Strategies for Success: Collaborative Curriculum Design

By Elizabeth Worlein, Rubicon International featuring Tracy Schipper from College Community School District

Tracy Schipper, Learning & Leadership Development Coordinator at College Community School District in Iowa, has years of experience bringing teachers together for collaborative curriculum design. She asserts that empowering teachers through consistent, collaborative curriculum and data review has dramatically impacted instructional practices and student learning. This has taken shape in teacher leadership programs, work to identify power standards, curriculum mapping, data review, and the implementation of curriculum revision cycles. In a recent interview, Tracy shared how their district synced these various initiatives for long-term success – for both teachers and students.

Q: What made you decide to work on standards and identify power standards?

Our work goes back to 2007 when Iowa began discussing a common set of state standards.  Prior to that time, our state was a local control state, where all standards were developed at the local level.  As the Common Core was launched in 2009, the Iowa Core soon followed.  At College Community we developed a long-term plan for full implementation of the Iowa Core.  We endeavored to have all students graduate high school prepared for college and/or career success.  As we built the foundation for this long-term effort, we began with opportunities for  teachers to become familiar with the standards.  We worked with national consultants to unpack the standards with the support of teacher leaders. Gaps existed across standards, so we sought to connect priority standards and outcomes. The focus of this work cycled through over the years and content areas of Math, ELA, Social Studies and Science.

At this same time, we adopted our first curriculum mapping tool to capture our work and guide our planning, instruction, and assessment.  Eventually, Atlas Rubicon became the clear choice in helping us move forward in this arena.  The responsiveness of this system and the Atlas Rubicon team helps us keep the focus on the what, how, and results of our efforts.

Q: How did you translate the purpose of power standards to teachers?  What was their reaction?

We leaned heavily on the work of Bob Marzano that pointed to a guaranteed and viable curriculum as the number one school level factor in student achievement.  Teachers immediately connected with Marzano’s assertion that “mile wide and an inch deep” coverage of curriculum was not in the best interest of students and that many other countries do not use this approach that is so pervasive in the United States.  They embraced the notion that is it mathematically impossible to sufficiently address all of the standards in the amount of instructional time allotted within a school year.  Teachers were very supportive of a process that established power standards with the remaining standards serving as supporting standards.

As we embarked on the journey of selecting power standards, we focused on the selection of standards that would best meet the criteria of:

  • Endurance (lasting beyond one grade or course; concepts and skills needed in life)
  • Leverage (application within the content area and to other content areas; i.e., interdisciplinary connections)
  • Readiness (prerequisite concepts and skills students need to enter a new grade level or course of study)

Another important step in the process was our professional learning around UbD or Understanding by Design.  Atlas Rubicon assisted us in creating our unit design template using the UbD framework.

Q: As you reflect on the process you have established for power standards and curriculum mapping, what is one big takeaway you have?

It is an ongoing process!  We evolve, we gain greater insights and experience as we implement our decisions with students.  They influence us.  It can be frustrating at times, wondering if we will ever “arrive” at our destination.  We must remind ourselves that the destination is continuous improvement.  Making peace with that is important. We would never want our doctors or technology innovators to reach a finish line.  Our students deserve an educational system that is constantly refining curriculum and practice for their benefit. Our curriculum maps are a guide for design, not a tool for documentation.

I would also add that when we are assessing student proficiency with power standards, we must consider a body of evidence.  One common assessment is not sufficient.  In order to personalize learning and engage our students at the highest levels, we must design and allow for multiple pathways in students’ demonstration of learning.  Currently, each power standard is targeted in at least one common assessment. A proficiency scale is used to develop common assessments, where teachers are continually reminded to identify standards, develop targeted assessments and then provide feedback on the assessments.

Q: How do you review and refine the curriculum?

We developed structures that bring teachers from common grade levels and courses together to review results from common assessments, preview upcoming units, and provide input for revisions.  Smaller teams of teacher leaders utilize the input to revise power standards, the scope and sequence, and common assessments.

This work takes place on full professional learning days.  At times we provide substitute coverage to bring teacher leaders together to revise the curriculum. All teachers meet together twice a year: one day is provided at the beginning of the year and another at the end of the year. Grade level and department teams meet 1-2 per week in their PLCs in the buildings.

The process began with identified leaders and teams, and later involved all teachers in some way. Curriculum mapping was made a priority and responsibility for all. This gave great power- where teachers have ownership of the curriculum maps and their structure. This also negates any blame or judgement of assessment results. If students don’t perform well, that is on us. [The teams of teachers] have the power and responsibility to fix the objectives of the curriculum and/or the common assessment.

Q: If someone was just beginning the process of identifying power standards, what advice would you give them?

  1. Begin by establishing the purpose…the why.  Involve teachers every step of the way and encourage them to be the drivers of the process.  Establish structures to prioritize this work.
  2. Simultaneously develop structures that enable collaborative teams, or PLC’s, to bring purpose to the curriculum efforts.
  3. Teachers must use their formative data to impact students in real-time.  Develop manageable feedback loops to capture and act upon the input that teachers are providing in the midst of their implementation.   One hurdle we continue to bump up against is the notion that a guaranteed and viable curriculum is somehow diametrically opposed to creativity and personalization.  Engage in this messy conversation early and often.
Key steps that helped the College Community teachers along the way:
  • Provided PD to identify power standards
  • Provided PD on UbD Framework
  • Customized their Atlas system (personalizing the template and using the Adopted Curriculum feature to document the scope & sequence, as well as common assessments)
  • Trained all teachers to efficiently use and navigate Atlas
  •  Engage in feedback cycles, addressing curriculum’s scope & sequence and common assessments.
  • Facilitate opportunities for conversation and collaboration.
  • Promote accountability to the student and provide a focus (e.g. developing plans, eliminating redundancies)
  • Apply feedback from teachers to make further curriculum revisions

Keeping students front and center of curriculum writing makes the work meaningful and relevant to teachers! When it’s used as a means to empower teachers, College Community’s work proves the dedicated time is invaluable. Have questions or comments? Send us an email at, or tweet us at @RubiconAtlas!

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