The American School/The Forces That Shape Curricula

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Defining "Curriculum"[edit | edit source]

First of all, what is a curriculum? What is its purpose in the educational system? A curriculum is a syllabus that creates a general guideline for the education of students. It includes what subjects should be taught, as well as specific goals to be met by teachers and students in the duration of those courses. It ensures that all students receive an adequate educational experience, one that allows them to use their knowledge and understanding of core subjects to be successful in life, whether in post-secondary studies or in the job market. For example, the online credit requirement newly integrated into the Michigan Merit Curriculum, is designed to give students the opportunity to learn how to use the internet in conducting research and completing homework in an effort to give the students the knowledge and experience needed in a society that values technology in college and the work place.

The Role of Federal Government[edit | edit source]

The Federal government is responsible for developing laws which mandate a minimum level of requirement for every school district in the United States. This includes passing legislation that requires schools to conform to national standards; often as a requirement for continuing to receive federal funding. Federal legislation gives general guidelines that are to be followed by State legislators as well as local school districts as they develop the curriculum and make decisions regarding how the curriculum should be implemented. The US Department of Education (USDE) was created in 1980, and is the federal government’s educational department. Their mission is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access” to resources ( The USDE establishes policies on federal financial aid for education and distributes and monitors those funds. They also collect data on America’s schools, focus national attention on key educational issues, prohibit discrimination and ensure equal access to resources. The federal government also holds a supportive and guiding role to State governments and local school districts. This legislation is meant to assist these groups in creating and maintaining an effective curriculum. Many laws have been passed that impact today’s curriculum. These laws are aimed at supporting the efforts of state governments and local school districts and also to provide a guideline for required action, especially among local school districts that are falling behind the nation in standardized test scores and other measures of school accountability. One law that has a direct bearing on today’s curriculum is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This law has been the source of much controversy and has implemented many new standards into the public school curriculum.

No Child Left Behind Act:[edit | edit source]

This law was passed to raise school accountability and literacy standards across the country. According to the White House press release website, the bill was meant to provide and require:

  1. Accountability for results
  2. Unprecedented state & local flexibility & reduced red tape
  3. Focusing resources on proven educational methods
  4. Expanded choices for parents (

Schools are required to hire highly qualified teachers and show improvements in test scores on standardized achievement tests in order to continue to receive federal funding. The controversy around this law is centered on the possibility of some school districts “teaching to the test” in an effort to improve standardized test scores. It was believed that children were not getting a comprehensive educational experience because they were being taught only those things that they would be tested on. Another issue of controversy is whether NCLB is providing all of the things that it is supposed to and whether it is in fact leaving children behind by its new requirements. This law is currently undergoing a revision. The government intends to revise the law in the following ways:

  • A stronger effort must be made to close the achievement gap through high state standards and accountability.
  • Middle and high schools must offer more rigorous coursework that better prepares students for postsecondary education or the workforce.
  • States must be given flexibilities and new tools to restructure chronically underperforming schools, and families must be given more options.

By making these changes, the government is hoping to make the law more effective in closing the achievement gap that exists between racial minorities and whites, as well as low socioeconomic groups and their more wealthy counterparts. Giving students more rigorous standards better prepares them for college and the job market, and ensures that all children in every school district across America receive adequate coursework. States must also have the resources and flexibility to create and implement curriculum standards that work for the state and its local districts.

The Role of State Government[edit | edit source]

“Under the U.S. Constitution public education is a responsibility reserved to the states” (California State Government Guide to Government from the League of Women Voters of California: About Public Education, June 2008). State governments are largely responsible for creating the basic outline and guidelines of public school curriculum. They develop a standard for the types of subjects taught, as well as the number of credits required of each of those subjects. States provide course expectations and guidelines as an assistive measure to local school districts. States have control of setting the main body of the public school curriculum. On a fundamental level, states are responsible for determining what constitutes a credit and developing guidelines and content expectations for determining if a student has completed a course successfully. Although this is ultimately determined by local school systems, the state is involved in setting the guidelines for this determination.

States are also responsible for determining which subjects will be taught and the number of credits per subject required for graduation. For instance, Michigan recently adopted a new set of standards for graduation, called the Michigan Merit Curriculum, which makes the Michigan public school system one of the more rigorous educational systems in the country. “The Michigan Merit Curriculum defines a common set of required credits for graduation and provides educators with a common understanding of what students should know and be able to do for credit (Michigan Department of Education: Frequently Asked Questions, November 2006). These new requirements include:

  • Four years of English
  • Four years of Math
  • Three years of Science
  • Three years of Social Studies
  • Two years of Foreign Language
  • One year of Physical Education, and
  • One online course (not necessarily for credit)

These requirements shape the curriculum of local school districts throughout the state of Michigan. Schools are required to implement these standards into their curriculum and all students must take these classes in order to graduate from high school. These standards are considerably more rigorous than any previous standards set by the state. Michigan developed these standards to give students a more comprehensive education and to ensure that they are taking rigorous courses in high school that can prepare them for the future. The state views these requirements as fundamental for future success in college and the job market. One of the most innovative additions to the new Michigan curriculum is the online course requirement, explained below in further detail.

Online Course Requirement[edit | edit source]

This requirement is a reflection of the growing trend in the utilization of technology by businesses and universities in their daily operations. It is imperative that students be knowledgeable about and comfortable using technology such as computers, the worldwide web, and various types of computer software. The online experience is defined as, “a structured learning activity that utilizes technology with intranet/internet-based tools and resources as the delivery method for instruction, research, assessment, and communication” (Michigan Department of Education website). Today’s youth routinely utilizes technology in their daily lives so why is it necessary to implement it as a course requirement? “While students informally develop technology skills and gain experience through their media-rich lives, an online learning experience will require them to complete assignments, meet deadlines, learn appropriate online behavior, and effectively collaborate with others in an instructional setting” (Michigan Department of Education website).

The Role of Local School Districts[edit | edit source]

Local school systems are charged with the task of implementing the standards of the curriculum set forth by the Federal and State governments within their own school system. This requires that local school systems “…align curriculum, determine what constitutes a credit, establish a credit award system, identify assessments, set school calendars, select and purchase textbooks, etc. Local school boards and districts will continue to have flexibility to determine “how" to implement these new graduation requirements and when students have earned the credits” (Michigan Department of Education: Frequently Asked Questions, November 2006).

Local school systems are given flexibility in determining how to meet State curriculum requirements. This means districts may implement “alternative instructional delivery methods such as teaching certain subjects in certain years, district partnerships, online courses, dual enrollment, [and] community college partnerships” (Michigan Department of Education: Frequently Asked Questions, November 2006). Implementing new standards may also mean hiring new teachers, navigating around scheduling conflicts, and finding a way to manipulate limited resources to accommodate the new requirements.
Local school systems must also establish the number of total credits required for graduation (including the required credits set forth by the State, as well as electives requirements set forth by the school system itself).

Assessing Credits[edit | edit source]

Local school systems have the authority to determine if students have successfully completed the course and should be granted credits for that class by determining the type of assessment given and the time of that assessment. Assessments can be developed by the local district or by the state. “While the law requires a district to base a student's successful completion, at least in part, on student performance on subject area assessments, the amount the assessment counts toward a student's total grade is up to the district” (Michigan Department of Education: Frequently Asked Questions, November 2006). This leaves the decision of determining whether students have successfully completed curriculum requirements up to the local school district, following guidelines initiated by the state.

The Role of Today’s Society[edit | edit source]

As society has evolved, education has had to change also. A more competitive job market and the emphasis on a global economy, has led many to pursue post-secondary education through skill centers and universities. Americans are competing in a global market, one where it is important to be able to gain an advantage through comprehensive educational experiences. Because of this global competition and the requirement of most jobs that employees possess some form of higher education, legislators have begun to implement standards meant to aid students in the process of furthering their education by giving them a solid foundation of knowledge and experience during high school. “States are implementing and developing strategies to increase student participation in rigorous college preparatory courses, better align expectations between high school and postsecondary education, hold these systems accountable, and ensure students graduate from high school ready for college or the workplace in the global economy” (National Governors Association: Policy Position).

States are finding it necessary to pass more rigorous standards to not only give students a better education, but one that will more appropriately prepare them for the future. For example, “to ensure Michigan's students have the skills and knowledge needed for the jobs of the 21st Century global economy, on April 20, 2006, Governor Jennifer M. Granholm signed into law a rigorous new set of statewide graduation requirements that are among the best in the nation” (Department of Education, Copyright: 2001-2007, Advances in technology and the importance of computers in the workplace was a driving factor in the decision of Michigan legislators to implement the online course requirement in their curriculum. This requirement is meant to give the students of Michigan an edge in the university classroom as well as the job market.

Society is changing the way that legislators and educators are developing the curriculum by requiring the implementation of rigorous standards. These standards include a wide range of subject matter, including foreign language and online requirements.

The society in which one lives has a direct impact on the type and number of courses that are necessary for an adequate education. Students in today’s world must be knowledgeable and have appropriate experience with technology, world cultures, as well as more traditional subject matter to be successful.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The Federal government is responsible for passing laws that govern the national standards for public education. These standards are required for the continuance of federal funding. State legislators and state Departments of Education often work together to develop detailed guidelines of required subjects, standards, and goals for high school students. They develop state assessments to test students on these standards and to measure their comprehension of the subject matter.

Local school districts are required to adopt standards set by the Federal and State government and to determine how best to implement them. It is the local school district’s responsibility to determine if students have successfully fulfilled the requirements of a course and should be granted credit for it. It is also up to individual school districts to set the minimum number of credits required for graduation.

Society has also played a major role in the shaping of public education curriculum. Advances in technology, a more competitive job market, and an increased need for post-secondary education have driven the need for more rigorous curriculum standards.

The curriculum is a vital aspect of the public school system. It ensures that all students receive an adequate education, are held accountable for learning required material, and gain a knowledge base that provides them with the ability to achieve. Many forces are present in the shaping of public school curriculum. Federal, State, and local school districts all have a major stake in the success of American students, as they are the key to the continuation and success of our society. Students must be prepared to meet the demands of today’s culture. The curriculum of public education reflects this need by implementing standards that are rigorous and innovative, recognizing the need for change to better prepare students for a progressive world. Curriculum standards will continue to evolve as public opinion and community and educator expectations adapt to provide America’s students with the fundamentals necessary for their achievement.

Questions[edit | edit source]

What are the most common curriculum choices for high schools? What types of liberal arts and electives classes do they offer to students? Why are physical education and other liberal arts electives being cut from many curriculums? Are they considered less important than core subjects, such as math and science? If education is a function of the state, why does the Federal government intervene? Should the Federal government set national standards for all schools? What would be the advantages and disadvantages if national standards were created?

References[edit | edit source]

Controversial Issues in America's Schools: Sex Education
The Forces That Shape Curricula
Sports in Public and Private Schools