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History and Background: Curriculum & Instruction

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Back to Curriculum & Instruction

The U.S. education system has changed dramatically since the first settlers came to this country. Initially, students were taught the skills they needed, such as reading, writing and math, at home or in small groups. However, the first free public school opened in 1635 in Boston, educating boys on such topics as Latin and Greek.

A Nationwide Public School System

Following the end of the American Revolution in 1783, Thomas Jefferson was among those who advocated for a nationwide educational system funded by tax dollars, but his suggested was largely pushed aside. The U.S. Department of Education was created in 1867 to help states develop their school systems, and by 1918, all children in the U.S. had to attend elementary school.

State academic standards have long outlined the skills and knowledge that students should obtain in each subject and grade level, but the curriculum is often shaped more locally — detailing how those standards should be taught. The curriculum often includes specific lessons, materials, ideas for instruction, and tests or other assessments. In addition, the federal government can play a role, and foundations or businesses may also have influence on the curriculum.

The Impact of Common Core

There are tensions between these various influences on the curriculum. The reform effort of the Common Core State Standards was partly aimed at pushing school districts to offer a higher quality, more cohesive curriculum. Although never required on a federal level, by 2011, 46 states and the District of Columbia had signed on to the Common Core State Standards. This meant that new curricular materials had to be created to reflect those standards, and educators had to understand how to best teach them.

However, many states began to push back against the Common Core standards, and although some states do still utilize some of the tenets of the standards, then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos declared in January 2020, “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

Textbooks Largely Chosen by States

In recent years, some organizations have been evaluating reading and math curricula. A high-quality curriculum builds background knowledge across grade levels, enabling students to understand the texts they are reading or key math concepts, experts say.

One report followed nearly 4,000 students in five diverse school systems and found that most — especially students of color, low-income students, those with disabilities, and English language learners — were missing out on such crucial resources as grade-appropriate assignments and strong instruction.

About one-third of states maintain control over the textbook-adoption process. These books frequently form the bulk of a curriculum. But local school districts generally exercise the most authority over curriculum. Individual teachers also supplement designated curriculum materials with other resources of their choosing.

Although many reports indicate that textbooks can impact student achievement, a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress found that just 60 percent of the country’s 30 largest school districts shared information about their instructional materials in an online format, making it harder for others to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of the curricula.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which most significantly impacted U.S. schools between 2020 and 2021, prompted some districts to further evolve their curricula, taking many resources online or via digital instruction for the first time, diminishing the role of textbooks in some areas. The future of the curriculum in the U.S. will continue to evolve and shift as technology, materials and teachers’ ability to share resources more widely will create an adjustment in the way students learn.

Updated March 2021.