What students learn and how that content is taught have been concerns at the heart of schooling in the United States since universal education took root in the 19th century. Throughout the 20th century the "struggle for the American curriculum," as one education historian called it, ebbed and flowed for decades as debates raged over the very purpose of schooling – whether to prepare an engaged citizenry, develop a competitive workforce, or ensure an educated populace capable of reaching its intellectual potential.
Over the course of the past century – in response to growing concerns from critics that children in isolated rural communities and depressed urban centers did not have the educational opportunities they needed to succeed – authority and influence over the content of schooling shifted from strictly local entities and teachers themselves to state agencies. While state control over education still reigns in the United States, federal influence over the curriculum has grown in recent decades, as has the role of foundations and other organizations that have invested heavily in school reform efforts. This section of Story Starters examines how curriculum and instruction have developed in American schools and what factors might shape their future evolution.
Bible Study to Evolutionary Theory
A little more than a century ago reading, writing, arithmetic, and Bible study filled the school day. But as millions of immigrants arrived from distant shores and the nation went to war, schools were enlisted to provide civics and history lessons and physical education. The widespread curriculum revisions of the 1930s emphasized not just content, but also what were thought to be more effective ways of teaching. In 1957, the Soviet Union’s launch of the satellite Sputnik touched off a drive by U.S. leaders to improve science education and offerings in technical fields. These initiatives were followed in 1983 by the landmark report, “A Nation at Risk,” which warned of "a rising tide of mediocrity" in public schools that threatened the nation's global competitiveness and security. The report called for more rigorous content standards and a core curriculum for all schools to ensure that students had access to a world-class education. Within a few years, the nation's governors were beginning to join forces to consider academic standards and accountability systems.
But despite the emerging agreement for the need for standards, there was little consensus over what they should contain and how they should be translated to curriculum materials and teaching methods. Such battles have ignited time and again over the curriculum. For example, conflicts over literacy, which were dubbed "the reading wars" more than three decades ago, have pitted advocates of strict skills-based approaches to teaching against others who believe that if students are exposed to rich texts and given time to read their love of books will bolster their skills and enable better comprehension. Those wars have abated recently as research has supported the need for both skills instruction and high-quality reading experiences; the sequence and intensity of reading instruction, particularly in the early grades, is still open to debate, however.
Similar arguments have consumed the teaching of mathematics, as skills-oriented traditionalists have vied with proponents of more mathematical thinking and understanding. The science curriculum has also been ripe for controversy, as those who believe the Biblical explanation of the development of life on Earth should be included in, or substituted for, lessons on evolutionary theory. Health class has not escaped such debates either. Although sex education had been introduced in schools early in the 20th century, questions about the appropriateness of such instruction in schools became prominent in the 1960s and ‘70s. In response to the AIDS crisis, by the 1990s most states adopted a sex-education requirement. Conservatives quickly took up the mantle of "abstinence only" as the guiding philosophy for sex education in public schools; that movement is still alive in 2012.
Thus, few of the shifts in curriculum – whether gradual or dramatic – have transpired quietly. The struggle at times has taken on battle themes, with sides drawn over conflicting instructional approaches, historical perspectives, scientific theories and beliefs, or values-based decisions in presenting subject matter.
Now, as technological innovations transform modern industry and daily life, new questions about what students should know and be able to do – and whether new platforms and approaches for learning can be more effective than the longstanding factory model of schooling – are driving experimentation and innovation in curriculum and instruction, as well as encouraging closer looks at how high-performing countries are preparing their students for global society.
Just as the movement toward state academic standards in the 1990s and the federal accountability requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act in the 2000s led to dramatic shifts in the subject matter taught in schools, the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English Language Arts (that have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia) are expected to further change the content of schooling and the ways it is taught across the country. Their potential to guide local curriculum, though, is still an open question. State standards generally are considered broad guidelines of what students should know and be able to do, and they vary greatly in depth and detail from state to state. Curriculum, however, is more detailed, often providing daily guidance on lessons, materials, and suggested ways of teaching. While local jurisdictions follow state guidelines in determining what is taught, curriculum can look very different from district to district, school to school, and, even classroom to classroom.
The federal influence over what is taught is arguably even more complex than the state role. Concern over the growing federal interest in guiding what students learn caused lawmakers to insert safeguards into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the 1970s to restrict such intrusion. The provision in the law forbade the federal government to "mandate, direct, or control a state, local educational agency, or school's specific instructional content, academic achievement standards and assessments, curriculum, or program of instruction." When the law was revamped as the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, some of the new provisions again raised concerns that the federal government was encroaching further on decisions that traditionally fell to local authorities.
But in the years since, requirements and guidelines for federal education funding have essentially provided incentives for states and districts to subscribe to particular approaches to curriculum and instruction. The federal government, for example, has worked to bolster certain subject areas in response to national needs, such as a push for foreign language education (Arabic and Chinese, in particular, in response to the attacks of 9/11 and the growing power of China), or the current attention to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education to address the need for more homegrown technical talent.
Some of those guidelines have had far-reaching effects on what is taught in the nation's schools. The Reading First program, for example, required states and districts to extend reading instruction to at least 90 minutes a day and follow a systematic, skills-based approach. The high stakes applied under NCLB to student test scores in math and English/language arts led to a narrowing of the curriculum in many schools and districts, according to some critics, as time was reallocated from social studies, science, and other offerings to allow more instruction in the tested subjects.
The Role of Textbooks
As states and districts move to implement the Common Core standards, there has been considerable deliberation over the impact they might have on states’ local control over content. Curriculum was traditionally developed by teachers, and later district curriculum specialists, generally following state guidelines or frameworks. Many states sought to improve their education systems and secure more control over what was taught by setting up textbook adoption systems that compelled schools to use state-approved schoolbooks for each subject. In many places, the textbooks became the de facto curriculum and led to some standardization within states. Textbooks are still a key part of the school curriculum in many places, although the availability of alternative or supplemental materials, particularly via the Internet, has allowed teachers more options for their lessons.
And the curriculum is destined for further evolution. With the emergence of online resources and platforms, some observers predict a revolution in the way children acquire knowledge and learn new skills. Open resources, virtual courses (for cost and for free), applications for customizing materials, and the ability of teachers to find, create, and share resources widely are all likely to effect the content of schooling. — Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, June 2012
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
The decision about whether students are "college-ready" in mathematics will be based only on the exams students take at the end of a math sequence, rather than on a combination of results from all the courses in the sequence, a state assessment group decided today. (Education Week)Read More »
An increasing number of young people neither attend school nor work, a study finds. A new partnership between the city of Los Angeles and L.A. Unified aims to halt that "unacceptable" trend. (Los Angeles Times)Read More »
From analyzing text features, to citing evidence, to de-emphasizing personal responses to readings, such changes nod in the direction of the Common Core State Standards' English/language arts expectations.Read More »
All three of the major K-12 educational publishers have unveiled new basal-reading programs that purport to embody the standards, and supplemented older series, in order to claim that their products are "aligned," "compliant," or "coherent" with the common standards.
Yet a crucial question remains: Are the changes sufficient? (Education Week)
Blended learning—the mix of virtual education and face-to-face instruction—is evolving quickly in schools across the country, generating a variety of different models. This special report, the second in an ongoing series on virtual education, examines several of those approaches and aims to identify what is working and where improvements are needed.Read More »
By 2017, the first wave of students of P-Tech — Pathways in Technology Early College High School — is expected to emerge with associate’s degrees in applied science in computer information systems or electromechanical engineering technology, following a course of studies developed in consultation with I.B.M.
“I mean, in 10th grade, doing college work?” said Monesia McKnight, 15, as she sat in an introduction to computer systems course taught by a college professor. “How great is that?” (The New York Times)Read More »
“Prior to kindergarten, everyone learns to talk at a different time,” he continues. “They get potty-trained at different times, but suddenly when you get to kindergarten, you’re placed in this box, and you’re given the kindergarten curriculum because you’re five, not because you’re ready for it, or even if you already know it all. Kids learn in different ways on different time frames.”
National advocates for competency-based education echo those sentiments, pointing out economic and policy forces that are building momentum for such an approach. (Ed Week)
The studies, which were discussed at a recent meeting here at Carnegie Mellon University, highlight one way to boost learning in algebraic expression, a concept considered critical in the Common Core State Standards but which educators say is perennially challenging to students. The study found that personalized math problems not only made it easier for students to understand what was being asked, but also helped boost the confidence of students who may have been intimidated by the subject. (Ed Week)Read More »
David Coleman is an idealistic, poetry-loving, controversy-stoking Rhodes Scholar and a former McKinsey consultant who has determined, more than almost anyone else, what kids learn in American schools. His national curriculum standards and pending overhaul of the SAT have reignited a thorny national debate over how much we should expect from students and schools, and how much is out of their control. (The Atlantic)Read More »
For years, nothing seemed capable of turning around New Dorp High School’s dismal performance—not firing bad teachers, not flashy education technology, not after-school programs. So, faced with closure, the school’s principal went all-in on a very specific curriculum reform, placing an overwhelming focus on teaching the basics of analytic writing, every day, in virtually every class. What followed was an extraordinary blossoming of student potential, across nearly every subject—one that has made New Dorp a model for educational reform. (The Atlantic)Read More »
But Lansing teachers have plenty of company, as an Education Trust-Midwest survey of large Michigan districts revealed that 87.75 percent of teachers were deemed “effective,” and 11.60 percent were ranked higher, as “highly effective.” Together, 99.36 percent of the educators were in the top categories.Read More »
At the other end, just 0.65 percent of the teachers were deemed “ineffective” or “minimally effective,” according to the study, released today. (MLive)
2012: Virtual Shift Technology Counts 2012—the 15th edition of Education Week’s annual report on educational technology—tackles the shift in the virtual education landscape, where the rise in popularity is intersecting with a call for greater accountability. (Education Week)Read More »
As schools aim to prepare students for life outside of school, they need to realize that the world now values knowledge and skills that can be applied in creative ways. Epistemic games fit the learning requirements of today’s world because they allow students to role-play professions while learning skills that they apply in the game. (KQED)Read More »
But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.
This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets. (The New York Times)Read More »
This article examines the tension between creating standards and shaping the curriculum: “Calls for shared curricula for the common standards have triggered renewed debates about who decides what students learn, and even about varied meanings of the word ‘curriculum.’” (EdWeek)Read More »
EWA 2010 National Reporting Contest winner. Even the most posh suburban high schools in the Chicago area missed the mark on preparing college-bound students for the rigors of academics in higher education. Using never-before-seen ACT data accessed through a Freedom of Information Act request to the state, the paper learned that only 20 percent of high school juniors in Illinois scored high enough on the four benchmarks the test making agency deems are most essential in determining whether students will succeed in college. (Chicago Tribune)Read More »
New software are hardware are making it possible for teachers to tailor their instruction for individual students: “New applications for defining and targeting students’ academic strengths and weaknesses can help teachers create a personal playlist of lessons, tools, and activities that deliver content in ways that align with individual needs and optimal learning methods.” (EdWeek)Read More »
Written shortly after the No Child Left Behind law went into effect, this article examines how many of the act’s requirement effectively force the federal government to exert more influence over in local decisions affecting curriculum even though NCLB itself expressly prohibits such federal involvement. (EdWeek)Read More »
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Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
Change the Equation is "pleased to unveil its 2012 Vital Signs, which measure the health of the K-12 STEM learning enterprise, state by state. Created in collaboration with the American Institutes for research, Vital Signs offer the most comprehensive available picture of STEM in your state—the demand for and supply of STEM skills, what states expect of students, students’ access to learning opportunities, and the resources schools and teachers have to do their work."Read More »
New research has revealed the key to middle grades achievement. Recent evidence makes clear that each middle-grader’s personal, individual engagement in school is essential to his or her success. Studies repeatedly show that students who lose interest in school in the middle grades are likely to flounder in ninth grade — and later drop out. Yet developmental and brain research confirms that by the middle grades, students are capable of making connections between their academic work, their personal interests and career aptitudes.Read More »
This paper from the reform-focused Alliance for Excellent Education notes that “higher expectations for preparing students for life after high school combined with the challenges of high dropout rates and low achievement will require a significant shift in how the United States educates its students.”(Alliance for Excellent Education)Read More »
This paper highlights from a survey by Common Core and the Farkas Duffett Research Group Sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers. The paper notes that “According to most teachers, schools are narrowing curriculum, shifting instructional time and resources toward math and language arts and away from subjects such as art, music, foreign language, and social studies.” (Common Core)Read More »
The Road to a National Curriculum: The Legal Aspects of the Common Core Standards, Race to the Top, and Conditional WaiversFebruary 2012
This report examines whether “Actions taken by the Obama Administration signal an important policy shift in the nation’s education policy, with the Department placing the nation on the road to federal direction over elementary and secondary school curriculum and instruction.”Read More »
The NAEP High School Transcript Study (HSTS) provides information about the types of courses that graduates take, how many credits they earn, their grade point averages, and the relationship between coursetaking patterns and achievement, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (National Center for Education Statistics)Read More »
In June, July and August, many students forget some of what they learned over the previous school year. But “summer slide” takes its biggest toll on low-income students, contributing substantially to the achievement gap between them and better-off youngsters. This major RAND study also finds evidence that summer programs can help, identifies obstacles to providing them, analyzes costs, and offers recommendations.Read More »
This paper from Marc Tucker focuses on one question: “What would the education policies and practices of the United States be if they were based on the policies and practices of the countries that now lead the world in student performance?” (National Center on Education and the Economy)Read More »
Call for Action: Transforming Teaching and Learning to Prepare High School Students for College and CareersAugust 2010
This paper from a reform-focused group notes that “Students will be adequately prepared for college and careers only if they have teachers who (1) have the knowledge and skills to make sure courses are truly challenging, and (2) have the ability to elicit levels of student engagement and performance that are in line with postsecondary expectations.” (Alliance for Excellent Education)Read More »
This paper concludes that the nations that consistently outrank us on international comparison tests provide their students with a fulsome education in the liberal arts and sciences. (Common Core)Read More »
For this report written Frederick Hess, Common Core surveyed 17-year-olds and found their knowledge of history and literature — from Columbus to Hitler and Oedipus to The Scarlet Letter — sorely lacking. (Common Core)Read More »
This report examines the impact No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on math and English had on other subjects. “The report finds that approximately 62% of school districts increased the amount of time spent in elementary schools on English language arts and or math, while 44% of districts cut time on science, social studies, art and music, physical education, lunch or recess.” (Center on Education Policy)Read More »
Five Questions to Ask
- In many places, the content of the science curriculum has been subject to controversy, sparking heated debates over matters such creationism vs. evolution or whether climate change is indeed fact. How do the schools and universities you cover teach such potentially contentious topics? How much dialogue has there been between parents, the school board and teachers in K-12 and between faculty, administrators and students in postsecondary education?
- How has the sex education program in the schools you cover developed over the years? At what grade level does the instruction begin and has that year changed? How much has abstinence education been included in the curriculum?
- How did your district adjust its curriculum in response to the requirements of the No Child Left Behind act and what were the effects of those changes?
- If your district is in one of the states participating in the Common Core State Standards Initiative, how has it started to prepare for the new requirements? What have principals and teachers had to do to adapt to teaching the new standards?
- Take a look at the textbooks used in your state and district. How long ago were those books published and adopted for use in the schools? When are they scheduled to be re-evaluated for use or replacement? What do experts on the subject matter—science or history professors, for example—think of how the textbooks cover the material?
The Alliance for Excellent Education, based in Washington, D.C., “works to encourage the development and implementation of federal and national policies that support effective high school reform and increased student achievement and attainment.”
ASCD, formerly known as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, dates back to 1943 and has more than 150,000 members including teachers, principals, superintendents and other educators. In addition to providing professional development for its members, ASCD “advocate[s] for policies and practices that ensure each child has access to educational excellence and equity.”
Common Core, founded in 2007, is a nonprofit organization that promotes rigorous liberal arts education in K-12 schools. They are not affiliated with the Common Core State Standards. Their efforts have been initiated, in part, as a response to their perception that No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on reading and math effectively pushed other subjects out of the curriculum.
The Learning First Alliance “is a partnership of 16 education associations with more than 10 million members dedicated to improving student learning in America's public schools.” The Alliance was established in 2000.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute promotes “educational excellence for every child through quality research, analysis, and commentary, as well as on-the-ground action and advocacy in Ohio.” Their work often supports state standards.
Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education is a TED talk featuring Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, “a carefully structured series of educational videos offering complete curricula in math and, now, other subjects.”
Math Class Needs A Makeover is a TED talk featuring Dan Meyers, who argues that “Today's math curriculum is teaching students to expect -- and excel at -- paint-by-numbers classwork, robbing kids of a skill more important than solving problems: formulating them.”
Do Schools Kill Creativity?, Sir Ken Robinson “champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.”
In Changing Education Paradigms, Sir Ken Robinson uses animation to explore “the link between 3 troubling trends: rising drop-out rates, schools' dwindling stake in the arts, and ADHD.”
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.