As states clamp down on what students should know and be able to do after each grade level, school districts across the country are tapping a new tool afforded by technology to avoid reruns and gaps in lessons over students’ 13-year public school education. The tool: curriculum maps.

Curriculum maps help school districts know if students are learning the same skills and concepts year after year. They also get teachers talking about what curriculum they actually teach—or, in some cases, don’t teach.

“In an elementary school, you could find [that] in second, third, and fourth grade, they are doing a unit on dinosaurs,” said Linda Antonowich, assistant superintendent for curriculum and staff development at Pennsylvania’s West Chester Area School District. “That’s not exactly bad [if the concepts taught are different], but you have to go back and find out what, exactly, is being taught.”

West Chester has created and deployed its own curriculum mapping program, now that the district has a widespread technology infrastructure in place. At any time, the district’s teachers—roughly 850 of them—will be able to look in a district computer folder to review the lessons taught by fellow educators.

The West Chester technology department created a standard curriculum map form, saved on the district’s server, for each teacher to fill out. Each form contains areas for teachers to record the skills and content they teach and the assessment tools they use. At the top of the form, teachers fill in their name, school, and subject area. After teachers fill out the forms electronically, they resave them on the server.

Teachers, administrators, and an outside consultant say the maps are integral to creating a curriculum with smooth, sensible transitions for students.

Seventh-grade English teacher Michele Curay-Cramer said “it was extremely effective” when teachers in her department at Peirce Middle School sat down in late September to review the lessons they give, looking at the lessons they had logged by month on the computerized forms.

“We realized [that] with grammar, each year everybody was starting with nouns,” she said. “That was a big relief, actually,” because it lightens the load when teachers can skim off what proves to be redundant. As a further example, she said eighth-grade teachers asked seventh-grade teachers to put more focus on writing a paragraph and spend less time on style; they’d cover style instead.

Sixth-grade math teacher John Hogan said the alignment will help streamline the district’s education between school buildings, too.

“It’s going to be a big help in coordinating our curriculum with the elementary and the high school,” said Hogan, who teaches at Fugett Middle School. “In our situation, we get children from four different elementary schools. Some schools have gone further with their math curriculum than others.”

America’s classrooms function like a smattering of one-room schoolhouses, said Heidi Hayes-Jacobs, an international education consultant speaking to teachers from two of the district’s 10 elementary schools. Any one student will have as many as 75 teachers in his or her 13-year primary and secondary school career—and these teachers often aren’t on the same page, even within the same district.

“One of the dilemmas is the isolation of the classroom teachers,” said Hayes-Jacobs, who previously taught high school, junior high, and elementary school children in three states. “If you think there’s gaps between grade levels, there are grand canyons between buildings.

“Nobody knows what’s being taught, really,” she whispered to the elementary teachers who started to write their maps in November. “The person who really knows what happens from year to year is the kid.”

Technology is the vehicle that will deliver the lesson-plan maps to all teachers in the district, helping to bridge those gaps.

Curriculum mapping isn’t actually new, said Hayes-Jacobs, an adjunct professor at the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Columbia University Teachers College. But the maps weren’t effective when they depended on paper and pencil blueprints of classroom lessons. “Technology is central to this work,” she said, as it enables teachers to create an organic document that all staff members have access to.

Hayes-Jacobs, also president of Curriculum Designers Inc., is known for developing the concept of curriculum mapping, according to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). Hayes-Jacobs wrote a book published by ASCD, called “Mapping the Big Picture: Integrating Curriculum and Assessment K-12,” in 1997.

West Chester teachers use a computerized form in which they write, by month, their curriculum content, the skills children are to acquire, and an assessment of the lessons. For now, the assessment columns are blank.

Now that every teacher has access to computers, the curriculum mapping process will be easier, Antonowich said. “Five years ago, most of the maps would have to be done by hand.” The present goal is to get the middle and elementary schools’ curricula aligned; after that, the high school teachers will get busy filling in their maps, Antonowich said.

In the maps, teachers will “tell us what they teach, not what they think they teach” or what they’re supposed to teach, Antonowich said.

The next step is for the teachers to make sure the classroom lessons are aligned with the state’s education standards. In many ways, West Chester’s curriculum already has been put in synchronization with Pennsylvania’s established education benchmarks, Antonowich said, adding, “What is really taking place is a refinement of the curriculum.”

A curriculum is a living organism that must be given constant attention, and computer technologies facilitate revision, with the computer’s clear message to its user being to revise and alter, said Hayes-Jacobs.

The West Chester district is searching for software capable of sorting through the data in the maps, looking for lesson overlaps. That could be particularly useful, since more and more teachers are collaborating on cross-disciplinary projects.

The Curriculum Designers web site (see link below) contains a list of software programs and other resources that facilitate computer- and network-based curriculum mapping, Hayes-Jacobs said.

A district-wide implementation of the curriculum maps is still several years off in West Chester, but teachers like Curay-Cramer, who began writing their maps last school year, think they’re going to see results in their students soon.

“I think next year and the year after, I’ll notice a difference in the sixth-graders coming to me,” she said.

Links:

West Chester Area School District
http://www.wcasd.k12.pa.us

Columbia University Teachers College
http://www.tc.columbia.edu

Curriculum Designers Inc.
http://www.curriculumdesigners.com