Last week, I shared that the Core Knowledge Foundation is seeking a courageous district to partner with. A district that will push back against pressure to teach to the test, and instead commit to a content-rich, coherent, cumulative curriculum (including art, music, civics, and all the other important things that are too often neglected) in all of its elementary schools. The response has been heart-warming; I’m having a wonderful time getting to know districts with a passion for closing the achievement gap. (If you would like to work with us, please get in touch: [email protected].) 

This week, as we look forward to celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, I’d like to explain a little more about our dream of partnering with a district to collaboratively develop and implement a well-rounded elementary curriculum. A rich curriculum creates a magical—and empowering—childhood. From ancient civilizations to faraway galaxies, our universe offers wonders that children eagerly explore if they are given an opportunity. Too often, social inequities are blamed for the achievement gap, even as curricular inequities are overlooked. Social inequities are deep and real; they must be addressed. At the same time, schools are part of the solution—especially schools that focus on equalizing opportunity to master academic knowledge, vocabulary, and skills.

 

The elementary grades are perfect for introducing students to our fascinating universe. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
The elementary grades are perfect for introducing students to our fascinating universe. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

While Core Knowledge already works with well over 1,000 schools, some that use our materials to deepen and round out their curriculum and others that teach the full preschool through eighth-grade Sequence, we believe children would benefit even more if schools worked together. Imagine all of the elementary schools in a small district, or a coalition of schools in a larger district, co-constructing their curriculum—voluntarily. If administrators create sufficient time for teachers to collaborate, teachers’ collective wisdom grows as they share expertise and materials. Teachers’ collective impact grows too, as they now have the opportunity to support learning across several schools, not just inside their classrooms.

In far too many elementary schools, teachers are not given opportunities to work together. Two fourth-grade teachers may teach totally different content—they don’t know what the second- or third-grade teachers taught, so they can’t reliably build on what students already know. Some topics get repeated in two or more grades; other topics are never taught. Grade by grade, students study an array of different topics, leaving little for the class as a whole to build on together. In such schools, each teacher must build each lesson from scratch. It’s exhausting and inefficient. Having to plan the whole curriculum alone, teachers don’t have enough time for diagnosing and addressing individual needs. And since they often teach different topics, teachers can’t easily share their materials.

Contrast this with schools that do have a schoolwide curriculum. Students’ knowledge and skills grow predictably and reliably year to year. Teachers know what to build on, are able to share lesson plans, and can help each other refine best practices for the specific content they are teaching. The common curriculum should not be a rigid script; teachers ought to have the freedom to extend topics that their students love and pause when needed to reinforce knowledge and skills. But with an agreed upon set of topics for each grade, teachers get the benefit of working as a team—and students get the benefit of a well-rounded, coherent education.

Sounds pretty good. So good that some elementary schools have done the hard work of developing their own schoolwide curriculum.

Things can get even better when several nearby schools create a common curriculum. More teachers working together means more expertise to share. If students change schools, they will not fall behind or disrupt their peers’ learning. Because of the common curriculum, the receiving teacher will be able to get very detailed information on the student’s knowledge and skills. And if teachers change schools or a new teacher is hired, the common curriculum creates a strong foundation for excellent instruction.

But wait! What about choice? What about schools with special themes? There’s room for those. Currently, nearly 40% of schools using Core Knowledge are charters. We’d love to partner with a district that has charter and neighborhood elementary schools—and to involve all the schools that are interested in collaboratively developing a common curriculum. Likewise, we’d welcome schools with special themes.

Just as the shared curriculum should give individual teachers room to breathe, it should give schools the flexibility to customize. The shared curriculum could be designed to take two-thirds of instructional time, leaving teachers and schools ample time to pursue unique strengths and interests. In fact, once the shared curriculum is in place, teachers and schools will find they have more time for such customization. Knowing that the shared curriculum gives all children a well-rounded education in literature, history, geography, the sciences, mathematics, and the arts, educators will be able to give more attention to how they want to extend children’s learning.

Together, we can achieve Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “complete education.” Writing for Morehouse College’s Maroon Tiger in 1947, King called us to duty:

It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture…. The function of education … is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society…. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.

 

 

10 comments on “For Equity, for Kids, for Democracy—Let’s Create a Model District with a Well-Rounded Curriculum”

  1. 1
    Zachary Navarro on January 19, 2015

    Complete education is not only something that can benefit teachers, but more importantly the students. When teachers are aware of what the students learned in previous grades, they can build on that prior knowledge, which makes learning an easier and more understandable process for the students.

    In addition, teachers who teach the same grade in a school have an opportunity that they should take full advantage of. Although they may have different teaching styles and instructions it is important that they teach the same if not similar lessons and content just so that what the students are learning at that grade is consistent.

    Lastly, it is a useful idea to have a conference meeting with the teacher who taught your students in the previous year just to get that clear idea of what your students learned in that particular year. Furthermore, you can also get an idea of the learning preferences from some students. You can get a head start on the best ways your students learn simply by getting those insights from their previous teacher.

  2. 2
    Tiffany G on January 21, 2015

    I think the idea of shared curriculum is a great idea, it would give different schools in the district the opportunity to work together and to be on the same page. Currently my school is piloting a new math curriculum that is different from our whole district, I think this will cause some problems if we have students who transfer. Our teachers are also running out of time making up their own curriculum for writing and reading,leaving less time for projects or themed units which would be interesting to the students. Shared curriculum would be a great use of time for the district and would be great for teachers to have some freedom as well.

  3. 3
    Ava Bell on January 27, 2015

    you stated. “we believe children would benefit even more if schools worked together. Imagine all of the elementary schools in a small district, or a coalition of schools in a larger district, co-constructing their curriculum—voluntarily. If administrators create sufficient time for teachers to collaborate, teachers’ collective wisdom grows as they share expertise and materials. Teachers’ collective impact grows too, as they now have the opportunity to support learning across several schools, not just inside their classrooms.” This was very well stated and i completely agree. Many schools are not on the same page and many different students are getting completely different types of education. Some schools are on the side where they are doing very well with the material and curriculum and other schools have no clue while most of their students are failing. If all schools were on the same page this would allow more of our children to have a fair chance at learning knowing that they are getting the same education as everyone else regardless of what school they attend. I also think that teachers should be allotted a certain amount of time to develop and collaborate together to ensure everyone remains on the same page.

  4. 4
    Award-Winning Educator Is Inaugural Core Knowledge Fellow; Valarie Lewis Showed How a Content-Rich Curriculum Equalizes Opportunity to Learn - SmiLoans on February 1, 2015

    […] Lewis will also be the advisor for Core Knowledge’s new initiative: partnering with a district (or coalition of schools) to meet the Common Core State Standards’ call for a “content-rich curriculum”—without wasting any time on test prep. A well-rounded education is the only meaningful path to high scores. Learn more at http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2015/01/15/for-equity-for-kids-for-democracy-lets-create-a-model-distr…. […]

  5. 5
    Award-Winning Educator Is Inaugural Core Knowledge Fellow; Valarie Lewis Showed How a Content-Rich Curriculum Equalizes Opportunity to Learn | Education Myth BustersEducation Myth Busters on June 13, 2015

    […] Lewis will also be the advisor for Core Knowledge’s new initiative: partnering with a district (or coalition of schools) to meet the Common Core State Standards’ call for a “content-rich curriculum”—without wasting any time on test prep. A well-rounded education is the only meaningful path to high scores. Learn more at http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2015/01/15/for-equity-for-kids-for-democracy-lets-create-a-model-distr…. […]

  6. 6
    Award-Winning Educator Is Inaugural Core Knowledge Fellow; Valarie Lewis Showed How a Content-Rich Curriculum Equalizes Opportunity to Learn on July 19, 2015

    […] Lewis will also be the advisor for Core Knowledge’s new initiative: partnering with a district (or coalition of schools) to meet the Common Core State Standards’ call for a “content-rich curriculum”—without wasting any time on test prep. A well-rounded education is the only meaningful path to high scores. Learn more at http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2015/01/15/for-equity-for-kids-for-democracy-lets-create-a-model-distr…. […]

  7. 7
    Patricia Gomez on July 21, 2018

    I think it is important to have a shared curriculum across the district. Although many schools emphasize the importance of vertical alignment across grade levels and content areas, the reality is that the high mobility rate within many school districts is a concern that affects students and teachers. Having a shared curriculum across the district would eliminate some of the concerns that teachers have about what students have learned in the past or are currently learning because all teachers share a roadmap.

    Part of a well-rounded curriculum stems from allowing teachers to work as professional learning communities where they are given opportunities to learn from one another and develop a curriculum that best fits the needs of their students. Let’s face it, teachers are the experts when it comes to the curriculum but they are rarely given the opportunity to partake in the development of such a crucial aspect of teaching. Many time districts hire external curriculum writers or they have content coordinators create a year-at-a-glance identifying only the standards that are required to be taught by term or six-weeks. This has proven to be unsuccessful in many cases because it allows teachers to continue to work in isolation without being given opportunities to provide input or give feedback.

    It is time that teachers place more emphasis and energy on providing a high-quality education versus just teaching to the test because they are pressured to produce high scores. If this does not occur, students will continue to develop gaps across all content because what is missing is the quality of the lesson as well as the focus on student learning.

    1. 8
      Victor Rodriguez on July 26, 2018

      You drew it out perfectly when you said, “Let’s face it, teachers are the experts when it comes to the curriculum, but they are rarely given the opportunity to partake in the development of such a crucial aspect of teaching.” In our district there are committees set up specifically for such occasions and never do they bother to reach out and ask for input from a teacher. The majority are made up of individuals who have never been in a classroom or haven’t taught in years. And you are correct, I have seen the six-week cycle fail on many occasions. What’s comical about this whole situation is that even when I look to provide the data to support student placement at the end of a cycle it’s irrelevant, they base their decisions off progress monitoring data.
      “Teaching to the test” is affecting the “Quality of the lesson.” There are missed opportunities to narrow the gap. For example, in the younger grades (k-2) even if students don’t get the phonics and are not able to decode words, regardless, teachers must press on. One may not see the effects right away, but what is happening to the student? Things begin to pile up until the student is completely lost by third or fourth grade. So, by the time they get to me in 5th grade I am left wondering why some of my students reading scores are so low.
      We need to get back to some traditional strategies, having time where students can interact, hands-on activities that will connect the concepts of the lesson, teachers having time to read aloud to students and model such things like, voice, emphasis, sensory, and phonics. These are some of the things I feel are “Missing” in lessons. That to me makes sense and would support a higher level of education for our students.

  8. 9
    Patricia Gomez on July 21, 2018

    A well-rounded curriculum is a critical component of students’ success. Due to state requirements and state assessments, the way curriculum is designed has changed and the focus is now on assessment scores. In many instances, the curriculum is written based on the content that was included as part of the state assessment in previous years, continuing with the teaching to the test practices that have hindered student achievement and growth. If we expect our students to be well-rounded adults who contribute to society by being socially aware and contribute to their community, we must prepare them in the classroom by creating a curriculum which sets them up for success in the real world. Such a curriculum does not consist solely of content that will be assessed due to state requirements.

    One way to ensure that a well-rounded curriculum is developed is by involving the experts to partake in the process. Let’s face it, teachers are the experts. Schools and districts need to utilize their greatest resource and it is the teachers that can provide real insight into what students need in the classrooms.

    Working as professional learning communities will further support with creating a district-wide curriculum as it will allow district educators and teachers to work together towards a common goal. Through this collaborative process, all stakeholder will be able to identify the benefits and challenges that come with implementing such an initiative.

  9. 10
    Victor Rodriguez on July 25, 2018

    Shared Curriculum sounds like a great opportunity to eliminate many challenges of a classroom. I like the idea of a full on-board staff coming to a consensus and the need for change. I do, however, also believe in the multiple differences that our staff brings to the table. So, I love that you mention “More teachers working together means more expertise to share.”

    Some of the obstacles I can see are the lack of time to develop such a mass project. Ultimately, I think this is where my principal would like to see us but another challenge is district requirements taking up a lot of our planning time. This sounds a lot like what we call Vertical Teams but I do not believe we are utilizing the time correctly, and vertical teams only meet quarterly. How can we get those that only work on contracted time to agree with this, or is there a layout that would work during the contracted schedule?

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