Rigorous Curriculum Design: How to Create Curricular Units of Study that Align Standards, Instruction, and Assessment

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The need for a cohesive and comprehensive curriculum that intentionally connects standards, instruction, and assessment has never been more needed than it is today. For educators to meet the challenging learning needs of students-comprehend all the standards, prepare for a variety of formative and summative assessments, and demonstrate proficiency on high-stakes state and provincial tests-they must have a clear road map to follow throughout the school year.

Rigorous Curriculum Design presents a carefully sequenced, hands-on model that curriculum designers and educators in every school system can follow to create a progression of units of study that keeps standards, instruction, and assessment tightly focused and connected.

Applicable to every grade, course, and content area, you will learn:

What rigorous curriculum is and how to create, sequence, and pace such a curriculum

Why seeing the "big picture" connections first is essential to beginning curriculum design

How to lay the foundational steps for designing a rigorous pre-K-12 curriculum

How to design a grade- or course-specific curricular unit of study, from start to finish

How to use formative assessments and data analysis to guide instruction before, during, and after each unit

How leaders can organize, implement, and sustain this model throughout the school and/or school system

The Leadership and Learning Center provides world-class professional development services, cutting-edge research, and innovative solutions for educators and school leaders who serve students from pre-kindergarten through college. The Center has worked in all fifty states and every Canadian province, as well as Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, and the Middle East. The Center works with public school systems, as well as religious and secular independent schools, charter schools, community colleges, technical schools, universities, state departments of education, national ministries of education, and international education associations. Center Professional Development Associates are experienced superintendents, principals, administrators, and educators who provide comprehensive practices for clients in the areas of standards, assessment, instruction, accountability, data analysis, and leadership.

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Editorial Reviews

2010 - Gary L. Sacket
Rigorous Curriculum Design should be a required course in EVERY teacher education program in the country. Without it educators will never see the whole picture that makes up their professional career.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781935588054
  • Publisher: Lead and Learn Press
  • Publication date: 4/16/2011
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 143,254
  • Product dimensions: 9.98 (w) x 6.96 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Larry Ainsworth is the Executive Director of Professional Development at The Leadership and Learning Center in Englewood, Colorado. He travels nationally and internationally to assist school systems in implementing best practices related to standards, assessment, and accountability across all grades and content areas. He is the author or coauthor of ten published books, including Rigorous Curriculum Design, “Unwrapping” the Standards, Power Standards, Common Formative Assessments, Student Generated Rubrics, and Five Easy Steps to a Balanced Math Program, including three 2006 editions, one each for the primary, upper elementary, and secondary grade spans. His chapter “Common Formative Assessments: The Centerpiece of an Integrated Standards-Based Assessment System” appears in the 2007 assessment anthology Ahead of the Curve: The Power of Assessment to Transform Teaching and Learning, edited by Douglas B. Reeves.

Larry regularly works on site in school systems to assist leaders and educators in understanding and implementing standards-based practices: prioritizing and “unwrapping” the standards, developing common formative assessments, designing authentic performance tasks, and creating rigorous curricular units of study in all content areas, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.

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Read an Excerpt

Excert Content: CHAPTER 1
What Is Rigorous Curriculum Design?

Before defining curriculum design in terms of rigor, let’s first start with a fundamental definition of the general term, curriculum. There are varying definitions, all useful for providing an important foundational understanding of the term. Among them are the following:

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the origin of the word curriculum is from the Latin curricle, meaning “course, racing chariot,” and currere, “to run.” Loosely interpreted, a curriculum is a course to be run.

Peter Oliva (2005) defines curriculum as:

A number of plans, in written form and of varying scope, that delineate the desired learning experiences. The curriculum,
therefore, may be a unit, a course, a sequence of courses, the school’s entire program of studies . . . (p. 7).

W. James Popham offers two related explanations of curriculum:

By curriculum, I mean the outcomes that educators hope to achieve with their students. The three most common kinds of outcomes sought are students’ acquisition of cognitive skills, bodies of knowledge, and their affect (such as particular attitudes, interests, or values) (2003b, pp. 16–17).

In this time-honored definition, a curriculum represents educational ends. Educators hope, of course, that such ends will be attained as a consequence of instructional activities which serve as the means of promoting the curricular ends (2004, p. 30).

Douglas B. Reeves (2001) writes:

An effective standards-based curriculum is planned “with the end in mind.” The selection of a standards-based curriculum implies focus,
discernment, and the clear exclusion of many things that are now in textbooks, lesson plans, and curricula (p. 13).

Apart from these clear and compatible definitions of the word, many broad synonyms for curriculum, often used interchangeably, include: standards, lesson plans, textbooks, scope and sequence, learning activities, and prescribed courses of study provided by the state, province, district, school division, or professional content area organizations. The result is a rather nebulous understanding of the term whenever educators use it in dialogues and discussions.

For purposes of this book, I am defining curriculum as the high-quality delivery system for ensuring that all students achieve the desired end—the attainment of their designated grade- or course-specific standards. My vision for designing such a curriculum is founded upon the intentional alignment between standards, instruction, and assessment.

The Current Need to Update and Redesign Curricula

School systems have been working hard over the past several years to get the means for achieving this desired end firmly in place and accepted within their professional culture. These “means” include, but are not limited to, the effective use of standards, differentiated instructional practices, formative assessments, and corresponding data analysis.

Today, educators and leaders are well aware of the need to update and redesign their existing curricula—particularly in the U.S., where forty-three states and the District of Columbia have adopted the rigorous Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics. Equally rigorous curricula aligned to these new standards must be created to help educators prepare their students for the national assessments that will be first administered in 2014–15. In addition, stronger links are needed between curricula and the many professional best practices being implemented. Not only have curricula not kept pace with the updated versions of state or provincial standards and assessments, often the established curricula are reflective of only the more traditional components:

• A general listing of content and performance standards (student learning outcomes or objectives) for each content area
• A yearlong scope and sequence of what to teach and in what order
• A pacing calendar of when to teach it and how long to take in doing so
• A list of related learning activities
• A suggestion of assessments to use
• A list of required or recommended materials and resources

All of these traditional components are, of course, necessary to retain, but they need to be further clarified. In addition, other important components should be added. We must broaden our view of what we want our curricula to be and do.

Curricular architects must acknowledge that the function of a rigorous cur -
riculum is to raise the level of teaching so that students are prepared for the 21st century with skills that “drive knowledge economies: innovation, creativity, teamwork, problem solving, flexibility, adaptability, and a commitment to continuous learning” (Hargreaves and Shirley, 2009).

Think about the following blend of both traditional and new components for an updated and redesigned comprehensive curriculum:

• Specific learning outcomes students are to achieve from pre-kindergarten through grade 12 in all content areas
• Vertical representation of those learning outcomes (grade-to-grade, course-to-
course) in curricular frameworks
• Units of study—topical (literary devices, character traits, narrative writing);
skills-based (making text-to-text connections, simplifying fractions); thematic
(patterns, ecology, composition and creativity, personal rights)
• Emphasis on standards-based skills and content knowledge
• Academic vocabulary specific to each discipline and pertinent to each unit of study
• Explicit linkages to state or provincial assessments and to college and career readiness
• 21st-century learning skills
• Higher-level thinking skills
• Interdisciplinary connections
• Authentic, student-centered performance tasks that engage learners in applying concepts and skills to the real world
• Ongoing assessments to gauge student understanding
• Sequencing of “learning progressions” (Popham, 2008), the conceptual and skill-based building blocks of instruction
• Research-based effective teaching strategies
• Differentiation, intervention, special education, and English Language
Learner strategies to meet the needs of all students
• A common lexicon of terminology (curriculum glossary) to promote consistency of understanding
• Embedded use of resources and multimedia technology
• A parent communication and involvement component
• A curriculum philosophy that is compatible with or a part of the school system’s mission statement

Another factor—this one external—that is driving the need to update and redesign curricula is the curriculum audit. In some school systems where low student performance on standardized tests has identified the system as being in need of improvement, a curriculum audit administered by an outside agency examines a particular content area curriculum to evaluate its strengths and point out its omissions. Although an external audit may initially seem disciplinary, it can, upon further consideration, be looked upon as a helpful diagnostic. The findings and recommendations of the audit report can provide a specific focal point for beginning needed revision efforts.

Rigor for the 21st Century

There are many definitions of the noun rigor, most of them related to some form of physical or mental rigidity or severity. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary definition of logical rigor—“strict precision or exactness”—seems at least relevant to the educational context. The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English defines the related adjective rigorous as “extremely thorough.” Yet neither of these definitions satisfactorily conveys the intent behind the word. To me, rigor refers not only to a level of difficulty and the ways in which students apply their knowledge through higher-order thinking skills; it also implies the reaching for a higher level of quality in both effort and outcome.

In many U.S. communities, the public perceives a decline and loss of rigor in their schools. School systems with a majority of underachieving students are facing very real external accountability pressures to perform well on state assessments. The response to these pressures in some, though certainly not all, school districts has been to lower expectations of what their students should learn and be able to do. This “lowering of the bar” has resulted in a loss of instruction and learning rigor for all students in those systems. Conversely, in other school systems with a majority of high-performing students, the comfortable status quo—as related to rigor—may need a healthy “bump up” in terms of redefining what rigor ought to mean and look like in both instruction and student work.

School systems preparing for a partial or complete overhaul of their existing curricula to emphasize increased rigor may find support in these insightful words of Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallik (2010): “We must ask ourselves, are we educating students for a life of tests or for the tests of life?” (p. 225).

In his article “Rigor Redefined,” Tony Wagner (2008) names seven 21st-century “survival” skills students today need to “master [in order] to thrive in the new world of work: (1) critical thinking and problem solving; (2) collaboration and leadership; (3) agility and adaptability; (4) initiative and entrepreneurialism; (5) effective oral and written communication; (6) accessing and analyzing information; and (7) curiosity and imagination” (pp. 21–22).

Wagner extols an exemplary algebra II teacher he observed who carefully structured a lesson so that his students learned the academic content while simultaneously using all seven of these skills. In contrast, Wagner laments what he has seen in hundreds of U.S. classroom observations: the reduction of curriculum down to only one component—test preparation. He concludes, “It’s time to hold ourselves and all of our students to a new and higher standard of rigor, defined according to 21st-century criteria” (p. 24).

Rigorous Curriculum Defined

My own definition of rigor as applied to standards, instruction, and assessment began with a focus limited primarily to the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001).

In the process of “unwrapping” or deconstructing standards that I have con -
tinued to refine, educators match the skills (verbs) in the standards statements to one of the six cognitive processes in the revised taxonomy: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create. They then design assessment questions to reflect the approximate levels of the corresponding thinking skills (e.g., analyze: analysis question; interpret: interpretation question). Corresponding instruction intentionally provides students with opportunities to exercise each targeted skill at the appropriate level of rigor so they are prepared to answer the related assessment questions.

This was—and continues to be—a good starting place for making more rigorous, parallel connections between standards, assessment, and instruction.

However, when applied to curriculum design, I believe a broader definition of
“rigor” must also include the intentional inclusion of and alignment between all necessary components within that curriculum. To design a comprehensive curriculum that intentionally aligns standards, formal and informal assessments, engaging student learning experiences, related instruction that includes a variety of strategies, higher-order thinking skills, 21st-century life skills, data analysis, and so on, is to indeed design a rigorous curriculum

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Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

Acknowledgments xii

About the Author xv

Preface xvii

Introduction xix

Part 1 Seeing the Big Picture Connections First 1

Chapter 1 What Is Rigorous Curriculum Design? 3

Chapter 2 How This Model Came to Be 11

Chapter 3 Connecting Curriculum Design to the "Big Picture" 17

Chapter 4 Overview of Curriculum Design Sequence 29

Part 3 Building the Foundation for Designing Curricular Units 37

Chapter 5 Prioritize the Standards 39

Chapter 6 Name the Curricular Units of Study 61

Chapter 7 Assign the Standards-Priority and Supporting 71

Chapter 8 Prepare a Pacing Calendar 79

Chapter 9 Construct the Unit Planning Organizer 97

Part 3 Designing the Curricular Unit of Study-From Start to Finish 111

Chapter 10 Select a Unit of Study and Identify Matching Standards 113

Chapter 11 "Unwrap" the Priority Standards; Write Big Ideas and Essential Questions 119

Chapter 12 Create the Unit Assessments-Pre-, Post-, and Progress-Monitoring Checks 137

Chapter 13 Plan Engaging Learning Experiences 159

Chapter 14 Recommend Effective Instruction, Differentiation, Intervention, Special Education, and English Language Learner Strategies 179

Chapter 15 Detail the Unit Planning Organizer 199

Chapter 16 Write the Weekly Plan; Design the Daily Lesson 231

Chapter 17 Implement the Unit of Study 253

Part 4 Organizing, Monitoring, and Sustaining Implementation Efforts 257

Chapter 18 West Haven's Comprehensive Redesign of Pre-K-12 Curricula 259

Chapter 19 Bristol's Established Process for Curriculum Development and Revision 275

Chapter 20 Advice to Administrators from Administrators 299

Appendix A Bloom's Taxonomy 317

Rigorous Curriculum Design Glossary: A Lexicon of Terms 321

Bibliography 325

Index 331

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The subject of curriculum is a vast one—as huge in scope as the topics of standards, instruction, and assessment. Because there are numerous interpretations of exactly what the term curriculum means, as well as a multitude of ideas and opinions about what curriculum should include, a topic this broad needs narrowing and defining.

When educators and leaders consider all that a solid curriculum can and should take into account in order to engage and prepare students for the future—breadth and depth of content knowledge, procedural skills and conceptual understanding, meaningful learning activities that take into account students’ interests, strengths, and developmental levels, constructivist thinking, college and career readiness, human values, character development, student-generated learning tasks, parent involvement, and so on—it’s no wonder that the mere idea of creating a compre - hensive curriculum to address all of these worthy aims can be daunting.

Educators must juxtapose this lofty ideal with the reality of education’s focus in school systems today—a relentless concentration on preparing students to score proficiently on high-stakes tests based on a partial sampling of certain academic concepts and skills.
How can our educators and leaders strike the desired balance of designing their curricula to accomplish both the ideal and the reality—preparing students to successfully pursue whatever life pathways they choose in this 21st century and preparing students to succeed on state, provincial, and national tests without sacrificing rich and worthwhile learning?

Thoroughly addressing all of these considerations in exhaustive detail would result in an encyclopedic volume that many working professionals simply would not have the time to read and study, let alone be able to systematically apply. Instead, the process presented in these pages is a comprehensive, yet doable, approach to curriculum design that endeavors to achieve this desired balance, one that educators and leaders in any school system can successfully use to create rigorous curricular units of study for every grade and content area. Think of this design model as a road map—a practical pathway to a clear destination with opportunities to stop along the way for further information and course correction, as needed.

The Need for a Curriculum Design Road Map

The need for a cohesive and comprehensive curriculum that intentionally connects standards, instruction, and assessment has never been greater than it is today. For educators to meet the challenging learning needs of students—comprehend all the standards, prepare for a variety of formative and summative assessments, and demonstrate proficiency on high-stakes state or provincial tests—they must have a clear road map to follow throughout the school year.

Such a road map must offer busy educators an overall organizational plan to meet these needs, a plan that:

• clearly specifies standards-derived student learning outcomes; • includes the different categories of instructional strategies: research-based, differentiation (additional supports for all students plus strategies for enrichment), intervention, and those most appropriate for English Language Learners and special education students; • offers engaging learning experiences that incorporate 21st-century learning skills, such as authentic performance tasks, in addition to the more tradi - tional types of textbook- or program-based learning activities; • provides an aligned set of assessments to gauge student progress before, during, and after each instructional unit of study; and • includes enough detail in the unit design to facilitate the writing of weekly plans and the designing of daily lessons.

This comprehensive road map needs to present new teachers with a detailed structure and pace to follow and experienced teachers with a flexible framework within which to apply their expertise. Essentially, it must offer all teachers a collaborative model for creatively planning and delivering an accessible and userfriendly curriculum that collectively addresses these multiple requirements.

Commercially Produced or Internally Created

Designing or redesigning rigorous curricula is a major undertaking. In preparing to undertake this work, school systems have options to consider. They may investigate commercially produced “turnkey” curricular programs that promise to save school systems from having to invest in the enormous expenditure of time, effort, and resources required to create their own. Expensive to buy, such component-heavy programs require both initial and ongoing professional development for educators so they are able to thoroughly understand the program and to use it effectively. No commercially produced program or textbook by itself should ever be regarded as “the curriculum.” However, a carefully selected commercial program or text can certainly be effective when used as part of a school system’s curricular redesign efforts.

For school systems that lack the necessary resources to purchase such a costly program and/or believe that the educators and leaders within their own system should be active participants in the custom design of their own rigorous curricula, this book is meant to provide a straightforward, do-it-yourself guide for doing so. Regardless of the choice that school systems make—commercially produced, internally created, or a blend of both—it is important to cultivate “in-house”
ownership of the curricula throughout the process.

A Road Map Ready to Follow

Rigorous Curriculum Design presents a carefully sequenced, hands-on model that curriculum designers and educators in every school system can follow to create a progression of units of study that keep standards, instruction, and assessment tightly focused and connected.

Applicable to every grade, course, and content area, you will learn:

• what a rigorous curriculum is and how to create, sequence, and pace such a curriculum; • why seeing the “big picture” connections first is essential to beginning curriculum design; • how to build the foundation for designing a rigorous Pre-K–12 curriculum; • how to design a grade- or course-specific curricular unit of study, from start to finish; • how to use formative assessments and data analysis to guide instruction before, during, and after each unit; and • how leaders can organize, implement, and sustain this model throughout the school and/or school system.

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