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Elementary Education

Current Trends

Reform of elementary education in the United States, which began in the latter part of the twentieth century and intensified after the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, has been aimed at improving the academic performance of all children, with accountability for student achievement being placed on the schools, districts, and states. The federal government is also playing a larger role in elementary education through the funding provided to states under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. There is concern that the U.S. educational system is not enabling its students to perform as well academically as students in other nations, although some critics disagree with this assessment. Though the elementary curriculum is constantly in a state of reform and refinement, some common threads exist.

Goals and Purposes of Elementary Education

Democratization of education is the evolution of education away from models intended to support ideological, social, or industrial systems toward open, universal public education. Great Britain demonstrates the evolution of open, democratic systems of European education since the Renaissance. Japan in Asia has redesigned its public education system since World War II to reflect those same open democratic values. Chile in South America is currently undergoing an aggressive democratization of public education. The similarities of the reforms in these nations parallels similar reforms underway in the United States.

United States. Throughout the history of the United States, Americans have expressed a desire for an educated citizenry. Efforts to establish or reform education in this country include the Old Deluder Satan Act, enacted in Massachusetts in 1647, Thomas Jefferson's 1779 Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, The Common School Movement of the 1800s, the Education for All American Youth initiative of 1944, and George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The existence of a cumulative and consecutive system of universal public education for young children is a part of the national heritage of the United States, and it is expected that elementary education will play a major role in preparing future citizens to live in a modern, industrialized, global society.

Control over elementary education is reserved to the states; however, in 1979 the U.S. Department of Education was created by President Jimmy Carter to coordinate, manage, and account for federal support of educational programs. National and local attention continues to be directed at elementary education in the twenty-first century, as leaders, teachers, and parents seek ways to make the first step in the American education system educative, meaningful, and positive.

While current educational reforms reflect a myriad of societal changes, elementary education at the beginning of the new millennium still resembles the vernacular schools of colonial America. The essential skills of reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic occupy center stage, and the "common school" moral themes of honesty, hard work, diligence, and application prevail.

Europe. Elementary education in the United States has roots in European models of education, and, in fact, elementary education systems around the world share many common characteristics. Efforts to create public elementary school systems in Europe (mostly in the nineteenth century) were initiated by leaders in the national or central governments. Dominant political, social, and economic classes used elementary schools to encourage conformity with the ideas and values that perpetuated the status quo and provided little opportunity for upward socioeconomic mobility. In the twentieth century the requirement for a more educated workforce has enhanced the place of elementary education within the continuum of formerly hierarchical European education systems.

The compulsory age for children to begin elementary school is five or six and elementary education may last for six years. Typical subjects include reading, writing, arithmetic, art, geography, history, physical education, fine arts, and foreign languages. In some countries, noncompulsory religion classes may be offered. Since the fall of Communism, most eastern European elementary school systems follow the western European education model. Elementary schools in Europe experience many of the same issues related to student achievement, diversity, poverty, and violence that face their U.S. counterparts, and standardized testing has become increasingly important in many countries, such as Great Britain.

Asia (Japan). Elementary education in Japan is built on a model of communities of people working together to become healthy in mind, body, and spirit. Students are educated to respect the value of individuals, and to love truth and justice. Elementary education begins at age six in Japan and ends at age eleven or twelve. The structure of Japan's 6-3-3-4 school system was established by the School Education Law of 1947. The educational reforms resulting from this law, carried out under the direction of the American Occupation, decentralized control of education, authorized autonomous private schools, and encouraged the development of community education. The authority to establish schools is limited to the Ministry of Education, local governments, and private organizations that fulfill the requirements of becoming a school corporation. Municipalities are responsible for establishing elementary schools. Parents, especially mothers, take an active role in their children's education and reinforce the school curriculum through teaching their children at home or enrolling them in Jukus, which are privately run "cram" schools.

South America (Chile). Children in Chile attend primary (elementary) school for eight years. They study a curriculum and use textbooks approved by the government's Ministry of Education, though following the 1980 educational reforms the oversight of elementary education in Chile was transferred to municipal governments. The typical primary school curriculum includes reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, music, physical education, and art. A national program of school breakfasts and lunches recognizes the importance of nutrition in the education of children. Chilean elementary education is faced with inequities in access to education among the rich and poor and a high dropout rate among the nation's poorest children. The National Council for School Aid and Grants is charged with making scholarships available to all children. Since 1988, the national government of Chile has provided support for private schools, and this has caused a downturn in public primary school enrollments.

The Importance of Elementary Education

In America, children normally enroll in elementary schools at age five or six and exit elementary school at age eleven or twelve. In 2002 approximately 25 million children attended elementary schools in the United States. Readiness for elementary school is viewed as highly important. Through Head Start programs, the government provides educational opportunities for children from disadvantaged circumstances in order for them to be prepared for elementary school. Parents of the children who may not qualify for government-supported programs often enroll their children in privately run preschools in hopes of setting their children on a successful path to elementary school. Although school attendance is not mandatory in most states until first grade, national surveys of parents of early elementary pupils show that 98 percent of primary school children attend kindergarten before entering first grade.

The rapid changes in cognitive, social, and moral growth of an elementary school student makes the elementary classroom an ideal setting for shaping individual attitudes and behaviors. The elementary classroom may provide the best opportunity to set in place moral and ethical characteristics and understandings that have the potential to improve society. Children in the elementary schools are still malleable, and this emphasis on character education is seen as a particularly urgent matter in American classrooms. In fact, the socialization of children in America is no longer viewed as the sole responsibility of their parents.

The view of using the elementary classroom as a stage for molding future citizens of a democratic society is not new, but it does give rise to controversy regarding programs and methods, as parents may disagree with specific curriculum being promoted by local, state, or national agencies. For example, sex education at the elementary school level has been the object of much debate among religious and special interest groups. One result of the disagreements over such controversial curricula may be the large number of children home schooled in 1999–2001 (estimated to be more than 1.3 million). Even so, support may still be offered to home-schooled students through curriculum, books, and materials provided by local schools or districts, as well as access to extracurricular activities and special classes in areas such as technology.

The Curriculum of the Elementary School

Unlike many other nations, the United States does not have a national curriculum. As mentioned previously, control of the schools is reserved to the states, which in turn give local school districts some control over what is taught and how it is taught. Curriculum may be looked at as a negotiated set of beliefs about what students should know or be able to do. A curriculum framework includes these beliefs, and then specifies by what point students should have mastered specific skills and performances. This is known as the scope and sequence of curriculum. Until recently, states and local districts had significant latitude in the development of elementary curriculum. The advent of the standards movement, however, has mitigated this freedom–for the better according to some, and for the worse according to others.

Do standards-based curriculum frameworks and standardized tests prepare children for the twenty-first century workplace where problem solving, creativity, and teamwork are necessary tools? Some people in the business world do not think so. Others argue that it is necessary to insure that all children master at least the basic essentials of reading, mathematics and writing in order to be able to perform at higher levels of performance and thinking. At any rate, the standards movement has had a definite impact on the curriculum of the elementary school. In the early twenty-first century, forty-nine states have curriculum standards. Recent studies indicate that 87 percent of U.S. teachers believe the standards movement is a step in the right direction, and that the curriculum is more demanding and teacher expectations of students are higher as a result of standards. Many teachers also express frustration that they are not provided with the resources necessary to align the standards to the curriculum.

Prior to the standards movement, curriculum development was impacted by the notion of cultural literacy advocated by E. D. Hirsch. Hirsch began a national debate with the 1987 publication of what he considered essential common knowledge that all school children need to possess in order to be literate members of their society. His argument was that students could not be successful at understanding the world around them without a grounding in geography, history, literature, politics, and democratic principles. Hirsch then went on to develop a grade-by-grade outline of the knowledge students should master at each grade level. His book stimulated much national debate, especially with regard to whose cultural knowledge should be included in the curriculum–Western civilization only, or a more inclusive body of knowledge. His theories have had a definite impact on the elementary curriculum in many districts and states.

The current elementary school curriculum is influenced by societal needs and political influence. President George H. W. Bush endorsed the America 2000 goals for American schooling, several of which have had a particular influence on the elementary curriculum. Basically, the goals stipulated that students would demonstrate mastery in five areas: English, mathematics, science, history and geography. President Clinton's Goals 2000 program continued in the same vein. Societal concerns resulted in federal attention to the national curriculum, which has resulted in state accountability standards.

The state standards and curriculum are also influenced by the professional societies and their development of standards and benchmarks in their subject areas. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), for example, developed an extensive set of standards that are centered on the need to develop problem-solving skills in addition to basic skills in math. The NCTM stresses conceptual knowledge as a framework for all mathematics learning and provides standards and expectations for each grade level. Other societies have provided similar frameworks that are used by the states in the development of standards.

Elementary curriculum is dynamic, changing as the needs and conditions of society evolve and change. While it cannot be said that there will ever be consensus on the content of the curriculum, the negotiated curriculum serves as a framework for the national agenda for education.

Issues, Trends, and Controversies

The United States has engaged in a national debate over the purposes of schooling since the inception of the public school system. Such debate has resulted in numerous reforms and change efforts over the years. Some reforms have made lasting changes in elementary schooling, while others have gone away as quickly as they arrived. There are a number of burning issues that currently engage the public in discourse and negotiation.

Poor student performance is seen as a failure of the education system and numerous state and national mandates have been put in place to assure equal access to a quality education for all children. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education's A Nation at Risk outlined the decline of American education. This report heralded a revival of academic-driven curricula and resulted in an emphasis on standardized testing and accountability. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires each state to implement a system of accountability that will identify low-performing schools. It also requires that all students in grades three through eight must be assessed annually in at least reading and mathematics. Parents may also, under certain circumstances, receive governmental support to secure tutoring for children who attend low-performing schools. Such legislation gives rise to controversies surrounding charter schools and school vouchers.

Immigration in the United States has been an issue in elementary education since the advent of public schooling. Immigration patterns shifted dramatically at the beginning of the twentieth century, and continue to shift as children from Southeast Asia, Central America, and eastern European countries enroll in elementary schools. In 2000, 18 percent of the American populace spoke a language other than English at home. In 1990, 15 percent of the total child population was African American, 12 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, and 1 percent Native American. It is projected that, by 2010, Hispanic children will surpass African-American children as the largest child minority. In addition, by 2020, more than one in five American children are expected to be of Hispanic descent. Immigrant children have special needs that must be addressed by the public elementary school. The debate over what form of English education children of immigrants should take has attracted much attention. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, programs for English learners in elementary schools are striving to focus on a holistic approach to educating transcultural/transnational peoples in a global context.

Incidences of school violence and drug use erupted on the school landscape during the late twentieth century. More than half of the nation's schools experienced criminal incidents in 1996–1997, and school security personnel have employed metal detectors to help assure the safety of students. The National Education Association supplies information and tools to help school administrators, teachers, and parents create safe schools. Conflict resolution and counseling have become a part of the elementary education curriculum, as have programs to teach children the dangers of drug use. The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, designed to give kids the life skills they need to avoid involvement with drugs, gangs, and violence, is seen as most influential when delivered to students attending elementary school.

The condition of children living in poverty is an issue of importance to elementary education. Poor children are more likely than more affluent children to experience difficulties in school. The strategies found to be most effective in teaching children of poverty may require special training for teachers, administrators, and school staff. Communication with parents is critical to student success in elementary schools, especially with parents of children of poverty. Many elementary schools in the United States incorporate programs that invite parents to participate in school activities and to feel welcome within the school environment, thereby supporting the families of their students.

The United States has firmly entered the information age. Computers are a common sight in most elementary schools, and school districts employ specialists in instructing students in the use of technology. An important issue that technology brings to elementary education is equal and controlled access. Questions arise concerning frequent use of computers in schools, supervision of students' access to the Internet, and whether computer use has any impact at all on student learning. National standards have been established to direct the use of technology in schools, and federal funding has been made available to facilitate the widespread use of technology in classrooms. One remarkable problem regarding the use of technology in classrooms stems from the fact that most elementary children have learned technology skills faster than their teachers.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 was designed to assure an "appropriate public education" to meet the unique needs of all students with disabilities. Attached to this bill was a list of provisions for mainstreaming children with disabilities within the public school system. In order to comply with these provisions, elementary schools are faced with the problems of inclusion inherent in making their programs and facilities user-friendly for students with physical, mental, and behavioral disabilities of all sorts.

These issues are just a few of the current challenges faced by elementary education in the early twenty-first century. In spite of the debate, the basic framework of curriculum has survived.

The Evaluation of the Elementary Curriculum

Evaluation of the curriculum has become a focus of concern and disagreement. The use of standardized tests, some argue, drives the curriculum. The importance placed on these tests by local, state, and national entities all but defines what will be taught in schools, thus negating local control of schools and, in fact, creating a form of national curriculum. Teachers who "teach to the test" are neglecting the development of powerful thinking skills and creativity. In fact, the tests are said to penalize those children who are creative thinkers. This limitation was noted by Hilda Taba in 1962, and remains a relevant concern. Some standardized tests, for example, have writing portions that consist solely of multiple-choice questions.

Others insist, however, that standardized tests are a vital tool for measuring the effectiveness of schooling and for holding schools and districts accountable for the education of children. They note that newer versions of these tests include questions to evaluate problem solving and higher-order thinking skills. Yet only a handful of states currently have tests that directly measure student achievement with regard to mastery of state standards.

Standardized test scores of elementary schools are published and are public record. States maintain Internet sites where anyone can find the test scores of a particular school or district. Schools that consistently fall below state averages may be placed in a special category of at-risk schools, and in some instances they may actually be taken over by committees appointed by the state department of education if test scores do not rise within a certain probationary period.

National measures of achievement (e.g., the National Assessment of Educational Progress) are also reported to provide information at a national level about the achievement of all students. These national assessments have found that achievement levels of all children have risen annually, including the achievement of minority children. The gap between the scores of minority students and white students still exists, however, and the latest data show that it actually increased during the 1990s. This information has informed the federal government's educational policies of accountability. Federal legislation now requires that all children in grades three through eight to be assessed annually in mathematics and reading. As of 2002, however, only thirteen states and the District of Columbia met this requirement.

School districts often administer their own criterion-referenced tests to measure the effectiveness of the district curriculum framework. These tests attempt to measure the mastery of skills in the district framework at each grade level. The information provided by these tests is designed to give schools and teachers information about the effectiveness of the delivery of the district curriculum.

State, federal, and district assessments are conducted, in addition to the ongoing assessment performed in individual classrooms. Teachers utilize performance assessments, teacher-developed tests, tests that accompany textbooks, and other measures to monitor student progress. Students of the early twenty-first century are becoming the most frequently evaluated students in history. Whether more frequent testing leads to higher achievement in academic skills has yet to be determined, however.


Elementary education is in an exciting period of reform. Technological advances and improved knowledge about how children learn are being infused into the curriculum and instructional practices in schools. The national debate over the purposes and governance of elementary schools continues in the same historical tradition. Educators and policy-makers throughout the world are grappling with the determination of the skills and knowledge necessary for effective citizenship in the twenty-first century.


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DOHERTY, KATHRYN. 2001. "Poll: Teachers Support Standards–with Hesitation." Education Week 20 (17):20.

GUTEK, GERALD L. 1986. Education in the United States: An Historical Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

HIRSCH, E. D., JR. 1987. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

MEYER, LORI; ORLOFSKY, GREG F.; SKINNER, RONALD A.; and SPICER, SCOTT. 2002. "The State of the States: Quality Counts 2002." Education Week 21 (17):68–70.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2000. The Condition of Education, 2000. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

NATIONAL COMMISSION ON EXCELLENCE IN EDUCATION. 1983. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC: National Commission on Excellence in Education, U.S. Department of Education.

NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR TEACHERS OF MATHEMATICS. 2000. Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA: National Council for Teachers of Mathematics.

PASSE, JEFF. 1999. Elementary School Curriculum. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

REICH, ROBERT B. 2001. "Standards for What?" Education Week 20 (41):48, 64.

TABA, HILDA. 1962. Curriculum Development: Theory and Practice. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.



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