According to Black’s Law Dictionary, “curriculum” refers to the “set of studies or courses for a particular period, designated by a school or branch of a school.” But curriculum also refers to the complete range of activities designed by an educational institution to foster education. Fundamentally, curriculum outlines what students are supposed to learn and how they are to do it. Because there is much room for divergence of personal viewpoints in these issues, a school’s curriculum fosters some of the most emotional and contentious debates in education law.
From a legal perspective, curriculum issues focus on two areas:
- The range of courses or instructional programs available to students
- The aggregate of activities, materials, procedures, and instructional aids used in the instructional program
Local school boards and officials typically make the decisions regarding curriculum and instructional materials for their schools, although some state authorities may limit their discretion to some extent.
The subject of curricula touches on federal, state, and local government authority, every course taught in school, and every level of school. The standards and objectives of every state differ with respect to curricula in their schools. All of this makes for a very extensive topic. A focus on the curricula in public schools from kindergarten through grade twelve (primary through secondary grades) touches on the key elements of the topic while reducing the scope of the topic to manageable proportions.
The curricula for primary and secondary schools are designed to integrate across the various grade levels. They are also intended to provide a coherent and comprehensive educational experience for each student who undertakes and completes all grade levels. Curricula are also meant to accommodate the many differences in learning styles and abilities and to account for different interests and aptitudes. Thus, a thoughtful school curriculum offers a broad range of options and tracks. Students either elect or are placed in these options or tracks based on diagnostic counseling, academic performance, and consultation with parents and students. Each state sets curricular policy that applies to schools within its jurisdiction, but local and individual variations occur according to the degrees of freedom allowed by the basic policy.