What forces shape the school curriculum?Many different groups can influence the curriculum. These include publishers,
teachers, students, parents, administrators, the federal, state, and local governments,
colleges and universities, national tests, education commissions and committees,
professional organizations, and special interest groups. In recent years, the move toward subject matter standards and statewide testing
has added another powerful force influencing what is taught in schools.
How does the standards movement influence what is taught in school?The effort to create subject matter standards or content standards gained momentum
throughout the 1990s. The federal government initiated the trend with The National
Education Summit held in Charlottesville. The first Bush administration championed
the development of standards; the Clinton and second Bush administration continued
this effort. The progress in standards development has been uneven. In mathematics, national
standards were quickly developed. But in more value-laden disciplines like history,
arguments and disagreements erupted over what should be included. Most Americans believe that the use of national standards will enhance the level
of learning. However, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, concern
arose regarding performance standards. Performance standards measure student's
mastery in statewide testing.
Why are some protesting the growing emphasis on high-stakes testing?Schools and students that score poorly on performance tests would receive extra
resources, but if low test scores continue, penalties would follow, perhaps
resulting in the closing of"failing schools." Many schools and teachers"teach to the test," at the cost of curricular
topics which are not tested. Some schools even teach strategies and tricks to
increase test scores. In response, groups of students, teachers, and parents
have protested and even boycotted some of these exams. Others protest the lack of opportunity-to-learn standards. These critics argue
that performance standards would cause damage if student and school differences
are not recognized. They believe that students learn in different ways, and
even test differently. Since some schools enjoy superior facilities and resources,
while other schools have few resources, poorer schools must be given the resources
to compete with wealthy schools. Standardized tests are fraught with problems. Test bias, errors in grading,
faulty or confusing test questions, not to mention the costs of such exams,
all compromise test effectiveness and bring into question the use of high-stakes
tests. Some educators prefer authentic assessment, in which students' actual performance
is evaluated, rather than their responses to a paper-and-pencil exam. An authentic
assessment demands that students synthesize what they have learned in various
areas to complete a challenging, often creative, task. Accomplishing something
real is motivating for students, and perhaps more relevant than most high-stakes
tests. Educator Theodore Sizer has developed many examples of authentic assessment
tasks, which he refers to as"exhibitions."
How do textbook publishers and state adoption committees?More than twenty states, mainly located in the South and West, are textbook
adoption states. In this centralized adoption system, local school districts
must select their texts from an official, state-approved list. Those who are in favor of the state adoption system believe that this process
leads to the selection of higher-quality texts and creates a common, statewide
curriculum. Those who criticize the state adoption system claim that large,
populous states (California, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina) exert unfair
influence over textbook development. Under pressure to publish books that have appropriate readability levels, publishers
and authors"dumb down" textbooks. Substituting simplified, shorter
words and phrases for more complex ones may result in books in which sophisticated
ideas are simplified into meaningless ones. Critics of textbooks cite the"mentioning
phenomenon" as another problem. They claim that the books are peppered
with too many subjects so that each one is barely discussed, giving students
little depth or context. The growth of comprehensive textbook packages, complete with student materials,
classroom displays, websites, and the like, make the teacher's task easier.
But such programs also detract from a teacher's role in curricular development.
What are the seven forms of bias in instructional materials?Seven forms of bias can characterize textbooks: invisibility, stereotyping,
imbalance and selectivity, unreality, fragmentation and isolation, linguistic
bias, and cosmetic bias. These forms of bias can work against a group's race,
ethnicity, gender, age, or (dis)ability. Teachers can alert students to these types of bias, and prepare them to detect
and evaluate books accordingly and provide supplementary materials that provide
more accurate and equitable information.
How do religious differences impact school curricular materials? Controversies over religious fundamentalism and secular humanism have characterized
textbook adoption in recent years. In some communities, these controversies
have led to book banning and censorship. Teachers do not always appreciate the difference between teaching about religion
and promoting a religious belief. As a result, some teachers promote their beliefs,
while many others avoid the topic entirely.
Why are schoolbooks so frequently the targets of censorship?Censorship can emanate from the political left or right. Liberals argue against
books that defame or omit certain racial, ethnic, or other groups. Conservatives,
particularly religious fundamentalists, target books and ideas that conflict
with their values. The censors have targeted even some of the most popular books,
from Shakespeare to the Harry Potter series. The courts have ruled that adults do have the right to select appropriate material
for schools. However, the line between"selecting" and"censoring"
unpopular ideas is not always clear. Many teachers, fearful of censorship attacks, follow a path of stealth or self-censorship,
avoiding books and topics that could be controversial. Unfortunately, such self-censorship
denies students information and learning.
Should the curriculum focus on teaching a core knowledge or focus on the demands
of a changing world?Proponents of a core curriculum and cultural literacy, such as E. D. Hirsch,
feel that it will benefit the disadvantaged and transmit the culture essential
for well-educated citizens. Multiculturalists, such as James Banks, argue that most examples of cultural
literacy minimize the roles, experiences, and contributions of women and people
When developing curricula, it is useful to keep in mind the lessons learned from
the satire of The Saber-Tooth Curriculum. A curriculum must include objectives
and activities that teach students how to preserve the past, but not be limited
by it. Students also need to function effectively in the present, and prepare
for the future, and the curriculum should be responsive to these changes.