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February 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 5

We Need Coherent, Teacher-Built Curriculum—NOW!

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The action that would most raise student achievement is creating a coherent curriculum for—and with—our teachers. What are we waiting for?

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CurriculumInstructional Strategies
We Need Coherent, Teacher-Built Curriculum—NOW!
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Let's begin with perhaps the most important question in all of education: If we knew there was one thing that would substantially—even swiftly—narrow achievement gaps and increase overall achievement, would we implement it?
Because we do know that one thing. It is curriculum. Much research and the experience of many schools confirms the significant, near-immediate impact of implementing a consistent, high-quality curriculum throughout a school. Any school or district can build such curriculum, at virtually no expense.
The reason the impact would be so dramatic is simple: (1) The evidence for the primacy of curriculum in student learning is indisputable and (2) the great majority of schools don't currently work from a coherent curriculum, by which I mean a clear, organized schedule of "what to teach and when," amply infused with reading, discussion, and writing (Darling-Hammond, 2010, p. 295).
The introduction of such curriculum into current school environments could have as big of an impact on education as the "Fosbury Flop" had on track and field when it was widely adopted by high jumpers in the 1960s. High-jump records were shattered almost overnight. But unlike the "flop," the most game-changing elements of education are still not standard practice (Willingham & Rotherham, 2020). We are many years into an era of "curricular chaos" (Schmoker & Marzano, 1999), which has crippled improvement efforts for decades (Hirsch, 2020). Deprived of this essential tool, teachers are forced to work from a self-selected jumble of topics, texts, and writing assignments. An astonishing proportion derive their curriculum, on the fly, from worksheets and activities they find on Google and Pinterest (Pondiscio & Schirra, 2022).

In most schools, teachers are not provided with anything akin to a coherent, literacy-rich curriculum.

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Do we sincerely desire a life-changing education for every student? If so, education leaders must begin the transformation toward that aim by making the case for coherent, robust curriculum with unprecedented urgency. They should no longer allow inertia or controversies to excuse our failure to develop simple, equitable curriculum in every school in America.

The Case for Curriculum

Let's look at the case for the primacy of this element of school success. "What we teach," writes David Steiner, "isn't some sidebar in American education; it is American education" (2017). There is a "mountain of real-world evidence" signifying that high-quality, coherent curriculum is the single largest factor contributing to gains in learning (DuFour & Marzano, 2011; Sahm, 2017). It is 40 times as impactful as class-size reduction (Wiener & Pimentel, 2017). It is so powerful that a good curriculum can compensate for the large learning gaps among entering kindergartners. And it can make any teacher, new or veteran, vastly more effective (Darling-Hammond, 2010–2011).
The logic of coherent curriculum is equally unassailable. If implemented, a consistent curriculum guarantees that more students are taught essential content, with greater rigor, regardless of which teacher they happen to get: It prevents the catastrophic variance in content and expectations among teachers in the same school, subject, and grade level that wreaks havoc on student knowledge acquisition, reading comprehension, and math and science achievement (Hirsch, 2020; Schmoker & Marzano, 1999).
Of particular importance: A deliberately built schedule of "what to teach and when" that includes close attention to the rigor of the assignments students are given multiplies the odds that students will be given generous, daily opportunities to read and write across the disciplines. It likewise reduces the use of below-grade-level materials and low-value activities—like worksheets and aimless, excessive group work—that dominate the school day in too many schools (TNTP, 2018). And a common curriculum is an absolute precondition for effective "professional learning communities," which have a profound impact on teacher efficacy and student achievement (DuFour & Marzano, 2011; Visible Learning, 2018).
Knowledgeable educator advocates have contended that good curriculum reduces teacher anxiety, lightens teachers' workload, and "brings coherence to the whole educational endeavor" (American Educator, 2010–2011, p. 2). For David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, an education system that doesn't include coherent curriculum "is like a car without a working engine." Absent that, any attempt to improve schooling will flounder (Steiner, 2017).
Yet study after study finds that in the preponderance of schools, teachers are not provided with anything akin to a coherent, literacy-rich curriculum (DuFour & Marzano, 2011; Hirsch, 2020). What would happen if schools added that "working engine" to the car?

The Best Curriculum? One Teachers Build

Aside from quality phonics programs, I'm not a fan of prepackaged (or agenda-driven) curriculum products. Even the so-called "best" of these are too long on skills, multiple-choice exercises, worksheets, and literary trivia (like craft, structure, and symbolism). Leaders with highly praised curriculum programs have admitted to me privately that their programs need to be modified considerably and supplemented with more purposeful reading, discussion, and writing (Schmoker, 2019).

A deliberately built schedule of 'what to teach and when' multiplies the odds that students will have generous, daily opportunities to read and write across the disciplines.

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I agree with the late Rick DuFour and colleagues, who strongly recommended that schools or districts create their own curriculum, with reasonable administrative oversight. At the high-achieving high school he led, teachers employed efficient processes for selecting and organizing core content, texts, and writing assignments into an easy-to-follow schedule, setting aside time in the schedule for teachers to supplement the core with their own topics and perspectives (DuFour et al., 2016). One of my books, Focus, contains similar processes for developing curriculum (Schmoker, 2018).
Real-life school examples show how creating a coherent curriculum used by all teachers in a department leads to dramatically improved student achievement:
  • Mather Elementary School is the largest and oldest elementary school in Boston's public school system. For nine years, achievement there stagnated—until principal Kim Marshall persuaded his faculty to create a clear schedule of essential content, reading, and writing assignments all teachers in each department would follow. In a single year, achievement at "The Mather" made the largest gains of all Boston schools, rising from the bottom to the top third in the district (Marshall, 2003).
  • Math achievement at the diverse, high-poverty Tempe High School in Arizona was so abysmal the school was threatened with closure. Starting in 2013, the assistant principal and department head (both professional acquaintances of mine) arranged for math teachers to work in teams to create a biweekly schedule for teaching the most essential math topics for every course. There were large gains after the first year this schedule was implemented, and at the end of two years, Tempe was among three schools that had made the largest math gains in the state.
  • Brockton High School, the largest in Massachusetts, ranked near the very bottom in achievement. Embarrassed by these results, in the early 2000's, an ad hoc leadership team emerged and saw to it that teachers built curriculum for every course, replete with abundant amounts of "reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning." When I visited the school, leaders stressed that they "monitored like crazy" to ensure that their homegrown curriculum was actually taught. After one year, the state commissioner informed Brockton that they had made the largest gains in all tested subjects. In the next five years, Brockton rose to the top 10 percent in achievement in Massachusetts (Schmoker, 2018).
Note that these are all cases of homegrown curriculum built by teachers—not in months or years, but in days. There is no excuse for delay.

How to Build Literacy-Rich Curriculum

One of the main barriers to creating homegrown curriculum is the tendency to complicate—and thus elongate—the curriculum-development process. To succeed, we must avail ourselves of simple, time-bound protocols.
The process used to select and organize core content, texts, and assignments into a schedule all teachers will follow should allow everyone to express, defend, and vote on their curricular preferences—within reasonable time limits. While there is no one right process to use for developing a curriculum, a good process might include these key steps. (The steps are described in more detail in Schmoker, 2018, chapters 3–4.)
In English language arts, course-alike teams (in one school or on behalf of all district schools) should decide, preliminarily, which major works students should read each grading period, leaving some room for teachers to add their own favorite texts, and list these in a column on a document they create. In an adjacent column, teachers should list one main, guiding question for each text, for at least the first grading period (samples of such questions can be found in Schmoker, 2018, chapters 4–7). These questions will be the primary, though not exclusive, basis for the near-daily, in-class analytic reading, discussion, and informal writing that are the true core of English language arts instruction.
The team should also establish agreements for the number and approximate length of formal papers. For instance, I taught at a school where our team agreed to have students write two formal, 2–3 page papers per grading period. We taught writing skills and mechanics in the course of guiding students as they wrote.
In the content areas, the curriculum-developing process is similar, with one major difference: In the first column on the document they create, the team should list essential topics. I recommend that the team run through the content standards aloud, quickly identifying essential topics tied to each standard for which there is strong agreement, and list these in a sensible provisional order. In the next column, list texts (e.g. textbook pages, journals, and online sources) that will support teaching these topics.
At this point, the team should approximate the number of days it would take to teach each topic, inclusive of reading, discussing, and writing about the texts (leaving some space for each teacher's preferred topics). Now add up the total number of days. If it is less than about 140 instructional days, you can add topics. If more, you must reduce. Then arrange the content by grading period. In the last column, generate guiding questions for the topics and texts, indicating those for which students should write formal papers, and their approximate length.
To avoid "analysis paralysis," I strongly recommend that teams rough out such preliminary, always provisional curriculum guides in several one- or two-hour sessions. They can then move forward and refine the curriculum as they implement it. In most cases, such a rich, common curriculum will impact achievement levels during the first year of implementation.

We can begin this work right now, at the next PD or faculty meeting.

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These processes should embody the democratic principles of civil exchange and an appreciation for compromise that we should impart to students. Such an ethos is vital as we navigate current controversies around curricular content. We should be sure to consider all legitimate viewpoints, including parents' views and community standards (see sidebar for more on this topic).

Seize the Opportunity!

We have a real opportunity to provide our students with the richest and ideally the most equitable curriculum ever. In the end, none of the current controversies—or the tendency to stick to the status quo—justifies a delay in developing high-quality curriculum that all teachers in a particular school or course use consistently. We can begin the work right now, at the next PD day or the next team or faculty meeting. When we actually implement such curriculum, we will be tapping into a proven source of swift, significant improvements to education.
Knowing this, will we do it? Will we, after decades of delay, install this singularly powerful, life-changing engine into the automobile of American education?

A Plea for Respecting Community Input and Diverse Viewpoints on Curriculum

In developing a common curriculum, the viewpoints and preferences of teachers involved must be taken into account. I also believe curriculum in public schools should not flout reasonable public and parental standards. Indeed, according to a recent Education Week survey, a strong majority of educators themselves believe that parents "should be involved" in their local school's "curriculum choices" (Najarro, 2021). This doesn't mean we invite citizens to dictate topics. It does mean that as we build or revise curriculum, we should adequately respect tradition and community input.

Read more

Leading with Focus

Mike Schmoker's must-have, bestselling guide for leaders who want to streamline their practice and focus their efforts on radically improving student learning.

Leading with Focus
References

American Educator (Eds). (2010–2011, Winter). Common core curriculum: An idea whose time has come. American Educator34(4), 2.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2010–2011, Winter). Soaring systems: High flyers all have equitable funding, shared curriculum, and quality teaching. American Educator34(4), 20–23.

Dennis, A. (2021, December 19). Teacher Matthew Hawn, fired in critical race theory debate, fights to get his job back. Knox News.

DuFour, R., & Marzano, R. (2011). Leaders and learning. Solution Tree.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work, 3rd edition. Solution Tree.

Fortin, J., & Heyward, G. (2022, February 12). Teachers tackle black history month, under new restrictions. The New York Times.

Hirsch, E. D. (2020). How to educate a citizen. HarperCollins.

Marshall, K. (2003). A principal looks back: Standards matter. Phi Delta Kappan85(2), 105–113.

Najarro, I. (2021, December 17). Majority of educators believe parents should be involved in curriculum choices. Education Week.

Neem, J. N. (2022, Summer). A usable past for a post-American nation. Hedgehog Review.

Pondiscio, R., & Schirra, T. (2022, Summer). Restoring trust in public schools. National Affairs.

Sahm, C. (2017, January 10). Why curriculum counts. Flypaper. [Blog]

Schmoker, M. (2018). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning, 2nd edition. ASCD.

Schmoker, M. (2019, February 20). The problem with literacy programs. Education Week.

Schmoker, M., & Marzano, R. (1999). Realizing the promise of standards-based education. Educational Leadership56(6), 17–21.

Steiner, D. (2017, August 21). Choosing a curriculum: a critical act. Education Next.

TNTP. (2018, September 25). The opportunity myth.

Visible Learning. (2018). Collective teacher efficacy (CTE) according to John Hattie.

Wiener, R., & Pimentel, S. (2017). Practice what you teach. The Aspen Institute.

Willingham, D. T., & Rotherham, A. J. (2020, May). Education's research problem. Educational Leadership77(8), 70–75.

Mike Schmoker is a former administrator, English teacher, and football coach. He has written dozens of articles for educational journals, newspapers, and TIME magazine as well as multiple bestselling books for ASCD. In an EdWeek survey of national educational leaders, he was identified as among the best sources of practical "nuts and bolts…advice, wisdom and insight" on effective school improvement strategies.

Schmoker is a recipient of the Distinguished Service Award by the National Association of Secondary School Principals for his publications and presentations. As a much sought-after presenter, he delivers keynotes and consults internationally throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, China, and Jordan.

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Beyond the Textbook: Content and Curriculum
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