District Leadership: Teacher-Driven Curriculum Design

More than 60 teachers in Dr. Steven Weber’s district helped write their math curriculum. Now, they are excited. Learn how this process not only helps develop curriculum, it also develops teacher leaders and promotes the important conversations that need to happen.

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Dr. Steven Weber: Teacher-Driven Curriculum Design

Link to show: www.coolcatteacher.com/e319
Date: May 24, 2018

Vicki: Teachers, don’t you wish that curriculum design would involve you?

Well, our guest today, Dr. Steven Weber, has involved sixty-five teachers in redesigning the curriculum for math in his district.

So, Steven, tell us about what you’ve done and what your vision is for this.

Steven: We started with teachers and we identified math as the first area, and we went to our board and we said, “We’d like to have a curriculum review cycle.”

So in that curriculum review cycle, math came first. So this past school year, we spent the past twelve months with sixty-five pre-K through high school teachers, and we unpacked the standards.

We spent the past 12 months with 65 teachers, unpacking the standards.

A good place to start is unpacking standards, after we unpacked the standards, we identified key skills and key concepts that every student should know and be able to do in each grade level.

Then there were vertical conversations about geometry, algebra, and about student understanding. Throughout those vertical conversations, the teams continued to unpack the standards and align the local curriculum to the state standards.

But most importantly, we started with National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. NCTM has a document that outlines, “What is an excellent math program?”

We went from assessment to materials and on and on through the curriculum, and we identified those things. Then we had a conversation with the sixty-five teachers about whether or not we had an excellent math program, and what we needed to do to get there.

Do we have an excellent math program? If not, what do we need to do?

So I would say, you still have a long way after you created the written curriculum to implement the curriculum, but we feel like we’ve closed some of the gaps in the written curriculum and we feel like we’re moving towards, or our goal is to continue striving for an excellent math program.

Vicki: What was your reason for including all of these teachers? Of course, as a teacher, I applaud you, but it’s a challenge because teachers are busy.

Steven: We have sixteen schools in our district, not including our pre-K program. Out of the sixteen schools, if you only had one teacher to represent it, it would give you sixteen teachers. We felt like sixteen teachers wouldn’t be enough, because a fourth-grade teacher can’t really represent the kindergarten program.

We had a good representation from all grade levels

We had teachers represent from each of the grade levels and I’m not going to say we had a K-4 teacher from every school, but we had a good representation. So you would have had five or six fourth-grade teachers meeting and discussing the curriculum, and there were five fifth or six grade teachers at the middle school level so there are vertical conversations.

The identification of the teachers came from principal recommendations. To be on the committee was an honor because your principal recommended you.

Vicki: What was the feedback from the teachers you’ve gotten about these meetings?


Steven: In the beginning, people said things like “I’m not a district curriculum writer. Why can’t we just buy the curriculum?” or people said, “I’m good with my grade level, but I don’t know if what I do inside my classroom should be what they do at a school across town.”

What we found out over time was that people found out they really are experts. Teacher leaders are experts. An eighth-grade teacher’s an expert, a fourth-grade teacher’s an expert, and they’re really good at what they do.

We found out that over time, these teachers emerged. So we gave them a platform as leaders and they stepped up to the plate.

But your question is, “What are they saying?”

We’re hearing things like, “This curriculum gives me hope as a teacher.”

“This curriculum is my legacy.”

“This helps me set the stage for first-year teachers in a way that I never had.”

Another teacher said, “When I was a first-year teacher sixteen years ago, they gave me keys to my classroom, a teacher’s guide, and a gradebook. No one told me what to teach.”

So I don’t think it’s a scripted curriculum by any means. Teachers still have autonomy. But teachers feel like they had a voice and choice, just like we want to give students to have a voice and choice.

“This gives me hope,” and “This gives me a legacy.”

Vicki: I love the words, “This gives me hope,” and “This gives me a legacy,” because isn’t that two important things for us teachers to be able to make in our classroom?

Steven: Certainly, I think it makes it worth coming into work when you feel like you have added value to the profession.

Vicki: How does that make you feel, Steven, when you get that kind of feedback?


Steven: It makes me feel proud as a leader because we’ve invested a lot in the teacher leaders. We recognized that they were leaders, and then we listened to their voice.

It makes me proud to represent them recently at our board meeting and stand before the board and present something that sixty-five teacher leaders worked together across sixteen schools. It makes me proud.

Vicki: You know, a lot of administrators would really raise their eyebrows at these numbers. Have you seen other districts involve so many teachers in rewriting their curriculum?

Steven: I have not personally. I’m sure it happens in other states.

But part of the reason is a financial reason. Your board has to invest in teacher leaders and believe that the work can be done.

Another reason is that some people put that money in textbooks. I still hear of a lot of school districts who feel like the textbook is the curriculum.

So a lot of districts, I think, they have state standards, or national standards, and they have a textbook, and that’s good enough.

But really, the process is more important than the product. So we’re really proud of the product that we’ve created and our board is currently reviewing for approval. But we feel like that process and those conversations were worth the investment, and the substitutes that we paid, and the time we paid stipends last summer.

The process is more important than the product

Vicki: Well, you have the curriculum, but then you also are having these conversations.

For example, a teacher in seventh grade might say, “These kids are coming to me and I don’t feel like they know _______.”

There are things on paper, and there are things in practice, and what’s on on paper and what’s going on in practice in a school district is not the same thing. Would you agree with that?

Steven: Yes.

Vicki: So this, in some ways, is not just an investment in curriculum, it’s an investment in conversation.

Steven: It’s very much an investment in the profession. It’s an investment in teachers, and recently Tom Murray and Eric Sheninger, who I’m sure you know, they’re talking in their book about “return on instruction.” So, as in business, they say ROI, and ROI in education is “return on instruction”.

So when we implement the curriculum, we’ll have to ask, “Is there an ROI?”

If there’s not, that’s when RTI (Response To Intervention) and other support and academic interventions come in.

But it’s very difficult, if a district doesn’t have a guaranteed curriculum, or a written curriculum, it’s very difficult to stop and say, “Here are the scaffolds, or here are the academic interventions we need.” Because every teacher closes their door and teaches whatever they are comfortable with.

Vicki: Steven, did you make any mistakes at the beginning that if another person follows this model that will save them time if they don’t make those mistakes?

Steven: We certainly made mistakes, and when we move into science next year, we’ll try to avoid those mistakes.

One of the mistakes we made in the beginning was trying to write transfer goals. We tried to write a transfer goal for math for every single unit.

Mistake #1: Trying to write transfer goals for every single unit

And recently I was talking with Jay McTighe and I told him, “I tried to use your model and transfer goals just didn’t work very well for me.” And he said that the transfer skills or the transfer goals for math should probably be eight to ten overarching transfer goals all the way from K through 12.

So I was trying to ask teachers to do something that’s difficult to do. I mean, the standards already have broken down what teachers should teach, and we were trying to break that down some more.

The second thing we made the mistake of was assuming that teachers knew the eight mathematical practices outlined in the standards for math. Even though you have your best teachers, sometimes teachers haven’t really dug deep into the standards. So having teachers write about the eight mathematical practices is difficult if they don’t have a deep understanding.

Mistake #2: Assuming that teachers knew the 8 practices outlined

Vicki: So, really, not getting too, too detailed and kind of looking at the overarching issues, but also making sure they do understand the effective best practices and “can speak the language,” I guess, in some ways.

Steven: Right. The more teachers you involve, the harder it is.

So, back to your question about the number of teachers involved, most school districts will hire two or three of their best teachers — or one of the best teachers — and they’ll work in an office for a year or two, writing a district curriculum.

You can certainly get a tight curriculum and a guaranteed curriculum in that process, but you don’t have the conversation and the professional job-embedded learning that takes place with sixty-five teachers.

Vicki: Well, that’s fantastic.

Steven, as we finish up — so you’ve done the presentation, you’re presenting this to the district, you’re moving forward hopefully with implementation. Are there any teachers who are excited about implementation?

Steven: Every teacher we know is excited about implementation, including those who weren’t on the committee because they feel like they’re implementing a curriculum written by Fayetteville Public Schools’ teachers.

So there’s buy-in because the people who were chosen as teacher leaders in their building — because they’re leaders — are going to have a ripple effect on the teachers throughout the school and district.

But we’re very excited about the written curriculum, and we’re looking forward to seeing that impact on student achievement.

I think along the way we might have multiplied a few teacher leaders. So some people who started off not being a teacher leader, but they were nominated by their principal. Now they’ve been given a platform in the school district and people respect them even more because of what they contributed to the profession.

Vicki: This is so fantastic.

Teachers, this is one of those podcast episodes to forward to your district administrators and your curriculum directors.

And I love that teachers are excited about implementation. Because you know, it’s one thing to write, but getting adoption, getting implementation, is where the rubber meets the road. That’s where we implement and we impact classrooms. That’s where we make the experience of learning more remarkable and we level up what we’re teaching.

I think this is a fantastic model that all school districts should take a look at, to understand how we can involve teachers in curriculum design — and also understand the side impacts that may not be as obvious — the conversations that happen, the on-the-job training that happens, and the professional development that happens that’s part of the process — and that this is really what we want our students to be doing too.

We want them to be collaborating and working together, understanding these concepts.

This is fantastic. Thank you, Steven!

Steven: Thank you. Thank you for having me on the show.

Contact us about the show: https://www.coolcatteacher.com/contact/

Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford kymberlimulford@gmail.com

Bio as submitted

Dr. Steven Weber is the Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning with Fayetteville Public Schools (Arkansas). Connect with Weber on the ASCD EDge social network, or on Twitter @curriculumblog.

Blog: http://edge.ascd.org/profile/steven-weber-1#blogs

Twitter: @curriculumblog

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” This company has no impact on the editorial content of the show.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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