Take a moment and consider who, specifically, sets education curriculum policy for K-12 public education. Once a year we elect individuals to a local school board so maybe that board has the final say. Local school boards do have a critical role to play in curriculum decision making. Yet daily reality tells us that role has clear limits. School boards constantly say they are doing what the state mandates.
Each school district has a Superintendent whose job entails oversight of the daily operations of a school district and its financial resources. This is not the place where larger issues of educational policy are set.
There is a County Superintendent who it turns out is not a county employee at all, but rather an employee of the state Department of Education.
If we look to Trenton we see a state-wide school board. The board is comprised entirely of members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. No elections interfere here. The board, we are told, advises on educational policies proposed by the Commissioner of Education. This entity also adopts (does not create) the rules necessary to implement state education law.
So we next look to the Commissioner of Education who, according to the state website, is “the chief executive school officer of New Jersey and supervises all public schools.” Nowhere in the enumeration of the broad powers of the Commissioner do we find anything about setting curriculum policy.
It appears that major decisions on curriculum structure come from the state legislature. One example is the bill passed in Trenton in 2019 that requires schools to offer instruction that accurately represents the “political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” Like it or hate it that is now state law. School districts must find ways to implement it.
Of course we cannot forget that an even bigger entity has a say in education policy. The Federal government has increased its role in K-12 education policy with laws like No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act. Respectively these laws came out of a Republican and then a Democratic administration, so the idea that the federal government should play an increasingly prevalent role in education policy doesn’t appear to be limited to one party.
Flowing from these federal laws are sets of requirements that mandate testing as proof of improvements in resolving achievement gaps. The continuously shifting test requirements, with additions from state mandates, have their impacts on curriculum development. “Teach to the test” has been a criticism of standardized testing from the start.
When a group of parents turned out for a recent school board meeting in Lower Township many expressed concern with how the new state law on LGBTQ+ inclusiveness would be implemented in the curriculum for their children. Yet in this maze of authorities over education policy one is left to wonder what impact parents can have on this issue and other issues of educational policy.
The group that is conspicuously absent from the list of “influencers” in educational policy is the parents. That may be because they have allowed their role to atrophy.
Yes, the maze of authorities in setting education policy is convoluted and can leave many parents feeling there is no clear path for active participation. But that path will open only if parents blaze a trail. Most school board elections have little or no competition for board seats. Parents and the public in general seldom attend board meetings. The media, including the Herald, pay little attention to school board deliberations except to report the latest increase in the school district tax rate.
Education is a crucial aspect of community development. Parents need to ensure that local boards explain what is happening in all aspects of educational policy, including curriculum development. We need to spend the time to evaluate and express our views at meetings. We need to do the same with legislators at state and federal levels.
“Control” over educational policy and over what is taught is not located in any one body. Local school boards cannot act independently of state guidance. State education agencies are always looking to see what will come next in terms of federal influence on state developed policy. The best we can do as citizens is to get involved, make our views known and work to streamline the convoluted structures that govern educational and curricular policies.
Change in how policy is set will not happen overnight, but we can guarantee that no change will happen if we do not insert ourselves into the process and work for what we believe is in the best interests of our children. The process for educational policy setting needs to change. It needs to provide natural access points for public involvement, especially by parents. That will only happen if we make it happen.
From the Bible: Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in forced labor. Proverbs 12:24