School leaders gain trust when they are “directly involved in the design and implementation of curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices.” These are the nuts and bolts of operating a school. Trusted school leaders drive continual improvement by directly leading their teams to reflect on the school’s mission, vision, and values as related to these three core functions – answering questions such as:
- What are the primary objectives of the school’s existence?
- What are the desired characteristics of the student who completes the school’s educational program?
- How does our school distinguish itself uniquely from other educational institutions?
By clearly identifying the school’s focus and purpose, leaders can then address the design, development, and/or improvement of its curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices. Trusted leaders know where they are going, and involve themselves in the establishment of a curricular program that supports unified school-wide priorities and goals.
Four Essential Areas of Involvement
In many schools, teachers develop the curriculum. However, few teachers possess a formal background and training in curriculum design. In fact, one national study concluded that schools must “dedicate time during each term of the school calendar to conduct massive in-service programs if teachers are to make a genuine impact in the curriculum development process.” Another study, focused on language curriculum development, concluded that significant amounts of training are necessary for teachers to be expected to function successfully as curriculum developers. This was born out as well in a similar study related to science curriculum. Teachers certainly have a significant role in the development and improvement of a school’s curriculum design, but only when accompanied by significant amounts of PD, which also actively involves the school leader.
1. Identify Aims & Objectives
Trusted leaders directly involve themselves in four fundamental areas related to the curriculum, instruction, and assessment design process. The first area is clearly identifying the curriculum’s aims and objectives. These must be in alignment with the school’s clearly understood and well-defined mission, vision, and values. Leaders and teachers must possess a very clear picture of the desired results, before they can design a curriculum. This is commonly known and understood as the essential first step in backward design. Grant Wiggins refers to this as Stage 1 in his now classic work Understanding by Design.
“In Stage 1 we consider our goals, examine established content standards (national, state, district), and review curriculum expectations. Because typically we have more content than we can reasonably address within the available time, we must make choices. This first stage in the design process calls for clarity about priorities.”
2. Design Authentic Assessments
The second area is designing assessments that authentically measure the student’s mastery of the curriculum’s aims and objectives. One of the common pedagogical blunders made by inexperienced teachers and curriculum writers is creating course content and then identifying a means to assess content mastery. That is the proverbial “putting the cart before the horse.”
Trusted leaders are mindful that learning and understanding are the primary objectives. Therefore, assessments must have the ability to measure whether or not those objectives are being met – not if a student can memorize and regurgitate a catalog of information. Assessments need to demonstrate that students understand how to use the knowledge and information in their world. Thus, course assessments need to be focused on the application of learning. Trusted school leaders are also instrumental and directly involved in ensuring an assessment philosophy is practiced that views student grades as a communication tool about the learning process – and not as compensation for the memorization and production of information.
3. Ensure Meaningful Student Engagement
The third area is ensuring that teachers and/or curriculum coordinators are continually reviewing that subject content and learning experiences engage students in meaningful ways. Since we live in an information age, it is far more important that course content and learning activities are utilized as illustrative material to support key concepts or major learning outcomes. Concept-driven course design is far more valuable to students than a content-driven course; teaching primarily how to master the course content, rather than simply what to master. Course content in nearly every subject area will always expand and change, and learning activities and teaching strategies are wide and numerous. For example, if a Modern World History teacher attempts to build a content-based curriculum identifying the significance of every major event since 1500, he or she must expand course content every year. The limited amount of course time forces the teacher to make choices about the content to include.
The selection of course content and the learning activities is best made by first identifying the most important concepts students must master in light of the school’s core mission, vision, and values. Once schools clearly identify major learning concepts, it is a matter of aligning content and learning activities, identifying real-life applications to support the curriculum, assessment, and instruction of those concepts.
4. Evaluate & Review Continually
The fourth area in which trusted school leaders are directly involved is evaluation and review. They ensure that every department of the school benefits from an established, systemized, purposeful, and intentional practice of evaluation of course contents, learning experiences, delivery methods, and assessments. It is truer today than in any preceding generation – schools must constantly evaluate whether the learning outcomes of any given course meet the needs of the current generation of students. In fact, teachers must do their best to teach to the future; answering the question “How will this course prepare students for life in the years to come?”
To review, trusted school leaders demonstrate Contribution when directly involved in these four areas of curriculum, instruction, and assessment:
- Identifying aims and objectives
- Ensuring assessment methods connect to real life
- Safeguarding course content and learning activities are engaging
- Establishing an ongoing system of evaluation
If leaders separate themselves from direct involvement in these details of the school, they distance themselves from the school’s core product – aka, the “nuts and bolts”. Nevertheless, this takes place in many schools, where the leader is absorbed with the school’s administrative tasks; their workdays spent primarily in the business office. When school leaders completely leave the true business of the school in the hands of teachers and staff, they are perceived as disconnected, and their level of trust diminishes.
In addition, when administrators place the burden of the curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices on others, they are perceived as insensitive to the faculty and staff workload. Many teachers feel inadequate with curriculum design, and resent the responsibility as additional and other than their teaching responsibilities. This frequently results in burnout, low levels of retention, and low-quality curriculum. Thus, many school leaders employ Curriculum Coordinators as their representatives to guide, lead, manage, and ensure that teacher involvement in the process is present, valued, and balanced. For those schools who are financially unable to staff such a position, then it really must be an expected responsibility and duty of department chairs and principals to protect the workloads of their teachers, and yet involve them in meaningful ways.
Next time, we’ll take a look at the unique elements of school leader involvement in the Christian school.
©2018 Toby A. Travis, Ed.D. All Rights Reserved
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 Corey T. Forbes and Elizabeth A. Davis, “Curriculum Design for Inquiry: Preservice Elementary Teachers’ Mobilization and Adaptation of Science Curriculum Materials,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 47, no. 7 (2010): 820-839.
 Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd Edition (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005), 18.
 Masaya Okada and Masahiro Tada, “Formative Assessment Method of Real-world Learning by Integrating Heterogeneous Elements of Behavior, Knowledge, and the Environment,” Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Learning Analytics And Knowledge – LAK ’14 (2014): 1-10.
 Susan M. Brookhart, “Grading,” SAGE Handbook of Research on Classroom Assessment (2013): 256-272.
 Brigid Barron and Linda Darling-Hammond, “Teaching for Meaningful Learning,” Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching and understanding (2008): 1-15.
 Filip Van Droogenbroeck, Bram Spruyt, and Chritophe Vanroelen, “Burnout among senior teachers: Investigating the role of workload and interpersonal relationships at work,” Teaching and Teacher Education 43, (2014): 99-109.
 Tjark Huizinga, Adam Handelzalts, Nienke Nieveen, and Joke M. Voogt, “Teacher involvement in curriculum design: need for support to enhance teachers’ design expertise,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 46, no. 1 (2014): 33-57.