Curriculum & Instruction

Overview

Curriculum & Instruction

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.

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.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Columbus Day: A New World For Schools

While Monday is designated as the Columbus Day holiday on federal calendars, it’s no longer being observed as such in a growing number of communities and schools.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

In Wake of Pushback, States Rewriting Common Core

Missouri State Capitol

In May, Missouri lawmakers approved a compromise to keep the Common Core in place for at least two more years but require more oversight and public input. And as Joe Robertson of the Kansas City Star reported, a total of eight committees comprised of lawmakers and parents were supposed to convene at the statehouse this week to begin the work of revising the standards.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Moving the Wrong Way on Student Health?

There’s a section in the new Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll out this week that hasn’t gotten much attention: what parents think about schools and student health. (You can read my overview of the full poll, which focuses heavily on questions about teacher quality and preparation, here.)

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Nashville Magnet School Students Sing Different Tune

More than a few reporters at EWA’s National Seminar who signed up for the visit to Pearl Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School in Nashville suggested that the campus would certainly be infused with country music elements. Perhaps cowboy hats and boots on each student, with future Taylor Swifts and Scotty McCreerys singing their way through the halls – right?

Key Coverage

The Science of Smart

Researchers have long been searching for better ways to learn. In recent decades, experts working in cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience have opened new windows into how the brain works, and how we can learn to learn better.

In this program, we look at some of the big ideas coming out of brain science. We meet the researchers who are unlocking the secrets of how the brain acquires and holds on to knowledge. And we introduce listeners to the teachers and students who are trying to apply that knowledge in the real world.

Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Educators’ Interest in Latino Studies Courses Grows

Arizona made national headlines in 2010 with its law banning ethnic studies in public schools. That move resulted in the dismantling of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program.

Four years later, educators in Texas and California are trying to drum up support for Latino and ethnic studies programs. The majority of public school students in both states are Latino. 

EWA Radio

Is Kochs’ High School Finance Class Pushing Conservative Agenda?
EWA Radio, Episode 8

This week, Emily and Mikhail talk to Joy Resmovits of The Huffington Post, who discusses her story (written with colleague Christina Wilkie) about the Charles G. Koch Foundation’s creation of Youth Entrepreneurs: a public high school finance course being used in schools in the midwest and south, which was designed to introduce students to free market theory and economics with a distinctly conservative point of view. 

Report

Measuring Innovation in Education
OECD

Do teachers innovate? Do they try different pedagogical approaches? Are practices within classrooms and educational organisations changing? And to what extent can change be linked to improvements? A measurement agenda is essential to an innovation and improvement strategy in education. Measuring Innovation in Educationoffers new perspectives on addressing the need for such measurement.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Which Education Research Is Worth the Hype?

Source: Holly Yettick (http://hollyyettick.com/)

Education reporters may have the power of the pen, but when it comes to navigating the complex methods of research studies, we may feel powerless. As researchers churn out report after report, how can journalists on deadline figure out which studies are worth covering?

Key Coverage

What We Don’t Know About Summer School

So as the July heat kicks in, we started wondering about the whole idea. What, exactly, is summer school? How much does it cost? And, the biggest question, does it work? In a nutshell, we have no idea. “It’s been one of my pet peeves for years,” says Kathy Christie, vice president of knowledge and information management at the nonprofit Education Commission of the States. She says there’s never been a push for anyone to collect data on summer school. As a result there isn’t really good information about any of those questions above.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Kids Got the Beat: Arts and Music Enrich Student Learning

When Sandra Ruppert was growing up in Los Angeles every classroom at her school, Hancock Park Elementary, had a piano. And every teacher could play it.

“I made my first trip to the opera in third grade, learned ballroom dancing in the fourth grade and took violin in fifth grade,” Ruppert told those in attendance at “Kids Got the Beat,” one of the final panels of EWA’s 2014 National Seminar, held last month in Nashville. At her school, “there was artwork in the halls and seamlessly integrated into all kinds of classes.”

Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Lawsuit: California Students Shortchanged on Class Time

A class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday accuses the state of California of failing to provide adequate classroom instructional time to minority and low-income students.

The suit, Cruz v. State of California, was brought by students who attend seven economically disadvantaged schools in the state. Schools in Los Angeles and Compton are included in the lawsuit, as are Bay Area schools.

Key Coverage

Common Core at Four: Sizing Up the Enterprise

The Common Core State Standards have been reshaping the American education landscape for four years, leaving their mark on curriculum and instruction, professional development, teacher evaluation, the business of publishing, and the way tests are designed.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Brown Center Report: Common Core, Homework and Shanghai’s Success

The third installment of the Brown Center Report on Public Education is out from the Brookings Institution, and author Tom Loveless provides plenty of food for thought in three key areas: the potential effectiveness of the new Common Core State Standards; whether American students are being saddled with  significantly more homework; and an examination of Shanghai’s reputation for producing some of the best 15-year-old math students in the world.  

Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Texas Teachers Push for Mexican American Studies

Some south Texas teachers are campaigning for the creation of a Mexican American Studies curriculum to be taught in the state’s public schools.

The El Paso Times reports that the school board of the Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso voted to urge the Texas State Board of Education to offer Mexican American Studies content in literature and history classes pre-K through twelfth grade.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

After-School Learning Advocates Hope Research Leads to More Federal Dollars

Learning doesn’t stop when the last bell of the day rings, but for most communities, money to support after-school activities is tight.

The largest federal grant program dedicated to learning outside of class – after school, before school and during summers – is roughly only $1.15 billion for the entire nation, for instance. The AfterSchool Alliance, an advocacy group, notes that of all the money spent on education outside of normal school hours, Uncle Sam only kicks in about a tenth. Parents, meanwhile, contribute three-quarters of the dollars spent in total.

Report

Early Reading Proficiency in the United States

This KIDS COUNT data snapshot finds 80 percent of fourth-graders from low-income families and 66 percent of all fourth-graders are not reading at grade level. While improvements have been made in the past decade, reading proficiency levels remain low. Given the critical nature of reading to children’s individual achievement and the nation’s future economic success, the Casey Foundation offers recommendations for communities and policymakers to support early reading. Early reading proficiency rates for the nation and each state are provided.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Ten Questions To Ask On Expanded Learning Time

Amid the push to improve public education, a frequent complaint by educators is that there isn’t enough time in the school day to adequately cover everything students are supposed to be learning – or to address the myriad challenges they bring with them to class every day.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Keeping Up With Common Core: Will Learning Soar or Stall?

Is it better to teach fractions to elementary school students using a cut-up pie or a number line?

As 45 states plus the District of Columbia roll out the new Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English, teachers, parents, students and reporters will encounter a new set of practices many scholars say are necessary to improve K-12 learning across the country.

These common signposts are expected to greatly alter the education landscape.

Webinar

School’s (Still) In: Making the Most of Summer Learning
1 hour

While students are celebrating the start of the long summer break, there’s a significant tradeoff for the three months of leisure – on average, students will return to school in the fall a month behind where they performed in the spring. And the learning loss is even greater for low-income students who were already behind their more affluent peers. In this EWA Webinar, we examine how districts are successfully combating summer learning loss with high-quality programs and leveraging community partnerships to help pay for them.

Multimedia

A Conversation with Sal Khan, Part 3

A Conversation with Sal Khan, Part 3

As the Q&A concludes, Khan fields questions on adapting lessons for an international audience, the MOOC model, and solving the problem of credentialing in online ed.

Multimedia

A Conversation with Sal Khan, Part 2

A Conversation with Sal Khan, Part 2

During the Q&A, Khan discusses the history of distance learning, the structure and composition of his videos, and how Khan Academy is beginning to approach assessments.

Multimedia

How I Did the Story: “An Empty Desk Epidemic” by David Jackson & Gary Marx

How I Did the Story: “An Empty Desk Epidemic” by David Jackson & Gary Marx

David Jackson and Gary Marx of the Chicago Tribune talk about the 10-year reporting project that became EWA’s Grand Prize-winning project, “An Empty-Desk Epidemic.” The expansive story demonstrated how students in Chicago’s public schools racked up missed days of school even as early as kindergarten.

Recorded at EWA’s 66th National Seminar, May 4, 2013 at Stanford University

Head to The Educated Reporter to read a guest blog by Jackson and Marks.

EWA Radio

Retention in the Third Grade: Help or Hindrance?

More states are embracing “third grade reading guarantees” that aim to prevent children from moving to fourth grade until they have progressed from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” But research has shown that students who are retained often end up dropping out. Two researchers will probe what the research says, and whether legislatures are on the right track. Panelists: Lyndsey Layton, The Washington Post (moderator); Shane Jimerson, University of California, Santa Barbara; Martin West, Harvard University.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Word on the Beat: Assessments

As a regular feature, The Educated Reporter features a buzzword or phrase that You Need To Know (yes, this designation is highly subjective but we’re giving it a shot). Send your Word on the Beat suggestions to erichmond@ewa.org.

Word on the beat: Assessments

Key Coverage

Recess in Schools: Research Shows It Benefits Children

 Repeated studies have shown that when recess is delayed, children pay less and less attention. They are more focusedon days when they have recess. A major study in Pediatrics found that children with more than 15 minutes of recess a day were far better behaved in class than children who had shorter recess breaks or none at all.

Webinar

Summer Idyll — or Idle? Story Ideas for Journalists
58 Minutes

All over the country, the year’s last school bell is ringing. But now that it’s time for pool parties and summer camp, what happens to the knowledge students gained during the school year?

Gary Huggins of National Summer Learning Association; Kathleen Manzo of Education Week; and Katy Murphy of the Oakland Tribune talk about how reporters can examine summer learning loss and how to tell when schools and communities offer effective summer school.

Multimedia

Math Class Needs A Makeover

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.”

Organization

Common Core

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.

Organization

The Learning First Alliance

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.

Organization

ASCD

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.”

Organization

The Alliance for Excellent Education

The Alliance for Excellent Education “is a Washington, DC-based national policy and advocacy organization that works to improve national and federal policy so that all students can achieve at high academic levels and graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship in the twenty-first century.” With regard to NCLB, the Alliance says the law “has played an important role in highlighting achievement gaps, but it has steadily proven to be inadequate in providing sufficient remedies and flexibility.

Key Coverage

Evaluating What Works in Blended Learning

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.

Key Coverage

At Technology High School, Goal Isn’t to Finish in 4 Years

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?”

Key Coverage

Competency-Based Schools Embrace Digital Learning

“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.

Key Coverage

Studies Find Payoff in ‘Personalizing’ Algebra

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.

Key Coverage

Districts rank 99.6 percent of teachers ‘effective’ or ‘highly effective’

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. At the other end, just 0.65 percent of the teachers were deemed “ineffective” or “minimally effective,” according to the study, released today.

Key Coverage

The Schoolmaster

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.

Report

STEM Vital Signs 2012

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.”

Report

A New Mission for the Middle Grades

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.

Report

Learning Less: Public School Teachers Describe a Narrowing Curriculum

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.”

Key Coverage

2012: Virtual Shift Technology Counts 2012

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.

Key Coverage

How Computer Games Help Children Learn

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.

Report

NAEP High School Transcript Study

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.

Key Coverage

In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores

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.

Report

Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning

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.

Report

Call for Action: Transforming Teaching and Learning to Prepare High School Students for College and Careers

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.

Key Coverage

Federal Influence Over Curriculum Exhibits Growth

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.

Key Coverage

Digital Tools Expand Options for Personalized Learning

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.”

Report

Choices, Changes, and Challenges: Curriculum and Instruction in the NCLB Era

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.

Multimedia

Changing Education Paradigms

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.”