Curriculum decisions have far-reaching consequences for students and teachers in K-12 schools. The decisions made in public schools are often hotly debated. The triggers for controversy include societal issues and agendas, the goals and effectiveness of the education, and funding. These debates underscore the importance of curriculum development in enhancing teaching and learning.
Put another way, curriculum decisions impact how we shape our society through the way we mold our future adults. Curriculum decisions include technical and policy components, covering everything from the best ways to teach multiplication or the parts of speech to the philosophical frameworks for teaching history and science.
Understanding the context of curriculum development can help educators who want to become more influential in the development of educational policy and practice. This post begins by defining some terms, then considers the stakeholders involved in approving curricula in U.S. public schools and the importance of curriculum development in enhancing teaching and learning.
Defining Terms: Curriculum
Dictionaries define “curriculum” as a course of study. Educators and those concerned with educational policy have a more nuanced, comprehensive view of the word’s meaning, as definitions from an international organization and a state-level agency illustrate.
The International Bureau of Education at UNESCO, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, says, “In the simplest terms, ‘curriculum’ is a description of what, why, how and how well students should learn in a systematic and intentional way.”1
The state of Rhode Island defines curriculum as “a standards-based sequence of planned experiences where students practice and achieve proficiency in content and applied learning skills.” Rhode Island’s definition also says, “The structure, organization, and considerations in a curriculum are created in order to enhance student learning and facilitate instruction. Curriculum must include the necessary goals, methods, materials and assessments to effectively support instruction and learning.”2
Both the above definitions can apply to the learning plan for a single class, for a grade level, or for the entire span of a K-12 educational journey. One writer used the metaphor of a puzzle, in which the learning from individual courses connects to and builds on that of others to create the final picture of the students’ education.3
Another way to conceptualize the term is to think of curriculum as an operations manual for the school system, designed to help educators transport students from one intellectual state to another. To summarize key concepts in the above definitions, a curriculum answers the following questions about a subject of any scope:
- What is covered
- In what order
- To what purpose
- How it’s framed or contextualized
- What materials to use
- How to measure success
Defining Terms: Curriculum Development
As global change continues to accelerate, the importance of curriculum development in enhancing teaching and learning grows. The world is changing, and how we prepare students to take up their roles and responsibilities must change apace. In its “Education 2030” position paper, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) asserts, “The concept of ‘curriculum’ should be developed from ‘predetermined and static’ to ‘adaptable and dynamic.’ Schools and teachers should be able to update and align the curriculum to reflect evolving societal requirements as well as individual learning needs.” 4
So curriculum development is an ongoing, dynamic process with a focus on the individual student’s success and a scope broad enough to accommodate progress in basic science and technology as well as changes in culture, politics and the environment. In the iterative process of curriculum development, the design and implementation of the curriculum are preceded by the analysis of current conditions and followed by evaluation.
Analysis and evaluation are critical to the success of curriculum development. Analysis helps connect education to current events and connect teaching across disciplines to deepen student learning. Evaluation informs future cycles of development and provides feedback to administrators and policymakers as well as students, parents and teachers.
Given the dynamics of global change and the importance of curriculum development in enhancing teaching and learning, a systematic approach to managing development is central to creating desired outcomes.5
In summary, curriculum development is:
- Comprehensive in scope
- A tool to improve learning outcomes
The importance of curriculum development in enhancing teaching and learning outcomes comes into focus as the term is defined. Considering the many players involved in setting curriculum sharpens the focus.
Who Determines K-12 Curriculum?
In the United States, responsibility for setting educational policy rests with the states, with the federal government influencing policy through funding and judicial oversight. The U.S. Department of Education has estimated that federal money makes up 8% of elementary and secondary school funding. Federal courts also hear cases related to education and curriculum. For example, in the 1963 case, School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, the Supreme Court ruled that a Pennsylvania law requiring the reading of bible verses at the opening of the school day violated the First Amendment.6, 7
States supervise the work of their public school districts and have “the authority to impose limits and obligations on both local school districts and parents.” Locally elected boards typically manage school districts and delegate direct responsibility for curriculum development, among other administrative functions, to their school superintendents. The school board approves curriculum as part of its responsibility to set policy.8
Government entities are not the only stakeholders in K-12 education. Students, parents, and teachers all have a direct interest in the process. Stakeholders with a less direct but still keen interest include community members and businesses who help fund the schools and interact with students. Advocates for various issues also seek to influence elementary and secondary school curricula.
Such widespread interest in the process is proof of education’s importance to society and the importance of curriculum development in enhancing teaching and learning.
Curriculum as a Reflection of Culture and Values
Curriculum requires careful thought because education reflects and shapes the values of a society. We teach our children what is important to us and that education shapes their worldview. The distributed structure of U.S. education oversight, with several stakeholders influencing locally elected boards of education, is an excellent example of how culture and values affect curriculum. The system encourages the intense interest of disparate stakeholders because people who valued a pluralistic approach to policy-making designed it.8
Other examples of cultural influence on curriculum abound. Countries or school districts placing a high value on volunteerism may codify that value in high school graduation requirements. Likewise, societies or schools valuing science and technology, or social justice and equity, encode those values in specific curriculum requirements.
We can think of the impact of curriculum and curriculum development as flexibly as the terms themselves can be defined. A curriculum can cover a narrowly focused subject for a grade level or be a comprehensive educational plan spanning K-12. Similarly, curriculum impacts both the broader culture and individual students' learning through the work of individual teachers.
The Importance of Curriculum Development in Enhancing Teaching and Learning
A well-developed, current curriculum provides several benefits for students and teachers. A curriculum that lays out course objectives and content sequencing lets the teacher focus on designing specific lessons and assessments to teach individual students effectively.
See The Importance of Lesson Planning for Student Success for more on this topic.
A regularly reviewed curriculum benefits from teacher feedback and incorporates new topics, technologies, and issues. A well-developed curriculum enhances teaching and learning in myriad ways.
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- Retrieved on January 28, 2022, from ibe.unesco.org/en/glossary-curriculum-terminology/c/curriculum-plural-curricula
- Retrieved on January 28, 2022, from ride.ri.gov/InstructionAssessment/Curriculum/CurriculumDefinition.aspx#:~:text=Curriculum%20is%20a%20standards%2Dbased,access%20to%20rigorous%20academic%20experiences.
- Retrieved on January 28, 2022, from classcraft.com/blog/why-is-curriculum-important/
- Retrieved on January 28, 2022, from oecd.org/education/2030/E2030%20Position%20Paper%20(05.04.2018).pdf
- Retrieved on January 28, 2022, from simplyeducate.me/2014/12/13/the-meaning-and-importance-of-curriculum-development/
- Retrieved on January 28, 2022, from ed.gov/about/overview/fed/role.html
- Retrieved on January 28, 2022, from oyez.org/cases/1962/142
- Retrieved on January 28, 2022, from kappanonline.org/legal-balancing-act-public-school-curriculum-underwood/