Federal Influence Over Curriculum Exhibits Growth

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo & David J. Hoff — February 05, 2003 13 min read
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A provision buried deep within federal education legislation is supposed to limit Washington’s power over the classroom.

Section 1905 of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 says that federal officials or employees may not “mandate, direct, or control a state, local educational agency, or school’s specific instructional content, academic achievement standards and assessments, curriculum, or program of instruction.”

But the specificity of other sections of the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the way some provisions are being implemented, are raising concerns that the federal government is encroaching ever more on decisions historically made by local communities.

So far, the influence is most readily seen in reading. But education experts and observers point to those parts of the law that require testing in math, science, and language arts, and that prescribe methods and materials with documented effectiveness, as more evidence that the influence is likely to spread across the curriculum.

“There is more federal muscle around curriculum and other aspects of school than heretofore has been thrown around,” said Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University and a noted education historian. “They’ve crossed the line in terms of that prohibition, and they’ll continue to do that.”

Haggling for Approval

New York City may prove to be a prominent test of local choice vs. federal imperative. After announcing a standardized curriculum last month that will require most of the city’s 1,200 schools to use Month by Month Phonics as one component of its reading curriculum, a key adviser to President Bush expressed his opinion that the commercial reading program might run afoul of Reading First, the law’s reading initiative.

G. Reid Lyon

G. Reid Lyon, the director of the child-development and -behavior branch of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, who has been instrumental in crafting the federal reading policy, told The New YorkTimes that Month by Month lacks adequate evidence of helping disadvantaged students reach proficiency in reading.

“There are no published data that we could find that indicated how effective this ‘add on’ approach was with well-defined groups of kids,” Mr. Lyon added in an e-mail to Education Week.

City school officials and the program’s authors disagree. They expect their approach will pass muster when they apply for a share of the more than $68 million the state could receive annually from Reading First. They cite research that supports the phonics strategy, which uses spelling and rhyming activities, as well as analogy, to teach letter sounds and other explicit skills.

More than a year after launching Reading First, about half the states have yet to receive their share of the money.

The holdup isn’t for lack of trying. Of the 45 states that have submitted applications, many spent months revising their proposals before they satisfied federal reviewers. Officials in some 20 states and U.S. territories still angling for approval are struggling to meet requirements without compromising their own visions of school improvement.

In the end, some observers say, they may have to adhere closely to the legislation’s definition of effective reading instruction or give up their shot at millions of federal dollars.

Federal officials say the stringent review process—which includes 25 criteria for evaluating states’ standards for instruction—will ensure that money is spent only on programs that have been proven effective. But some critics contend that the program is fueled by ideology, one that favors a specific, skills-based approach to teaching reading.

“Right now, we have one voice and one perspective about reading,” said Deborah A. Dillon, a professor of curriculum and development at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and the president of the National Reading Conference, an organization devoted to research in the field. “The stakes are high, and if you don’t follow [that perspective], ... that means you won’t get funding.”

Following the guidelines, however, is more complex than simply choosing a program that claims to cover phonics and other essential components. While all reading programs do not have to take precisely the same approach, lessons must be explicit and systematic, and teach skills in a sequence.

A Turn at Math

Many educators expect the federal government to follow a similar pattern with mathematics, beginning this week when the Bush administration is scheduled to kick off a new initiative. The one-day gathering will highlight the need for new research on effective math teaching and seek to define ways to improve teachers’ knowledge of the subject.

A Bush administration official noted last fall that the project was the logical next step to take after establishing the $5 billion Reading First program. But the math project still needed definition because the research on effective practices wasn’t as conclusive in that subject as in reading, according to the official. (“Bush to Push for Math and Science Upgrade,” Nov. 20, 2002.)

The administration has not indicated that it will address curriculum issues in its math undertaking, but many math educators suggest that the current reading efforts began with a similar review of research.

What’s more, they suggest that a $400,000 U.S. Department of Education grant to researchers who back basic-skills math curricula signals that the administration may eventually set its eye on the math curriculum in the same way it has with reading.

Federal officials are also making their preferences known in other subjects. A $100 million grant program for improving the teaching of history specifically prohibits use of the money for social studies.

Moreover, observers expect that the federal mandate that states test students annually in reading and math in grades 3-8, beginning in the 2005-06 school year, could further undermine other subject areas that are not tested.

“The perceptions are great that teachers and schools as a collective will be somewhat forced to orient instruction toward the areas that are being tested,” said Gene R. Carter, the executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, located in Alexandria, Va. “Additionally, many of them are inclined to feel pressured to stray away somewhat from the focus on deeper learning across the curriculum and focus on the more superficial dimensions.”

Such concerns are backed by research suggesting that teachers adjust the balance of their instruction in favor of subjects that are tested, particularly if educators are held accountable for results.

‘Uncle Sam Knows Best’

The No Child Left Behind Act—the bipartisan retooling of the ESEA that President Bush signed into law just over a year ago—doesn’t mark the first time that federal lawmakers have exceeded their authority in influencing content and pedagogy, according to Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. It is the specificity of the current legislation, he said, that is without precedent.

“That prohibition has been chipped away at by the National Science Foundation initiatives and the Education Department’s listing of approved math programs,” Mr. Finn said. “No Child Left Behind came out with quite a lot of emphasis on prescription of inputs and means of achieving results. Congress seems to be persuaded that Uncle Sam knows best.”

For more than 40 years, in fact, the federal government has been actively involved in curriculum matters, but it has had limited say over telling states and districts what to teach and how to teach it.

Federal interest in curriculum dates back at least to 1957, when the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I triggered American fears that the United States had fallen behind its foe, especially in science and technology.

The NSF responded with a flurry of grants to improve mathematics and science curricula. Although the independent federal agency paid $500 million for curriculum development and teacher professional development over the next 20 years, few of its materials made a huge dent in what was taught in schools. (“The Race to Space Rocketed NSF Into Classrooms,” May 19, 1999.)

The emphasis of the effort was on research and development to create innovative programs, said Peter B. Dow, who led the effort to write a popular, but controversial, anthropology curriculum.

More recently, the nationwide push for academic standards and the expansion of federal testing in the 1990s led to charges that schools would soon be teaching a national curriculum.

During the Clinton administration, federal estimates put curriculum-related spending in excess of $100 million annually. And such initiatives came not just from the Education Department. The departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, were among the agencies contributing to the curriculum materials coming out of Washington. (“Curriculum Initiatives Often Seen Occupying Murky Federal Waters,” June 25, 1997.)

Passage of the original Elementary and Secondary Act in 1965 expanded the federal role in public schools. At the same time, the law explicitly barred the federal government from insinuating itself into curriculum matters.

Lawmakers originally inserted the prohibition to allay the concerns of those who feared that it would give the federal government power over decisions traditionally given to local school officials, according to Jack Jennings, an aide to House Democrats from 1967 through 1994 who is now the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank.

While the provision in the ESEA prohibits all federal agencies from dictating curricula, the 1979 law elevating the U.S. Office of Education to Cabinet-level status expressly barred the new department from prescribing coursework.

The language prohibiting federal control over content and pedagogy in the current ESEA is only slightly changed from the 1965 version. The new law makes room for academic standards and testing programs.

But Mr. Jennings said the No Child Left Behind Act and previous versions of the ESEA have gradually given the Education Department more oversight of state and local policies, although the ban on federal interference over curriculum has not, in his view, been breached.

The current version of the law, however, goes further than ever before in letting the federal government meddle in local curricular decisions, according to Mr. Jennings and other observers.

Big Brother?

Some scholars go so far as to say there is something sinister in the administration’s handiwork. It is an all-out federal intrusion into local control, charges Richard L. Allington, a professor of education at the University of Florida.

In his latest book, Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence, Mr. Allington argues that policymakers have distorted what is known about effective instruction to suit their own beliefs about how best to teach children.

“They can play all the semantic games they want, but state education officials are being coerced to buy particular tests and particular reading programs,” he said. “If you aren’t doing phonics their way, you aren’t going to get funded.”

Reading First requires that state and local grant recipients adhere to the findings of the National Reading Panel, a congressionally convened body that reviewed thousands of research studies in the field. The panel’s 2000 report identified the essential components of reading instruction: phonemic awareness (the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds that make up words), phonics (a technique to help youngsters make those associations), fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension.

But the report itself has drawn criticism from researchers, who contend that its exclusive focus on experimental research results is an inadequate study of what works in the classroom. How the panel’s findings have been translated into state and federal policies has led to complaints that lawmakers have, in effect, endorsed a handful of commercial products to meet the reading panel’s recommendations.

“You can see all over the country there are a few programs perceived to be the favorites because they’re positioned as the most consistent with scientifically based reading-research criteria, whether that’s true or not,” said P. David Pearson, the dean of education at the University of California, Berkeley.

Federal officials maintain that they do not endorse any particular commercial reading program. In an interview shortly after she resigned as the Education Department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education last month, Susan B. Neuman said the law allows flexibility to states and districts.

“It is not [the department’s] business to get into curriculum decisions,” said Ms. Neuman, who is now working on a research project at the Center on Health and Education at Georgetown University. Moreover, she said, despite Mr. Lyon’s assessment, the law does not require that individual reading programs, such as the one adopted in New York City, have their own research.

Textbooks: New Territory

Publishers have taken note of the legislation and moved quickly to incorporate the new federal approach into reading textbooks, the de facto curriculum in many places. States, meanwhile, are basing their standards for instructional materials on the tenets of Reading First, allowing the guidelines to trickle down into the classroom.

“What I’m hearing is: ‘Hey, if research says this stuff is good, we want it,’” said Maureen DiMarco, the vice president of educational and governmental affairs for the Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Co., and a former secretary of education in California.

In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush established the Florida Center for Reading Research to evaluate materials and publish the names of “research based” programs that help children learn to read. The list describes how programs align with the criteria used to evaluate Reading First grants, as well as the state’s own reading initiative.

A favorable review from the center is important for companies trying to market reading materials in Florida and elsewhere. Other states, in fact, have indicated in their Reading First applications that they will use the Florida list to recommend reading programs to local grant recipients.

Some local officials welcome the strictures as a way of unifying curriculum and professional development throughout a particular school and within districts. Limiting choice, some say, also allows school administrators to develop a better understanding of how reading is taught and to monitor how well a program is working.

“I believe that Reading First will limit choices, but I favor such limitations,” commented Benjamin L. McGee, the superintendent of the Youngstown City school district in Ohio. The 12,000- student district could receive nearly $500,000 from Reading First. “Districts need to identify a systemic flagship literacy program that all [administrators] with a direct connect to literacy must fully understand.”

Mr. Finn of the Fordham Foundation agrees.

“Reading is one area in the curriculum where I’m least troubled by a narrowing of choice ... [because] there is a pretty well-established scientific basis for what works,” he said.

In the end, he added, states and districts can decide whether the money is worth relinquishing some local control.

“A state or district that really cares quite a lot about the feds keeping their hands off can thumb its nose at just about everything in [the law] if they are willing to forgo the money,” he said.


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