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 Topics section 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.