Everyone is telling teachers what to teach
Even in an era of standardized tests, state governments and others are adding mandatory subjects to schools.
From urban Philadelphia to rural Illinois, the new school year also means new requirements for what, precisely, students must learn. In addition to their normal English classes, science labs, and test-prep work, more will be studying topics such as African history, personal finance, and genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda.Skip to next paragraph
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Curriculum mandates sometimes come top-down from state legislatures. Others spring from grass-roots demands on school boards. They're the product of a wrestling match of sorts - between American education's tradition of local control and the growing movement to standardize subject matter for the sake of global competitiveness.
When the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) periodically shows US students performing dismally on a certain subject, "usually there's a hue and outcry," says Peggy Altoff, president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). That can spur state lawmakers to try to expand the curriculum in, say, history or geography. But in addition, "states [or local districts] begin to pick up the mantle for certain issues ... when a certain segment of the population begins to say, 'There's a neglect here,' " she says.
Take the City of Brotherly Love: It's the first public school district to require all high school students entering this September to take a year-long course on African and African-American history before they graduate.
Unanimously approved by Philadelphia's five-member School Reform Commission, the mandate was in some ways 40 years in the making. In the 1960s, local activists won the fight for more Afrocentric curriculum development, but the courses have been offered as electives in just a portion of the city's schools. Now a college-level textbook has been adapted and instructors in all 60 high schools have been trained to teach the required course.
The textbook starts with the history of African civilizations and then moves to the Americas. "It puts in context that the slave trade was a period in our history - we did not enter humankind as slaves," says Sandra Dungee Glenn, a member of the reform commission. She recalls attending high school in the district in the 1970s, when she says she rarely saw her heritage reflected in her textbooks.
About 65 percent of the district's students are African-American, but proponents of the course say it's equally important for others, because of the reverberations US racial history has to this day. The move wasn't universally applauded, however. John Perzel (R), the Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, sent a letter to the commission this summer expressing concerns raised in his district, which is largely white and includes immigrants from Russia, Turkey, and other countries.
"While I believe it is appropriate to acknowledge ... cultural diversity within the district's curriculum, mandating an entire year of study focusing on a single constituency appears unnecessary," the letter reads in part. "A more prudent course might be to develop a multipronged course of study focusing on the many cultures embodied within the school district."
Ms. Glenn says the bulk of response has been positive and the decision is firm. "I don't believe that it's a silver bullet, but it is an important component [of reforming the city's schools]," she says.