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Curriculum - General Background Information

What is a "Curriculum?"

In the legal and educational world, "curriculum" refers to the "set of studies or courses for a particular period, designated by a school or branch of a school." This definition includes the complete range of activities and instructional materials designed by an educational institution to foster education. Fundamentally, curriculum outlines what students are supposed to learn and how to learn it. Because so many people can reasonably disagree on these issues, a school's curriculum fosters some of the most emotional and contentious debates in education law.

What Does Curriculum Address?

From a legal perspective, curriculum issues focus on two areas:

  • The range of courses or instructional programs available to students

  • The aggregate of activities, materials, procedures, and instructional aides used in the instructional program

The curricula for K-12 schools typically integrate across grade levels. In other words, most school districts outline broad educational goals that direct a student's experience from kindergarten through 12th grade so that when she graduates, the student has learned everything necessary to succeed in life and has wasted little time on redundant courses.

Most school administrators recognize that each student is unique, with different talents, weaknesses, and goals in life. Thus, many schools create flexible curricula with options for students who do not fit a standard mold. They may include more challenging tracks for advanced students, remedial tracks for struggling students, or tracks with an emphasis on mathematics or the arts to help students develop their interests.

Who Has Authority Over Curriculum Standards?

Nearly every level of government has some role in deciding public schools' curricula. The President of the United States set nationwide educational goals for local educators to ensure that students from the U.S. can compete for work globally. The U.S. Department of Education conducts research on educational policy and manages federal funding for schools that need extra money and that meet certain standards set by Congress and the President.

The role of state governments in designing curricula vary from state to state, but in general, states set broad curriculum goals. State governments often help fund individual schools that teach the curriculum set by the state government.

Local boards of education and school district administrators have the largest role in deciding a school's curriculum. Boards of education are typically comprised of elected parents, members of the community, teachers, and administrators. All these people work together to create a curriculum which reflects the values of the community. They often set specific yearly goals which students must achieve, select textbooks, and approve funding for lab equipment and other instructional aides.

Finally, teachers must create specific lesson plans that are designed to meet the goals set by the school board. In some schools, teachers may select textbooks or other reading material for their students, design classroom activities, and provide feedback to the school's administrators on the curriculum's effectiveness.

For more information, see FindLaw's sections on School Funding and Competency Testing.

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