CURRICULUM AS A CHANNEL OF INFLUENCE: WHAT SHAPES WHAT IS TAUGHT TO WHOM?
Policies, practices, and resources of the federal government, states, districts, schools, and teachers all play roles in influencing the development of curriculum and instructional programs, their implementation, and thus, what is actually taught to particular students. Exploring curriculum as a channel of influence means addressing:
Policy decisions about curriculum and resources to support the curriculum,
Development of instructional materials and programs, and
Processes and criteria for selecting instructional materials.
CURRICULUM IN THE EDUCATION SYSTEM
Implications of Policy Decisions
Many states play prominent roles in determining public school curricula—the content outlines and sequences of topics that, as a whole, specify what mathematics, science, and technology content students are to learn. This state role has expanded considerably as state standards, curriculum frameworks, and accountability measures have emerged as key strategies in the search for educational improvements (National Science Foundation [NSF], 1996; Massell, Kirst and Hoppe, 1997; U.S. Department of Education [USDoE], 1999; Education Week, 2001). State education agencies may establish high-school completion requirements or exit exams, which, in effect, often define the core content students are expected to learn.
Some state policies directly address the intended curriculum and the resources needed to enact it, as well as other facets of the education system that affect curriculum, such as regulations governing remedial or special education programs. State policies addressing student access to classroom laboratories and information technologies also can influence what is taught. Accreditation protocols, including compliance reviews of federally funded programs, place increasing demands on schools to clearly define and support mathematics, science, and technology content congruent with state learning standards and frameworks.
The federal government influences the school curriculum mainly through policy decisions that affect resource allocations. For example, NSF provides funds for science, mathematics, and technology materials-development projects. USDoE also supports programs that may implicitly or explicitly encourage particular visions of mathematics, science, and technology education, as well as particular strategies for attaining these visions, for example, through enactment of the Eisenhower Professional Development Program (Dwight D.Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Education Act, PL 103–382). On occasion, federal government officials make use of the “bully pulpit” to issue direct statements about curriculum. For example, fueled by concerns about U.S. student achievement results in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 1996), the Secretary of Education emphasized the importance of algebra and geometry instruction at earlier ages for all students (Riley, 2000).
School district policies and practices such as graduation requirements and course offerings also affect the range and depth of science, mathematics, and technology content in schools. These policies, in turn, are influenced by community values and culture, including traditions and expectations regarding what schools should teach and what resources should be allocated to mathematics, science, and technology education (Shepard, 2000). In addition,
school-based decisions about class scheduling and the time allotted for science, technology, or mathematics instruction can influence the quality of the programs offered to students (Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO], 1999b). For example, programmatic “tracks”—combined with expectations about what particular students can or should learn, and what should be taught to whom— often reflect school or district level policy (Oakes, Ormseth, Bell, and Camp, 1990; White, Porter, Gamoran and Smithson, 1996).
The curriculum channel is linked to the other components of the education system in multiple ways. Teacher development programs, the use of assessment and accountability to spur educational reform, and public influence on policy decisions may directly affect the school curriculum. These factors will be addressed in later chapters.
Development of Instructional Materials and Programs
Instructional materials represent the resources that teachers use to develop student understanding of subject-specific concepts and skills in the enactment of the curriculum. Such materials include textbooks, workbooks, laboratory manuals, manipulatives such as three-dimensional solids, laboratory supplies and equipment, videos, laser discs, CDs, software, and websites. Developed by many different entities, instructional materials often become critical, defining components of instructional programs (CCSSO, 2000; Weiss, 1991; Stake and Easley, 1978). In particular, commercial publishing firms with K-12 divisions dedicated to producing and selling school textbooks are central players in shaping what most teachers teach (Woodward and Elliot, 1990; Tyson, 1997). Educational material production is “big business”—in 1999, revenues from K-12 instructional materials of the top five publishers totaled over $3.3 billion (Walsh, 2000). Thus, although publishers can and do produce materials in response to particular educational changes, decisions to invest in such development are always tempered by estimates of the potential demand for materials
supporting those changes. Accordingly, curricular content specified as important by textbook adoption policies in large states has great influence on the content of commercially available texts (Tyson, 1997).
Instructional materials are also produced by entities other than publishing companies. Federal agencies and other grant-awarding sources often support nonprofit organizations and educators at universities or school districts in producing discipline-specific instructional materials and programs. Teachers may also create some of their own materials individually and with peers, sometimes in response to school or district curriculum frameworks and sometimes based on their own views of what is important for students to learn or based on materials they encounter at professional meetings.
Teacher-support materials developed by commercial publishers or districts, designed to assist teachers as they begin to implement new programs and materials or attempt to integrate technology into their curriculum, are key elements in the curricular system. In part to address concerns about underprepared teachers, demands have increased for such materials to accompany student materials, offering support to teachers in helping them to understand what to teach and how to teach it (National Research Council [NRC], 1999e). Another consideration is the well-documented fact that the enacted curriculum is often different than the intended curriculum (Robitaille et al., 1993; NCES, 1996; Ferrini-Mundy and Schram, 1997). What teachers actually elect to teach and to whom may reflect their own interpretation of the curriculum, as well as their school and classroom environment.
A wide range of forces shape the processes for selecting instructional materials used in schools. These events are largely dependent on a district’s financial status and its current educational focus (NRC, 1999e). The timing of textbook adoptions is often linked to school funding cycles; the purchase of resource materials
to support the curriculum often correlates to textbook-adoption cycles but may also be subject to uncertain budgets. It is not uncommon for an adopted textbook to remain in use for five to eight—or even ten—years; a text selected in 1995 could still be in use in 2005.
Teachers sometimes select materials that conform to their own beliefs about teaching, despite district curriculum guidelines or the changing nature of the subject (Grossman and Stodolsky, 1995; CCSSO, 2000). Decisions about instructional materials may be influenced by public and community preferences or by achievement results on high-stakes assessments (Massell, Kirst, and Hoppe, 1997; Battista, 1999; Anderson and Helms, 2001; Becker and Jacob, 2000). Decisions may also be influenced by endorsements of federal agencies (USDoE’s Mathematics and Science Expert Panel, 2000) or by curriculum evaluations published by nongovernmental groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Project 2061, the Mathematically Correct, or the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS)(AAAS, 2000; Clopton et al., 1998; Morse and the AIBS Review Team, 2001).
In about twenty states, including many in the South and West, a statewide selection process for instructional materials, usually guided by state specifications for student learning, leads to lists of state-approved textbooks, with one or more titles specified for each discipline and grade level (Weiss, 1991; Tyson 1997). Once a particular instructional program is placed on a state-adoption list, funds allocated by the state for instructional materials can be accessed by districts and schools to purchase that curricular program.
At the district level, the selection and purchase process for instructional materials is highly idiosyncratic. The nature of adoption mechanisms for instructional materials depends, in part, on the level of human and fiscal resources available to districts or schools. In some instances, a formal process specifies development
and use of explicit criteria tied to district or state goals or linked to statewide assessments. In technology education, cross-discipline committees sometimes define the curriculum and ways in which technology will be implemented in classrooms, while in other cases the technology education departments make those choices and recommendations.
In summary, the selection and adoption of textbooks is closely related to state and district policies and funding procedures. In some instances, the availability and administration of financial resources directly affect how often schools and teachers adopt new textbooks, which schools and students have access to instructional resources to support the curriculum, which instructional resources are available for which teachers, and how teachers are supported in their use of such resources.
HOW STANDARDS MIGHT INFLUENCE CURRICULUM
Nationally developed standards describe the organization, balance, and presentation of important mathematics, science, and technology content. The standards intentionally do not prescribe a specific curriculum, but provide criteria for designing a curriculum framework or selecting instructional materials.
If standards are influencing what is taught to which students, then curriculum policy, the design and development of instructional materials, and the processes and criteria by which such materials are selected and implemented in classrooms would reflect the content described in the standards. Enacted policies and funded programs defining curriculum would align with those relating to standards-based instruction and assessment. State content standards would be consistent with content specified by the nationally developed standards, providing comprehensive guidance on what should be taught at each grade level, stimulating creation or adoption of curricular materials and textbooks at the local level that embody the standards’ vision, and providing direction to needed curricular guidance and support. Graduation requirements would reinforce
the curricular recommendations of the standards, and postsecondary institutions would recognize and accommodate students who successfully complete standards-based school programs.
If standards influenced the curriculum, both the intended and enacted curriculum would focus on mathematics, science, and technology learning goals specified in the standards; K-12 programs would be coordinated system-wide both within and across grades and aligned with the content as outlined in the standards documents. Schools, districts, and states would have an infrastructure supporting delivery of standards-based curricula in mathematics, science, and technology, including programs to support teachers’ instructional needs in relation to those curricula. Instructional materials and textbooks would be developed by people who understand the standards, and that understanding would be reflected both in the content they include and the nature of the tasks they use to develop student knowledge of that content. Textbook adoption processes would be carried out by selection committees knowledgeable about standards-based materials. Textbook adoption criteria would be based on features congruent with the standards, such as inquiry-based learning, an emphasis on problem-solving, and an emphasis on conceptual understanding as well as skill development. Teachers would have appropriate resources for teaching standards-based curricula, including laboratory equipment and supplies, and support for learning to use them effectively.
Enrollment patterns in schools would reveal whether the vision expressed by the standards applies to all students. If standards are permeating the system, opportunities for taking challenging mathematics, science, and technology courses would be open to every student, and resources needed to implement a robust standards-based curriculum would be allocated in equitable ways. Dual-language materials would be available, as well as other resources designed to accommodate diverse learners to support the standards’ focus on all students having access to opportunities to
learn important mathematics, science, and technology concepts and skills.
THE CURRICULUM CHANNEL AND NATIONALLY DEVELOPED STANDARDS
The Framework questions (see Figure 3–3) offer guidance in studying the influence of standards on curriculum and instructional materials by focusing inquiry into matters such as:
How has the curriculum component of the education system responded to the introduction of nationally developed standards?
How are these standards being received and interpreted by states as they work on their own standards, by curriculum developers who are designing instructional materials, by districts who are making decisions about K-12 curriculum programs and choosing instructional resources, and by teachers as they plan instruction and work with their students?
What actions have been taken by states, district administrators, teachers, and textbook publishers to enact curriculum-related policies and practices that support the nationally developed standards?
To what extent is the curriculum in schools and districts aligned with the nationally developed standards?
To what extent are teachers teaching the content described in the standards and do they have the materials to do so in the ways the standards intended?
To what extent are all students given access to curriculum consistent with the standards?
And finally, who is being affected and how? Do all students have ample opportunity to learn the core content? Do they have adequate resources and support to aid them in learning that content?
Studies that explore answers to such questions will inform the two overarching questions: How has the system responded to the introduction of nationally developed mathematics, science, and technology standards? and What are the consequences for student learning?