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Echo Effects and Curriculum Change

by Catherine Cornbleth - 2008

Background/Context: This project is framed by a critical pragmatism, which is evident in the questioning of how social conditions and events outside schools influence classroom practice and in exploring the question of who benefits, collectively and individually, socially and politically, as well as pedagogically.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The intent of this work is to better our understanding of the school-society nexus generally and, more specifically, of curriculum practice and change in relation to societal conditions and events. This goal is pursued by means of analysis of relevant research to illustrate what might be called “echo effects” in order to account for changes in curriculum policy and practice in response to external press.

Research Design: Methodologically, this is an analytic article that reexamines data and interpretations from several relevant research projects. In addition to media research relevant to the conception of “echo,” four cases/studies provide illustration of echoes and apparent “echo effects” on curriculum policy and/or practice: state-level curriculum policymaking; school administrator perceptions and practices regarding censorship challenges; teachers’ responses to new or increased state testing in academic subject areas; and teachers’ responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Echoes and apparent echo effects on curriculum policy and classroom practice are important because they demonstrate one means by which events and “social forces” enter into public and professional discourses, and that discourses matter, in part by framing issues, focusing attention, and rendering legitimacy. Echo effects appear to be dependent on the echoes being received or “heard” and on the extent to which they are perceived or interpreted in ways (1) compatible with one’s values and priorities, and (2) feasible to act on in current circumstances (given one’s assessment of the situation, one’s political and professional skills, and so forth). Next steps include examining the conditions under which echo effects are stronger or weaker and perhaps attempting to manage (e.g., deflect) the echoes themselves. Notably, the cases of echo effects offered here all contribute, though in varying degrees, to the narrowing of curriculum policy and practice. The cumulative curriculum effects of these echoes appear to sustain more than challenge the status quo. With greater awareness and understanding of how external influences enter in and operate, we are better able to raise questions and attempt to reshape curricular and other educational issues, not merely to participate in the debates on terms set by others or to be swept along by default.

Schools should prepare students for a rapidly changing, high-tech society in an increasingly competitive yet interdependent world.

Schools reproduce the social order.

Schools dare not build a new social order.

Social forces shape schooling.

Although claims such as these abound, too little systematic inquiry and conceptualization span or link schooling and society. With few exceptions, social foundations and policy folk tend not to enter into schools. Curriculum and teaching folk tend not to venture outside schools. Teachers shut their classroom doors with the presumption that closing the door closes out the outside world.

Assuming that what happens in the community-society-world does influence what happens in school classrooms, shaping what students do or do not have opportunities to learn and how and how well they are enabled to learn, we have monitored and documented how identified external influences on curriculum policy and classroom curriculum practice appear to enter in and operate. The intent is to move beyond the not very helpful rhetoric of “social forces.” This article presents the analysis of relevant research to illustrate what we have come to call “echo effects” to account for changes in curriculum policy and practice in response to external press. The echo and echo effects conceptions are an outgrowth of prior empirical research rather than a hunch or hypothesis as yet directly investigated by me or others. Data from our recently completed Climates of Opinion project,1 as well as others’ work, provide the empirical basis for the echo and echo effects conceptions and the suggestion that, because of apparent echo effects, they merit further investigation in curriculum policymaking and practice.

The theoretical frame for this work can be characterized as a critical pragmatism (most fully described in Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995/1999, ch. 2). Simply and directly, a pragmatic concern is evident in the questioning of whether and how social conditions and events outside schools influence classroom curriculum practice. A critical concern is evident in exploring the question of who benefits, collectively and individually, socially and politically, as well as pedagogically, from one or another echo effect. The intent of this work is to better our understanding of the school-society nexus generally and, more specifically, of curriculum practice and change in relation to societal conditions and events.

In the past two decades, there have been noteworthy projects to explore the contexts of curriculum and teaching and to link context factors to classroom practices (e.g., Cornbleth, 1990, 2000; McLaughlin, Talbert, & Bascia, 1990; McNeil, 1986; Onosko & Newmann, 1994; Romanowski, 1996; Stodolsky & Grossman, 1995; Talbert, McLaughlin, & Rowan, 1993). This work has been useful in mapping the territory and alerting curriculum makers and reformers. More recently, an effort to expand the explanatory power of research on context led to an examination of relevant studies to see how context factors seemed to connect or interact to shape curriculum practice and student learning opportunities (Cornbleth, 2001). Particularly interested in what appears to get in the way of curriculum and teaching for meaningful learning and critical thinking that incorporate diverse perspectives and students, five research-based “climates” of constraint were identified: (1) law and order climate, (2) conservative climate, (3) climate of censorship challenge, (4) climate of pathology and pessimism, and (5) competitive climate of testing and public ranking. Not much attention was paid, however, to how these climates came to be.

Reexamining data and interpretations from several research projects indicates that the echoes of events outside schools impact what teachers teach and how they teach it (i.e., classroom curriculum practice) while the specifics of the events themselves may fade from memory or awareness. A clear implication is that educators, researchers, and policy makers attend to the echoes and the events per se in their efforts to understand and shape what occurs in schools and classrooms. Redirecting or refocusing attention would likely yield greater understanding and more successful reform efforts. This project and its elaboration of the construct of echo effects can be seen as part of an emerging movement in curriculum or sociocurricular studies that attempts to better understand, and then work with, the nuances and interplay of curriculum and context.

After describing the provenance of the conception of echo and echo effects used here, research from four areas or cases is presented as illustration: (1) state-level curriculum policymaking; (2) school administrator perceptions and practices regarding censorship challenges; (3) teachers’ responses to new or increased state testing in academic subject areas; and (4) teachers’ responses to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, outside Washington, D.C., and in western Pennsylvania, and their aftermath. The intent is to indicate a conceptual and empirical basis for echoes and echo effects—and that they merit further investigation—not to “prove” their existence as some sort of independent and dependent variables. In concluding, seeming patterns of effects are noted, and implications for educators, researchers, and others interested in what happens in schools and what students have opportunities to learn are indicated.


The notion of echo as a way to describe how phenomena emanating outside schools seem to enter in and affect curriculum practice within schools occurred to me during the week preceding the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 2001. The week offered numerous media, government, and other announcements of planned events to remember “9/11,” to commemorate the horrific events of that date and their aftermath. There also were special programs on television and National Public Radio (and probably elsewhere that we did not experience personally). And there was a minor effort to renew the “America Debate” as conservatives attacked the National Educational Association for its Web site suggestions to educators for dealing with the 9/11 anniversary in their schools and classrooms (see Rothstein, 2002).

In the midst of this first anniversary milieu, we wondered whether one’s own remembrances and concerns might be reshaped or overtaken by media and other institutional re-presentations, or whether one could even separate events or accounts of events from their interpretations, re-presentations, or echoes. Would any influence of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath on teachers’ curriculum practice be carried by the echoes as much as, or perhaps more than, teachers’ initial experience of events directly or even as “originally” mediated by news reports or the accounts of friends, family members, or acquaintances? Perhaps the echoes become an integral part of the events as they are socially constructed and reconstructed over time and changing circumstance.

Part of the Climates of Opinion project mentioned above involved late spring 2002 interviews with English and social studies teachers about changes in their teaching practice (changes in either what or how they taught) during the 2001–2002 school year. After open-ended questions, we asked several “what about” questions, including “What about the effects, if any, of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath?” How, we wondered, might responses differ a year later, and what might account for any differences? What role, if any, would echoes of September 11, 2001, play?

The echo notion prompted recollection of an earlier project examining multicultural politics and state-level curriculum policymaking (Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995/1999) in which we observed that professional and public talk about the policies being made seemed to reach and influence some educators apart from the policies themselves. Echoes of the surrounding discourse could be heard in teachers’ talk and practice. The interpretations or re-presentations of curriculum policy are potential practice-shaping echoes regardless of whether they reflect the policy makers’ intent. More recently, in investigating “climates of constraint” on curriculum and teaching (Cornbleth, 2001), Adler’s (1993) documentation of the chilling effects of censorship challenges in one school district on others, which she called “echo effects,” was striking. No doubt her language has influenced my thinking. The apparent effects of new or increased state testing, also part of the constraints investigation, further suggested that teacher talk about the tests may become self-sustaining and influential apart from the actual tests and the use of their results. More echoes. The easy availability of evidence seeming to support the echo interpretation does not, of course, rule out the possibility of exceptions or counterexamples and contrary evidence that we have not encountered during extensive literature searches. It does, however, suggest the desirability of rethinking assumptions about how social context shapes curriculum policy and practice.

Before venturing too far with the echo metaphor, it seemed prudent to examine its meaning in an academic or scientific context.


Echoes result from the reflection of sound waves off the surfaces they encounter. We seem to hear the initial sound repeated or mirrored, either as in the original or with some distortion. For example, a curved surface like a satellite dish will focus sound waves and amplify the sound. Consider the types of surfaces and surface curves as the intent, bias, or point of view of the mediators of external events.

In addition to transmission and reflection, sound waves can be absorbed or diffracted. Sound is diffracted when waves move through an opening or around an edge of an obstacle, resulting in intensification or cancellation of sound. Consider how some external events, or accounts of them, seem to be diverted or to fade from public notice, whereas others seem to claim center stage for extended periods. The so-called media echo chamber is not neutral.2


Various professional, private, and local discourses—as well as mass media and public discourses—are sources of echoes of social phenomena and carriers of potential echo effects on curriculum policy and practice. The social phenomena of interest here are external (to schooling) events, conditions, and issues, or movements such as the civil rights movement. Those who shape the debates and the prevailing discourse about social phenomena also shape the echoes that enter into classroom curriculum practice directly or indirectly via policy channels. The echoes of interest may appear as a word or phrase, a story, a symbol, or an image. They may be communicated by a range of means, from word-of-mouth to mass media. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have come to be symbolized by the oft-repeated and now iconic video images of “the twin towers” ablaze and imploding as a large plane flies into one of them. The plane crashing into the Pentagon and the crashed plane in western Pennsylvania within minutes that same morning seem to have faded from public memory. That image of the twin towers is the media-induced echo of the terrorist attacks. The shorthand referent, 9/11, seems to stand for much less than what happened that day in some instances, and much more (including subsequent events) in others. Echoes can reduce and simplify, or amplify and embellish, as in “blowing all out of proportion” in the case of “WMDs.” Importantly, they are repeated or reappearing, often becoming a taken-for-granted part of one’s everyday life.

The echo-creating surfaces, such as individuals and organizations, that enter into the prevailing discourse—both shaping and being shaped by it—do not merely reflect or bounce back the original. Their reflection involves interpretation, mediation, or filtering shaped by a host of factors. Consider, for example, the factors likely influencing Fox “News” portrayals of ongoing disputes over the teaching of evolutionary theory and/or creationism or “intelligent design” in science classes—or portrayals of the NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) or your local school community.  

Although careful review has not revealed specific reference to mass media as echo-makers in the scholarly literature, there is abundant evidence of media (mis-)interpretation of social phenomena and apparent media shaping, as well as reporting of public opinion (e.g., Anastasio, Rose, & Chapman, 1999), that is relevant to the echo effects of interest here. In their research review, Anastasio et al. cited a study by Gilens of “the actual and media-portrayed racial makeup of America’s poor” (p. 153) in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report between 1988 and 1992. Of particular interest are the accompanying pictures of people in poverty, 62% of whom were African American. The actual proportion of the poor who were African American at that time was 29%. In surveys, Americans overestimated the proportion of poor Americans who are Black, as did the editors of the three news magazines. A majority of Americans believed that there are more Blacks than Whites in poverty. Further, “among white respondents to the 1990 General Social Survey, Gilens found a negative correlation between perceptions of the percentage of blacks in poverty and support for welfare” (Anastasio et al., p. 153).

Two aspects of Anastasio et al.’s (1999) review are especially relevant. First, the mass media at times misrepresent phenomena, unintentionally or purposefully, and in so doing may shape the public opinion that they presumably seek to report or reflect in their “news.” Second, because media functions “as a window to the outside world, what appears across its landscape actually may become people’s reality” (p. 153), especially as the message is repeated or echoed. The media echoes become the events.

Hutcheson, Domke, Billeaudeaux, and Garland (2004) also showed how mass media can create echoes and shape public opinion, here by means of their selection of spokespersons who are quoted and by their own take on events. They conducted a systematic content analysis of all stories about the terrorist attacks in the first five issues of Time and Newsweek published after September 11, 2001, using the source of information as their unit of analysis (1) U.S. government and military officials; (2) other U.S. elites (e.g., experts, former officials); (3) U.S. citizens (e.g., people on the street); and (4) journalists (the story authors). Of particular interest were the national identity-related themes mentioned by each source (e.g., attribution of blame for the terrorist attacks, American values) and the valence of comments about each theme, from positive to neutral or mixed to critical. Among their findings were that U.S. government and military officials were significantly more likely to include national identity-related themes in their quoted comments than were the other two groups, and they were more positive about the United States compared with elites, who were more analytical. U.S. citizens’ views were closer to those of the officials than to those of the elites. Importantly, except for the September 11 special issues, the journalists closely paralleled the military and government officials’ discourse but not that of elites or citizens.

Hutcheson et al. (2004) suggested that the news media not only relied on government and military officials as sources “and were exposed to consistent expressions of bipartisanship and unity among U.S. political leaders following September 11” but also were likely to apportion their stories accordingly, “echoing many of the same nationalist themes as government leaders” (p. 46). They concluded that their data point to “the inexorable intertwining of political leaders and mass media, particularly news media, in the construction, articulation, and dissemination of national identity” (p. 47). Their findings also show how some echoes are created.

Here, mass media refers not only to news magazines but also to the Internet,  radio, TV, and hard-copy print sources such as newspapers and magazines. TV is often cited as particularly ubiquitous in contemporary American life and therefore influential. With cable and satellite have come a proliferation of channels to choose from, including 24-hour “news” programming. This expansion, and resulting competition for audience, has resulted not only in repetition of “news” but also in more so-called punditry and infotainment, and niche “news” that caters to one or another demographic grouping or political-ideological leaning. Whereas recycling of news items can be seen as reverberation (i.e., rapid reflection of sound waves that prolongs the original sound), a prolonging that can either increase impact or lead to tuning out, the competition can lead to polarizing distortions. More on the media’s apparent role is provided in the cases to follow and in the concluding commentary.

On the level of individuals as echo makers, a veteran high school teacher and department chair comes to mind. He related that he doesn’t pay much attention to what comes out of Albany (meaning policies and regulations from the state government and its education department). He does consider, and usually acts on and echoes to teachers in his department, what his district subject area coordinator and his principal say about new policies and regs (regulations), and he takes the required state exams and the buzz surrounding them very seriously. Thus, he is responding to the policy echoes rather than the state policies per se, which he had not read (and apparently did not intend to read). Importantly, the coordinator, principal, and chair do not simply mirror the policies and regulations. Their interpretations shape the policy echoes that they transmit.

Echo effects are indicated by the taking up or use of the re-presentations of events, as illustrated in the four cases to follow. Teachers and other school personnel, for example, appropriate the echo language and discourse or refer to it among reasons given for their curriculum practice. For instance, a team leader might say that his school is not using a particular novel or reader because of the uproar it caused in a neighboring district. In this manner, the echoes of curriculum challenges elsewhere, likely communicated through a local professional network, yield echo effects in the form of self-censorship. If the reasons given for not using the novel or reader pertained to costs, reading difficulty, or compatibility with state exams—but not censorship experiences elsewhere—echo effects would not be indicated.


Four cases are offered to document echoes of events, conditions, or issues that indicate echo effects on school and/or curriculum policy and practice. The first is our own study of multicultural politics and state-level curriculum policymaking.


Between 1989 and 1995, the New York State Commissioner of Education appointed three committees to review state curriculum guides and offer advice as to how they might better reflect and serve the increasingly diverse population of the state. The first focused on social studies and produced a report entitled A Curriculum of Inclusion that provoked a public fury all out of proportion to its content and the number of people who actually read it. The report was never officially published by the State Education Department, perhaps because of the immediate and virulent backlash.

The phrases of a few individuals critical of A Curriculum of Inclusion circulated widely and were amplified by repetition in the press and other media (see Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995/1999, ch. 4)3—for example, promoting tribalism (or Balkanization), leading to a Tower of Babel, ethnic cheerleading. The gist of these echoes was that the report recommended rewriting (i.e., distorting) history to favor pluralism over national unity.

The echoes can be seen to have shaped the establishment of a second statewide committee, a so-called blue ribbon panel appointed to provide recommendations for social studies curriculum revision in New York State that would be more representative of who “we” are (i.e., more multicultural) and gain wide acceptance. Influence was evident in the concerns voiced by various committee members to avoid inflammatory language or appear too radical, especially in any communication with the media.

Influence also was evident in the kid-glove treatment of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., one of the most outspoken and oft-quoted critics of the Curriculum of Inclusion report. Schlesinger declined membership but agreed to serve as a consultant to the blue ribbon panel. He eventually wrote one of seven “reflections” included in the panel’s June 1991 report, One Nation, Many Peoples. It was one of the two self-labeled dissents. In it, Schlesinger worried about the likely Balkanizing and other ill effects of what he had earlier characterized as “too much multiculturalism.” The two more conservative, dissenting views received as much or more media attention as the report itself. External critics (e.g., Diane Ravitch) also had their views repeated extensively in the media.

Schlesinger’s undefined “too much multiculturalism” echoed throughout the third, statewide implementation committee’s deliberations from 1992 to 1995. It was repeated more than once by more than one member of that committee in a cautionary manner, usually with lowered voice, as if we all knew what was meant and most of us agreed. “If Arthur’s worried, then I think we should be too,” was one school district administrator’s way of putting it during a committee meeting (Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995/1999, p. 138). Names like Schlesinger, Ravitch, and Shanker (then president of the American Federation of Teachers), but especially Schlesinger, were frequently referenced with deference to support a “moderate” position against “radical” change in social studies curriculum policy. Echoing Schlesginger’s dissenting reflection in One Nation, Many Peoples, one teacher member of the committee commented that “reading between the lines of One Nation, Many Peoples, there’s too much diversity” (p. 139). The effect, eventually, was to “mute multiculturalism” in the curriculum policy that emerged (see Cornbleth & Waugh, ch. 5).

This case suggests that critique can echo longer, louder, and further than other kinds of messages. My journalist coauthor referred to the critics’ catchphrases as “catnip to the mainstream media” (Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995/1999, p. 19).4 The repetition or echoing of such cautions as “too much multiculturalism” lent them an air of legitimacy and an appearance of consensus that served to shape social studies curriculum policymaking in New York State, and likely classroom curriculum practice as well, either directly or indirectly via the standards and exams that followed.


Whereas the press and other media played a key role in echoing and thus spreading and sustaining critiques of multiculturalism, in the case of local censorship challenges to subject matter, materials, or teaching-learning activities, the sources and sustenance of echo effects are more likely to be face-to-face or via the grapevine or the local rumor mill. Actual or potential censorship efforts to limit or prohibit the expression of some ideas or to control their treatment in classroom curriculum practice provide near irresistible grist for gossip, and soon “everybody knows” about the incident—regardless of whether it even occurred or happened as reported. The echo effects, however, are quite real, encouraging self-censorship in the absence of direct challenges in one’s own school or district.

Based on a 1993 mail survey of all California school districts, Adler (1993) reported that, of the approximately one third who responded, 93% of the responding administrators indicated that they had read or heard about curriculum challenges in other districts (down slightly from 95% two years earlier), and only 12% recalled that the incidents “were handled routinely with little controversy” (p. 20).5 About half of the respondents recalled the incidents as being “somewhat contentious and disruptive,” and about a third characterized them as “very disruptive” and/or causing the community “wide controversy” (p. 20).

Asked how they were influenced by what they heard about experiences in other districts, only 13% of respondents reported that “they were not influenced at all” (Adler, 1993, p. 20). Although most said that they plan curriculum and materials adoption processes carefully so as to avoid controversies, and then make independent judgments, 9% reported that they “(a) would be less likely to adopt material challenged elsewhere, (b) might not consider items known to have caused contentious challenges, or (c) would not consider such materials” (p. 20). Adler provided clear evidence for what she termed an “echo effect” of curriculum challenges wherein challenges in one district are heard about and affect actions in other districts, where efforts are made to avoid similar challenges.

Most teachers and administrators prefer to avoid controversy. It is not difficult to imagine one teacher saying to another, “If you hadn’t upset those parents by asking your students to analyze that far-out literature, we wouldn’t have them looking over our shoulders now!” Wanting the acceptance of colleagues, and tenure if one is a newcomer, few teachers totally reject self-censorship. Censorship efforts do not have to be officially successful to be effective in inducing self-censorship in the target school or district, or in neighboring ones. Over time, echo effects are seen to exacerbate the perceived threat of curriculum challenges and lead to self-censorship in the absence of actual challenge (e.g., Nelson, 1983, 1991). Teaching for meaningful learning and critical thinking that incorporates diverse perspectives and students is likely to suffer.


The echo effects associated with state-level standardized testing are of at least two kinds. One is associated with the idea of accountability, specifically that the testing somehow “ensures” accountability of educators and therefore the quality, quantity, and distribution of student learning. The absence of evidence in support of these claims (and the irony of this absence) seems not to bother advocates. Claiming the success of its No Child Left Behind program, the Bush administration has been talking about extension of its testing-accountability provisions to high schools. Continuing echoes of testing-accountability claims by politicians, policy makers, and some educators have served to extend standardized testing in U.S. public schools.

As Airasian (1987) has shown, standardized tests symbolize the maintenance of order, standards, and traditional educational values and practices. The general public also tends to see them as scientific, objective, and fair. Echoes (including those about testing and accountability) that resonate with national narratives and values tend to have considerable staying power. As with echoes critical of “too much multiculturalism,” repetition lends seeming legitimacy and apparent consensus.6

The second group of echo effects concerns the narrowing of curriculum and student learning both through teaching to the test and spending more time on subjects that are tested (and less or no time on those that are not). Evidence regarding the control and narrowing of curriculum knowledge made available to students indicates that effects are especially marked in “lower performing schools” (e.g., Airasian, 1987, 1988; Cimbricz, 2002). Just recently, the superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools announced a plan to “scale back instruction in technology, art, music and home and careers at 20 low-performing schools so students can spend more time studying English and math” to raise test scores (Simon, 2006). Students in Grades 7 and 8 at these schools will have double periods of English daily and double periods of math every other day. Similar curriculum changes, particularly in low-performing schools or for students who test below grade level in reading and math, are occurring across the United States, according to a New York Times report (Dillon, 2006) of a nonpartisan nationwide survey conducted by the Center on Education Policy.

The core of this echo effect is on teaching to the test, which often means some form of “drill and practice” (sometimes referred to as “drill and kill”) or rote learning—without any evidence that such curriculum practices improve student test scores or their learning. Teachers, including those in our graduate classes, reported feeling pressured to prepare students for the tests so that they score well. Sometimes they referred to particular administrator actions as the source of that pressure (e.g., display of charts showing how each teacher’s students fared, verbal urgings to raise the school’s or district’s ranking). At other times, it seemed that the teachers themselves were echoing others and adding to any external pressures by telling war stories and trying to one-up each other, as in, “You think that’s bad. Let me tell you what happened to [so-and-so] at my school last week.” It is as if the teachers’ (and other school personnel’s) talk about the tests, test scores, and public rankings has become self-sustaining and influential apart from the actual testing and uses of test results. Evidence consistent with this view is provided by Segall (2006). His interviews with Michigan social studies teachers about state testing revealed that teachers’ interpretations of, and responses to, the tests were shaped less by objective features of the tests and their uses than by teachers’ perceptions. These perceptions “are not constructed by the test itself but are given definition and body through teachers’ experiences with the test and the broader discourses and practices surrounding it that they encounter” (p. 109) from school culture, state activity, and local media. The perceptions and stories bounce off one another, creating a lingering echo, or “buzz.” The echo effects, as in the case of censorship challenges, too often limit curriculum opportunities for meaningful learning and critical thinking that incorporate diverse perspectives and students.


As noted earlier, it was the terrorist attacks and their aftermath, and an associated research project exploring how they appeared to affect teachers’ classroom curriculum practice that prompted me to pursue the notion of echo effects. By the first anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, “9/11” had become well-established shorthand for the events, and the dominant image or symbol was of the World Trade Center’s twin towers crumbling down in flames. We wondered how many people recalled that planes also were crashed into the Pentagon and western Pennsylvania countryside. In any event, it seemed that memories of the events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath have been shaped or overtaken by media and other institutional re-presentations. We came to doubt that most people, ourselves included, could separate the events, or “original” experiences or accounts of events, from their subsequent interpretations, re-presentations, or echoes.7 The echoes of the terrorist attacks—especially 9/11 and the iconic image of the twin towers—have sharpened and simplified them.

Evidence of echo effects in this case comes from Climates of Opinion project interviews with a convenience sample of 18 western New York middle and high school teachers—4 English teachers and 14 history/social studies teachers—in the spring of 2002, and of a small subset of 5 history/social studies teachers after the first anniversary of the attacks in the fall of 2002 (Cornbleth, 2008). These are teachers, known to me or to a member of the project staff, who were teaching at least one of the same subjects and grade levels in 2001–2002 as in the previous year. Reflecting male dominance of secondary social studies teaching, only 6 of the 18 teachers were female, and 4 of the 6 taught middle school grades. Suburban and small-town rural teachers outnumbered urban teachers 10 to 7, with 1 teacher at a private parochial high school drawing male students from a wide area. Thirteen teachers taught at least one class with a state exam (Grade 8 or 11 English; Grade 8, 10, or 11 social studies). Three of the 18 teachers are African American (Marge, Jason, Judy); the others are European American. Finally, we distinguished among years of teaching experience as newer (1–3 years, not yet tenured), experienced (4–11 years), and veteran (more than 11 years, actually 31–32 years). There were 7 newer teachers, 8 experienced teachers, and 3 veteran teachers in our sample. Although no claims to representativeness are appropriate, the sample can be described as a fair cross-section of secondary social studies teachers in the region, skewed toward the more informed and professionally active.

Individual interviews, conducted either at the teacher’s school or the university in the spring of 2002, lasted 40 minutes to an hour and were audiotaped and later transcribed. Following open-ended questions about any changes in their teaching during the past year (2001–2002) and the reasons for any changes mentioned, we asked about the possible influence of several events or conditions, including 9/11 and its aftermath. Interview transcripts were reviewed on two separate occasions several months apart. First, in response to our initial open-ended questions about any changes they had made in their teaching during the past year, both the changes and the influences teachers mentioned as affecting their curriculum practice were noted and then grouped into categories or kinds of changes in teaching and reasons for change. A similar inductive procedure was followed for any changes and reasons for changing classroom curriculum practice that the teachers offered in response to our subsequent, more specific questions.

By the time of our interviews, public opinion had jelled in some respects (e.g., support for President Bush and the “War on Terrorism”) and had begun to fragment in others (e.g., increasing opposition to provisions of the PATRIOT Act, which had been approved overwhelmingly by Congress in October 2001).

Echoes of the September 2001 terrorist attacks were quite prominent in the interview data. Although interviewers referred to “the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,” all the teachers used the 9/11 shorthand, and several referred to the horror of seeing the exploding twin towers over and over again on television. The changes in their teaching that they described as a result of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath (what we have come to call “9/11+”) were largely of their own making. There was very little reference to school, district, or administration guidelines about whether or how to deal with the terrorist attacks, and only a few references to conversations with colleagues about what they did. These secondary teachers seemed pretty much on their own at the beginning of the school year, a time when classes and curriculum are not yet set or settled in many schools.

Most of the teachers (14 of 18) said that they spent a fair bit or a lot of class time on 9/11+. Curriculum modifications or changes noted by teachers spanned changes in subject matter content selection and/or organization (e.g., examining Muslim history and culture, juxtaposing early and contemporary Muslim societies) and in teaching strategies (e.g., responding to student questions in an open-ended discussion format), making it difficult to separate them analytically. The most frequently mentioned kinds of curriculum response to 9/11+, reported by at least one third of the teachers, were (1) discussion, including providing perspective on, or connecting past experience/history with, unfolding events; (2) open-ended discussion prompted by student questions; (3) relating 9/11+ to curriculum topics to aid student comprehension; and (4) various activities, such as writing letters and a thematic literature unit on war. Although more than one third of the teachers provided background information (e.g., about Islam) and tried to foster tolerance of difference (e.g., religious diversity, respect for “A-rabs”), fewer teachers explicitly mentioned dealing with the Constitution and Bill of Rights or treatment of civil liberties past and present. Among the most prominent reasons that teachers offered for curriculum changes were student interest in or concern about 9/11+, its curriculum relevance, and how connecting curriculum topics to some aspect of 9/11+ made the subject matter more understandable and meaningful for students.8

Although changes in curriculum practice are obvious, it is less clear when “actual” events as impetus were transformed by, or gave way to, their media and popular echoes. By the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the transformation seems near complete. The 5 teachers we reinterviewed came from three high schools: one urban, one suburban, and one small-town rural. All three schools observed one or more moments of silence on September 11, 2002, in recognition of the plane crashes in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in western Pennsylvania. These observances likely were in response to a memo from the New York governor, distributed by the State Education Department, requesting such moments of silence. Beyond that, “doing something” was up to individual teachers. Two conducted planned anniversary activities; the others followed their students’ lead with conversation or discussion (see Cornbleth, 2008).

One of the urban teachers stands out for his efforts to address media portrayals directly. He is the only teacher in our sample who taught senior electives and 12th-grade government and economics. Rod saved and brought to class on September 11, 2002, the final edition local newspapers from September 11 and 12, 2001, for students to review. He told us,

We looked at how things change in a year . . . we actually passed them [the newspapers] around and looked at them, and we saw what was going on then, and now we see a difference between 1 year, 1 year [and the next], how things worked. I’m lucky enough to have cable in the classroom. We saw a lot of the different, how shall I say, memorials or presentations going on that day, ya know, at certain times. At 8:47 a.m. they started reading off names in the World Trade Center site and they named, at another time when the other plane crashed, they went to visit the plane crash site, they went to the Pentagon, so we saw a lot of that . . . so I tried to show different forms of media, the TV media and the print media and how they’ve changed over the last year, how their coverage has changed.

Asked why he decided on this activity, Rod explained,

Well, we as a society watch a lot of TV or see the media control our society, and it was something that was looming, that date was looming, September 11th, the first anniversary coming up. I felt we should address it. When they go home at night and watch TV or try to watch whatever they watch, more than likely it will probably be preempted with some other September 11th memorial program, so I figured if they were going to be seeing so much of it outside of school, why not try to deal with some of it inside of school and clarify what these TV programs are trying to do, what these news stations are trying to do, and show them that there are other sources to get your information than just the TV. Because I know they got inundated with all this stuff and a lot of them were kind of angered or sad at this because it’s a big hype situation and it had . . . like a Super Bowl, ya know, the Fox 29 and “see our coverage. Our coverage will be better than the other ones.”

Rod was the only teacher to specifically mention the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and to note the plane crash in western Pennsylvania. For others, the media-induced shorthand, 9/11, and the iconic image of the exploding twin towers seem to have taken hold to symbolize the events of that day. Soon after, the phrase war on terrorism also gained wide usage. Later in the interview, when Rod talked more generally about making “the kids more aware of the media presence in their life” and that they are the “demographic that most advertisers want,” the interviewer asked if he purposely connected 9/11 and “this idea of the role of the media.” Rod responded strongly:

Oh, I’m making it explicit as to now, ever since that day, 9/11, I think the media has been more of an impactor [sic], influence in our life. I think the media now has more of a role because that day everyone was dependent on watching news that day to get information. Who’s next, what’s next?

By this point in late 2002, the initial visceral reactions to the terrorist attacks had ebbed, and superpatriotism, both in explicit display and in implicit decisions to mute questions about government policy, was breaking up as the Bush administration was heading toward war with Iraq. Beyond the first anniversary, continuing impact of the echoes of 9/11+ was evident in teachers’ reported attention to current events, sometimes with direct curriculum links, and in using 9/11+ to illustrate curriculum topics and issues—as much to engage students and to enhance their curriculum comprehension as for knowledge of 9/11+ per se. Teacher-reported curriculum modifications in 2001–2002 and 2002–2003 seem at least roughly similar in kind, if not in extent or emotional intensity. This similarity and, with the exception of Rod, the relatively narrow range of teachers’ responses one year later in 2002–2003 suggest the power of echo effects.

Examination of published research studies about teacher curriculum responses to 9/11+ for evidence for or against echo effects did not reveal relevant data. Craig (2006), for example, described the Shadows of New York mural created by an elementary school art teacher and her students after September 11. Craig’s focus is on the art-making experience and the difficulty of “disseminating” such curriculum in meaningful ways. September 11 itself receives little attention and is referred to only obliquely, as if we all know “the events of September 11, 2001” that “shocked the world”—“the September 11 disaster,” “the September 11 tragedy,” or “the unprecedented angst that the events of September 11 stirred in Americans of all ages” (p. 276). The events themselves are not mentioned, nor is the World Trade Center or the twin towers. There is one mention of “what became widely known as ‘Ground Zero’” (p. 276). Overall, there has been more recognition of echoes and possible echo effects in media than in education research.


Echoes and apparent echo effects on curriculum policy and classroom practice such as those considered here are important because they demonstrate one means by which events and “social forces” enter into public and professional discourses and that discourses matter. Discourse here refers to the prevailing language (including symbols, slogans, and images) and the parameters and manner of argument or rules of engagement, both tacit and explicit.  Discourses matter because they shape public and professional opinion, education and curriculum policy, and classroom practice. Political and policy discourses, for example, may be as powerful influences on curriculum practices as the policies eventually made, or more so (e.g., Cornbleth, 2000).

More than 50 years ago, journalist and public intellectual Walter Lippmann observed that “he [or she] who captures the symbols by which the public feeling is for the moment contained, controls by that much the approaches of public policy” (cited in Alterman, 1992, p. 10). Lippmann’s observation about the power of symbols, and the power to shape policy by capturing or controlling public symbols, can be seen to include echoes and their effects in the education arena (e.g., higher standards, accountability). A generation later, Foucault’s (1970) analysis of power, knowledge, and discourse began to gain a receptive audience in critical educational studies.

Power, Foucault observed, resides not only in individuals and groups but also, and perhaps more important, in social organizations, institutions, and systems—in their familiar, formal, or authoritative roles and relationships (such as school bureaucracy and high school teacher) and in their less obvious, historically shaped and socially shared conceptions and symbols (such as achievement and 9/11). The prevailing discourse—both the language and manner of argument—selectively echoes social phenomena.

In contemporary society, power increasingly operates through the definition (and redefinition) of socially shared conceptions and symbols, and through definition of appropriate patterns of communication, including rules of reason and rationality—what Foucault (1970) has called “regimes of truth.” Discursive practices delimit a domain by specifying what is to be included and what is not. The definition of a legitimate perspective (or perspectives) and the fixing of norms for conceptual elaboration also can be seen to encourage some echoes and to deflect or stifle others. The widespread, if implicit, definition of patriotism after 9/11 as unquestioning support for the United States as represented by its president and administration (i.e., the White House), for example, squelched most critique of the so-called PATRIOT Act and opposition to the congressional resolution authorizing the president to use military force against Saddam Hussein and Iraq.

Consider also how “too much multiculturalism” can delimit and shape the debate about more inclusive or multicultural curriculum policy and practice—ironically, perhaps, by excluding as illegitimate views that are “too inclusive.” The prevailing discourse about state-level standardized testing as accountability also can be seen to delimit, shape, and dominate questions of educational quality, equity, and student achievement. Alternative conceptions of the issues are effectively excluded from the public main stage.

The desire to participate in a professional or public debate—to be heard and perhaps to influence others—misses the key point that the debate already has been shaped or framed by others, thus limiting the available options or “acceptable” positions to be taken. Attempting to reshape the debate without being derided as out of bounds or simply dismissed as irrelevant requires considerable discursive and political skill.

Discursive practices are clearly not only of academic or theoretical interest inasmuch as they both derive from and enter into everyday practice. Moreover, their pervasiveness often renders them unseen and unacknowledged. Particular discursive practices are not in any sense inevitable; they are constructed in specific times and places to serve particular interests and, therefore, are amenable to reconstruction.

Echoes seem to have power to affect practice on their own primarily by framing issues and focusing attention. They gain persuasive power, however, as they are incorporated into prevailing public and professional discourses. Incorporation tenders legitimacy and, along with repetition, increases the likelihood of impact.

Echoes of “social forces” and events external to schooling are not, of course, determinative of curriculum policy or practice. Whether such echoes have curricular effects, and what effects they have, is dependent on their being received or “heard” and on the extent to which they are perceived or interpreted in ways (1) compatible with one’s values and priorities and (2) feasible to act on in current circumstances (given one’s assessment of the situation, one’s political and professional skills, and so forth). So, for example, not all New York State committee members or teachers agreed with “too much multiculturalism,” not all California administrators reported being especially concerned about curriculum challenges, and not all teachers narrow curriculum to teach primarily or solely to standardized tests. Rather than dismiss echo effects because of their variability, the implications are to examine the conditions under which echo effects are stronger or weaker and perhaps to attempt to manage (e.g., deflect) the echoes themselves.

A related but slightly different interpretation of echoes and their effects on curriculum policy, practice, and change sees echoes as shaping and strengthening prevailing climates of opinion that in turn can be seen to affect practice (e.g., Cornbleth, 2008). Climate refers to a broader and longer lasting set of conditions than the temperature or weather on any given day. A climate of opinion cannot be captured by a single opinion poll. Borrowing from meteorology, climate is a pattern of prevailing conditions affecting the life and activity of a place and time period. Sometimes the prevailing conditions are tangible, such as strong winds or the lobbying of organized interest groups. Although a climate of opinion may be less tangible or particular, it is indicated by such evidence. So, the more strongly nationalistic or patriotic climate of opinion in the United States following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, is referenced by, among other indicators, the showing of the American flag, numerous opinion polls and anecdotal accounts carried in the mass media, and the waning of dissent. The echoes of “9/11,” “the twin towers” and, not long after, the “war on terrorism,” have been incorporated into this climate of opinion and have come to signal it.

It seems preferable to refer to the influence of echoes, discourses, or climates of opinion rather than to the influence of associated events, social conditions, or trends directly because it is how those events-conditions-trends are widely perceived and interpreted that matters both in and out of school. The perceptions-interpretations-definitions may be wrong, of course, but that is another matter.9

By simplifying and calling attention to phenomena, if not providing focus, echoes make conditions external to schooling more manageable than otherwise. For various reasons, teachers (and other educators and policy makers) cannot attend directly to all or even most events, conditions, issues, movements, or policies relevant to their work. Consequently, like the veteran high school social studies department chair noted earlier, teachers may choose to pay attention to what “gets through” to them via administrators and perhaps also via colleagues, family members, friends, or the media. A main concern is that teachers and others recognize echoes as such and question them, especially those that seem catchy or otherwise compelling. Recognize also that waiting for the echoes before acting may save time and energy but also puts one in a reactive position.

An example is provided by a ninth-grade global history teacher who involved his students in a project to examine local media coverage of the “Iraq War” (Leahey, 2004). Students needed, Leahey said, “to be exposed to much more than the slogans that were being transmitted in the newspapers, on the radio, and on television” (p. 280) and to “critically evaluate the way the media frames information” (p. 280). Although not using echo language, Leahey’s students are encountering and examining what could be called an echo phenomenon.

Future research might well investigate the presence and operation of echo effects in various education settings, from state or school district policymaking circles through district and school-level curriculum reform efforts to team and individual teacher planning. Alternatively, the impact of a dramatic event and/or its echoes on curriculum practice might be monitored and documented. Another line of research might examine policy maker, administrator, or teacher awareness of echoes and how awareness affects their responses in terms of curriculum practice.

A final, personally disturbing observation is that the cases of echo effects offered here all contribute, though in varying degrees, to climates of constraint and the narrowing of curriculum policy and practice. It may be that the echoes that catch on and impact curriculum do so because they resonate well with local or national values, priorities, and narratives. For example, “too much multiculturalism” threatens national unity, whereas “9/11+” threatens national security. Censorship challenges are to be avoided because controversy and conflict are divisive and stressful. Testing as accountability promises equity and progress, economic and political as well as individual and pedagogical, even as it limits curriculum opportunities to learn in some, perhaps many, schools. The cumulative curriculum effects of these echoes appear to sustain more than challenge the status quo.

With greater awareness and understanding of how external influences on curriculum policy and practice enter in and operate—for example, as echoes or encompassing discourses or climates of opinion—we are better able to raise questions and attempt to reshape curricular and other educational issues, not merely to participate in the debates on terms set by others or be swept along by default.


1. Although the Climates of Opinion project has been funded in part by the Baldy Center, School of Law, University at Buffalo, the interpretations offered here are entirely my own. My thanks to the participating teachers and to Prof. Pixita del Prado Hill of Buffalo State College, and UB graduate students Colleen Maloney-Berman and Martha San Filippo for their assistance with data collection and analysis.

2. Although I find “echoes” a useful metaphor for understanding the social and curriculum phenomena examined here, I am wary of carrying them too far. The “hall of mirrors,” however, does come to mind on occasion.

3. Empirical data come from descriptive narrative field notes from state committee meetings attended by one of the authors, tape recordings from committee meetings attended by the other author, news reports, and public documents. The California author also visited several Bay Area classrooms to see firsthand how teachers were dealing with multiculturalism.

4. Avery and Johnson (1999) reported similar dominance of conservative critical sources in their systematic content analysis of news articles dealing with the national history standards in national and regional newspapers from 1994 to 1998.

5. Adler (1993) described her sample as “fairly representative” of school districts statewide, with smaller districts being underrepresented (p. 7).

6. Opposing “too much multiculturalism” in the interests of national unity also can be seen, at least by multiculturalism’s critics, to resonate with national narratives and values.

7. Neither the teachers we interviewed nor most other people were directly involved in the terrorist attacks. Presumably, those who were directly involved have been less influenced by the events’ echoes.

8. The similarities between these findings and Merryfield’s (1993) from her study of teachers’ curricular responses to the 1991 Gulf War and the reasons they gave for changing or not changing their practice suggest patterns rather than idiosyncrasy. The teacher responses in each study varied, but they varied in similar ways across the two studies.

9. Note that I do not use “climate of opinion” as a presumed explanation of ideas as “surface ‘reflections’ of underlying social forces” (e.g., Wise, 1979, p. 295)—that is, in a presumed base-superstructure model. Instead, I am suggesting that ideas, widely and strongly held, and “social forces” are mutually constitutive and can be usefully considered as climates of opinion.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 10, 2008, p. 2148-2171
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15185, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:15:16 PM

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About the Author
  • Catherine Cornbleth
    University at Buffalo, State University of New York
    E-mail Author
    CATHERINE CORNBLETH is professor, Graduate School of Education, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Her research interests are in curriculum practices and processes and in professional socialization, particularly how prospective teachers “face difference” and learn to engage diversity. Recent publications include “Curriculum and Students: Diverting the Public Interest” in G. Ladson-Billings and W.F. Tate (Eds.), Education Research and the Public Interest (New York: Teachers College Press, 2006), and Hearing America’s Youth: Social Identities in Uncertain Times (New York: Peter Lang, 2003).
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