Also called core curriculum, core course of study refers to a series or selection of courses that all students are required to complete before they can move on to the next level in their education or earn a diploma. In high schools, a core course of study will typically include specified classes in the four “core” subject areas—English language arts, math, science, and social studies—during each of the four standard years of high school. Since elementary and middle schools generally offer students a predetermined academic program with fewer optional courses, the term core course of study nearly always refers to requirements in high school programs.
In some schools, the core course of study may also entail additional credit requirements in specified subject areas, such as the arts, computer science, health, physical education, and world languages, but not all schools may define their core courses of study in this way. A core course of study typically does not include electives—optional courses that students choose to take and that may or may not satisfy credit requirements for graduation.
The general educational purpose of a core course of study is to ensure that all students take and complete courses that are considered to be academically and culturally essential—i.e., the courses that teach students the foundational knowledge and skills they will need in college, careers, and adult life. Yet depending on the structure of the academic program in a particular school, the core course of study may be different for some students. For example, some schools offer distinct academic programs in parallel with their regular academic programs—such as International Baccalaureate or theme-based academies, among many other possible options—and students enrolled in these programs will likely have to satisfy different requirements to complete the program or earn a diploma.
Credits are awarded when students complete a course with a passing grade. Therefore, increasing subject-area credit requirements effectively increases course requirements. This is why states may attempt to influence the quality or effectiveness of academic programs by modifying state-mandated credit requirements: schools may offer a wide variety of math courses and academic tracks, but they all offer courses in the subject area of math. Still, there is a nuanced distinction between core academic courses and credit requirements: some history courses, for example, may be elective in a school while others are considered part of the core course of study. To complete the core course of study and satisfy a school’s graduation requirements, then, students will need to pass the required history courses, not just earn a specified number of history credits.
For decades, high schools have typically used some form of graduation requirements to ensure that students complete a specified selection of courses before they are awarded a diploma. States have also passed legislation that determined minimum credit requirements in a selection of subject areas for public high schools, although districts and schools can elect to increase those requirements. To this day, graduation requirements still vary considerably from state to state and school to school, both in terms of (1) the total number of courses or credits required in each subject and (2) the kinds of courses or learning experiences required.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, however, graduation requirements—including mandatory courses and other learning experiences, such computer-literacy or community-service requirements—became objects of reform. Growing calls to improve academic achievement and student preparation led states, districts, and schools to increase course and credit requirements as a mechanism for elevating academic expectations and improving education results. For example, many states moved to require that all public high school students complete four “years” (or credits) in English, and to increase credit requirements for math, science, or social studies from two years (a formerly common requirement) to three or four years. Some states even now require students to complete specific courses, not just specific credit requirements—for example, students may be required to complete four “years” of math up to and including courses deemed to be at an “Algebra II” level or above. Schools also used the core course of study, and any attendant graduation requirements, as a way to improve the academic achievement, attainment, and preparation of more students, while also mitigating learning loss, learning gaps, achievement gaps, and opportunity gaps.
Pedagogically and philosophically, the core course of study, as a reform strategy, is related to concepts such as access, equity, high expectations, and rigor. The basic rationale is that increasing requirements in the “core” subjects will not only improve student learning and skill acquisition, but it will give graduates more educational and career options because they will graduate better educated and prepared. The core course of study, as a reform strategy, is also related to learning standards (i.e., the general educational intent is similar), but course requirements are distinct from standards: a core course of study establishes minimum course requirements, while standards establish minimum learning requirements. Many learning standards may be addressed or taught in a course, but standards are not specific to certain courses (although they are typically organized by subject area and grade level). Learning standards describe knowledge and skill expectations, but those standards can be met either within or outside of a course.
Some education leaders question whether it is sufficient or useful to simply require students to take more courses, when such requirements do not guarantee that students will actually learn more in certain subject area or graduate better prepared for adult life. Since courses may be more challenging or less challenging, and since students may learn a lot or not learn much in any given course, many educators argue that states, districts, and schools should require students to meet learning standards, not just complete courses, because standards describe the specific knowledge and skills students are expected to acquire. For example, reform strategies such as proficiency-based learning require students to demonstrate mastery of the knowledge and skills outlined in learning standards before they can pass a course, move on to the next grade level, or graduate. If schools have a core course of study in place, students may take more courses, but they may also be able to pass those courses with low grades and without having acquired the knowledge and skills described in learning standards.
Less commonly, core courses of study, learning standards, and other attempts to standardize what gets taught in schools may be perceived by some parents or public figures as a form of “forced curriculum”—i.e., an attempt to control what gets taught to students. In most cases, such criticism mirrors larger political debates and ideological fault lines in the United States, such as whether and how schools should teach the science of evolution (a highly politicized topic). While core courses of study and learning standards are, in fact, overt attempts to standardize education and ensure that students learn certain foundational knowledge and skills, the majority of educators do not see ominous or ideological intent behind these strategies.