AuthorJeffrey Wilson

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According to Black's Law Dictionary, "curriculum" refers to the "set of studies or courses for a particular period, designated by a school or branch of a school." But curriculum also refers to the complete range of activities designed by an educational institution to foster education. Fundamentally, curriculum outlines what students are supposed to learn and how they are to do it. Because there is much room for divergence of personal viewpoints in these issues, a school's curriculum fosters some of the most emotional and contentious debates in education law.

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 aids used in the instructional program

Local school boards and officials typically make the decisions regarding curriculum and instructional materials for their schools, although some state authorities may limit their discretion to some extent.

The subject of curricula touches on federal, state, and local government authority, every course taught in school, and every level of school. The standards and objectives of every state differ with respect to curricula in their schools. All of this makes for a very extensive topic. A focus on the curricula in public schools from kindergarten through grade twelve (primary through secondary grades) touches on the key elements of the topic while reducing the scope of the topic to manageable proportions.

The curricula for primary and secondary schools are designed to integrate across the various grade levels. They are also intended to provide a coherent and comprehensive educational experience for each student who undertakes and completes all grade levels. Curricula are also meant to accommodate the many differences in learning styles and abilities and to account for different interests and aptitudes. Thus, a thoughtful school curriculum offers a broad range of options and tracks. Students either elect or are placed in these options or tracks based on diagnostic counseling, academic performance, and consultation with parents and students. Each state sets curricular policy that applies to schools within its jurisdiction, but local and individual variations occur according to the degrees of freedom allowed by the basic policy.

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Authority over Educational Curricula

Some may be surprised to learn that the federal government does not determine what students should know and be able to do in any subject at any level of schooling. Instead, implementing standards for students' performance is left to state and local authorities and to some extent with parents. There are some 16,000 school districts in the United States. Each one is administered and financed by a local community and by one of 50 state departments of education. This extensive local control, one of the defining characteristics of American education, has caused school standards to correlate with the socioeconomic status of the communities in which they are located.

Federal Authority

As stated above, the federal government has historically played a minor role in education. In fact, the Constitution relegates most of the responsibility for education to the states. Thus, until the 1960s, the federal government largely stayed away from education. While the trend for the federal government to become involved in education issues has continued, even today, the total spending by the federal government accounts for less than 10 percent of the total spent for K-12 education. But because of heavy federal regulation, these federal dollars wield a disproportionate amount of influence.

Federal programs and regulations increased dramatically after 1965. As of 2002, the Department of Education spends over $30 billion per year on K-12 and higher education expenses, and hundreds of education programs are scattered throughout many other federal agencies. Most are designed to help disadvantaged children, though their records of success vary.

Perhaps the most prominent role of the federal government in terms of curricula has been to enforce and enhance rights to educational opportunities and educational equality. This function has involved the enforcement of constitutional rights to education and an adequate curriculum. These federal efforts have generally focused on guaranteeing equality of access to educational content rather than the content or purpose of the instruction itself. Other than these affirmative efforts, the federal government has hesitated to establish or control a school's curriculum. Rather, the government's role has been more to encourage schools to modify and improve curriculum, and currently, these suggestions are being backed up with funding and do not merely rely on persuasion.

State Authority

The states are the entities primarily responsible for the maintenance and operation of public schools. The states are also heavily involved in the establishment, selection, and regulation of curriculum, teaching methods, and instructional materials in their schools.

Each state's constitution requires it to provide a school system where children may receive an education. Many state constitutions also contain express provisions for creating educational curricula. Some state constitutions even empower state authorities to select textbooks and educational materials. Besides...

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