The content taught in American classrooms has been in the spotlight for years, particularly as researchers have shown what a difference a quality curriculum can make for P-12 students’ achievement.
Reporters can take a closer look at the quality of curricula, teachers’ experiences in implementing them and what effect these have on student outcomes.
Unlike many other countries with more centralized education systems, the United States has never had a national curriculum. The closest it has come has been the collaborative efforts of many states (incentivized by federal grants) to establish Common Core State Standards for math and English/language arts.
What Shapes the Curriculum?
In essence, a curriculum describes the lessons and academic content taught in a school or in a specific course or program. Depending on how broadly it is used, the term can include the learning objectives, the lessons or units taught, the assignments and projects, the books and other materials, and tests or other evaluations.
How best to teach reading and math (among other subjects), and what to include in social studies and history textbooks, have sparked debates off and on for decades.
What shapes the curriculum? State standards and textbook selections often play a big role, but teachers often curate their own supplemental materials — sometimes with minimal training on how to gauge quality.
Evolving Tools Take Shape
The growth of open educational resources (OER), which teachers can use, adapt and share for free, has helped some school districts pivot toward more inquiry- and project-based learning, and has prompted some colleges to redesign courses at a cost savings.
As students continue to explore career and technical education (CTE), local industries give their input. And as schools attempt to address the social and emotional needs of their students, community partners and mental health researchers often weigh in.
Whenever you have the opportunity to visit classrooms, ask some questions about curriculum and instruction to see if the local or statewide rhetoric matches up with the actual practices.
Stories can also explore equity gaps in access to content-rich curricular materials, advanced coursework, CTE, civics and other subjects.
The following modules will help you explore some key terms, resources, and history of curricula in U.S. schools.
Updated March 2021.