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School Curriculum Basics

School curriculum refers to a particular set of courses that a school or governing body designates, but may also refer to a variety of activities designed to foster education and meet the needs of a learning community. Whether you are a student seeking to understand your curriculum options, or a teacher looking to create curriculum standards, this section provides information and resources to help you understand the legal perspective of setting a strong curriculum. Select from the list of titles below to learn more.

Curriculum Decisionmaking

Each school district has its own process for developing curriculums. However, the curriculums increasingly subject school administrators and boards of education to scrutiny and criticism from parents and organizations that have their own idea of what should be part of the school curriculum. Beyond agreeing that schools should teach students the basics of reading, writing, math, history, science, and citizenship; there is very little agreement about what should be included in school curricula.

School boards must design a curriculum that furthers "legitimate pedagogical concerns;" though this term is rarely defined with any specificity. School boards are frequently left to determine for themselves what this means. State and federal authorities may provide guidance and frequently have better resources to research and develop the most effective policies on the behalf of schools. Although a universal definition has not been developed for "legitimate pedagogical concerns," courts have given some indication what activities would fall outside the definition. Examples of curriculum items that would be prohibited include material that includes;

  • 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

National School Curriculum Standards

Determinations about students' curriculums have traditionally been made by local governments. This permitted communities some flexibility in teaching the skills necessary to succeed in the local society and economy. However, there is a growing trend toward the standardization of primary and secondary school education. At present, there is no national curriculum that all school districts are required to teach. However, independent organizations have created model curricula that school districts may choose to incorporate. These "voluntary standards" exist for mathematics, science, language arts, fine arts, social science, technology, and physical education.

Advanced Placement (AP) classes are slightly more standardized. All AP students must pass the same AP test upon completion of an AP course in order to earn college credit for their work. AP course teachers receive a recommended syllabus intended to help students meet these goals, but they are not required to teach everything on the syllabus. Instead they may choose to implement or disregard the details of the recommended syllabus, depending on what they think will best meet their students' educational goals.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a nationally administered test that is known as the "Nation's Report Card." The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) administers the NAEP to schools throughout the U.S. in order to obtain a representative sampling of the nation's student body. NCES doesn't require a particular curriculum, but the results may provide insight into the effectiveness of a school district's educational system.

Learn About School Curriculum Basics