Building a New Curriculum from Existing Materials

Public Prep Charter Schools created a new curriculum based on their teachers’ recommendations. Can you?

Can teachers design curriculum? It’s a daunting and potentially time-consuming task, but at Public Prep Schools in New York City, they’re making it work through a surprisingly efficient process focused on repackaging existing, teacher-chosen units into a single curriculum.

Public Prep first opened the doors to its first school in 2005. That year, they served girls in Kindergarten and 1st grades. Since then, the network has expanded to multiple public elementary and middle schools serving both girls and boys in Manhattan and the Bronx. The schools initially all used their own curricula, and while the network saw numerous benefits to moving everyone to a single ELA curriculum for reading and writing, they didn’t want interrupt the momentum already happening in each school. Teachers had identified resources that worked and many of these materials were high-quality and already producing good results. The solution they decided on was a revision and reassembling of existing curricula.

How to choose the best of many existing, good resources? It’s a dilemma many educators and school leaders face whether they are designing a new curriculum or simply trying to differentiate among the millions of free educational materials available online. Public Prep’s review and selection process can serve as model for how it can be done.

Call for Units

The first stage of the process was to issue a call to all teachers within the network to submit units that fell into one of the following categories:

  1. Units they were currently teaching,
  2. Units they had used in the past with success
  3. Units they had seen and wanted to try because they thought they had significant potential to improve achievement

Develop a Clear Criteria for Inclusion in a New Curriculum

The network established a group of “unit upgraders” including teachers, literacy coaches, and other school leaders who would have the task of reviewing each suggested unit for inclusion in the new curriculum. The criteria they chose were the elements of Achieve’s EQuIP Rubric, designed for assessing lessons and units for alignment to college- and career-ready standards. An initial set of reviewers would identify units that scored a 9 (out of 12) or higher on the EQuIP Rubric. Because time was limited to assemble the new curriculum (and improve lessons that had deficiencies), it was decided that there was only bandwidth to improve units already at this high level of quality and alignment.

Improve Units

Using the EQuIP Rubric, reviewers found it took about 4-6 hours to review a unit covering 5-7 weeks, and each unit was reviewed at two stages: first to identify the initial group of units that scored a 9 or higher, and second by unit upgraders who completed the rubric to help them get a better sense of what needed to be revised. The upgraders worked in grade-level teams of 3-5 members. The teams discussed the findings and the first two stages of the unit, including unit goals and end-of-unit assessment. After doing this collaborative work, reviewers worked independently to complete a revision of the unit to address any weaknesses identified during the review process. Eventually, network leaders hope to reevaluate all of the revised units with the EQuIP Rubric again to provide evidence that the selected units are high-quality and standards-aligned.

To-date, Public Prep has revised and upgraded about 10 units per grade for K-8, for a total of close to 100 units. After the first year of implementation, the number of units covered during a single year was reduced to 7-8 because feedback from teachers indicated that there was not enough time to thoroughly cover all of the content with 10 units.

Teacher input is highly valued within the network, and after each unit is delivered, there is a period of feedback time when teachers can share their thoughts via a shared Google Doc about each unit’s strengths and weaknesses. Tweaks and adjustments are made to the units based on that input, such as a request for pre-tests to be added.

Within the network, schools still retain a great deal of autonomy over their materials even though they now use a shared curriculum. Principals can choose to substitute a unit or lesson if they let the network know and submit lesson plans that reflect the state standards and assessment goals. Principals also serve as gatekeepers, ensuring that all teacher submissions for new units are based in evidence.

Overall the reaction to the process has been positive. Teachers appreciate that their voices have been heard and included in a meaningful way, both in the development of the curriculum and in the ongoing adjustments and improvements to it. For network leaders, the extra time and energy spent identifying and improving the units was well worth it. Allison May, Director of Elementary Literacy Achievement, explained that the goals of this work were to ensure the network “1) respected the smart and thoughtful work that had been done at each individual school up until this point, and 2) had a curriculum that represented our students, families and communities as well as the values of our school.” This work has allowed them to accomplish both things – creating a teacher curated collection of high-quality, standards-aligned resources.

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About the Author: Student Achievement Partners is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving student achievement through evidence-based action. Founded by some of the lead writers of the Common Core State Standards, the organization works closely with educators and other partners in the education field ensure the promise of the Common Core is realized in classrooms across the country.