OPINION | Curriculum: Education’s roadmap

For many students, summertime is a break from heavy academic lifting. For administrators, it’s a chance to accomplish a lot of important work in preparation for another successful school year.

One of these tasks includes curriculum development for future years and evaluating the current curriculum's effectiveness. A strong curriculum can take a district from average to highly effective because it provides a roadmap for ensuring students acquire the necessary skills to tackle increasingly challenging subjects, year-to-year.

Those outside the education system, and those inside, should think of education delivery in terms of actual travel, according to Hamline University Professor of Teaching Tony Berman.

He explains that the state of Minnesota provides the academic standards in a K-12 setting. Standards are basic destinations. They tell all schools where students should be academically at a particular time. For example, by eighth grade, all students should know the basics of geography and mapping. The state’s standards, however, don’t provide schools with how to get to that academic destination. That’s where the curriculum comes in. As mentioned above, the curriculum is the roadmap for the long 12-year journey to get students to each academic destination on time.

Keeping with the travel analogy, some districts use broad mapping, giving teachers opportunities to make professional judgments about when to stay on the highway at full speed, or when it’s appropriate to pull off an explore a destination in more detail. They trust their teachers to develop an appropriate itinerary.

Other districts have a more Google maps-type approach, providing very specific directions that eliminate room for creativity but facilitate a fast and efficient trip.

As in all good organizations, the state and districts constantly evaluate their standards and curricula to ensure the best student outcomes.

In 2007, the Minnesota Department of Education overhauled the math standards. It started by identifying what students needed to know before they graduated, and worked backwards from there. One new requirement was that students had to complete an algebra credit by the end of 8th grade. To prepare for this, curriculum developers went back through the K-7 curriculum and built in ways for students to start practicing algebraic thinking as early as possible so that they would have less trouble with it later.

For example, districts started introducing algebraic concepts when teaching basic first grade math instead of waiting until students hit mid-level grades. Take this equation for example that requires students to fill in a missing space:

2 +__= 5

This helps students develop logical thinking skills while learning to add and subtract.

In the Stillwater School District, curriculum coordinator Amy Jones oversees elementary math and science curriculum. Stillwater takes a “very systematic approach,” making sure the curriculum of each grade builds on the last and prepares for the next.

Each grade has common assessments, tests that students at all schools take to ensure they have mastered the material. While there’s debate about whether we should tie teacher pay and school funding to these tests, the wealth of data can be valuable in assessing which part of the curriculum is effective and how to target students for extra support.

Their district, as well as many others, has recognized that when students fall behind in math, it is important to get them caught up as soon as possible before the effects snowball.

Every district wants to provide as much extra support to students as possible, but with budget cuts, Stillwater is an exception in that it can afford to do so. Many schools are being funded at the bare minimum, which is no longer enough if we want all students to achieve at high levels.

The current model of education, with one teacher for a group of students, assumes that all students learn at the same rate, or that the teacher will somehow magically have enough time to provide intensive 1:1 support to each student. We know it takes different amounts of time and support for different students to learn. If we want all students to achieve at high levels, we have to build a system that has the flexibility to offer additional support.

We are asking more of public education now than ever before, as Minnesota 2020 has pointed out. Curriculum coordinators are not traditionally thought of as vital to the classroom, but when we ask schools to increase outcomes, create more meaningful testing, and design effective interventions, it’s impossible to put that all on the backs of teachers and a barebones support staff.

It takes the work of the entire district, from teachers to coordinators to support staff, to ensure the best possible support for all students. The equation is simple:

Broader community infrastructure + well supported teachers + adequate funding = increased student achievement 

Schools have or can create the infrastructure to help children succeed; what we need now are Minnesota’s education policymakers to step up and do their part in funding Minnesota’s schools fairly and properly.

Our primary commenting system uses Facebook logins. If you wish to comment without having a Facebook account, please create an account on this site and log in first. If you are already a registered user, just scroll up to the log in box in the right hand column and log in.