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Is your curriculum serving up great learning opportunities for students?

By May 23, 2024No Comments

By Bryan Goodwin

In an article I wrote last year in Education Leadership, I posed this thought experiment: Imagine your best friend owns a restaurant that’s failing miserably, so they come to you for advice. Where would you begin? Likely, before worrying about the decor, coupons, advertising, or location, you’d start with what’s on the menu, right? After all, customers will drive out of their way and line up around the block for a hole-in-the-wall restaurant if they get great food every time they sit down for a meal.

In a way, the same might be said of schools. Research shows a key predictor of school performance isn’t anything terribly snazzy or innovative. It’s simply ensuring that all students benefit from high-quality opportunities to learn, sometimes called a guaranteed and viable curriculum or what we refer to in our What Matters Most® framework as challenging and engaging curricular pathways to success. In our work with schools and school systems worldwide, we’ve observed several less-than-optimal approaches to curriculum, including these:

  • The mile-wide, inch-deep approach. Voluminous, vaguely written standards often result in putting too much on teachers’ plates, compelling them to cover more content than students can possibly learn at depth during a school year.
  • The straight-jacket approach. Some efforts to ensure tight alignment of curricula go too far, leaving teachers forced to march students through tightly scripted lessons and units regardless of whether students are mastering material (or finding it engaging).
  • The smorgasbord approach. Giving teachers loads of high-quality instructional materials, but little guidance on how to build them into lessons and units. This leaves teachers trying to navigate a massive buffet of materials and creating their own individual versions of curriculum and pacing guides. As a result, students experience inconsistency from classroom to classroom, which can leave gaps in their learning and present them with an ever-changing set of expectations.

There is a better approach, of course. Typically, it starts at the district level with a coordinated effort to dig into standards to identify which are essential and which are supplemental to ensure all students are learning the same standards. It also includes engaging teachers in converting standards into clear expectations for student learning that guide the design and delivery of learning experiences that challenge and engage all students, in every subject, and every grade level.

At McREL, we’ve spent years guiding schools and school systems through this process, so we know it’s neither simple nor easy. It’s a complex, years-long process. That also means every school system is at a different point in their journey to ensuring challenging and engaged curricular pathways to success. The good news, though, is that each step a school system takes along the journey yields powerful benefits for students. Here are some impactful questions you can ask to reflect on where you are on your journey and what steps you might take next.

  • What exactly are we teaching? Why is it important for students (in and out of school)? Does it reflect high expectations for student learning?
  • Is it working? How do we know?
  • Are we ensuring all students are engaging in the learning experiences they need to experience success?
  • What supports do our teachers need to translate high expectations into high-quality student learning experiences?

The following resources can also help you at each step along the way.

Related Resources:

This post originally appeared in our April 2024 Changing Schools newsletter. Click here to sign up to receive McREL’s free monthly newsletter.

Bryan Goodwin, president and CEO of McREL, thrives on translating insights from education research into practical strategies and professional learning for effective teaching and school leadership. He is the author or co-author of several McREL books, including The New Classroom Instruction That Works, Learning That SticksBuilding a Curious School, and Instructional Models. Before joining McREL in 1998, Bryan was a college instructor, a high school teacher, and a business journalist.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.