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California’s Hundreds of Thousands of School Curricula

California’s Hundreds of Thousands of School Curricula

A teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary School reads students a book about earthquakes in San Francisco on Oct. 17, 2019. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Lance Christensen

Lance Christensen

10/16/2023

Updated: 10/18/2023

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Commentary
“How many different kinds of curricula are there in the state’s public school system?” This is a regular question concerned Californians ask when discussing education policy, especially with how politicized our K–12 classrooms are these days. The answer, however, is not what many think it is.
Most might respond that there is one, massive curriculum requirement with various requirements for every subject. Others might think that there are several options for the state’s 1,000 school boards to adopt. In reality, there are over 300,000 kinds of curricula, if not more.
Why?
Every teacher in the state may have a directive on what to teach that follows some basic curriculum guidelines—but in reality, they teach what they want. In essence, their class has its own curriculum, for good or for bad.
The state Legislature is responsible for producing a standard on which curriculum can be developed. While the Legislature establishes the standard on mainstay academic subjects like math, history, science and language training, it is ultimately up to the individual school boards to adopt a specific curriculum for their district, and to develop or acquire complementary material, texts, and professional training for instructional purposes.
Some state standards have been around for decades and are particular to a certain discipline. Others are broader and apply across different categories and may be regularly updated.
When the state adopts a standard, school districts are accountable for implementing it as soon as they reasonably can. If a new standard has minor changes, boards are capable of quickly updating their curricula with minimal effort and cost. Widespread changes could take some time to reconstruct their curriculum and find or develop adequate resources. This also comes at an expense that has to be balanced with the resources available to the district.
To alleviate these pressures, after the Legislature makes a change in the standard, the constitution tasks the State Board of Education (SBOE) in Article IX, Section 7.5 with “adopt[ing] textbooks for use in grades one through eight throughout the State, to be furnished without cost as provided by statute.” Though school districts may adopt such textbooks, there is no actual requirement for the districts to accept those particular textbooks as part of their curriculum.
This also means that high schools may exercise a little more discretion than their elementary and middle school counterparts, even as the SBOE engages in a formal process to develop a framework to assist districts in developing curriculum for all subjects and grades.
Teachers greet students on the first day of classes at Yorba Middle School in Orange, Calif., on Aug. 16, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Teachers greet students on the first day of classes at Yorba Middle School in Orange, Calif., on Aug. 16, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

The SBOE assembles a team of academic experts and teachers to put meat on the bones of the standards and build out a structure from the concepts in the standard that textbook companies will develop into materials appealing to most districts, inside and outside of California.
Parents are supposed to contribute to and review the development of curriculum. However, parents are often invited to participate late in the process, usually after most of the important decisions have been made. Ignoring or muting parental input creates confusion, resentment, and discord. This was especially obvious during the development of the FAIR (Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful) Education Act, comprehensive sexual education, ethnic studies, and the state’s math framework. By the time most parents—and teachers—found out what was going to be taught, they had little influence on the final decisions.
Textbook publishers are heavily involved in this multi-billion-dollar industry. They have institutional expertise in-house and the technological resources to quickly mass-produce textbooks and materials at economic scale. They also are sensitive to political and cultural signals among the states that they serve. If a state with a large population of students, like California, changes the standards enough, they have incentives to not only include controversial changes across their platforms, but to also dilute regional and community values, deferring to popular sentiments.
Most school district trustees have no idea that they have the authority to make decisions on graduation requirements and curricula. This ignorance means that many of them act as rubber stamps to textbooks that drive a popular narrative that may be counter to their local educational goals. Add in teachers with an agenda, radical or not, and it becomes very difficult for anyone, let alone a principal, superintendent or board trustee, to have any significant oversight over the actual curriculum being taught in thousands of classrooms across California.
Yes, parents should stay active at their board meetings when any curriculum is up for development or review. This can be accomplished by reading the agendas and participating in the curriculum oversight committees. But before it gets to that level, parents and other concerned community members should be developing relationships with teachers who will have the final say in what is transferred from their teacher’s manual to our children’s minds and hearts.
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Lance Christensen

Lance Christensen

Author

Lance Christensen is the vice president of education policy and government affairs at the California Policy Center and former candidate for state superintendent of public instruction.

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