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International Curriculum - Authority and Function, Curriculum and Globalization, Curriculum and Learning

intended educational countries curricula

The field of curriculum studies is cluttered by an array of dissimilar definitions of the term curriculum. In empirical studies, definitions of curriculum run the gamut from those that would have the term signify everything that takes place in a classroom to others that restrict its meaning to only the topics that are defined as instructional requirements in the official policy of an educational system. There are also those that limit the definition of curriculum to only those topics actually taught by teachers.

In 1979, during the development of the Second International Mathematics Study (SIMS) conducted under the auspices of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), Curtis C. McKnight proposed a model that subdivides the curriculum into three components: the intended, the implemented, and the attained (see Figure 1). The intended curriculum is understood to be what an official educational agency (most often a ministry, secretariat, or other national or subnational agency responsible for guiding and articulating the educational intent of a system) expects to be taught or holds as learning goals in its educational system. The intended curriculum is thus distinguishable from both the implemented curriculum–the instructional implementation of the intended curriculum–which is therefore embodied in classroom instruction, and the attained curriculum. The attained curriculum is understood to be the skills, knowledge, and dispositions that students effectively acquire as a result of their schooling. This model subdivides the curriculum for purposes of analysis, and the different levels are not considered wholly independent. This discussion makes use of this model, focusing primarily on the intended curriculum.

The intended curriculum acquired special prominence in educational policy in the latter half of the twentieth century. Many of the world's educational systems experienced a shift of focus in education policies during that period. Whereas the stress had traditionally fallen on improving material investments and guaranteeing universal access to public education, the 1980s and 1990s brought a stronger emphasis on the conceptual understandings, procedural knowledge, and other academic objectives to be met by all students in primary and secondary education–and thus a renewed interest in the intended curriculum as a critical policy instrument. The movement toward the development of educational standards in many educational systems reflects this emphasis on the quality of the content of the intended curriculum, as policymakers and educational leaders have favored the development of official curricula and a variety of implementation tools in order to ensure the delivery and attainment of socially significant disciplinary content. Most new curricula stipulate the acquisition of higher-order knowledge by all students, and such prescription tends to be informed by the type and amount of knowledge that is perceived to be critical for students to function effectively in society and in the economy.

A considerable body of work has been contributed to support the use of educational policy programs focused on the quality of the content of schooling in what has been termed content-driven systemic reform. It is stated that ambitious curriculum intentions must be formulated and subsequently appropriate mechanisms must be designed to implement these curricula so that students have the opportunity to attain high levels of achievement. Content-driven reform holds that a core specification of curriculum goals provides the basis for setting up a policy structure designed to enhance the achievement of pupils. Thus, the intended curriculum is intended to directly influence teacher training and certification, school course offerings, instructional resources, and systems of accountability.

Curriculum reform policy, as espoused in these reform theories, assigns to standards documents, curriculum guides, frameworks, programs of study, and the like a primary role in defining potential educational experiences. They are intended to help shape goals and expectations for learning. These visions are anticipated to guide the experiences of students in classrooms.

Certainly high expectations concerning the role of policies regarding curriculum intentions have been held in many countries. In a survey of thirty-eight nations conducted as a part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) the majority reported a number of reforms and managed changes in the content, pedagogy, and technology prescribed in national curriculum policy for school mathematics and science.

Authority and Function

At the time TIMSS curriculum data were collected (1990–1992), curriculum guides published by national or subnational governmental bodies existed in all TIMSS countries with the exception of Iran. The guides all carried some degree of official status, although status and authority varied among countries and occasionally within a country in the case of subnational or regional guides. The significance of these documents varied substantially by country. Curriculum guides in Australia, for example, had titles such as "Course Advice," whereas in Japan they were known as "National Courses of Study" and in Norway as "Curriculum Guidelines." These diverse titles suggest different statuses and functions. Some guides specified the courses of study for which teachers were responsible. Others specified how teachers might pursue their goals and what types of instructional methods and assessment strategies might be appropriate. Still others left most implementation details to teachers and attempted to achieve their purpose solely by stating shared objectives.

These documents that set forth the intended curriculum for entire educational systems varied in the type of strategic elements they used to present policy and shape its enactment. Specifically, some strategic elements were more prescriptive than others were; they stated policies, formal objectives for instruction, and so on. Other elements were more facilitative; they included such information as suggested strategies for teachers, examples, and assessment ideas. The TIMSS analysis of intended curricula, however, revealed that there was a high


level of cross-national agreement on the use of a prescriptive approach to setting forth curriculum policy. Most countries favored the prescription of specific policies, objectives, goals, and contents in their curriculum guides, over the use of material that facilitated implementation through the suggestion of appropriate pedagogy, the use of exemplars of particular curriculum elements, or recommendations regarding appropriate ways to assess whether or not goals have been reached. In fact, the countries that exhibited the highest levels of mean student achievement on the TIMSS mathematics and science tests commonly had intended curricula with the heaviest reliance on the prescription of an inventory of skills and contents to be mastered by pupils, grade by grade, throughout primary and secondary schooling. Policy instruments balancing facilitative and prescriptive approaches were rare. This finding, coupled with earlier secondary analysis of SIMS data–which found that countries with the mostly highly centralized forms of curriculum policy structures were the most effective ones in guaranteeing the enactment of a given intended curriculum–provided evidence contradictory to policies intended to promote decentralized decision-making regarding educational goals or standards.

Curriculum and Globalization

A particularly vexing problem for educational policymakers advocating content-driven reform has been the increasingly international character of discussions on the intended curriculum. Curriculum experts, professional associations, and policymakers became concerned with how standards defined in their own country compared to those in other countries, especially the countries they regarded as their most important economic competitors. Most traditional cross-national research provided little guidance here, as three associated theoretical-methodological perspectives largely guided it. A large amount of theoretical work was done in the 1970s, and this work largely concentrated on the structure of social and economic relationships that curricula were thought to promote or reproduce. This aspect of the intended curriculum was often termed the "hidden" curriculum, and many theoreticians in the Marxist tradition devoted their attention to describing its nature and its function in perpetuating the class struggle in the world's most developed capitalist economies. Other theorists used dependency theory, another variant of the Marxist tradition that arose mostly from work done in political economy and economic history in Latin America and Africa, to develop accounts of the imposition of dominant models of schooling on nations of the economic and social periphery. These authors affirmed that the propagation of curricula from the great economic metropoles to the periphery was a particular instance of cultural domination within the framework of an international division of labor. A third tradition, largely influenced by "world systems" theories, studied aspects of curriculum associated with the worldwide expansion of enrollments in schooling. Theorists within this tradition argued that since the 1950s the "Western" model of schooling has spread throughout the world as part of a pervasive phenomenon of the emergence of an increasingly integrated world economic and social system. This was considered to have resulted, for example, in virtually all of the world's educational systems according similar importance to mathematics and science education in their curricula.

But what of policymakers and curriculum designers who wished to find information to guide their efforts in promoting educational opportunities that would enhance national economic competitiveness? Increasingly, regardless of their specific economic circumstances, many countries developed a consensus in according much importance to prescribing rigorous curricula in academic disciplines, despite a paucity of strong empirical evidence at the time connecting achievement in these disciplines with economic benefits (subsequently some evidence was advanced in the early 1990s that the character of mathematics courses taken in secondary school affects mean individual income levels, and that increases in hours allocated to elementary instruction in the sciences is associated with increases in national standards of living). Despite the apparent international consensus on the value of teaching mathematics and the sciences, for example, there was clearly considerable cross-national variation in the specific topics that were taught as part of these disciplines and the specific sets of skills and dispositions that were promoted in regard to these topics.

Interest groups in education across the world, such as governments, the business community, professional associations of educators, and many others, began to be concerned with the idea of "world-class standards" and were preoccupied with formulating rigorous and meaningful intended curricula that compare favorably with that elusive standard. But what precisely are "world-class" standards? What expectations do, for example, high-achieving countries have regarding essential knowledge and skills that children must acquire in order to meet the goals held for them by the educational system? As the attention to the intended curriculum increased among educational leaders and policymakers, it thus occasioned an increased interest in the possible educational application of another instrument that–like the idea of "standards" themselves–arose from modern business management strategies: international benchmarking.

Benchmarking. Benchmarking originated in efforts of business firms to identify external points of reference for their business practices in order to achieve continuous improvement. As such, the selection of the "point of reference" is central to determining how benchmarking studies can be used. From the perspective of educational systems, this choice is in effect a selection of the school systems from which they would like to learn. As the concern regarding the "international competitiveness" of intended curricula and the interest in benchmarking has increased, consequently so has interest in cross-national studies of student achievement. These have become of critical importance to policymakers, which explains the high levels of participation in the original TIMSS in the 1990s–and in subsequent endeavors conducted, most notably by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (the Programme for International Student Assessment–PISA) and the IEA (through the continuation of TIMSS by way of the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study and PIRLS–Progress in International Reading Literacy Study).

The first published reports from the original TIMSS constituted important milestones in curriculum studies. In a pair of companion volumes the U.S. TIMSS research team used the first large-scale cross-national empirical study of the intended curriculum (termed the TIMSS Curriculum Analysis) to identify those curricular standards that are most common to TIMSS countries. These standards were then compared to standards in specific countries–beginning with the United States. Interest in cross-national benchmarking was acute given that on the one hand, a national policy objective was for U.S. schoolchildren to be "first in the world" in mathematics and science–and on the other hand, mean student performance on the TIMSS assessment at the close of the twentieth century proved the nation to be quite distant from that objective. Prior to the TIMSS curriculum analysis, no comprehensive effort to empirically measure and specify intended curricula using a large sample of countries and representative samples of curricular materials had ever been attempted.

These studies uncovered notable differences between the intended curricula of countries exhibiting high levels of mean student achievement in mathematics and science and that of countries with lower mean achievement levels. Focusing on the exhaustive characterization of the disciplinary content and expectations for student performance contained in standards documents and student textbooks, these studies resulted in findings with important implications for the development of curriculum policy.

These findings point to a variety of elements common among most high-achieving countries that are not shared by most low-achieving countries. They make up what appears to be necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for the realization of higher achievement for larger numbers of school-children.

A number of low-achieving countries in the TIMSS had curricula that emphasized the coverage of long lists of topics. Conversely, highest achieving countries intended the teaching and learning of a more focused set of basic contents, to be explored in depth and mastered. The unfocused curriculum of broad-ranging lists of topics to be covered is also typically a curriculum of very little coherence. TIMSS studies reveal that attempting to cover a large number of topics results in textbooks, and teaching methods, that are disjointed and episodic. That is, textbooks and teachers present items from the long lists of topics prescribed by these curricula one after the other, in an attempt to cover them all before the school year runs out with little or no effort invested in exploring the relationships between these topics or in fundamental unifying ideas or themes. Loss of these relationships between ideas appears to encourage students to regard these disciplines as no more than a series of disconnected notions that they are unable to conceive of as belonging to a disciplinary whole.

Learning goals. These benchmarking studies also reveal important differences in how school systems define learning goals. In a number of low-achieving countries–with the most relevant example being the United States–there is an extremely static definition of fundamental goals. That is, goals that are deemed fundamental (often termed "the basics") are considered to be fundamental throughout schooling, requiring repetition in many grades. Arithmetic, for example, is a set of contents and skills prominent in curricula throughout the years of compulsory schooling. Even in eighth grade, when most high-achieving TIMSS countries concentrate their curricular focus on algebra and geometry, arithmetic is a major part of schooling in the United States.

In high-achieving nations, when goals first enter the curriculum they receive concentrated attention with the expectation that they can be mastered and that students can be prepared to attain a new set of different priority goals in ensuing grades. Focused curricula are the motor of a dynamic definition of curricular objectives. In most of the highest achieving countries, each new grade sees a new set of curricular goals receiving concentrated attention to prepare for and build toward mastering more challenging goals yet to come.

The consequence of lack of focus and coherence, and the static approach to defining what is basic, is that these types of curricula are undemanding compared to those of other countries. Materials intended for students in these countries cover a large array of topics, most of which are first introduced in the elementary grades. This cursory treatment does not include much more than the learning of algorithms


and simple facts. Demanding standards appear to require more sophisticated content taught in depth, as students progress through the grades. Rigorous standards are a result of a dynamic process of focused and coherent transitions from more simple to increasingly more complex content and skills. Figure 2 presents an illustration of the contrast between the static curriculum of the United States–a country that showed mediocre mean student achievement in TIMSS–and the dynamic curriculum of a significantly higher achieving Japan.

Curriculum and Learning

The fundamental premise of educational reforms that focus on the intended curriculum is that the intended curriculum serves to support the creation of opportunities for students to learn. This is to say that the faith placed in standards–world-class or otherwise–is derived from the assumption that standards are associated with learning. This premise, until recently, had little empirical support. The original TIMSS study, however, by including comprehensive integrated data on all three levels of curriculum, provided an unprecedented opportunity to test this assumption in a number of ways. Results from these tests indicate clearly that the intended curriculum–oftentimes as mediated through textbooks–is significantly related to specific learning opportunities (that is, the pedagogical decisions of teachers) and consequently to the growth in knowledge and skills that students are able to demonstrate in achievement tests. It is also clear from this work that there are identifiable structural relationships among subareas in mathematics and science curricula that intensify their relationship with learning–such that learning one aspect of an academic subject is related not only to the specific opportunities that are provided to learn that aspect but also to opportunities to learn other aspects of the discipline that are structurally related. Further, there is evidence that the enactment of the intended curriculum–to be effective in promoting learning–is not simply a matter of covering the contents specified in the curriculum, nor even simply a matter of the amount of time devoted to teaching them. Clearly there are pedagogies that are more appropriate to achieve the levels of rigor and cognitive demand promoted by many of the world's most ambitious curricula.

Thus, there is evidence that the intended curriculum deserves the intense attention of policymakers that it has enjoyed over the past decades. It is a key instrument in assuring access to rich and meaningful educational experiences. New methods have been developed to characterize and benchmark curricular material. These have resulted in the specification of many of the key features of curricula that would promote high achievement. Much empirical work remains, however, particularly in the area of determining whether it is possible to reconcile these most recent findings with the movement toward decentralized systems of curriculum policy formulation and enactment. Future scholarship must focus on the cultural traditions, policy instruments, and other formal and informal processes that determine how power over the intended curriculum is exercised at various levels in different educational systems; how different educational stakeholders interact in these processes; and how decisions regarding curricular objectives are made–with an eye to gauging their influence on the quality of educational experiences that students are provided.


BENAVOT, AARON. 1992. "Curricular Content, Educational Expansion, and Economic Growth." Comparative Education Review 36:150–174.

KAMENS, DAVID H., and BENAVOT, AARON. 1991. "Elite Knowledge for the Masses: The Origins and Spread of Mathematics and Science Education in National Curricula." American Journal of Education 99:137–180.

McKNIGHT, CURTIS C. 1979. "Model for the Second International Mathematics Study." SIMS Bulletin 4:6–39.

SCHMIDT, WILLIAM H.; McKNIGHT, CURTIS C.; HOUANG, RICHARD T.; WANG, HSING CHI; WILEY, DAVID E.; COGAN, LELAND S.; and WOLFE, RICHARD G. 2001. Why Schools Matter: A Cross-National Comparison of Curriculum and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

SCHMIDT, WILLIAM H.; McKNIGHT, CURTIS C.; VALVERDE, GILBERT A.; HOUANG, RICHARD T.; and WILEY, DAVID A. 1997. Many Visions, Many Aims, Vol. 1: A Cross-National Investigation of Curricular Intentions in School Mathematics. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer.

STEVENSON, DAVID LEE, and BAKER, DAVID P. 1991. "State Control of the Curriculum and Classroom Instruction." Sociology of Education 64:1–10.

VALVERDE, GILBERT A. 2000. "Strategic Themes in Curriculum Policy Documents: An Exploration of TIMSS Curriculum Analysis Data." International Journal of Educational Policy Research and Practice 1:133–152.

VALVERDE, GILBERT A., and SCHMIDT, WILLIAM H. 2000. "Greater Expectations: Learning from Other Nations in the Quest for World-Class Standards in U.S. School Mathematics and Science." Journal of Curriculum Studies 32:651–687.


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