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  • Destiny Yarbro

Has curriculum studies progressed, stopped or regressed in the United States?

It is fascinating to consider the history of education in the United States and how it has shaped curriculum studies. I am new to curriculum discussions, but I see clear evidence of change in how curricula has been implemented in schools just as Pinar (1978) made clear: "If this process of transformation continues at its present rate, the field of curriculum studies will be profoundly different in 20 years time than it has been during the first 50 years of its existence" (p.205).

How far has curriculum studies come?

In the 17th and 18th centuries, schooling was limited either to small local schools with curricula that emphasized meeting “societal needs” (Wright, 2019), religious education centers, or the very few institutions financially sponsored in more affluent areas such as Boston Latin School established in 1635 (BLS, n.d.). By the end of the 19th century, state-sponsored schools were established in every state with The Department of Education being established in 1867. With the shift to the industrial era, school curricula followed suit and became more standardized and homogenized; what some have correctly or incorrectly called “factory model” schools (Watters, 2015). It was not until the mid-20th century, however, that education largely federalized, largely due to the tensions of the Cold War and later in response to the needs of “racial minorities, women, people with disabilities and non-English speaking students” (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). By the 21st century, public education has been largely dictated at the federal level as evidenced by policies such as The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in 1974, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Act) in 1975, “No Child Left Behind” in 2001, and The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) in 2014 (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.).

While the discussion of curriculum theory has morphed through the years, it is interesting to see how society seems to have come full circle in returning to a more Colonial Era single school room approach in the form of charter and private schools to counter the extremely homogenizing and assessment-centric approach public schools are taking.

Has curriculum studies progressed, stopped or regressed?

As schooling in the United States becomes more and more federalized, public schools are in greater danger of being forced to adopt homogenizing curricula. The policies listed above such as “No Child Left Behind,” see schooling under one big canopy instead of allowing states the flexibility to best meet the needs of local students. Perhaps due to this shift, alternative schools from charter schools to private schools with differing or specialized curricula are becoming more and more common. From 2000 to 2017, the number of charter schools in the United States grew from 2,000 to 7,200 schools. The number of students attending charter schools grew from 0.4 million to 3.1 million during this same period with some states (Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, Utah, Colorado, Delaware, and the District of Columbia) having more than 10% of their student population attending charter schools (National Center for Educational Statistics, n.d.).

With public schools expected to meet generalized and rigorously tested standards, labeled as “good schools” or “bad schools” with no flexibility allocated for location, background, etc. it is easy to see the intolerance between curricula Pinar (1978) hinted at. Specifically, when I consider his concern about “intolerance among curricularists,” I see an entrenched approach in federal-level conversations even today (p. 212). However, again, this intolerance is weakened by the charter, private, and other schooling options so readily available (and even financially supported in some states). When we consider how curriculum can either “make or break” students, teachers, or other stakeholders, it is key to recognize how vital diverse curricula is to a diverse society.

While charter schools may be a controversial topic in many states, from a curriculum studies perspective it provides a laboratory to study diverse curricula and their impact on students; petri dishes where curricula can be experimented on around the country. The schools utilizing a broad expanse of curricula has provided an opportunity for stimulating conversations around curriculum theory. For this reason, I believe curriculum studies have progressed significantly in the last twenty years.


When I consider how curricula have been shaped by the history of education in the United States, I do not see a stagnant timeline in curriculum studies. With the increasingly rigid standards held by public schools and the blitzscaling number of charter and private schools, I believe the progression of curriculum studies is just beginning.

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