Curriculum Alignment and Analysis
“An important element is deeply understanding our curriculum. Most teachers know what they’re going to cover this week or this term. Few of us can specify precisely what students should know, understand, and be able to do as a result of any particular learning experience or set of learning experiences. Without specificity, alignment between content, assessment, and instruction is weak.” - Carol Ann Tomlinson
Curriculum is one of the three pillars of classroom instruction and a foundation piece of everything instructional leaders do. This is our compass and provides direction for every activity and action. When an administrator sees a disconnect from what looks like “good” teaching and actively engaged students, but the results and data don’t correlate, curriculum alignment and analysis is one of the first place to start the investigation. The pacing, scope, and sequence of instruction must be in alignment to how students will be assessed, both formative and summative.
Curriculum for most courses or subjects/grade levels starts at the district or state level. These standards outline what every student should know at the end of a grade level or course. This provides the core content or concepts that should be mastered. This core curriculum is then broken down at the school district level into a scope and sequence of instruction. Scope refers to the breadth and depth of content/skills to be covered. Sequence refers to how these skills/content are ordered and presented to learners over time.
One of the goals at this level is to provide continuity and coherence with instruction. These give an outline of exactly how the core content/curriculum will be delivered or facilitated throughout the school year. The scope and sequence is then broken down at the district or school level into unit plans and pacing guides. This is then developed into a curriculum map and a scoring tool/assessment protocol. At the classroom level, this is then used to develop lesson plans and units of instruction. Instructional coherence is critical to ensure alignment at all levels.
Every administrator has worked with formative assessment data in a PLC or data-team meeting and then compared the results to the level and nature of classroom instruction,but finds a disconnect. Many times, the disconnect is with curricular alignment. If students haven’t been taught a standard, it reasons that they didn’t perform well on the common formative assessment. Instructional leaders can keep track of this curriculum alignment through daily walkthroughs with triangulation of curriculum, observations and feedback on alignment, common formative assessment data and other data tools, active participation in PLCs, supporting teachers in planning for instruction.
With the intense and important need of ensuring curricular alignment, principals must also train and hold assistant principals and instructional coaches accountable for monitoring instructional alignment. We should always be asking the questions “are we teaching what will be assessed? and “are we assessing what was taught?” When working to improve test scores and student achievement, curriculum alignment and analysis is critical to success.
Leadership Truths for Curriculum Leaders
1. Priorities Matter…You Revisit Them Daily
“All learners benefit from and should receive instruction that reflects clarity about purposes and priorities of content” (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006, p. 6).
2. Curriculum Development Is A Process, Not A Product
Curriculum mapping is an ongoing process which asks teachers to develop curriculum goals, identify essential content, skills and concepts, and reflect on the taught curriculum. Some school districts make the mistake of diving into curriculum mapping and attempting to complete a product. When teacher teams become satisfied with the product, then the process is at risk. Curriculum development is “an ongoing process that asks teachers and administrators to think, act, and meet differently to improve their students’ learning” (Hale, 2008, p. 8).
3. Communication Matters
Curriculum gaps create a barrier for student learning and have a detrimental effect on students’ opportunity to learn. Gaps are created by a lack of communication among educators, varying implementation practices, available resources, and decisions about pacing. According to English (2000), “Curriculum design and delivery face one fundamental problem in schools. When the door is shut and nobody else is around, the classroom teacher can select and teach just about any curriculum he or she decides is appropriate”(p. 1).
4. It’s Lonely At The Top
John Maxwell (2008) wrote the statement, “It’s lonely at the top was never made by a great leader. If you are leading others and you’re lonely, then you’re not doing it right. What kind of leader would leave everyone behind and take the journey alone? A selfish one. Taking people to the top is what good leaders do.” Empowering others is one of the main roles of curriculum leaders. If you are feeling lonely, take a moment to reflect on why no one seems to be following.
5. What Gets Measured Gets Done
Developing curriculum is essential for any school district. However, educators need to know if the curriculum is meeting its intended outcomes. Teachers may indicate that they value 21st century learning skills, but if the district’s benchmark exams and the high-stakes state exam measure lower-order thinking skills and do not measure 21st century skills, then there will be a temptation to teach to the test. Curriculum leaders understand that curriculum alignment consists of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Without a method of measurement, then it is highly unlikely that the curriculum will be implemented across classrooms.
6. Alignment is Critical
Curriculum Developers can spend so much time developing curriculum documents that they forget to take time to analyze alignment and have conversations with multiple groups. “Poorly aligned curriculum results in our underestimating the effect of instruction on learning. Simply stated, teachers may be “teaching up a storm,” but if what they are teaching is neither aligned with the state standards or the state assessments, then their teaching is in vain” (Anderson, 2002, p. 260). If alignment is important for your vehicle, it is even more critical when dealing with children’s lives and their future aspirations.
7. Gaps Exist In Every School District…Seek Solutions
Jacobs (1997) wrote, “If there are gaps among teachers within buildings, there are virtual Grand Canyons among buildings in a district” (p. 3). Curriculum Leaders can conduct a Gap Analysis. Another method is to have ongoing conversations with teams of teachers to analyze common student misunderstandings. Data analysis has become more prominent in public schools over the past ten years. The use of quality data can help schools identify gaps. Curriculum gaps create a disjointed curriculum. In Toward a Coherent Curriculum: The 1985 ASCD Yearbook, Stellar wrote, “The curriculum in numerous schools lacks clarity and, more important, coherence. Students move from teacher to teacher and subject to subject along a curriculum continuum that may or may not exhibit planned articulation” (p. v).
8. Curriculum Development Is Never Neutral
If you have ever worked with a team of teachers to develop curriculum maps, align the school district’s curriculum, or evaluate curriculum, you understand that curriculum development is a political act. Fenwick English (2000) wrote, “Knowledge is never neutral. The selection of knowledge is fundamentally a political act of deciding who benefits from selecting what in the school’s curriculum and who is excluded or diminished” (p. 30).
“Curriculum is always a means to somebody’s end…..No selection of curriculum content can be considered politically neutral” (English, 2000, p. 53). If you are asked to review curriculum or develop curriculum, then you should be careful to avoid bias. What is good for your own child may not be good for every child. Politics are unavoidable when it comes to curriculum development, but educators can improve the curriculum development process by seeking multiple perspectives.
9. Leadership Is Not A Title
This statement has been made in business leadership books and it holds true in any organization. You may be the chief academic officer or the department chair, but titles don’t matter. People matter. Maxwell (1995) wrote, “If you really want to be a successful leader, you must develop other leaders around you. You must establish a team” (p. 2). If curriculum development becomes a matter of pleasing the person with the title, there will be little buy-in and that will have a negative impact on students. “A good leader has the ability to instill within his people confidence in himself. A great leader has the ability to instill within his people confidence in themselves” (Maxwell, 1995, p. 55).
10. The Ultimate Goal Is Student Achievement
According to Wiggins and McTighe (2007), “The job is not to hope that optimal learning will occur, based on our curriculum and initial teaching. The job is to ensure that learning occurs, and when it doesn’t, to intervene in altering the syllabus and instruction decisively, quickly, and often” (p. 55). School districts must confront the brutal facts of their current reality in order to improve (Collins, 2001).
One of my favorite quotes on the topic of curriculum leadership is from Allan Glatthorn (1987):
“One of the tasks of curriculum leadership is to use the right methods to bring the written, the taught, the supported, and the tested curriculums into closer alignment, so that the learned curriculum is maximized” (p. 4).
Curriculum development plays a significant role in teaching and learning. Most educators will admit that planning is an essential part of their profession. If curriculum development drives the work of teacher teams, then schools must create time for teachers to collaborate, engage in conflict and provide a process for reflection and revision. Curriculum development should be a priority in schools, rather than something that is handed to teachers as a top-down product. When teachers collaborate to develop the curriculum, they will have co-workers who support them when they come to a fork in the road in instruction. Curriculum leadership is important to the success of a school district and these ten truths can help a leader develop multiple leaders. Curriculum leadership is about empowering those around you to be successful.