Getting on the Same Page about Curriculum

By Emily Freitag

I was talking to the instructional leader of a small school system the other day–someone I had just met. She was worried that daily instruction was not matching the demands of the standards and nervous about the assessments. She was concerned that students were not getting enough practice they need at grade-level difficulty to be ready for the test. And she felt for her teachers and saw how much time they were spending looking for materials; in fact, it had come up in every focus group she did that year. I asked her, “What materials are teachers using?” and she said:

“Well, four years ago we adopted XYZ curriculum and bought new textbooks. But then we were doing some PLC work and we had teachers come together to draft learning targets for each standard. When they did that, they created a resource guide to tasks that teachers could reference with our pacing guide – so some are using that. All teachers must submit lesson plans, and we did a lot of training with thinking maps two years ago, so principals have been reviewing lesson plans to look for the thinking maps. The truth is, I hear a lot about Google and Teachers Pay Teachers. So it’s all over the map.”

Sure enough, a few weeks later after we observed multiple lessons together, it was clear that there were a number of different approaches teachers were taking to find materials, and the only commonality was how exhausted they were from all that searching. And across 16 observed lessons, 3 had materials that matched the expectations of the standard the teacher was targeting for the lesson.

I’ve seen this confusion play out in schools in multiple states. We have a wide range of materials being used in American classrooms. What’s more, there is a wide range of ways that school and system leaders think about what kind of materials they want and what they “should” be doing with materials they have–even within the same subject in the same system.

Everyone on a team benefits from a clear understanding of what they are trying to do together. If each member of a choir is holding a different songbook, the result will be a cacophony instead of a concert. It’s the same for schools; only when teams have a common understanding of the materials approach they want to take can they find the materials and provide the supports to allow that strategy to succeed. In our work with school leadership teams across the past three years, we have found there are two questions that need to be answered about the materials approach. The answers to these two questions then point the leadership team towards one of four pathways, and they are able to manage resources and supports in different ways for each of these pathways.

The two questions are:

  1. Do we want to “make” or “take” our materials?

    “Making” means designing the instructional plan from scratch. When a teacher planned my integers unit and wrote a worksheet of problems about changes in altitude and debt and temperature–even if she referenced other sources for some inspiration problems–she was “making” her curriculum. And when her math coach and her colleague wrote a set of units that all teachers were to use and she hand drew the surface area net problems, she made that curriculum.

    “Taking” means using materials that someone else designed. When a school system adopts a textbook, it is “taking” that curriculum. When a teacher downloads a lesson set on Teachers Pay Teachers, she is “taking” that lesson or unit.

  2. Do we want “common” or “varied” materials?

    “Common” means we are all doing the same thing. This can be the expectation set by leaders or an agreement among a group of teachers, but the intention of all teachers in the same grade teaching the same general content would be a “common” expectation. For example, all teachers are doing a unit on the Great Gatsby and using the same materials as the starting point. They may each make some different instructional choices within the unit or lesson, but they are generally on the same page.

    “Varied” means each teacher is doing something different. When one 10th grade English teacher is teaching a unit on the The Scarlet Letter while her colleague down the hall is teaching other 10th grade students a unit on Macbeth, they have a varied approach.

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Each pathway has benefits and challenges, and each requires a different approach to supporting teachers and leaders to be successful.

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After outlining the options, I am often asked, “Which is the ‘best’ pathway?”

I know two things to be true:

  1. Making great materials (either for a whole district or for an individual class of students) is very complex work and takes a different set of design skills than we typically train or select teachers to do, even if we then expect them to do it. You have to know you have those skills on your team to do this well.  

  2. It is easier to create strong support structures for teachers when using the same materials - whatever those materials may be - than it is to create effective support structures across different materials. You need to have coaches that can jump from one set of materials to the next with quick fluency for that to work.

I think it is no accident that most of the school systems we have worked with across the past three years have ended up on Pathway 1: Adopt a Curriculum. However, I truly have seen examples of each of these pathways working. And I trust that educators are rational actors who, when they have the information about the trade-offs of each approach, pick wisely for their system. So, ultimately, I defer to the wisdom of informed teams.

Here is the breakdown on which pathways our partners have chosen over the past three years:

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Above all, picking the pathway with clarity and commitment and making sure everyone knows which pathway you are on creates the conditions for success. Teams can select different pathways for different grade bands (e.g. in K-2 reading is on the Adopt a Curriculum pathway, but grades 4-5 are on Constrained Choice) or different subjects. Trying to manage multiple approaches in a single grade band is fundamentally confusing and inefficient for all involved.

Whether it’s a crew rowing in the same direction or football players aligned on getting the first down, groups perform better with clarity of purpose. As systems consider their curricular choices, articulating a clear vision for the approach to materials can help teams get on the same page.