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Curriculum Decisionmaking

Local education authorities, such as school administrators or boards of education, must balance many different competing interests when designing a curriculum. Each school district likely has its own process for making curriculum decisions. However, each school district must wrestle with the same concerns:

Requirements for a Good Curriculum

Most people agree that students in public schools should learn the basics of reading, writing, mathematics, history, science, and citizenship. Very few people agree on anything else regarding school curricula. In general, school boards must design a curriculum that furthers "legitimate pedagogical concerns." However, the phrase "legitimate pedagogical concerns" is not defined by any court or federal statutes. Some state governments have defined "legitimate pedagogical concerns," but school boards are frequently left to their own devices when creating a curriculum.

School boards often turn to state and federal governments for guidance on what to teach and how to teach it. The federal government has the means to research which skills will be most useful to students after school, as well as which teaching techniques are most effective. State governments have insight into the kinds of skills that are useful to the local economy, and can often recommend specific classroom materials.

An important consideration is the age, maturity, and sophistication of the students to which educational material is to be provided. A school's oversight or authority over curriculum matters is greater where younger students are involved.

What to Leave Out of a Good Curriculum

"Legitimate pedagogical concerns" may not be well defined, but some courts have reached a consensus on material that does not advance these concerns. This kind of material can include:

  • Advocacy of political or similar matters
  • Bias or prejudice
  • Conformity or nonconformity to shared or community values
  • Distracting from an educational atmosphere
  • Inability to teach prescribed curriculum because of disagreements with course content
  • Lack of neutrality on religious matters
  • Quality or professionalism
  • Sexually harassing speech
  • Suitability or unsuitability for intended students
  • Vulgarity, profanity, nudity, sexuality, drug use, violence or other inappropriate themes.

Even though these topics may not be covered explicitly as part of a school's curriculum, they may not always be banned from school grounds entirely. For example, parents have attempted to ban Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from schools for decades. First, the book's portrayal of an escaped slave went against the values held by white, formerly slave-owning families. Then, parents wanted to ban the book because it contains racial epithets that are considered inappropriate today but were common to the era in which the book is set.

In a case such as this, school districts may decide that teachers should not assign The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as required reading. However, they may not ban the book from the school library, because the school has a legitimate pedagogical concern in allowing students access to one of the mainstays of American literature that outweighs any concerns parents may have over the treatment of an African-American character.

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

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