10 Apr Aligned Curriculum and Assessment Support Student Success
by Josh Ruland, former Curriculum Director Indian Prairie School District 204
At the beginning of our journey in curriculum development, it became very apparent that we were spending much time arguing about what we meant … while actually meaning the same thing. We were essentially talking past each other. When working with teams, don’t underestimate the importance of speaking the same language – words matter. Our Curriculum Advisory Team was using different terms to mean the same thing, but because we all had different ideas of what those terms meant, we were having difficulty moving forward.
Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Alignment
One of the most productive meetings we had was coming to consensus on a common working language. We were not going to be able to develop a common vision and philosophy about curriculum and curriculum development until we started to speak the same language. We discussed and came to a shared understanding of the terms curriculum, instruction, and assessment. While we all agreed these pieces are connected during the teaching and learning process, they are also different and serve different related purposes in that process.
It was interesting to see how different members of our team placed different emphasis on each part. For teachers, it was the instruction that was most important as it was what they did day in and day out. For principals and those held to accountability, the assessments held a higher level of attention. For curriculum developers and course designers, curriculum was paramount.
As a team we needed to step back and view the whole and not just the parts. Each part was supportive of each other and worked together for the whole. It took our team some time to come to a common language and a common understanding of each of the parts and how they supported the whole.
District Consensus for Student Success
When we began to speak using specific language with a common meaning, we began to move forward to plan our approach to district consensus curriculum development. Our vision for district consensus curriculum essentially followed the four questions used by our PLCs:
- What do we want our student to know? (curriculum)
- How will we know that they have learned those outcomes? (common assessments)
- What will we do when they have learned those outcomes? (instruction)
- What will we do when they have not learned those outcomes (instruction)
We decided that by developing district consensus about student outcomes and common assessments we would be developing a district approach that supports and respects our teachers and their ability to focus and innovate their instruction. Essentially, we defined the district consensus curriculum as the consistent student outcomes and assessment evidence for each unit along with the required resources. This definition gave more freedom and flexibility for teachers and teams of teachers to try different instructional approaches and have meaningful conversations about how students are responding to instruction.
We did not want to design a curriculum that would be so narrow that all teachers would be using the same lessons. We did want a curriculum that would establish the consistent student outcomes for each course and unit.
Curriculum Development Process
As a district, it was important to develop our curriculum development process collaboratively. We decided to take the approach of developing the consensus curriculum first instead of starting with diary mapping. By taking this approach, we would be addressing the changes required to curriculum from new standards.
We came to the conclusion that district consensus curriculum would reflect the consistent student outcomes, the common summative assessments, and the required and/or approved resources identified with that course. Being a large district with multiple schools, it was imperative that we created courses that had the same expectations for students no matter what teacher or campus you attended. It was also important that we measured student success in the same method – common summative assessments.
We recognized that this new development process would result in curriculum that would be both tight and loose. That is to mean that there would be components of the curriculum that were consistent and components that would encourage teacher creativity and innovations.
It was not as easy as it sounds for everyone to come to this understanding. The initial concern came from the classroom teachers who were afraid that this process would remove their creativity and innovation from teaching. However, it was quickly discovered that having consistent outcomes and common assessments would actually increase their ability to be creative and innovative in the teaching of these courses. This design would also create an atmosphere ripe for discussing instructional approaches and sharing the results with colleagues through the PLC process.
Establishing the Curriculum Team
As a district composed of 30,000 students and 31 different buildings, it was important to carefully determine our process for developing district consensus curriculum. While it would be ideal to have a team of teachers that represent each level and building, for our elementary and middle schools, this would not be feasible. Instead, it would require a sampling of teachers to represent the different grade levels and participation from each building.
Each team was comprised of classroom teachers with support from a combination of instructional specialists, department chairs, and building administration. This development would ask members to spend numerous hours during the summer and some time during the school year to focus on the writing process. It was important for the team to be committed and understand the impact their participation would have on students and colleagues. It asked our teachers to go above and beyond their main responsibility, but they were exactly the right people to be doing this work. Creating this team in this manner was an obvious acknowledgement of the respect we had for our classroom teachers.
After we established the teams, it was time to build their capacity to begin developing. We adopted a multi-year process, divided into 5 phases, for development and implementation of new curriculum.
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1. Educating the Educators
The first phase was to help the development team take a deep dive into professional learning about new learning standards, shifts in instruction, content, curriculum development, assessment development, course and unit progressions, and data examination. We spent much of that first year learning and planning.
2. Developing the New Curriculum
The second phase was the initial development of new curriculum or revision of previous curriculum. As much as we could, we developed curriculum from the ground up. It was tempting to reach back for the previous curriculum, but by removing the constraints of the old, our team was free to wipe it clean and focus on developing courses that would be aligned to our beliefs, mission, and expectations for students.
Our teams developed courses using our Understanding by Design framework. We began with the desired results of the course and the assessment evidence required to see that students have met those expectations. From there, the teams began to work on units that would serve as the building blocks to achieve those results followed by some common summative assessments used to show student understanding.
This was a time of great frustration, debate, arguing, but, ultimately, satisfaction. From the outside, it would be easy to quickly dismiss this frustration and try to calm the waters. Instead, our approach was to embrace this chaos. It was from this chaos and disagreements and debate, that the truly great ideas emerged. This dialogue and debate was encouraged because the results were fantastic.
Common Summative Assessments
It was easy for the team to agree that the same courses should have the same expectations. It was less easy to come to a common understanding that each course should have some degree of common summative assessments. It took a mindshift about assessment before we could move on with common summative assessments. We had to move away from assessing students on the ability to complete the lessons and activities to a summative assessment schema that assessed students on their performance of the outcomes designed in the curriculum.
This shift created the platform to encourage and respect teacher innovation and flexibility for planning lessons and teaching their students. We did not want to design a curriculum that would be so narrow that all teachers would be using the same lessons. We did want a curriculum that would establish the consistent student outcomes for each course and unit. Our goal was to respect teachers as professionals to develop daily lessons, activities, and classroom formative assessments and give teachers and PLCs information about how students met or exceeded the expectations of the course outcomes through common summative assessments.
Once the large framework of student outcomes and assessments were established, the teams began to develop the context to bring the units together for the students. This work relied on the experience and expertise of our professional teachers – not only did they meet those expectations, but in some cases, far exceeded them.
3. Piloting the New Curriculum
With a district consensus curriculum developed, it was time to begin the implementation phase. Whenever possible, we would try to pilot units of the new curriculum. Since we developed district curriculum with consistent desired results and common assessments, it was important for teachers to begin creating lesson activities through this pilot process. By piloting, we could create some exemplar lessons that teachers not involved in the development process could begin with and build from.
4. Implementing the New Curriculum Across the District
During the time of development and piloting, teachers not on the development team participated in professional learning about the standards, outcomes, framework, shifts in instruction, the new curriculum and common assessments, and overall support of teaching students the newly identified outcomes to better prepare them for the full implementation roll out.
We did not make the exemplar lesson activities a required component of teaching. In fact, we were not able to pilot much of the new curriculum at the high school. We relied heavily on teams of teachers to work collaboratively in their PLC teams to create the lesson activities. Without the luxury of the pilot, it was as if all teachers of this course were new teachers again. Teachers took that challenge in stride and came together to crowd-source lessons and activities that were supportive of the unit and course goals.
5. Ongoing Review
Our final phase is on-going review. During this phase we focus on two major questions:
- Did our students respond to instruction?
- Did our curriculum prepare students for the next unit, course, and experience?
The first piece was to use the district common summative assessments and teacher created formative assessment results to empower all teachers to have conversations about best practices with instruction and the result on student learning. Essentially, these conversations revolved around the experience of the student and did the student learn what we set out to teach in the manner it was taught. More importantly, the formative assessment information gave teachers timely information to answer this question but then have time to adjust instruction if some or many students were not where they ought to be on the continuum of learning.
The second piece was to use the district common summative assessments and student performance on that assessment and their continued performance on future common and state assessments to determine if the curriculum was appropriate to prepare these students. If students meet the expectations of the course as identified in the common assessment but did not meet the expectations on the state assessment or other valid large-scale assessment of the same standards, then we clearly need to address the curriculum. That tells us we don’t have a teaching concern, but rather, we have a curriculum concern.
The underlying work of the development team and district research team is to use the variety of assessment information to build confidence in the district common assessments we created as a tool to inform the district about the appropriateness of our curriculum.
This confidence helps teachers create formative assessments that help drive and inform instruction at the classroom and student level on a day to day basis.
At our district, we strive to develop a balanced assessment system that we are confident informs how students respond to instruction, informs instructional changes, and validates the curricular outcomes and our progressions – all of which are important to better serve the teaching and learning of our students.
Advice for Other Schools or Districts
Don’t underestimate the need to collaborate to develop a common language, common vision, and common process. In addition, once you have these pieces in place, don’t be inflexible in adapting the process to serve the common vision. Your teams do not have to do everything the same, but as long as they understand the language, agree on the vision, understand the general process they will create excellent curriculum, instruction, and assessments that support and focus on the teaching and learning of students–and that is exactly what we want.
This change in curriculum design required us to focus on what we would gain by developing a viable curriculum with consistent outcomes and common assessments – teachers were respected for their ability to be innovative in their development of lessons and armed with information about the impact their instruction had on student performance on those curricular goals.
Josh Ruland is the former 9-12 Curriculum Director at Indian Prairie School District 204, the 3rd largest school district in Illinois. He now serves as the Assistant Superintendent for Minooka CCSD #201.