Curriculum is the Key to Flexible, Future-Ready Schools

William Zhou

This past spring, schools across the U.S. faced similar challenges but experienced wildly different outcomes. When Covid-19 forced building closures in March, administrators quickly found out which end of the spectrum they inhabited―from “completely ready for remote learning” to “this building closure is basically a school closure.” Many teachers rightly zeroed in on addressing students’ social-emotional needs first, committing to regular check-ins with kids and their parents, getting a read on how they were navigating the traumatic events and, if time permitted, then pivoting to academics.

Schools’ and districts’ relative preparedness for distance learning was primarily evaluated based on their technology infrastructures. Districts whose leaders had long ago seen the promise of online learning, and whose teachers were already equipped with the right EdTech, were generally more prepared, while those adopting new tools on the fly found it to be a struggle. Even the best-laid plans in these areas were often undermined by the digital divide and the lack of home device or reliable Wi-Fi access for many families, but communities have come together to find solutions for these challenges, as well.

However, as we look at a new semester―and perhaps the majority of a new school year―where remote learning continues to be the norm, it’s clear that what began as a crisis is quickly becoming the long-term normal. What were the avoidable problems we could have addressed before the pandemic―which we must commit to changing now―and what changes are afoot in the world of K-12 that we need to get ahead of?


No more snow days

Weather-related closures, cold and flu season, emergencies at home...predictable events every school year. If we can navigate learning amid a once-in-a-century pandemic, why are we still derailed by such mundane events? With the more intentional adoption of technology and the shifting mindset that schooling can happen anywhere, things are likely to change in these areas quickly. The infrastructure will be in place for teaching and learning to continue, even when everyone can’t be in the building.


Technology is one part -- and, sure, an important part -- of the remote teaching and learning infrastructure. But it is far from the foundation. That all comes back to curriculum. When you heard about teachers having the most trouble this past semester―or perhaps it was you who was struggling―what factors were at play? In most cases, it was the challenge of simultaneously transitioning out of the physical building, setting up the right technology tools for remote instruction, and also figuring out lesson planning. What happened for schools who realized this was going to be more than just an extended spring break and we couldn’t wait out our lack of technology, but also didn’t have the durable curriculum in place to keep teachers confident in what they’d even be teaching―online or otherwise? In such cases, it was difficult to avoid a semester of lost learning and the unfortunate pitting of education versus public health, as supposedly opposed objectives.


Mapping out your success

A strong curriculum is always foundational to a district’s success, and this has been magnified by the current context. To do it right, curriculum mapping requires beginning with the end in mind and working backward to create an instructional pathway that gets each student to their learning goals. With such a plan in place at the school and district level, each teacher feels confident in the objectives and can develop lesson plans that teach students exactly what they need to know. Teachers will also be able to see students’ progress in real-time throughout the year and understand exactly where they are. 

Jennifer Mitchell, coordinator of curriculum and professional development in Pennsylvania’s Mifflin County School District, adds, “Curriculum mapping can also save teachers huge amounts of time. Once they have the curriculum, lessons and resources they need at their fingertips, they can focus on delivering effective, standards-aligned lessons to their students to drive student achievement and ensure students across all subgroups are on track to meet or exceed grade-level expectations.”

Each of the benefits described by Mitchell can apply just as easily to an in-school or remote learning context. In fact, they are essential to making remote learning an effective option for schools. High-quality, standards-aligned instruction can be delivered synchronously or asynchronously, using the newest technology or with even minimal online access. When leaders are confident that every teacher knows exactly what to teach based on a clear accounting of what students need to learn, how to teach it becomes a much easier question.

Looking at the impact on distance learning environments another way, many schools nationwide chose not to administer end-of-year assessments in the spring due to the challenges of managing them remotely, but the outcome was lack of evidence of students’ proficiency and readiness for 2020-21. When curriculum mapping is done right, much of the pain of assessment and the emphasis on testing is removed, as progress is monitored continuously and both teachers and administrators can better understand achievement. 

"One of our focuses this year is curriculum and unit planning,” one administrator from Ohio shared with us. “We know it’s what we need to do to help our students gain the knowledge and skills they missed from last year. It’s about building that right curriculum map where everything is aligned from what essential standards need to be taught, to which lessons teach the standards." 


Back at the beginning

Almost as if anticipating the future, Mitchell wrote in her op-ed about her district’s plans to add curriculum map information to the website to make it more accessible to families. She noted that getting started on the project was no easy task, but once her district got curriculum maps in place, the benefits have been enormous. For everyone currently experiencing distance learning without curriculum maps―and without an easy to reference, transparent plan to show to parents―the urgency of this is likely not hard to imagine. 

Just as businesses have increasingly gone remote for the past several years, and just as schools had to make similar adjustments due to the pandemic, we are increasingly likely to see more and more of a shift toward schooling happening remotely, asynchronously and, if we get it right, more flexible and effectively. But schooling is only meaningful in relation to what is taught and learned, so curriculum needs to be at the top of every conversation. With more widespread adoption of curriculum mapping, we can develop schools prepared for the future.


About the author

William Zhou is the CEO of Chalk, an education technology company that utilizes data to help K-12 schools integrate curriculum, instruction and assessment. The company was founded to enhance the benefit of meaningful data on teaching and learning. Zhou has been passionate about entrepreneurship from a young age and was previously named to the Forbes top 30 under 30 list.


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