society. The first category of social practices encompasses the appropriate practices, which the authors assert their main goal is to generate projects that are useful to societies as a whole (Pinar & Bowers, 1992, p.166). Society also engages in political practices with the intention of enhancing their transformations.
Cultural practices serve the function of transforming various tools and discourses that define the society’s existence. The last category of social practices is distributive functions. Distribution practices “alter the distribution of power and income” (Pinar & Bowers, 1992, p.166). These four practices indicate that society is ever in a continuous search of the processes of enhancing their cultural, political, and even economical transformation.
Thus, any tool of enhancing such transformation is handled based on achievements of these four practices. Education is one of the tools claimed by all nations as reliable for enhancing social transformation through the provision of skills and knowledge required to live in this changing world. Curriculum leaders should anticipate curriculum to be influenced by the four societal practices.
Surprisingly also, political aspects tie all the four practices together through the determination of the mechanisms of allocation of resources, power, and governance approaches within a society. Hence, the use of education as the tool for social transformation implies that the curriculum is more influenced by political ideologies and social practices relative to any of the other three social practices.
Modern approaches to curriculum development and leadership replicate politically motivated and instigated ideological influences. For instance, according to Brady and Kennedy, the purpose of education is to make every student, irrespective of race or disability, grow into their full potential and capacity since education encompasses the creation of a means of opening barriers and minds, thus making it possible to convert impossibilities into possibilities (2010, p.104).
This means that there is an ideological perception of what students need to become in the future. The perception is articulated in the school curriculum. The curriculum in the US seeks to instil a strong foundation on key areas of learning, including numeracy, teamwork, creativity, social competence, literacy, and self-management, among other areas.
The main objective is to enable all American students to stand a chance of learning through the multi interdisciplinary environment with the intention of developing new and efficient expertise that meets the hefty demands of the 21st century’s job market. Education is deployed as a tool of helping to solve politically challenging issues that have historically ailed the American people, such as racism, sexism, and cultural diversity, among others.
Various theoretical approaches to curriculum development inform the curriculum deployed in various district schools in the US. The theories borrow widely from process-product models and procedural models. Such models include Tyler and Skilbeck’s situational analysis models. Tyler’s model borrows its basis from logically developed sequences. “The models begin with the objectives through content to the method and then to evaluation/assessment” (Brady & Kennedy, 2010, p.41).
Skilbeck’s situational analysis model seeks to provide a process of examining the contexts that are deemed appropriate for the operation of the curriculum. The need to evaluate the contexts for operation of a curriculum is a proof of the different opinions among people who develop and implement curriculum. This manifests the interplay of politics and curriculum leadership.
Federal policies, which are normally politically motivated, advocate for conservative paradigms in the approaches of educational leadership. These paradigms emphasise curriculum leadership that is guided by “performance outcomes and curriculum reforms defined by standardisation” (Ylimaki, 2012, p.309). The federal government has an interest in the outcomes of the curriculum implementation process in schools.
The declaration of the consequences of failure to attain specific curriculum outcomes evidence that the curriculum is best understood as a political text. For instance, NCLB act placed a requirement for schools to attain “a goal of 100 percent proficiency in state tests by 2012” (Ylimaki, 2012, p.309). The act or the policy implied that the consequences of non-compliance were also provided in the act. Schools risked being changed to charter status, with their staff being restructured or reconstituted (Ylimaki, 2012, p.309).
For curriculum leaders, this provides substantive evidence that curriculum implementation process has sound components of political influences. Thus, they can best understand the curriculum as embracing complex political conversations together with complex decisions that manifest themselves in the form of political acts.
Cultural Political Discourses in Curriculum Development
In a study to determine the impact of cultural politics on the curriculum in the US, Ylimaki (2012) interviewed four principals. The aim was to determine their understanding of the curriculum leaders on issues of curriculum leadership together with the elements that shape their approaches to curriculum implementation.
The researcher concluded that addressing various issues of “cultural-political context and how the politics apply to particular school settings” (Ylimaki, 2012, p.341) is necessary to create an understanding of the whole concept of curriculum among school curriculum leaders.
This suggests that curriculum leaders in schools cannot be relied upon to give neutral interpretations of the meaning of curriculum. Their curriculum leadership approaches are influenced by the existing cultural-political shifts. The interpretation of curriculum by the curriculum leaders is important since principals are the chief agents of curriculum communication. Ylimaki (2012) agrees with this assertion by adding that education administrators dictate what is practiced in the classroom (p.317).
In this sense, understanding of curriculum transcends beyond the classroom practice to give a substantive meaning of curriculum from the context of subjects and self-formation processes of students together with social transformational effects of the curriculum. Such an understanding is developed in the context of the prevailing political administration social policies. Hence, curriculum leaders interpret curriculum besides giving directions of its implementation in the classroom practice based on preconceived desired end states.
The above position implies that what is put in practice in schools does not essentially reflect 100 percent of the curriculum contents. Curriculum is written down. However, its meaning is subject to the manner in which it is interpreted by its implementers. The interpretation process is conducted in an environment that is influenced by cultural politics as to what curriculum should deliver to both learners and the society.
Ylimaki (2012) supports this line of thought by further asserting, “the point of the public school curriculum is understanding the relations among academic knowledge, the state of society, and the processes of self-formation” (p.318). Questions emerge here whether indeed the development of the national curriculum is imperative, considering that its interpretation and areas of emphasis are different based on the cultural-political inclination of the curriculum leaders.
The response to the above query is perhaps well addressed by Michael Apple in his book Cultural Politics and Education. Apple argues, “national curriculum provides the framework within which national testing can function” (Apple, 1996, p.32). Hence, national curriculum serves the function of forming the basis of indicating educational quality. Its wider meaning or implication to the society and learner is subject to the manner in which the curriculum leaders who attach meaning to it through cultural-political architectures interpret it.
In the actual sense, national curriculum is deemed successfully addressed when students pass their exams since test results act as ‘quality tags’. No matter the theoretical paradigms deployed to explain curriculum anticipation by the society through national tests, the impacts produced by the curriculum on the learner remains unmeasured.
The most unforgiving way of making curriculum leadership free from cultural politics residing within curriculum leaders is by allowing it to interpret itself. However, this approach is impossible in both theory and practice. Curriculum involves the transfer of meaning. In this process, curriculum leadership actors must be involved. Such actors cannot also be alienated and detached from cultural influences and politics, which give each curriculum leader a different interpretation of the function of education, and hence the curriculum.
While administering curriculum in a complex society, one has to consider the history of curriculum leaders based on situations in which they cannot play fowl of their cultural-political understandings.
In a complex society in which the deferential power manifests itself through the person who is in charge of curriculum leadership, “…the only possible cohesion is the one which overly recognises differences and inequalities” (Apple, 1996. p.67). The inequalities are the products of different views of the needs of the society together with how such needs can be met.
Education is perhaps one of the mega ways in which societies can be transformed into better future state. The perception of a ‘future good state’ varies from one curriculum leader to another based on what influences the understanding of the concept. Hence, the interpretation and communication of the curriculum are likely to be done from the peculiar understanding and perception of a given curriculum leader based on what a future state the curriculum should foster. Cultural politics shape such perceptions.
Consequently, the curriculum should not be presented as an objective. Rather, it must constantly subjectify itself (Apple 1996, p. 81). This calls for curriculum leaders to acknowledge and understand that curriculum is ingrained in the roots, culture, and history of people who have a constant urge of looking for mechanisms of leading social developments to realise both objective and subjective individual and communal interests. In this sense, curriculum involves complicated debates and conversations of cultural politics.
Through appreciation of the roles of cultural politics in shaping the understanding of curriculum in different schools, opportunities exist seeking collective ways of giving curriculum the desired meaning that is far from personal influences shaped by individualistic cultural and political history. Educational leaders possess immense opportunities to derail and alter their ideological construction of the function and purpose of curriculum and curriculum development.
A good example of such a change is exemplified in the case of Juidici and Hughes discussed by Ylimaki (2012). In these two cases, curriculum leaders inform curriculum understanding from the context of cultural politics as explained by “the differences in their curriculum development processes, emerging agency and consciousness of cultural-political shifts and discourses, and community-based curriculum work” (Ylimaki, 2012, p.344).
However, leaders also portray individualised processes of curriculum development implying that the necessity of collective action in the approaches of curriculum leadership was important even though cultural politics were cutely managed.
Curriculum leaders have noble roles to ensure successful implementation of curriculum in schools. Successful implementation of curriculum requires them to understand the process of curriculum development in the effort to ensure that they have adequate information on the desired goal of the curriculum. Understanding the goals of the curriculum involves the attachment of meaning to the expectations of the curriculum.
While there are various contexts that can be deployed by curriculum leaders to interpret it, the paper focused on interpreting curriculum as a cultural-political text. The determination of what needs to be taught in schools, by whom, and at what time has political influences attached to it, thus supporting the different schools of thought on the purpose of education in a society. In this end, the paper maintained that curriculum reflects ideologies of certain groups of people in a society.
Such people are normally the powerful and economically well endowed who also happen to be the politically powerful people. Attempting to understand the curriculum as a political text means that curriculum leaders have the obligation to deliver curriculum in a manner that satisfies the current political regime’s ideologies and philosophies of the function and purposes of public goods such as education.
For curriculum leaders who are inclined to the methodology of interpreting curriculum from the context of curriculum theory together with curriculum cultural politics, the paper maintained that they have cognition that curriculum involves complex conversations enshrined within the domains of political acts.
Apple, M. (1996). Cultural Politics and Education. New York, NY: London Teachers Press.
Brady, L., & Kennedy, K. (2010). Curriculum Construction, (4th Ed.). French’s Forest: Pearson.
Pinar, W., & Bowers, C. (1992). Politics of Curriculum: Origins, Controversies and Significance of Critical Perspectives. Review of Research in Education, 18(1), 163-190.
Richards, C. (2005). Culture, Politics and curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 28(3), 241-251.
Ylimaki, R. (2012). Curriculum Leadership in a Conservative Era. Educational Administration Quarterly, 18(2), 304-346.