For many students heading back to school this fall, the biggest
concern is adjusting to a new class. Their parents, though, face
more daunting questions: What will their children learn in school?
And who will determine the curriculum?
In an age of multiculturalism, book banning, and condom
distribution in schools, few subjects are more explosive at
school-board meetings and in state legislatures.
The issues cross the spectrum. Various proposals have cropped up
throughout the South to teach creationism, evoking memories of the
famous conviction of John Scopes in 1925 for teaching evolutionary
theory in a Tennessee public school. California is struggling with
new math standards that many say disregard basic skills. And sex
education has provided a steady current of controversy virtually
The suggestion that students should share a national curriculum
has been no less controversial. Though initiated by President Bush,
Goals 2000, which established voluntary national standards, became
a favorite target for conservatives concerned about federal control.
Increasingly, international events are spurring the debate about
what American students should learn. The 1958 Russian launching of
Sputnik caused a stampede toward science education. A deluge of
well-made imports from Japan in the 1980s as well as the 1983
report, "Nation at Risk," sent educators scrambling for ways to
address other weaknesses in the system. But even such spikes of
interest rarely translate into a consensus.
Curriculum standards currently are set by an amalgam of state,
local, and school-specific bodies. In New York, for example, the
education department sets broad standards for public school
students in seven basic disciplines.
Since the standards are relatively broad, school districts,
individual schools, and teachers exercise some discretion over what
is taught. But there's a catch: Schools are assessed in part by how
well the students perform on state competency tests. This helps
encourage schools' adherence to state standards.
Nonetheless, states have come under significant criticism for
the poor performance of students on domestic and international
tests over the past few decades. "Standards are far too vague,"
says Diane Ravitch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in
Washington and senior research fellow at New York University.
"There seems to be an agreement that states should do them, but
they aren't. They have proven unwilling to take standards
In Missouri, for instance, students are expected to be familiar
with such broad social-science standards as "principles and
processes of governance systems" and "relationships of the
individual and groups to institutions and cultural traditions." So
should students be familiar with the US Constitution? …