A few months ago, we began working with a new principal who was in the process of getting to know her school. She knew that students came to school ready to learn, teachers were prepared to teach, and families were supportive of their school. The school was a welcoming place that served as a focus for community activities. But despite these positive supports, she explained, students were not meeting learning expectations. Academic progress in both English language arts and mathematics were below the state average, and she was concerned that families might soon lose confidence in the school’s ability to prepare students for the next level of learning.
During our consultation with this principal, we asked her if she knew whether the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum (GVC). She wasn’t sure how to answer, so she responded with a question, “How would I know if the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum?”
To determine whether a school has a GVC, we must first describe it. A “guaranteed” curriculum is often defined as a mechanism through which all students have an equal opportunity (time and access) to learn rigorous content. This requires a school-wide (or district-wide) agreement and common understanding of the essential content that all students need to know, understand, and be able to do. The word “all” needs emphasis; a guaranteed curriculum promotes equity, giving all children equal opportunity to learn essential content, and to provide this opportunity, curricular materials and instructional approaches must be grounded in research, implemented with fidelity, and must include vertical as well as horizontal alignment. Curriculum development is often regarded as a district function. However, schools (through teachers) implement the curriculum, and, if implementation varies significantly from teacher to teacher, then student outcomes will also likely vary significantly from classroom to classroom. These days, teachers have access to a variety of curriculum resources, such as open educational resources, playlists, digital textbooks, and teacher-developed curriculum. Having access to options is a good thing, but having many choices does not ensure all choices are well aligned to the school’s GVC.
For a curriculum to be “viable,” there must be adequate time for teachers to teach the content and for students to learn the content. A viable curriculum eliminates the supplementary or “nice to know” content. Does this mean that a GVC is a scripted, rigid curriculum? No! Does this mean that students and teachers are confined to a lockstep process of teaching and learning? Absolutely not! Teachers must have the flexibility to meet student needs through different methods of content delivery, helping students dive deeper into their passions. At its essence, a GVC represents the core non-negotiables of student learning. It’s what schools and teachers commit to providing for all students.
To help school leaders and leadership teams self-assess the “guaranteed and viable” status of their curriculum, my colleagues and I developed the following questions that can be used by any school.
1. Does our school have an agreement and common understanding of the essential content that all of our students need to know, understand, and be able to do?
A principal might find written guidance, such as scope and sequence charts, aligned common assessments, and instructional guidance to help answer this question, and although written documents offer a good place to start, these documents might not reflect implementation in the classroom. Learning how teachers plan for instruction might be more informative. Are teachers involved in collaborative planning and is student work discussed during grade-level or department meetings? Additionally, during classroom visits, are students engaged in learning experiences requiring similar levels of rigor? During collaborative planning meetings teachers ask questions such as: 1) How will this learning activity help students access the essential content?; 2) Does this activity require the level of cognitive rigor described in the standards?; and 3) How will we know that students have learned the essential content?
2. Are performance criteria established and communicated to all of our stakeholders?
Having a mutual understanding among teachers as to what student performance demonstrates mastery, partial mastery, or entry level learning of essential content is a critical component of a GVC. Without this common understanding of performance criteria, students across a grade level or course could have widely different performance expectations.
As with question 1, a principal might look for written documentation and observe teacher practice to inform this question. For example, do teachers use common tools, such as learning guides and rubrics, to share performance criteria with students/families? Do students track their own progress toward learning goals and understand their strengths and areas for improvement? Do teachers engage in calibration exercises where a group of teachers assess one piece of student work individually and then discuss variations of teacher interpretations of performance?
3. Does our school have a process for monitoring implementation of the GVC?
To answer this question, a principal might look for established routines and processes. For example, are regular meetings established to review student progress data? During student data discussions, teachers might ask questions such as: 1) Are we on track to help all students learn the essential content?; and 2) What evidence shows we’re on track? If we’re not on track, what steps should we take?
Additionally, mechanisms should be in place to obtain teacher feedback on implementation of the GVC. Feedback can be gleaned through surveys, polls, or through collegial meetings in which teacher teams discuss implementation challenges and review student progress. Most importantly, when teacher feedback is collected, how is it addressed? Teachers must know that their input is valued and acted upon.
4. Does our school have structures that provide ongoing support to our teachers and school leaders for implementing the curriculum with fidelity?
For many teachers, implementation with fidelity can be a nebulous concept, and this is where a tool such as an innovation configuration (IC) map can be quite useful. IC maps clearly articulate stages of implementation so that teachers can distinguish between high, moderate, and low implementation levels. This tool helps teachers identify their own personal level of implementation and then take steps to increase implementation fidelity.
Ongoing implementation support for teachers and school leaders might also include allocated time for collaborative planning with colleagues. In fact, such support might be in response to feedback provided by teachers. For example, if teachers find that students perceive certain curriculum topics as lacking relevance, ongoing support might include collegial time for a deep dive into that section of the curriculum. Teachers could identify ways to better engage students and help students connect personally with the topics and underlying concepts.
Establishing and maintaining a GVC is a collegial process that requires established protocols and routines to keep the GVC agreement alive and meaningful to all stakeholders. It requires open dialog about learning activities, performance criteria, and student progress as well as the willingness of each stakeholder to reflect on their contribution to the process.
Kathleen Dempsey has more than 30 years of experience as a teacher and administrator. At McREL, she helps schools, districts, and state education agencies with strategic vision, program development, and delivery of training and coaching focusing on academic standards, curriculum, and instruction. She is also the director of the North Central Comprehensive Center, a federally funded regional center operated by McREL that builds states’ capacity to implement and sustain improvement initiatives.
A quality curriculum review will help your school or district refine its areas of effectiveness and identify high-leverage opportunities for improvement. McREL can help you ensure alignment of your curriculum, instruction, assessments, and standards, and can help you build the processes and protocols to make a GVC a reality in your schools. Learn more.