Guaranteeing Your Curriculum

By Maria Guilott and Grant Wiggins

Does curriculum reform really improve student performance? Common sense says it should, but few research studies exist to back the idea. Unfortunately, many curriculum reforms are too timid, designed merely to appease state education officials or district leaders. Often, they don’t result in substantial achievement gains in the classroom.

In one Louisiana district, however, a multiyear effort has paid off. A comprehensive reform plan was a key factor in improving student achievement in a school district devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

St. Tammany School District is located north of New Orleans. Despite a generally good record, district leadership felt it was time to move from good to great. In 2003, the district went through a strategic planning process with more than 2,000 community members.

The board approved a strategic plan that resulted from these efforts with a goal of creating a guaranteed curriculum for this large and diverse district where the right hand often didn’t know what the left was doing. The curriculum rewrite would ensure that students across the district would receive the same curriculum, regardless of demographics, resources, or staffing.

After visiting several high-performing school systems, officials decided to use a common framework for curriculum writing, based on the book Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins, a co-author of this article, and Jay McTighe. For two years, teachers received training and the district purchased software to put the complete local curriculum online.

Readers well know that reality often intrudes on well-intentioned plans. Alas, in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the St. Tammany community. When the district reopened in October after major rebuilding efforts, enrollment was down by 6,000 students. Displaced students, returning students, and new students altered the population considerably following the storm.

Pre-Katrina, St. Tammany had 33,500 students, 30 percent of whom were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Post-Katrina, the district had grown to 35,600 students -- with 41 percent eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The economically disadvantaged population had increased. Yet, in part because of the curriculum reform effort, the district now performs at its highest level ever. 

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