Other than people and facilities, perhaps the most apparent parts of a school system are its organization, curriculum, and instructional materials and technologies. These are obviously interdependent, although decisions regarding them are often made as though they were entirely independent entities. In principle, time, space, and personnel are organized to accommodate students’ learning a given curriculum. In practice, a curriculum is constrained by the availability of time, space, and personnel. Similarly, materials and technologies are acquired to serve a curriculum, yet the materials and technologies on hand often determine what the actual curriculum will be. School organization (how time is configured, space allotted, and staff hired and assigned) and instructional technology (what learning materials and instruments of instruction will be used) also have important interdependencies.

These three interrelated aspects of schooling (organization, curriculum, and instructional materials and technologies) share the purpose of promoting learning. But do they actually do so? The fourth component of the school context, assessment, is designed to monitor progress toward desired learning goals so that students, teachers, and families know how to proceed. External assessments, which may or may not be matched to the local curriculum, are intended to find out how well the system is working. If either one of these two types of assessment shows that student performance does not meet standards, something needs changing-the organization and conduct of instruction, the selection and use of learning materials and teaching technologies, or the content and structure of the curriculum. But that is too neat a picture.

For one thing, that picture implies that assessment, curriculum, and school organization function independently. In fact, each is often designed with the other in mind. For example, assessment content usually reflects the curriculum (“fair testing”) and over time the curriculum content is modified to reflect the assessment ( “teaching to the test”). And there are other interactions: because assessment takes time (a fixed and enormously valuable resource), a balance must be achieved between the time allotted to assessment at the expense of instruction, and vice versa; the sophistication of curriculum and assessment depends greatly on the number and quality of instructional and support staff; testing materials are often
indistinguishable from instructional materials; and so forth.

And of course school organization, curriculum, materials and technologies, and assessment are all subject to local, state, and federal education policies which, in turn, are constrained by budget decisions. The reverse is also true to some substantial degree: policies are set and budgets determined to take into account decisions made on school organization, curriculum, materials and technologies, and assessment. Moreover, the school context is precisely where questions of equity come to the fore, because it is there that inequities play out-whether as biased tests, curricula that serve some groups better than others, higher quality learning materials in some schools than in others, or any number of other ways.

By the same token, what schools can do-or are pressed into doing-with regard to school organization, curriculum, materials and technologies, and assessment depends significantly on the support they receive from families, community leaders (including the media), business and industry, and higher education (especially teacher education and admissions policies), and the availability of trustworthy knowledge to inform decision making.