The Educational System in the United States: Case Study Findings, March 1999

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Chapter 2 - The Development and Implementation
of Education Standards in the United States
(Part 2 of 4)

State-Level Initiatives

States have developed various different initiatives to help their schools meet the National Education Goals. Most states have formulated curriculum frameworks or guidelines that assist schools and school districts in providing students with common academic standards. Although the format and content of these guidelines vary, most states have developed separate guidelines by grade level for what are considered the four core academic subjects: English, math, science, and social studies (American Federation of Teachers [AFT] 1996). Other state-level reform initiatives have focused on teachers. Some state governments have passed legislation to change requirements for teacher education, believing that the improvement and advancement of teachers will be accomplished through changes in licensing and promotion requirements. Yet other proposals have led to the creation in some states of inservice staff development programs and accountability systems.

We found that the three states in which our research sites were located had each developed an extensive set of academic goals and frameworks to guide the districts and schools within their state.

The state education department for the state in which our primary research site (Metro City) was located established a set of goals for the schools in their state in the mid-1970. However a new set of goals was adopted in the early 1990's in an effort to "reflect changes in the larger society and shape the education of our children for life in the 21st century." Eight basic goals were identified. In addition, these goals were explicitly linked to the national goals. The state goals reflect both "a vision for the state's education system and the nature of support which will be necessary for that responsibility to be successfully met." They include general policy statements such as: "All people of this state will be literate, lifelong learners who are knowledgeable about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and able to contribute to the social and economic well-being of our diverse, global society" and "Each child in our state will attend a school that is supported by an adequate, equitable, stable and predictable system of finance."

In a separate initiative, the state has also laid out Goals for Learning in specific subject areas. These goals outline expectations for "what students should at least know and be able to do upon completing secondary schooling." The subject areas include: language arts, mathematics, biological and physical sciences, social sciences, fine arts, and physical development and health. However, the Goals for Learning are not broken down by grade level. Instead, the state has developed "learning objectives" to show how the goals could apply to various grade levels. They are in the process of revising the state goals and developing academic standards in the four core subjects to clarify the expectations under each goal. The state assessment is linked to the "broad" goals but not to the learning objectives. Reading, writing, and math assessments are given to all students in grades 3, 6, 8, and 10, and science and social studies are assessed in grades 4, 7, and 11. The state assessment is not currently used to determine a student's eligibility to graduate, nor is a differentiated diploma system tied to the assessment (AFT 1996).

The western state included as the location for one of our secondary research sites has actively pursued additional funding from the federal government to support reform efforts which would update their schools along the efforts outlined in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. In addition, this state began developing a set of curriculum frameworks in 1995. They currently exist as interim drafts and are still undergoing revision, but have been distributed to school superintendents and are available to the public. The implementation of the standards represented in these curriculum frameworks is voluntary. Literature from the state's department of education describes the curriculum frameworks in the following way: "The frameworks are visionary documents that describe the knowledge and skills that students must obtain as they prepare for participation in a democracy and the work force as well as for lifelong learning." These curriculum frameworks were developed by committees of national, state, and local curriculum experts and practitioners under the direction of a division of a state commission.

The goals of the framework state: "They provide the basis for the development of criteria for evaluating and selecting instructional materials, serve as guidelines for staff development, and provide the impetus for the development and revision of state and local student assessment programs." The curriculum frameworks have been constructed for each of the core subject areas with content descriptions specific to each grade or course. In addition to the curriculum frameworks, a set of standards have been drafted for each of the core subjects. These standards are designed to complement the curriculum frameworks and are available to districts to use on a voluntary basis. The state currently has no statewide assessment system, although a new assessment system is under development. High school students may take an optional exam that tests students on algebra, geometry, economics, biology, chemistry, and coordinated sciences. The exams content is linked to expectations listed in the curriculum frameworks. Those who take the exam and achieve high scores receive special recognition on their diplomas and transcripts (AFT 1996).

State initiatives have also guided reform at our secondary site, known here as East City. The state board of education of this state has developed a plan to "restore confidence in our public schools." The three principles of this plan are: (a) local schools, rather than the school system, will be held accountable for the success of their students, (b) attention will be focused on teaching reading, writing, and mathematics, and (c) individual schools and surrounding communities will be given more authority to choose how their schools are operated, as long as their students are successful. In addition, the state has developed standard courses of study in several core subjects, which are meant to guarantee that all students have access to equal education.

Documents describing the courses of study state: although it does not prescribe how schools should organize themselves or how teachers should instruct, it sets standards against which the schools and teachers may judge their success. Some of the courses of study are written to provide content standards for specific grades, others provide lists of concepts and skills but no indication of the grade level at which they should be taught. The state's department of education says that local control over curricular units is best left to local school districts, schools and classroom teachers. They see it as their "responsibility to set quality curriculum and performance standards and to develop models of integration which link curriculum, instruction, and assessment." The state assessments are linked to the standards, and the state requires districts to take individual student scores on the state assessment into account when making grade promotion decisions. Reading and math assessments are given to all students in grades three through eight, and writing is assessed in grades four and seven. It is up to local districts to assess students in other core areas. High school students are given end-of-course exams in English I and II, biology, algebra, U.S. history, and civics. In addition, beginning in eighth grade, students are given a competency test for reading and math, which they must pass to graduate from high school. Those who do not pass the test in 8th grade take it again in 10th grade and are given multiple chances to pass it through the 12th grade (AFT 1996).

The goals and the curriculum guidelines, or courses of study, developed by these three states share some commonalities, despite their independent origins. Two explicitly cite Goals 2000 as a driving force behind their own initiative or as the model to which their initiative is compared. Also, the inclusion of technology, the development of thinking and reasoning skills, cooperative learning, curriculum integration, and the alignment of curriculum and assessment are concepts that are cited in most of the states' initiatives. It is also clear in these initiatives that there is a commitment to school-based management within all three states. The states see themselves as capable of providing guidance and encouraging districts to return decisionmaking to schools and to classrooms for the implementation of standards based on local needs. In West City, for instance, districts were given grants from the state level to do school-level restructuring. A teacher from West City stated the philosophy behind these grants: "A community school, that is the ideal school."

Attitudes Towards State-Level Initiatives

At the primary research site, Metro City, most discussions of state standards revolved around the state assessment test. Curriculum goals themselves were usually mentioned only in the context of discussions about textbooks. Generally, teachers at the high-achieving schools felt that the state standards were not relevant to their students, since the majority of their students demonstrated that they were well above the state mean on the state assessment test. However, teachers at schools where the majority of the student population scored below the mean on the state assessment said that they felt pressure to choose textbooks based upon the state's curriculum guidelines.

Teachers and principals in East City also spoke of the state's standardized exams, but teachers in both East and West City cited ways in which the state curriculum or curricular framework was implemented in the schools. A teacher in West City, for instance, said, "he was confident in the state's curricular framework, but also that the districts were allowed to figure out how to modify the curriculum to meet the needs of the local population." In East City, math teachers noted that the state curriculum requires that they cover certain topics and allow students to use calculators for topics such as fractions.

District- and Local-Level Initiatives

Initiatives which will help schools reach the national goals have also been developed at the local level. These programs are often generated by local school boards and administrators, specifically for their school or district. Innovative programs may serve as models for other schools and districts, but there is often no system for sharing information about these programs with other schools or districts, or both. Yet, local initiatives are a very common means of adopting standards and goals in U.S. schools because of the deeply rooted value of local autonomy within the education system.

Attitudes Towards District- and School-Based Initiatives

District- and school-based initiatives were cited by parents, teachers, and administrators more frequently than either state or national initiatives. Although the initiatives varied greatly in scope, they generally had the support of parents and teachers, because they were perceived as having been created in response to local needs. In addition, many teachers spoke of the linkage of district and school initiatives to city, state, and even national standards, such as Goals 2000 and the NCTM standards.

Metropolitan School is an innovative school located in the inner city and surrounded by housing projects in Metro City. Approximately 4 years ago, the school redesigned its calendar in response to an ever-growing school population. Instead of turning students away and sending them to a school further from their homes, administrators designed a rotating school calendar based on a 12-month school year and split the student population into four schools within the school. In addition, they adopted an accelerated program for students performing at or above grade level.

Teachers at some of the other high schools and middle schools in Metro City also spoke of recent school initiatives. In particular, they mentioned efforts to have middle school and high school teacher's work together to facilitate continuity of the middle schools' and high schools' curricula.

Another school-based initiative mentioned in Metro City was a program in one of the more affluent school districts. The program was set up to encourage teachers to gain facility in the use of computers. The district was offering interest-free loans for teachers to purchase their own computer and software. The district also offered computer courses and promised to subtract a certain amount from the loan in exchange for every 2.5 hours of classroom training the teachers received.

At yet another school, members of the parent council participated in a citywide curriculum resource committee and brought ideas and materials from this committee back to school administrators and teachers.

Educators in West City said that the development and implementation of school-based initiatives was often dependent on the school's leadership. Generally it was the principal's responsibility to provide opportunities for staff development, although some workshops were also provided by the school districts. One example of a district initiative was the district's inservice training for elementary and middle-school teachers of math and science.

The elementary school we visited in East City provided children of working parents with extended day care. The normal school day is from 8:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. The enrichment programs were offered before and after school. Children participating in these programs could arrive as early as 7:00 a.m. and stay as late as 6:00 p.m. Another local initiative instituted in East City was the year-round calendar at the middle school. The school operated 9 weeks on followed by 3 weeks off throughout the year. Although the state restricted the ability of the school to require homework between terms, teachers could assign voluntary homework over the vacation periods to students who were falling behind their classmates. According to one teacher, "the school also encourages teachers to integrate the curriculum, and use hands-on student-centered learning, and cooperative or lab-oriented classes in math/algebra." Teachers within the school were organized into 12 instructional teams of 4 teachers each in core subjects.

Even as guidelines for state and national standards have increased in number and visibility in the last decade, there has been a concurrent emphasis on the return of decisionmaking powers to schools and teachers. Local and district efforts to improve the academic environment and raise achievement levels have, by their very nature, encouraged the development of a wide range of diverse programs.


Many factors contribute to decisions regarding the development and implementation of curriculum in schools in the United States. Some of these factors include whether the state or district (or both) have developed curriculum guidelines and whether the state and local guidelines are in accord with each other. Another possible factor is whether the state or district mandates that the schools follow these guidelines or allows them to develop their own curriculum. Additionally, schools that retain local autonomy over curricular decisions may choose either to adopt or ignore state or district guidelines. This choice is likely to be influenced by the school's history of achievement, community standards, financial resources, and its perception of these factors in relation to the curriculum guidelines being provided by the state or district. For example, principals and teachers at schools that consistently scored well above the mean on state assessment tests said that the state curriculum guidelines were not relevant to curriculum development in their school. They viewed the state curriculum guidelines as setting minimum achievement levels rather than a challenge or goal. On the other hand, we found that principals at schools where students were consistently performing below the mean on the state assessment test hoped to bring their school's curriculum into greater alignment with state guidelines. Meeting the state curriculum guidelines was a goal for these schools, and the mechanism by which they often chose to achieve it was through the use of textbooks that incorporated topic areas assessed by the state standardized assessment test.

We found that midlevel and low-achieving elementary schools, especially those in Metro City, explicitly chose textbooks that incorporated the recommended state curriculum. By contrast, teachers at Rockefeller Elementary developed their curriculum independently of a textbook series. A document describing the fourth-grade curriculum at Rockefeller Elementary for 1994-95 stated:

This document outlines the goals of our present fourth-grade curriculum. Teachers actively partake in the ongoing evaluation and revision of curriculum and utilize various materials, programs, activities, and strategies to implement the following goals.

Another factor that influenced curriculum implementation in schools, primarily at the elementary and middle schools, was the number of students requiring bilingual education. Several of the schools we visited enrolled large populations of students who were not native speakers of English. These schools provided separate bilingual curriculum tracks for native Spanish-speaking students. According to one administrator, West City students generally stayed in the bilingual tracks for three or more years before making the transition to English language classes, and the curriculum provided within the bilingual track was the same as that provided to English-speaking students. The district administration for West City schools had also decided to provide resource teachers to assist bilingual classroom teachers with curriculum issues and to facilitate students transition from classes taught in Spanish to those taught in English.

Curriculum Levels Reflect Different Standards

Middle schools and high schools usually offered courses with varying levels of difficulty for core academic subjects, such as math and science. Curriculum content in these courses reflected different achievement expectations and, as a result, also reflected the diversity of a school's academic standards. Schools with the most highly stratified course offerings typically provided a very rigorous curriculum in their advanced-level courses.

Most of the middle schools we visited offered at least two levels of math/algebra, and some offered more than one level of science and language arts classes. Other schools offered three or more levels. Central Middle School in Metro City offered four levels of courses. According to one parent, "level three and four classes cover the same material as the lower levels but at a faster pace and with more demanding forms of assessment." Parents were eager for their children to take either level three or four classes so that they could continue into advanced-level math and science classes when they reached high school. In contrast, Metropolitan School offered courses at only two levels; those students who performed at or above grade level on standardized exams were offered the opportunity to participate in an advanced math and science track.

Courses selected at the middle school (or junior high) level affected students' choices of courses at the high school level, although teacher recommendations, parental requests, and standardized score results also influenced course options in high school. Most of the high schools offered courses at three levels of difficulty in math, science, and language arts (usually determined by the depth of material presented and the pace at which it was covered): advanced placement, honors courses, and general-level courses.

However, the availability of advanced placement and honors courses varied considerably from school to school. High schools such as Hamilton, Springdale, and East offered more advanced placement and honors courses than did the other schools. In contrast to this were the offerings at South Central Vocational High School and Uptown High School. At South Central, students had the choice between regular or vocational courses, a choice determined by an aptitude test, which each student took upon entry into the school. Two students we spoke to at South Central said they would like their school to offer honors courses because "in some classes people know everything, class becomes boring, and grades get worse since students stop listening." The course offerings at Uptown were better than at South Central, but were considerably restricted compared to the options at Hamilton and Springdale.

Availability of high-level courses revealed only part of the picture when it came to describing differences between schools. The percentage of students enrolled in honors and advanced-placement courses also varied greatly among schools. While state requirements for schools in Metro City and its surrounding suburbs mandated that students take two science courses (one full year) to qualify for graduation, the level of difficulty of these classes was not mandated. Students could fulfill their state and district requirements by taking either advanced-placement courses or less demanding courses, such as earth science and "regular" biology.

Curriculum Development

At some middle schools and high schools we visited, teachers worked together within their departments (math, science, language arts) to develop courses, review and select textbooks, and devise exams. For example, at East Middle School, team leaders met with other teachers of the same discipline to talk about the best instructional methods, implement the curriculum, and order materials and books. Teachers at Hamilton also worked as teams. Those teaching the same course met at least twice a year with course leaders to discuss changes in materials, textbooks, exams, and modifications in the curriculum. In addition, the exams at Hamilton were created by all who taught a given course. This cooperative scenario however, was not evident at every school we visited. Many teachers developed courses on their own, often using textbooks chosen by others.

Teachers also varied greatly in their degree of reliance on textbooks for in-class instruction. While districts and schools often provided guidance on textbook selection, the autonomy of teachers within their classrooms contributed to diverse practices in the "delivery" of the curriculum to students. This was obvious in the variety of the comments we heard from teachers. At South Central High School, for example, a science teacher indicated that he based the curriculum for his course on the textbook and also used the quizzes and tests which accompany the text. In contrast to this, the chairman of the science department at Hamilton High said that although the school had explicit criteria which the faculty must consider when choosing a science textbook, he "encouraged his faculty to not rely so heavily on the textbook." A math teacher at Hamilton said that in her class the textbook was optional. It was available as a source of reference and about 25 percent of the class chose to use it, but she preferred students to construct their own textbook from handouts and exercises used in class.

Generally, we found that teachers in Metro City schools that received higher levels of community support, financial and otherwise, often relied less on textbooks as the sole source of the curriculum. This was true at the elementary as well as the secondary level. In West City, district guidelines had a significant influence on the instruction of classes, but teachers were encouraged to go beyond the textbooks. According to one teacher at West Elementary School, "teachers are given a list of books which they can use to accomplish the state and district goals. They are also encouraged to look for other supplementary material to use in their classroom instruction."


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