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.
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.
Teachers' responses usually depend on how much they're consulted on new requirements. But even if they agree the subject matter is important, covering a long list of specific topics as well as attending to individual students is becoming much more difficult.
It's even more difficult as they face simultaneous demands to focus more on core skills such as reading and math, which have to be tested under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
"The teacher is caught [in] this whirling cycle," says Bruce Damasio, a history and economics teacher in Maryland and an NCSS board member. "You're supposed to meet this standard, and at the same time this topic du jour has come up ... and you've got 180 days to get all these things done."
For political leaders, curriculum is one way to signal values. In August, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) signed a law expanding the state's 15-year-old mandate on Holocaust education. Now all students will learn not just about Nazi atrocities but also about genocide in places such as Armenia, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan.
"We have to be sure [students] understand that racial, national, ethnic, and religious hatred can lead to horrible tragedies," Governor Blagojevich said in a press statement. "These are not just the problems of our parents' or grandparents' generations. We ... [need to] encourage students to fight intolerance and hatred wherever they see it." Local districts will determine the details of how the subject will be taught at various grade levels.
Some efforts, on the other hand, never see the light of day. In Maryland in the late 1990s, lawmakers wanted to mandate more teaching about the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s. Because the state has a tradition of leaving curriculum matters primarily to local districts, Ms. Altoff appeared before the legislature to warn against setting a precedent with something so specific. In the end, schools were given the option of using a suggested curriculum.
Creating commissions is one way states can influence curriculum without going so far as to issue an edict. In New York this summer, the announcement of an Amistad Commission to determine if there needs to be more content on slavery and African-Americans' contributions set off a controversy; it's unclear how many educators will be among the group's 19 political appointees. (The Amistad, for which the committee was named, was a slave ship. Setting out from Havana in 1839, the ship's cargo of 53 enslaved Africans took over the ship and sailed to Long Island, New York, where the mutineers were put on trial and eventually set free.)
New Jersey also has an Amistad Commission, one of many groups in the state charged with promoting better understanding of a variety of issues and ethnic groups. The state's Holocaust Commission is paired with a requirement that the subject be taught in public schools.
But others, like the Italian Commission, created in 2002, prepare curriculum that is strictly voluntary.
Persuading school districts and teachers to opt in requires some innovative lesson plans and training, so they can see how the materials meet state standards, says Roger Marinzoli, executive director of the New Jersey Italian Commission.
Italian-Americans make up about 25 percent of the state, he says, but "the attempt is not to make this a flag-waving exercise.... You have to make it appealing to a broad spectrum."
The group's lessons cover the US internment of Germans, Japanese, and Italians during World War II and address ethnic stereotyping. It also offers a language-arts segment linking Da Vinci's stream-of-consciousness writings to existing lessons on novelist James Joyce.
Feedback has been so good, Mr. Marinzoli says, that schools as far away as Sicily have asked to use some of the curriculum.
Because textbooks are often updated every few years and customized for states, the steady drumbeat of new material isn't usually a problem, says Chris Johnson, editorial director for social studies texts at McDougal Littell.
Texas, for instance, requires that texts at every grade level include information of the benefits of the free enterprise system. And California has asked for more material on Martin Luther King Jr. and labor organizer César Chávez to meet its social studies requirement. Shrinking photos often makes enough space so that the books don't get longer or lose other content, Mr. Johnson says.
But for teachers, there's a concern about trade-offs. A key question, Altoff says, is "what provisions are being made to ensure that the coverage of that content is more than surface - that it's actually going to be meaningful within the time frame [they have to teach]?"
"There is no simple answer," she adds. "That's why there's so much pressure from different curriculum groups."
State lawmakers sometimes get specific about the topics that public schools must teach. Some examples from recent years:
• Sixteen states, ranging from Alabama to Nevada, have legislation on Holocaust education. Eight states require or encourage Holocaust instruction, while others simply establish commissions or task forces to help develop materials.
• Rhode Island has had a law since 2000 requiring the education department to develop material on genocide, human rights, and slavery, including specifics such as the Holocaust, famine in Ireland, genocide in Armenia, and Mussolini's Fascist regime.
• In several states, including New Jersey, Illinois, and New York, Amistad Commissions have been established to examine and improve the curriculum related to African-American history and slavery.
• Most states require a course on government, civics, or citizenship, but to give these subjects more weight, five states now require a related exam as a graduation requirement. Another five states are phasing in such exams.
• In 2004, California passed a law in part to ensure that the history/social science framework would include six documents: The Declaration of Independence; the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights; The Federalist Papers; The Emancipation Proclamation; The Gettysburg Address; and George Washington's farewell address.
• Since 2003, Missouri has required every school (pre-K through 12th grade) to devote the equivalent of one class period to the meaning and significance of Veterans Day.
• More than half the states have standards for personal finance education. Nine require testing in the subject, and seven - including Utah and Georgia most recently - require it for high school graduation.
Sources: Education Commission of the States; National Council on Economic Education