When I became an elementary school principal in 2012, I found its curriculum in a dusty, three-ring binder stored in a closet. It was merely a list of topics for students to learn, and the teachers had no idea it existed.
This sad situation conflicted with the long-standing research that the No. 1 school-level factor in raising student achievement is a guaranteed and viable curriculum (Marzano, 2003). We needed more than a staff meeting and a pile of dust cloths. We needed to shift our mindsets and then organize the results of our new, collaborative-based thinking.
Our district started reimagining its curriculum using the Understanding by Design® Framework (McTighe and Wiggins, 2005). Part of this journey included professional learning around UbD tenets and three important shifts in educator mindset about what a curriculum is, who develops it, and how often it should be revised.
In our outdated view, a curriculum could be a dust-covered binder, a textbook series, or a compilation of fun activities that a teacher developed over time. We began a shift towards designing curricular units that focused on deepening student understanding and their abilities to transfer their learning.
We learned from Jay McTighe that the word “curriculum” comes from the Latin “course to be run.” That idea stuck with us: Our curriculum provides the course for students to run from Pre-K to high school graduation.
Relying on the three stages of backward design at the heart of UbD, we identified desired results, determined acceptable evidence, and planned learning experiences that would guide students. That long, non-linear process took place over nearly a decade.
The second shift dealt with who develops a curriculum. When a textbook is considered to be the curriculum, the developer is an external authority or publisher.
Without question, we wanted teachers to develop our curriculum as a crucial and integral part of their work as professionals. They take the lead in crafting curriculum using external resources and the UbD planning framework.
The third and final shift in our thinking occurred around how often the curriculum should be revised. The least effective approach is to react to infrequent updates to state standards. The common, five-year revision cycle is systematic, but not as responsive as today’s rapidly changing world requires.
We shifted our minds to a third approach, that of a state of constant revision. To rightfully treat our curriculum as a living, breathing document, we provide teachers with suggesting and commenting rights to digital files of their units throughout the year. That gives them the power to document their thinking and suggest revisions in real-time.
Department- and grade-level meetings encourage collaborative review throughout the school year, a practice we plan to make more systematic. Subject supervisors and teachers meet over the summer to make official revisions.
Throughout 2013-2021, our district created almost 1,000 curriculum units using the UbD template. We began that ambitious undertaking with UbD-based professional learning and prioritized summer as a time for curriculum writing in the new format.
Cloud-based storage and collaboration underscored our determination that the curriculum be living, breathing documents that are in a constant state of improvement.
Google Drive is not meant to be a curriculum warehouse, so of course, we faced inefficiencies and organizational issues. Our research led us to Eduplanet21’s Curriculum Management Platform which creates a common place for curriculum design and related professional development models.
This licensed UbD software supports the curriculum writing process and allows teams of educators to collaboratively design and plan units. Eduplanet21 incorporates customizable national, state, and school-level standards.
User-friendly drop-down menus make easy work of selecting goals and aligning relevant lessons and assessments. The Unit Planner’s built-in alignment check confirms that our teaching and assessments link to our standards, and an advanced analytics engine allows us to determine if standards, content, and other learning outcomes are being covered. Housing curriculum in one searchable, easily managed location like Eduplanet21 brought all our documents in one place with a modernized template and analysis tools.
Subject supervisors and teams of teacher-leaders took the lead in migrating our curriculum from Google Drive to Eduplanet21. These teams, representing every school and grade level, as well as general and special education, served as point people before we scaled this work across the district.
In 2021-22, they helped facilitate professional learning around UbD and lead curriculum revisions around state standards. Over the summer, these teams are taking the lead on migrating the curriculum to Eduplanet21, and, come fall, they will play a key role in teaching their colleagues. The process of migrating has helped us prune, prioritize and improve our curriculum.
While we’re confident that developing 1,000 units was transformative, we know macro-level connections are necessary to ensure that all students receive a systematic curricular experience that prepares them for life beyond K-12. Eduplanet21’s platform allows us to create better coherence in K-12 by establishing, visualizing and managing our overarching interdisciplinary and disciplinary transfer goals (McTighe and Curtis, 2019).
The glue that keeps our curriculum units and courses together is our community-influenced Profile of a Graduate, which outlines the competencies that we want our graduates to possess at graduation. These interdisciplinary skills cross various subject areas and indicate that our community places a high priority on skills such as communication, critical thinking, adaptability, and empathy.
Administrators and teacher leaders defined our Profile competencies with indicators and essential questions that will spiral throughout the K-12 curriculum. Ultimately these will be turned into rubrics that can be used for student self-assessment and to provide criterion-based feedback on cornerstone performance tasks. Using Eduplanet21’s software, we can systematically integrate this work across our K-12 curriculum.
Alongside our Profile development, we worked closely with Jay McTighe over the past few years to delineate disciplinary transfer goals and overarching understandings and essential questions. These will serve as targets for each discipline. This poster displays our long-term goals and related essential questions for K-12 Science.
Eduplanet21’s Course Planner comes with a feature called Curriculum Blueprint that allows us to share our entire curriculum with parents and our community. Below is a draft of what the homepage of our Curriculum Blueprint will look when it goes live at the end of the summer.
Three mindset shifts led to transformative changes in our curriculum, replacing a dusty old binder with easily accessed digital material that had been pruned and prioritized.
The next critical step is a multifaceted, cloud-based management system that has built-in checkpoints to confirm that our teaching and assessments link to the standards and our long-term goals. We are well on our way to establishing a guaranteed and viable curriculum that is in a constant state of improvement and reflects our commitment to teaching for understanding.
To learn more about the Eduplanet21 platform and how it can help your school or district, click the button below.
McTighe, J., & Curtis, G. (2019). Leading modern learning: A blueprint for vision-driven schools. ASCD.
Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Pearson.
Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Dr. Andrew Matteo, Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment for Ramsey (N.J.) School District, attended school there from kindergarten through 12th grade. Before serving in his current role, he was the principal of John Y. Dater Elementary School in Ramsey for five years. Dr. Matteo began his teaching career in Glen Rock, NJ in 2003 before returning to Ramsey in 2012.
Dr. Matteo attended Boston College, where he studied Elementary Education and History. He holds two master’s degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University, including one in School Building Leadership that he received as a member of the Summer Principals’ Academy. He earned his Ph.D. from Montclair State University.
Dr. Matteo is also an adjunct professor at Montclair, where he teaches in the Educational Leadership program designed to equip prospective educators and administrators with essential content knowledge and specific skills for contemporary leadership in schools.