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Vail Valley Voices: Changing curriculum

Heather Eberts
Vail, CO Colorado
valleyvoices@vaildaily.com

In an effort to continue charging down the path of increasing student achievement, aligning district and Colorado academic standards and closing the achievement gap, Eagle County Schools has taken on the tremendous challenge of redesigning the pre-K through grade 12 curriculum in the areas of reading/writing/communicating, mathematics, science and social studies. No small feat for a curriculum redesign team in a larger school district, let alone a more condensed team of talented, dedicated teachers, a director of curriculum, instruction and assessment and a director of professional development, who are a part of a much smaller school district taking on 14 grade levels across 19 schools.

Why redesign the curriculum?

Student achievement: Maintaining high expectations for all students continues to be a focus for Eagle County Schools. The district is working diligently to increase the level of rigor and academic expectations across all subjects and grade levels.

While district student achievement scores are, for the most part, on a positive upward trend, an achievement gap still exists between our white and minority students.

Additionally, under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, states and school districts are required to make annual “adequate yearly progress” determinations for individual schools and the district as a whole. The ultimate goal of “adequate yearly progress” is to have all students proficient in reading and math by the year 2014.

Another reason the district is aggressively redesigning and realigning the curriculum is in response to current student achievement in the area of math. Across the nation, there appears to be less and less of a focus on post-secondary readiness and preparedness, evident in the increasing number of college freshman drop-outs and remediation rates.

Colorado Academic Standards: In August, the Colorado Department of Education revised the Colorado Academic Standards and adopted the Common Core State Standards, so the timing for Eagle County Schools to redesign the district’s curriculum couldn’t have been better. Eagle County Schools had to do even more tweaking as a result of the Colorado Department of Education re-issuing a revised set of academic standards in December, but that didn’t faze the District whatsoever.

External audits: Due to the fact that Eagle County Schools did not make “adequate yearly progress” for the past several years, the district was mandated to participate in a Comprehensive Appraisal for District Improvement. As the district was planning for the Comprehensive Appraisal for District Improvement visit, the Colorado Department of Education invited Eagle County Schools to participate in the three-year Closing the Achievement Gap initiative in March of 2008. Thus, the planets aligned with the Comprehensive Appraisal for District Improvement visit and the Closing the Achievement Gap project.

Another key ingredient that was added to the mix was the high school audit conducted in the spring of 2010, which was initiated by Superintendent Dr. Smyser. This audit provided an in-depth look into our successes and challenges in the high school curriculum world.

What is the process used to redesign the curriculum?

In the spring of 2008, the Comprehensive Appraisal for District Improvement audit posed the important question: What process will you use to revise curriculum? Developing a process means, first and foremost, defining what “rigorous curriculum design” is: An inclusive set of intentionally aligned components – clear learning outcomes with matching assessment and engaging learning experiences and instructional strategies – organized into sequenced units of study that serve as both the detailed road map and the high-quality delivery system for ensuring that all students achieve the desired end: the attainment of their designated grade- or course-specific standards within a particular content area.

The “rigorous curriculum design” process is made up of three phases: foundational, design and implementation.

Throughout the course of the foundational phase, curriculum teams of teachers are prioritizing standards, naming units of study and pacing units out for each grade level over the course of a school year.

During the design phase, curriculum teams are unwrapping priority standards, developing big ideas and essential questions and designing common formative assessments for each unit of study.

Finally, during the implementation phase, teachers will take the units of study and common formative assessments and design engaging learning experiences for their students.

It is important to point out that all of the phases of the process are being developed, supported and implemented by teachers. One phase couldn’t exist without the other, nor could they collectively exist without the support of the educator. Curriculum teams aren’t designing “daily assignments” or telling teachers which approach or resource to use; we’re simply saying “here are the priority standards this second-grader needs to know, this is how it will be organized over the year, now you develop the way in which you plan to engage your students.

Battle Mountain High School natural science teacher Carol Wellbaum agrees.

“Personally, the most valuable part of the curriculum redesign has been the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers in the district as we work to adapt our curriculum to the new state standards and ensure high academic standards.”

Why are we using this process?

After much deliberation, research and discussion, this process was chosen because many of the inter-related components represent characteristics of high-achieving school districts, such as: maintaining a laser-like focus on student achievement, developing and using clear curriculum, forming teams that collaborate on student work, using writing as a tool for learning and both managing and using frequent assessments.

This design process, created by Larry Ainsworth at the Leadership and Learning Center in Denver, is also used by Washington, D.C., public schools and West Haven public schools in Connecticut.

“This process is powerful to not only understand the curriculum at a deeper level, but it will help the teacher be clear of what they should be teaching and at what level of rigor,” said Stephanie Gallegos, Minturn Middle School sixth-grade social studies and reading teacher. “Sitting down and looking at all grade levels will help ensure that expectations are being set and teachers aren’t teaching the same skill or level over and over. The work has been mentally exhausting, but the payout will be tremendously valuable for our teachers and students.”

I’m also extremely excited about this curriculum redesign process and what it means for students.

We are equally as excited that teachers are developing this work for their colleagues in a spirit of collaboration and enrichment.

Stay tuned for more information on how the redesign process looks in each of the lenses of the four core content areas of reading/writing/communicating, mathematics, science and social studies.

Heather Eberts is executive director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Eagle County Schools.


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