Build a Curriculum with the Greatest Impact on Student Learning – Thought Partners Educational Leadership Coaching

Build a Curriculum with the Greatest Impact on Student Learning


“There is a ‘mountain of evidence’ (Sahm, 2017) that implementing a coherent, content-rich curriculum may be the most foundationalelement of effective schooling and has the greatest impact on students learning, reading ability, and life chances.” 

These are powerful words written by Mike Schmokerin the March2019 Educational Leadership publication.

In this article and his second edition of Focus he identifies a “coherent curriculum” as one of three of the most powerful initiatives a school or district could place their focus on to have an impact on all student learning.

Curriculum is often elusive in many schools and districts across the United States.

There are numerous definitions and meanings of what a curriculum actuallyis and its components. Yet, having a “guaranteed and viable” curriculum was identified in Robert Marzano’s research presented in What Works in Schoolsas the school-based factor having the greatest impact on student learning.

Coherent in my mind means a curriculum that has clarity of what students are to learn and it has simplicity for understanding of what needs to be taught.

A “guaranteed and viable” curriculum is one in which “what” is to be taught can be done effectively so students learn it in the time allotted for instruction during the school year.

Typically, whether you are using the Common Core State Standards, a modified version of them, the Next Generation Science Standards, or other subject or state standards documents the standards are either organized by grade level or grade span as to the standard that is to be taught.

Yet, these standards are often very broad in nature and encompass a lot that students need to learn. They would not be considered “guaranteed and viable” as there is still usually not enough time in a school year for ALL students to learn and apply them at a deep level of understanding.

Consider the following process asyou develop your curriculum. Start by Building the Base.

1. Identify the grade level standards into those that are essential to learn (primary standards) and those that are niceto learn (secondary standards).

You are not eliminating any standards from being taught, but some standards are more important to learn than other standards which may need to be taught multiple times during the year. Standards are not the curriculum, but the foundation to the curriculum. Keep in mind the amount of time needed to learn an essential standard.

2Standards should not be taught one by one.

Primary and some secondary standards should be organized to be taught together. The typical organization of curriculum (what is to be taught and learned) is into units of instruction. Therefore, units of instruction need to be determined as the next step and placed in an order to be taught throughout the school year.

There are three types of units of instruction: topical, skills-based, and thematic. Certain content areas are more apt to have topical units of instruction such as Westward Expansion in Social Studies, or The Solar System in Earth Science. Skills-based is common in mathematics with a unit on measurement.

You could see skills based in English curriculum with a unit on argumentative writing.  Thematic units might sound like Cycles in science or Diversity in English. A curriculum could have a mix of the different types of units that are taught during a given year.

3. Once the units have been determined for the year, first, the primary standards need to be placed in the units of instruction in which they will be taught and learned.

Certain primary standards may be in multiple units throughout the year.  Next, which secondary standards would support the learning of the primary standards.

Dig Deeper

This completes the surface level of Building the Base to a unit of instruction. It is now critical to dig deeper into each primary standard in each of the units. My suggestion is to complete all components of one unit before moving onto the next unit.

4. For each primary standard you need to peelback the layers like on onion.

What do students need to learn in order to demonstrate an understanding of the standard?  I have found the easiest way to do this is to create a KUD chart (know, understand, do) for each standard.

5. TheKUD chart breaks down the standard, but it does not delineate a learning progression. 

Meaning, the order the knowledge, understandings and skills need to taughtfor the best student learning. Rearrange what students need to know, understand and do into a logical learning order.

Remember to movestudents from surface level learning to deep level learning where they can transfer their learning to new situations. The standard may not have language that indicates a deeper level of learning, but it may be important.

Essentially, after you have created the KUD and learning progressions for each primary standard in the unit, you are able to determine where formative assessments might take place and what those might be. You can create apre-assessment as well as the post assessment.

It is best for a grade levelor subject level team gothrough this process together. Once assessments have been determined, discussions on how the content and skills will be taught can ensue. Instructional materials can be shared and suggestions for appropriate instructional strategies discussed.

Going through this process ensures alignment between the standard and the assessment. It is paramount that teachers instruct using the unit base to ensure the written, instructed, and assessed curriculum are aligned. 

I would recommend by book Designing and Using Performance Tasks for a more thorough explanation of building a base.  

It’s time to make the curriculum in your school or district the focus for student learning.  


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Tracey Shiel

Tracey Shiel is an author and consultant with over 20 years in the field of education. Through Thought Partners, she provides research-based educational services including balanced leadership coaching, professional development, implementation planning, and execution support, and special educational projects of the highest quality. Her passion is with coaching educational leaders to achieve school and district improvement goals while enhancing leadership capabilities.