The term curriculum refers to the lessons and academic content taught in a school or in a specific course or program. In dictionaries, curriculum is often defined as the courses offered by a school, but it is rarely used in such a general sense in schools. Depending on how broadly educators define or employ the term, curriculum typically refers to the knowledge and skills students are expected to learn, which includes the learning standards or learning objectives they are expected to meet; the units and lessons that teachers teach; the assignments and projects given to students; the books, materials, videos, presentations, and readings used in a course; and the tests, assessments, and other methods used to evaluate student learning. An individual teacher’s curriculum, for example, would be the specific learning standards, lessons, assignments, and materials used to organize and teach a particular course.
When the terms curriculum or curricula are used in educational contexts without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation, it may be difficult to determine precisely what the terms are referring to—mainly because they could be applied to either all or only some of the component parts of a school’s academic program or courses.
In many cases, teachers develop their own curricula, often refining and improving them over years, although it is also common for teachers to adapt lessons and syllabi created by other teachers, use curriculum templates and guides to structure their lessons and courses, or purchase prepackaged curricula from individuals and companies. In some cases, schools purchase comprehensive, multigrade curriculum packages—often in a particular subject area, such as mathematics—that teachers are required to use or follow. Curriculum may also encompass a school’s academic requirements for graduation, such as the courses students have to take and pass, the number of credits students must complete, and other requirements, such as completing a capstone project or a certain number of community-service hours. Generally speaking, curriculum takes many different forms in schools—too many to comprehensively catalog here.
It is important to note that while curriculum encompasses a wide variety of potential educational and instructional practices, educators often have a very precise, technical meaning in mind when they use the term. Most teachers spend a lot of time thinking about, studying, discussing, and analyzing curriculum, and many educators have acquired a specialist’s expertise in curriculum development—i.e., they know how to structure, organize, and deliver lessons in ways that facilitate or accelerate student learning. To noneducators, some curriculum materials may seem simple or straightforward (such as a list of required reading, for example), but they may reflect a deep and sophisticated understanding of an academic discipline and of the most effective strategies for learning acquisition and classroom management.
For a related discussion, see hidden curriculum.
Since curriculum is one of the foundational elements of effective schooling and teaching, it is often the object of reforms, most of which are broadly intended to either mandate or encourage greater curricular standardization and consistency across states, schools, grade levels, subject areas, and courses. The following are a few representative examples of the ways in which curriculum is targeted for improvement or used to leverage school improvement and increase teacher effectiveness:
- Standards requirements: When new learning standards are adopted at the state, district, or school levels, teachers typically modify what they teach and bring their curriculum into “alignment” with the learning expectations outlined in the new standards. While the technical alignment of curriculum with standards does not necessarily mean that teachers are teaching in accordance with the standards—or, more to the point, that students are actually achieving those learning expectations—learning standards remain a mechanism by which policy makers and school leaders attempt to improve curriculum and teaching quality. The Common Core State Standards Initiative, for example, is a national effort to influence curriculum design and teaching quality in schools through the adoption of new learning standards by states.
- Assessment requirements: Another reform strategy that indirectly influences curriculum is assessment, since the methods used to measure student learning compel teachers to teach the content and skills that will eventually be evaluated. The most commonly discussed examples are standardized testing and high-stakes testing, which can give rise to a phenomenon informally called “teaching to the test.” Because federal and state policies require students to take standardized tests at certain grade levels, and because regulatory penalties or negative publicity may result from poor student performance (in the case of high-stakes tests), teachers are consequently under pressure to teach in ways that are likely to improve student performance on standardized tests—e.g., by teaching the content likely to be tested or by coaching students on specific test-taking techniques. While standardized tests are one way in which assessment is used to leverage curriculum reform, schools may also use rubrics and many other strategies to improve teaching quality through the modification of assessment strategies, requirements, and expectations.
- Curriculum alignment: Schools may try to improve curriculum quality by bringing teaching activities and course expectations into “alignment” with learning standards and other school courses—a practice sometimes called “curriculum mapping.” The basic idea is to create a more consistent and coherent academic program by making sure that teachers teach the most important content and eliminate learning gaps that may exist between sequential courses and grade levels. For example, teachers may review their mathematics program to ensure that what students are actually being taught in every Algebra I course offered in the school not only reflects expected learning standards for that subject area and grade level, but that it also prepares students for Algebra II and geometry. When the curriculum is not aligned, students might be taught significantly different content in each Algebra I course, for example, and students taking different Algebra I courses may complete the courses unevenly prepared for Algebra II. For a more detailed discussion, see coherent curriculum.
- Curriculum philosophy: The design and goals of any curriculum reflect the educational philosophy—whether intentionally or unintentionally—of the educators who developed it. Consequently, curriculum reform may occur through the adoption of a different philosophy or model of teaching by a school or educator. Schools that follow the Expeditionary Learning model, for example, embrace a variety of approaches to teaching generally known as project-based learning, which encompasses related strategies such as community-based learning and authentic learning. In Expeditionary Learning schools, students complete multifaceted projects called “expeditions” that require teachers to develop and structure curriculum in ways that are quite different from the more traditional approaches commonly used in schools.
- Curriculum packages: In some cases, schools decide to purchase or adopt a curriculum package that has been developed by an outside organization. One well-known and commonly used option for American public schools is International Baccalaureate, which offers curriculum programs for elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. Districts may purchase all three programs or an individual school may purchase only one, and the programs may be offered to all or only some of the students in a school. When schools adopt a curriculum package, teachers often receive specialized training to ensure that the curriculum is effectively implemented and taught. In many cases, curriculum packages are purchased or adopted because they are perceived to be of a higher quality or more prestigious than the existing curriculum options offered by a school or independently developed by teachers.
- Curriculum resources: The resources that schools provide to teachers can also have a significant affect on curriculum. For example, if a district or school purchases a certain set of textbooks and requires teachers to use them, those textbooks will inevitably influence what gets taught and how teachers teach. Technology purchases are another example of resources that have the potential to influence curriculum. If all students are given laptops and all classrooms are outfitted with interactive whiteboards, for example, teachers can make significant changes in what they teach and how they teach to take advantage of these new technologies (for a more detailed discussion of this example, see one-to-one). In most cases, however, new curriculum resources require schools to invest in professional development that helps teachers use the new resources effectively, given that simply providing new resources without investing in teacher education and training may fail to bring about desired improvements. In addition, the type of professional development provided to teachers can also have a major influence on curriculum development and design.
- Curriculum standardization: States, districts, and schools may also try to improve teaching quality and effectiveness by requiring, or simply encouraging, teachers to use either a standardized curriculum or common processes for developing curriculum. While the strategies used to promote more standardized curricula can vary widely from state to state or school to school, the general goal is to increase teaching quality through greater curricular consistency. School performance will likely improve, the reasoning goes, if teaching methods and learning expectations are based on sound principles and consistently applied throughout a state, district, or school. Curriculum standards may also be created or proposed by influential educational organizations—such as the National Science Teachers Association or the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, for example—with the purpose of guiding learning expectations and teaching within particular academic disciplines.
- Curriculum scripting: Often called “scripted curriculum,” the scripting of curriculum is the most prescriptive form of standardized, prepackaged curriculum, since it typically requires teachers to not only follow a particular sequence of preprepared lessons, but to actually read aloud from a teaching script in class. While the professional autonomy and creativity of individual teachers may be significantly limited when such a curriculum system is used, the general rationale is that teaching quality can be assured or improved, or at least maintained, across a school or educational system if teachers follow a precise instructional script. While not every teacher will be a naturally excellent teacher, the reasoning goes, all teachers can at least be given a high-quality curriculum script to follow. Scripted curricula tend to be most common in districts and schools that face significant challenges attracting and retaining experienced or qualified teachers, such as larger urban schools in high-poverty communities.