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What Students are Taught in Schools

What curriculum is taught in schools?

  • There are various forms of curricula in schools. One, the explicit or formal curriculum, includes syllabi describing courses, tests, curricular materials, and subject area standards and objectives.
  • The explicit curriculum has two functions. One function is to preserve and transmit to students the culture and traditions of the past. The other is to anticipate the knowledge, skills, and abilities that today's students will need in order to function effectively in tomorrow's society. Sometimes these two functions of preserving and anticipating clash.
  • The extracurriculum, or cocurriculum, includes student activities such as sports, clubs, student government, and school newspaper.
  • The implicit, or hidden, curriculum, emerges incidentally from the interaction between the students and the physical, social, and interpersonal environments of the school.

    What is the place of the extracurriculum in school life?

  • Although a voluntary part of school life, the extracurriculum has become a central part in the culture of American schooling, with 80 percent of all students participating in such activities as athletics, musical groups, and academic clubs.
  • Proponents of the extracurriculum argue that it encourages student self-esteem and civic participation, improves race relations, and raises children's aspirations, as well as their SAT scores. Many remain skeptical, however, seeing extracurricular activities as having very little, if any, positive effect on achievement and personal development.
  • When the formal curriculum and the extracurriculum clash, controversy develops. Some states have instituted"no pass, no play" rules, excluding low-achieving students from participating in varsity sports. Since these rules tend to affect minority students disproportionately, many people see these rules as making the extracurriculum exclusive and discriminatory. Others criticize the degree to which schools pour resources and attention into athletics, when that support could be going toward academics.

    How do the formal and the hidden curriculum differ?

  • School subjects are taught in the formal or explicit curriculum, which is constantly undergoing scrutiny and revision. Test scores report student progress--or lack of progress--in the formal curriculum.
  • In addition to planned and intentional lessons, schools teach a hidden or implicit curriculum. Subtle messages that students receive from teachers and other students unofficially teach norms, mores, and the culture of the school.
  • The hidden curriculum can reinforce formal learnings, or contradict them.

    How do social forces shape curriculum development over time?

  • Seventeenth-century schools taught a"two Rs" curriculum, emphasizing reading and religion. The only secondary schooling available was the Latin grammar school, which was open only to white male students who could afford the cost.
  • The eighteenth-century curriculum shifted toward the secular. The English grammar school and the academy became options for secondary schooling. White girls were allowed to attend the academy.
  • As a result of nationalism, democratization, and industrial development, the curriculum in the nineteenth century moved toward universal literacy, vocational competence, and preparation for citizenship. Elementary school studies included writing, arithmetic, spelling, geography, and good behavior. The academy was the dominant form of nineteenth-century secondary schooling until the last quarter of the century, when the academy gave way to tax-supported public high schools.
  • In the first half of the twentieth century, the curriculum was influenced by John Dewey and the progressive movement. Creative expression, social skills, and a more integrated study of subject areas were stressed. The junior high concept became popular during the 1920s. The mission of high schools was to meet the needs of all the students, not only the college-bound. By 1918, vocational course work had become an important part of the curriculum.
  • In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, and the poor performance of American schools was blamed for the country's defeat in the race for space. As a result, the curriculum was revised, and toughened, particularly in math and science.
  • The curriculum in the late 1960s and the 1970s focused on social issues, with particular emphasis on the needs and contributions of women and minorities. Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), required an individualized education program for each special needs child. Other issues emphasized in the curriculum were peace studies, ecology, and the secular presentation of topics relating to death.
  • Popular in the 1970s, open classrooms were divided into flexible areas called interest, or learning, centers. Children were encouraged to explore the classroom and choose activities they wished to pursue.
  • The curriculum of the 1980s and 1990s was marked by the back-to-basics movement. Triggered by the problem of declining test scores, this movement stressed achievement in the traditional subject-matter areas, cultural literacy, and an increased emphasis on required courses and a core curriculum.
  • Today there is growing emphasis on subject area standards and testing as a way of improving school and student performance.

    What are contemporary subject matter trends and tension points?

  • National standards have already been developed for math, science, geography, and other subject areas. The scope of these changes, as well as tension points, are reviewed in this chapter.
  • Although poor student writing performance remains a problem in language arts and English programs, there has been an improvement in student scores on reading tests. However, not everyone is in agreement on the best approach to reading instruction. While some advocate a phonics approach, others support whole language instruction. Many teachers incorporate elements of both in their teaching.
  • The question of which authors are read and studied, and which are omitted, is a persistent problem in English courses. The emphasis on the traditional canon of literature in recent years may come at the expense of women and non-western authors in many current literature programs.
  • Educators and special interest groups debate the depth versus breadth of subject matter in several subject areas, including the social studies. Social studies curriculum has been criticized for lacking international perspective and doing a poor job in preparing students for their civic responsibilities.
  • Math is an area where U.S. students have not performed well compared to students in other nations; the standards movement is intended to rectify such poor student performance. The national math standards describe the concepts students should master beginning in the primary grades and going through senior high school.
  • The standards emphasize both an understanding of critical math concepts and their application to real world situations.
  • U.S. students lag behind others in their foreign language instruction and skills. The nation's geographic isolation has added to this problem. A number of educators are calling for more rigorous foreign language instruction beginning at earlier ages.
  • Technology and computer instruction continue to appeal to educators and the public. However, the digital divide remains as wealth and poverty create a gap between the technological haves, and have-nots, a gap that impacts computer literacy for students.
  • The fine arts receive little emphasis in most schools, with three out of four students received neither theater nor dance instruction.
  • The current emphasis in physical education is to promote lifelong health benefits and enjoyment, yet fewer than one in three high school students participates in daily physical education programs.
  • Health and sex education programs are receiving more public support today than they have in the past, in part due to the health threats confronting today's students.

    What current curriculum directions may impact you?

  • In your time, the knowledge explosion has produced more information than teachers can cover and students can learn. Some educators now focus on the process of learning and thinking, including metacognition. Critical pedagogy marries critical thinking skills with analysis of, and work on, social challenges.
  • Robert Slavin is among those who believe that education is like"fashion and design," a mirror of changing styles, tastes, and public opinion. He looks to a time when the curriculum will emerge from research and reasoning, not from popular opinion.

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