Does Your District’s Curriculum Triangle Resemble the Bermuda Triangle?

11/20/2009  |  CAROL ROACH

(This is part two of a two part series. Part one introduced the Curriculum Leadership Institute (CLI) and its school improvement model. The illustration depicts the model’s major components.)

The focus of part one was the center of the triangle, the governance structure of the model. Governance includes development and implementation of board policy for how curriculum, instruction and assessment are handled in the district. It also creates a governing body that represents all stakeholders in making decisions and taking action on major issues related to student learning.

Part two focuses on the three sides of the triangle and how the CLI model interprets and uses these components differently from other school improvement models. There is hardly a school district in the United States that hasn’t dealt with these three issues in some fashion. Typically, special committees are created to work on curriculum, instruction and assessment, but in most districts, inadequate processes and guidelines leave teachers feeling they’ve entered the Bermuda Triangle of curriculum, never to get out again! CLI has spent more than 20 years developing processes that help districts prevent the Bermuda Triangle Effect. Here are some of the most common pitfalls and how to avoid them:

Saying “we’re done” once the curriculum has been revised.

Writing the curriculum isn’t enough! School districts everywhere, large and small, can tell stories about all the curriculum guides that ended up on a shelf somewhere. To avoid this, there must be follow-up in which the newly revised curriculum is the main focus for everyone. Teachers collaborate on lesson plans and assessments. Progress reports, problem solving, and celebrations of success become a part of every staff meeting. Teachers who don’t teach the targeted subject still participate, to provide support for their colleagues and to learn what works and what doesn’t so they will be better prepared when it is time for their subject to be the focus.

Trying to revise all subject areas at once.

CLI consultants have encountered numerous districts, particularly lowperforming ones, where boards of education insist that all subjects must be revised “right now.” This may work in high-school-only districts, but it doesn’t work for districts that include elementary(or other self-contained) classrooms. Teachers who are handed multiple new curriculums are overwhelmed and cannot give any one subject the focus and attention it needs to be successful. The alternative is for districts to create a long-range plan, showing when each subject will be addressed, assuring that only one of the core subjects is revised each year. It’s okay to do more than one subject at a time, as long as both subjects don’t affect the same teachers. For example, language arts might be done the same year as fine arts.

Trying just to use state standards as curriculum.

Standards are guidelines — not curriculum. Many of them still include vague verbs, such as understand. Such verbs are left to interpretation, which makes both instruction and assessment problematic. Many standards are also still listed in grade level “clusters,” making it unclear as to which grade level is responsible for what content. And research has shown it is pretty much impossible for students to thoroughly learn all the expected standards. Realistically, some degree of selection must be made. Districts should use standards as a foundation, but they must assure that each grade level and course has its own specific, measurable curriculum, with both vertical and horizontal alignment.

Basing the curriculum on Introduce, Continue and Master.

A simple example can point out why this dated practice is no longer a good idea. Let’s say that identification and ordering of simple fractions is to be introduced at grade one, continued at grades two and three, and mastered at grade four. Is only grade four actually responsible for this skill? Of course not. Each grade should provide instruction and assess learning. So, what are our expectations and what do we assess at grades one, two and three? What does introduce actually mean? What do we expect students to demonstrate when they are only continuing a particular skill? Curriculum must be written so that expectations are clear for each grade and course.

Using curriculum maps as curriculum.

Maps are a type of instructional design. They show the when and how of teaching the curriculum, but decisions about what constitutes that curriculum must be made first.

Working by building levels rather than district level.

Interestingly, it is still fairly common for the elementary schools in a district to do their own thing regarding curriculum, instruction and assessment, while middle and high schools go their own way as well. The problem with this practice should be obvious. Is the elementary curriculum preparing students for middle-level expectations; and will middle school students be ready for high school curriculums? What if there is excessive overlapping? And likewise, where are the gaps? Communication and shared decision-making among all grade levels is essential.

Omitting implementation guidelines for newly revised curriculums.

This problem is similar to, yet different from item number one above. In many instances, there is no question that districts expect teachers to teach the new curriculums and to achieve positive results. However, there may be few, if any guidelines beyond those expectations. Will teachers of the same grade levels and courses use the same assessments? If so, will this include all assessments, or only end-of-unit summatives? Is pacing up to the individual? Is it projected and recorded? What if there are problems with the new curriculum? Is there some way for teachers to report the problems and make changes at this point? Are there grading issues associated with the new curriculum? Do teachers need some specific staff development to be able to teach the new curriculum? A district can have the most focused, well-worded, and complete curriculum available, but if there are not specific guidelines and processes in place for its implementation, it will not be successful.

It is not unusual for school districts to run into a problem unique to their situation. This is why the governance portion of the CLI Model is so important; it serves as the vehicle for addressing such concerns. CLI consultants have encountered problems of all kinds when working in the field and may be able to share some insight if you would like to ask about a particular concern. Meanwhile, use the situations listed above as general guidelines. These are common problems to be avoided, and to assure that your district has a strong curriculum triangle that is not the Bermuda version.


Carol Roach is president of Curriculum Leadership Institute. For more information contact CLI at [email protected]

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