Revising Adoption of Curriculum Materials & The Hidden Inequity

David Kafitz

Digital curriculum and content is disrupting the marketplace for instructional materials. Large publishing houses who once commanded 85% of this marketplace and faced only smaller, niche-based competitors now find themselves looking over their shoulders as “born-digital” curriculum companies are gaining momentum and market share. There is more choice than ever for school districts to select from when searching for curriculum and content to use in the teaching and learning process. However, is all of this choice a good thing for schools?

The process of selecting instructional materials in school districts typically employs a cyclical model spanning a period of five or more years. During these years, one curricular vertical is typically selected for review and adoption each year. For example, a district may review language arts materials for all related instruction K-12 in one year, all math materials the second year, social studies the third year, and so forth. This model worked well when the instructional content was in printed form.

Now that more and more curricular content is available in digital form, does this same adoption cycle work? To answer this question for a school district, the decision as to how much change to curriculum and content necessitates a reconsideration of its use in instruction. Low order change, such as updates of current historical events, may be deemed acceptable without review. High order change to curriculum and content, for example a change to artificial intelligence algorithms that drive how a students is advanced or remediated in a system, or a change in an instructional approach to a subject may force a district to reexamine its use of the content.

Revising the Process

Now that curriculum and content can be changed quickly, and is often being changed within subscription content systems constantly, should school districts revise their processes for adopting curriculum and content? It seems likely that districts would need to consider the constant change in digital curriculum and content and should initiate a new review cycle, a process that is not wed to strict annual timelines. In addition, districts and schools should be requesting digital content and curriculum providers to announce every change made in the interim between reviews.

Another consideration in realigning the curriculum adoption process should review the work impact on those tasked with leading the process of curriculum selection and acquisition. Is there adequate staff for what is ostensibly a work load five to ten times the normal annual load? Could the roles be distributed to subject-matter experts? Should the roles be distributed down to all teachers who also have the new complication of studying new analytics information, become interpreters, and “individualize” for every student? Can a school or district sustain the effort to keep pace with the change in digital curriculum and content?

The Hidden Inequity

Typically schools have been rolling out devices with a vague idea of what teachers will be doing with them and a lot of excitement. Collaboration, kids reading various texts, surfing around to research, and possibly taking formative or even summative tests on their devices has been the answer by most well-intended school executives. Far too often we hear that “the teachers will build the curriculum.”

The hidden inequity is that many school executives have never actually seen the fully-loaded born-digital curriculum coming out of the industry and some 7,000 vendors. They may have seen an ebook with flat text, possibly in PDF form. They’ve seen email. They may have never logged in and had the experience of going through a gaming-based interface with music, adapting to them as they move through each lesson, and assessing as they go. There are few teachers with the programming skills to build such interfaces, and the alternative is poorly wrought materials that are little more than lesson plans and surfing assignments -- without the promise of high engagement digital could bring.

What this means is that executive estimation of the effort involved for the curriculum reviewers and the potential of transformation at the teaching level is normally poorly considered. Additionally, executives continue to be caught between the two worlds, still buying textbooks while trying to support a digital shift when there is no budget left. Ideally, the shift to digital is considered to the degree that budget in paper-based curriculum shifts as well. This puts the district or school on a path to getting the best-in-class in digital materials and the staff needed to review, administer and sometimes custom design content.

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