Who Decides What Gets Taught in Our Classrooms?
What our children learn in Alabama’s classrooms is shaped by the Alabama course of study (COS) and the textbooks that are chosen to frame the subject’s study. Two separate committees are formed at the state level (1) to determine the COS and (2) to approve a list of textbooks for use in teaching that COS. Local districts then can add to the COS and choose which textbook to adopt to implement the COS. (If you’d like to see this in graphic form, scroll to the end of this post or click here.)
So who are the folks on these COS and textbook committees? Are they all educators? Are any parents on those committees?
With the controversy surrounding the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Alabama’s subsequent adoption of the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS), interest in COS and textbooks has intensified. So I thought it might be helpful to get a handle on how all of this content and curriculum gets passed from the ALSDE to the local districts. Also, to try and answer the question of how much discretion local districts have once the COS and textbook list has been decided upon.
Course of Study Calendar
The calendar for reviewing and developing new COS is depicted below:
As you can see, the next big thing on this calendar is the adoption of Social Studies textbooks. The public hearing for that adoption is Wednesday, October 9. The ALSDE sent out a press release on August 26 which included a list of libraries where the full library of Social Studies textbooks could be viewed. No, I couldn’t find a single newspaper, television, or online report giving parents and families this information, but maybe local school districts passed this on to families in their districts. Regardless, the public hearing is next Wednesday.
The Social Studies COS was adopted in 2010, but likely got sidetracked due to the adoption and implementation of Alabama’s College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS) for Math and English Language Arts (ELA) (which are comprised of both Common Core State Standards and state-adopted standards) and the development of a COS and textbook adoption for those two areas.
The Science COS committee has been working since 2012 to review and develop the next Science COS. No word yet on whether the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are on the table for Alabama. Seven states have already adopted the NGSS.
Course of Study Committees
So who sits on these COS committees? 28 citizens are appointed to serve on each COS committee. The law is clear in terms of how folks are appointed:
Composition; appointment, qualifications and terms of members.
The State Board of Education shall appoint a courses of study committee as set forth below for the purposes and functions as hereinafter provided. The State Courses of Study Committee shall consist of 28 members to be selected as follows:
(1) One elementary teacher (grades K through six) and one secondary teacher (grades seven through 12) from each of the seven congressional districts who are teaching in the course of study areas to be revised during their terms of office;
(2) Four members from the state at-large actively engaged in a supervisory or administrative capacity in the field of education and who are knowledgeable or who have had previous teaching experience in the course of study areas to be revised during their term of office;
(3) Three members who are employees of state institutions of higher learning and who are specialists in the course of study areas to be revised during their terms of office; and
(4) Seven additional members appointed by the Governor, one from each of the seven congressional districts, each of whom shall be either a business or professional representative not employed in the field of education. The Governor’s appointees shall have expertise and be actually involved in the course of study field under consideration and shall be confirmed by the Senate.
Additional standards for membership on the State Courses of Study Committee may be established by the State Board of Education other than those prescribed hereinabove. Said standards shall be sent to every local board of education and every county and city superintendent.
Local boards of education, through their superintendents, shall nominate persons to serve on these committees. Local boards shall furnish credentials of each person recommended, including a summary of each person’s qualifications for membership on the committee. All nominations along with said credentials shall be forwarded to the State Superintendent of Education. The State Board of Education, upon the recommendations of the State Superintendent of Education, shall appoint all members of the State Courses of Study Committee from the nominees made by the local boards of education. The Governor’s appointments need not be nominated by a local board of education, nor recommended by the State Superintendent of Education, nor approved by the State Board of Education.
The State Board of Education (SBOE) appoints 21 members by resolution (all resolutions are on this page; search “course of study” for resolutions related to COS appointments and adoptions), all of whom must be either teachers or administrators or in the higher education field. Until recently, the names of committee members were not always included in the published resolution or available online, but they are now. Occasionally, substitute members are appointed due to a member needing to withdraw, and those names are shared via the resolution.
The Governor appoints seven members, who must each be confirmed individually by the Senate. There is no mandate for whether the Governor’s appointees must be currently or previously employed in the education field. All Confirmations are listed under the “Confirmations” section of the state legislature’s web site. While you can see “State Course of Study Committee” and the appointee’s name, you cannot see which subject committee to which they are being appointed, nor whether the appointment is an original appointment or a substitute appointment. But the names are there.
So the SBOE’s COS committee does not contain any parents, but the Governor could appoint parents if he so chooses to do so.
These folks do their work and ultimately recommend a COS for adoption by the SBOE. Again, the next new COS scheduled for implementation is the Social Studies COS, so that committee has completed its duty.
The Science COS committee is working now. Arts Education and Foreign Language COS committees will likely be appointed next February.
The Alabama Learning Exchange (ALEX) maintains a complete listing of current COS on their site.
Local school districts are able to add to the state COS, but cannot teach less than the full COS. Each local district has a method for adopting a local course of study, which often includes adoption by the local board of education. The local board is not required to formally adopt the state COS, as once the SBOE adopts it, it becomes the required COS for that subject area.
It is important to note at this point that some local districts appoint curriculum committees which do include parents. Contact the Director of Curriculum in your school district to find out exactly how a local COS is adopted in your school district.
Once a COS is approved by the SBOE, the formal search begins for textbooks to support that COS. Textbook committees are appointed in the year following the State COS committee’s appointment.
The law is clear about how textbook committees are selected:
State Textbook Committee.
(a) The State Textbook Committee is created. The committee shall consider the merit of textbooks offered for use in the public elementary and high schools of the state and make recommendations for approval or rejection, or both, to the State Board of Education as hereinafter provided. In making recommendations to the State Board of Education, the State Textbook Committee shall also consider any recommendations made by the State Courses of Study Committee or by the State Superintendent of Education.
(b) The State Textbook Committee shall be composed of 23 members. Four of the members shall be secondary school classroom teachers and four elementary school classroom teachers. One of these eight members shall be appointed from each of the seven United States Congressional Districts, as such districts are constituted on July 1, 1998, and one shall be appointed statewide. Four members shall be appointed from the state at large, and these four members may be either classroom teachers or persons actively engaged in the supervisory or administrative capacity in the field of education. Two members of the committee shall be employees of state institutions of higher learning. These 14 members of the State Textbook Committee shall each be appointed by the State Board of Education, upon nominations made by the State Superintendent of Education. Nine members shall be appointed by the Governor, subject to the confirmation of the Senate by April 1 of each year, one from each of the seven congressional districts, as such districts are constituted on July 1, 1998, and two appointed statewide and, these two shall be members of local boards of education at the time of their appointment. Two of the members appointed from the congressional districts shall be recommended by the State Superintendent of Education. These nine additional members shall have general knowledge of the subject area to be considered for textbook adoption and shall have a demonstrated ability to read and write at a post high school level and shall not be employed in education.
So the SBOE appoints 14 of the 23 members. All of the SBOE appointees must be employed in the public education world.
The Governor appoints seven members, one from each of Alabama’s Congressional districts. The Governor’s appointees must be confirmed by the state Senate. The State Superintendent appoints two members. Together, these nine appointees cannot be “employed in education”.
The state textbook committee studies various textbooks that have been either submitted by the publisher or recommended through some other mechanism. The textbook committee recommends a list of approved textbooks to the SBOE, which then votes by resolution to adopt the recommendation of the committee. The textbook committee can also recommend textbooks for rejection (here’s the English Language Arts list), and the SBOE votes on that list as well. If a textbook is officially rejected by the SBOE, then no local board of education can adopt it. After the textbook list is approved, work begins at the local level to adopt textbooks for that COS. Local textbook committees are expected to complete their work by the following spring.
Local textbook committees are also prescribed by law. The law requires parents to be seated on those committees. Check with your local school district to determine how parents are selected for appointment.
There are additional parameters for textbook committees at all levels, including a requirement for each member to file an affidavit that they have no monetary interest in selecting a particular textbook.
How It Ends Up in Our Classrooms
The SBOE approves standards, which then are used to develop a COS by the state COS committee. The SBOE adopts the state COS by resolution. The state textbook committee then recommends a list of approved and rejected textbooks, which is adopted by the SBOE by resolution.
Local boards of education are then are free to add to the state COS, but teachers, at the minimum, must teach what is in the state COS. Local boards of education are also free to choose which textbooks to adopt, with the exception of any textbooks formally rejected by the SBOE.
After the COS and the accompanying textbooks are adopted by local school districts, HOW the material is taught to our children is still up to the teacher, depending on the amount of freedom the local district allows the teacher. Some districts have “pacing” guides (here’s an example, scroll to the end to see the actual pacing guide; here are other examples), prescribing the pace at which materials should be covered. That is a local issue, not dictated by the SBOE.
Please share the graphic below to help Alabama’s parents, families, and community members understand who decides what gets taught in our classrooms and how much local control exists in the process. Whether that local control is exercised is left to the local school community (that includes us!).