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School Curriculum Basics

Schools shape a learner's education. Their goal is to create enriching learning experiences through the school curriculum.

In education, a curriculum is like a roadmap for student learning. It contains lessons and activities designed by teachers and educators.

School curriculum refers to a particular set of courses offered by a school. It may also refer to activities designed to foster education. These courses help meet the needs of a learning community.

This section provides information to help you understand the basics of school curricula. Select from the list of titles to learn more.

What Does Curriculum Law Address?

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

  • The range of courses or instructional programs available to students
  • All activities, materials, procedures, and instructional aides used in the instructional program

As with any area of law, legal disputes can arise. Parents, students, and educators may have concerns about what the curriculum includes or excludes. For example, educational censorship has been a growing subject of debate. Understanding how schools use curriculum can be helpful.

The Basics of School Curriculum Standards

Educational bodies create academic standards that guide school curricula. An example of an educational body is the Department of Education.

School districts decide what students should learn from kindergarten through 12th grade. The curriculum is a blueprint for what students should know at each grade level. 

Flexibility vs. Standardization

Standards are specific to different subject areas. They aim to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Every subject students learn in school is part of the curriculum. This usually includes math, science, English, and history. Curriculum and instruction go hand-in-hand to ensure students gain knowledge and skills.

These standards also involve learning goals for student progress. For instance, the Common Core State Standards set national benchmarks. They equip students with essential skills in middle school and high school.

Yet, most school administrators recognize that each student is unique. Students have different talents, weaknesses, and goals in life. That's why many schools create flexible curricula. They give students options that do not fit a standard mold.

For example, they may include more challenging tracks for advanced students. They might also provide remedial tracks for struggling students. Some schools offer courses emphasizing math and science to develop these interests.

Curriculum Decisionmaking

Each school district has its process for developing curriculums. Curriculums may subject both school administrators and the board of education to scrutiny. Parents and organizations may criticize what should be in the curriculum.

When developing a curriculum, educators refer to education standards. These are goals set by experts in education. They tell us what students should know and be able to do at every grade level. Standards are necessary because they ensure that all students learn the same content.

Pedagogy: Teaching Approaches

School boards must design a curriculum that furthers legitimate pedagogical concerns. Yet, this term is rarely defined with any specificity. School boards must determine for themselves what this means. State and federal authorities may provide guidance. They offer better resources to research and develop the most effective school policies.

There is no universal definition for legitimate pedagogical concerns. Courts have given some guidance on what activities would fall outside of this scope.

Examples of excluded curricular items include:

  • Political advocacy
  • Bias or prejudice
  • Lack of neutrality in religious matters
  • Sexually harassing speech
  • Vulgarity, profanity, nudity, sexuality, drug use, violence, or other inappropriate themes

Sometimes, students need help with specific subjects or topics. That is where interventions come in. An intervention is an extra helping hand. It can be more focused teaching or tutoring to help students catch up. This can be in small groups or one-on-one. The goal is to ensure that every student understands their learning, even if it is difficult.

Curriculum Development

Curriculum development is a critical aspect of public school operations. It involves creating curriculum frameworks and lesson plans. It also requires selecting instructional materials to guide teaching. The process requires ongoing professional development for educators.

Curriculum development also mandates the involvement of stakeholders. Stakeholders can include teachers, parents, and even students. This cooperation ensures that the curricular choices meet learners' needs. It also ensures the choices align with state and national standards.

Who Has Authority Over Curriculum Standards?

Nearly every level of government has some role in deciding public schools' curricula.

Federal Educational Authority

The President of the United States sets nationwide educational goals. These goals are 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. It also manages federal funding for schools that need extra money. These schools must also meet certain standards set by Congress and the President.

State Educational Authority

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

Local Education Authority

Local boards of education and school district administrators play the largest role.

Boards of education typically contain the following people:

  • Elected parents
  • Members of the community
  • Teachers
  • School administrators

All these people work together to create a curriculum. This curriculum reflects the values of the community.

School boards often set specific yearly goals that students must achieve. They can select textbooks, approve funding for lab equipment, and supply other instructional aides.

Teachers create specific lesson plans to meet the school board's goals. In some schools, teachers select textbooks and classroom activities for their students. Teachers also give feedback on the curriculum's effectiveness to the school's administrators.

National School Curriculum Standards

National standards set a consistent understanding of what students should learn. These standards harmonize learning experiences across the United States. They allow students to get a similar education regardless of where they live.

An example is the Common Core Standards, which encompass critical competencies and content areas. They also encourage academic growth and promote critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Traditionally, local governments set standards for students' curriculums. Communities had some flexibility to best prepare students to succeed in the local economy. Yet, standardized primary and secondary school education has become more common.

Voluntary Standards

There is no comprehensive national curriculum that all school districts must teach. Instead, independent organizations have created model curricula to help school districts.

Voluntary standards exist for the following areas:

  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Language arts
  • Fine arts
  • Social science
  • Technology
  • Physical education

Schools may incorporate these standards when designing the curriculum. 

National Standards for English Language Arts and Social Sciences

English language arts and social studies are two critical subject areas. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts sets reading, writing, and communication goals. It lays out curricula standards from pre-kindergarten through high school graduation.

Social sciences include history, geography, and civics. There are national standards for social sciences. For example, the National Council for Social Studies offers a framework for teaching and learning.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a nationally administered test. This test is also known as the "Nation's Report Card." The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) issues the NAEP nationwide to schools. They do this to get a representative sample of the nation's student body. NCES does not require a particular curriculum. The results may provide insight. They can help highlight the effectiveness of a school district's educational system.

High School Graduation Requirements

High school graduation requirements help with a variety of objectives. They are designed to prepare students for both higher education and career readiness.

These requirements often include a mix of core academic courses. For example, they may include English, math, and science. They also include social studies and electives, like fine arts or technical education.

A combination of course credits often measures graduation requirements. It also includes competencies achieved and standardized test scores. Furthermore, students with disabilities may have different academic standards. These standards better accommodate their learning needs.

Advanced Placement (AP) Classes and Curriculum

Advanced Placement (AP) classes are slightly more standardized. To earn college credit for their work, all AP students must pass the same AP test upon completing the course.

AP course teachers receive a recommended syllabus to help students meet these goals. Teaching everything on the syllabus, however, is optional. Instead, they may choose to use or disregard the details of the recommended syllabus. This depends on what they think will best meet their student's educational goals.

Special Education and School Curriculum

Special education is an indispensable element of education programs. Its primary purpose is to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

Offering specialized instruction is one facet of special education. Special educators train to meet the needs of these students. They use distinctive learning strategies designed to help these students learn. For instance, a special educator might use visual aids for impaired students. Or, they may use physical cues or hands-on activities.

Special education can also use tools, such as:

  • Physical tools like Braille for students with visual impairments
  • Digital resources like speech-to-text software for those with dyslexia
  • Assistive technologies such as special keyboards or noise-canceling headphones

These tools aren't only about making things easier for students. They're also about ensuring that students can fully engage with their education.

These students are subject to the educational standards set for all students. They must learn the same content and reach the same benchmarks as their peers. Yet, their unique needs may need more resources to achieve these standards. This might mean they get extra time on tests, modified assignments, or tutoring.

Professional Development and Resources

Professional development is often provided for educators. This training helps ensure the successful implementation of the curriculum standards. It supports teachers in understanding and implementing the new standards and instructional materials.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is a major federal law that governs U.S. education. It also helps by providing funding and guidelines for states and districts to use.

Getting Legal Help With School Curricula

Some parents or students may feel that the school curriculum fails to meet their needs. For example, a student might be failing despite interventions. A student in special education may not be receiving the necessary support they need.

In such situations, seeking legal help might be your best option. Get help from an education lawyer today.

Learn About School Curriculum Basics

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