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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Learners: Developments in Curriculum and Instruction

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Butts’ view, then, provides us with a way of analyzing also what is at stake in deaf education as well—the same values, social characteristics, and pluralisms are the foundation within which the microsystem of deaf education must function.

The American educational scene has been buffeted by many different trends and fads during the years since its inception as a collection of numerous state school systems held loosely together by some national interests. It is not our purpose to trace those trends, which began in the late 18th century. They are treated with great skill in other works on the history of American education and the interested reader is referred to them (e.g., Cremin, 1988; Farris, 1999).

However, it behooves us to consider the most recent cycles of change that began in the years immediately after World War II. These years were characterized in some ways by the need to consolidate and standardize the curriculum to deal with a school population that was more diverse than ever before—with the end of that war and thus the ending of the Great Depression, a greater percentage of children were in school than not and more children stayed longer in school than ever before.

Then in the era of the 1960s, during which there was a significant change in social movements and technical innovation, we witnessed significant curriculum reform. Some trace the roots of that era of change to the launching of the Russian spacecraft Sputnik in 1957, which shocked Americans into realizing that their country was no longer the leader in technology and that something had to be done with the American curriculum to remedy this problem. (It is interesting to note how frequently a national or world event refocuses attention on the schools as the problem or the solution, when in fact the situation is often far broader than merely the schools alone.) The federal government responded with the National Defense Education Act, which put federal funds into educational innovation. Among the professional innovations resulting from renewed attention to schools was the publication of The Process of Education (Bruner, 1960), which called for important curriculum reform, and the exciting curriculum projects in social studies, mathematics, and sciences.

In these projects, for the first time, subject matter scholars, psychologists, and teachers collaborated to produce new elementary and secondary curricula. We note that these significant changes had little influence on the majority of deaf children, who at that time were still taught primarily in residential schools and separate day schools. Developments in social studies, mathematics, and science in general education had little effect on the curriculum in most programs for deaf students.

In the 1970s, however, a clear retrenchment was evident in general education, labeled as the “back to basics” movement. There was a renewed focus on basic skills in mathematics and literacy that to some extent eclipsed many of the innovations of the 1960s. To some extent this was a reaction to the perceived “permissiveness” of American schools and American society. Many of the innovations of the 1960s were deemed failures; in truth there was little evidence of failure. Schools had become more inclusive of all segments of the American population and academic levels had risen in general.

The l980s saw the renewal of some educational experimentation, but at the same time, criticism of the schools increased and culminated in 1983, “the year of reports.” The most influential of these was A Nation at Risk, the well-known national report (National Commission, 1983), which found fault with various aspects of the public schools. The condemnation of American education is exemplified by the second paragraph of the report (p. 5):

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in fact, been committing an act of unthinking educational disarmament.


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