The Battle over Curriculum Standards Parents, School Boards, States, and the Federal Government All Vie for a Say in the Matter Series: Currents in the Curriculum

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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 everywhere.

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 seriously."

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? …


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