The Academic Curriculum Review

Fall 2013

By Fred Zilian

At the heart of any school is its academic curriculum. It is ironic, then, that many independent schools don't perform an academic curriculum review on a regular basis, but rather engage in only a cursory review — one that rarely leads to change — in order to fulfill the requirements of the 10-year accreditation visit.

How the academic curriculum coheres and how it supports the school's mission statement should be subjects of frequent review, and this imperative should be embedded in the school's strategic plan. It should also be given priority by the school's top administrators and board of trustees. A regular and comprehensive academic curriculum review — with any turf battles managed by attentive leadership — can be an exceedingly healthy process not only for a school's academic departments, but also for its entire faculty and staff.

In an era of growing competition for students, quickly evolving knowledge of how children learn, and constant technological innovation — not to mention parents who want to know exactly what they are getting for their tuition payments — thoughtful, periodic review may be the best way to maintain the high quality and integrity of a school's academic program.

The reasons for conducting a review will no doubt vary from school to school. Certainly a periodic review of the curriculum is intrinsically healthy, but the school's strategic plan may also require a periodic review. It may be that, during the school's most recent formal evaluation, the visiting committee recommended one. The school may have undergone a major change or changes since its last review, providing an impetus for another review. In the case of Portsmouth Abbey School (Rhode Island), where I worked as the dean of faculty (and where I now teach History and War & Morality), a good while had passed since our last review, and, in the interim, we had experienced several significant changes, including the beginning of coeducation and the integration of many new technologies into our school. In our case, a review was absolutely essential.

The Scope of Review

Once the school has committed to a curriculum review, several core issues should be addressed at the outset. The first consideration is the scope of the review. Will the review include all the various curricula in the school's entire program or focus solely on the academic curriculum? For us at Portsmouth Abbey, in addition to the academics, we might have examined the athletic, social-residential, and spiritual-religious curricula — since these are central to the school's mission. Other schools, however, might have different areas to focus on, such as their leadership program or their environmental sustainability curriculum. Ultimately, a review of all curricula is the most desirable because of its comprehensiveness and its ability to show relationships among the various curricula in achieving the school's goals. The drawback in a comprehensive review is that it is time-consuming and potentially divisive, depending on the culture of the school. At my school, for a variety of reasons, we decided on a review focused solely on our academic curriculum.

It is also important to consider who will lead the process and who will chair the committee. The associate headmaster, the dean of faculty, and the dean of academics are all good candidates to lead a curriculum review. In our case, I chaired it as the dean of faculty.

When it comes to committee membership, ideally the committee will include people who are respected by the headmaster and faculty. They need to be people who cooperate well and are prepared to roll up their sleeves and commit to serious work. The committee should include some department heads but should also have a good ration of teachers in the trenches. In a secondary school, a representative from college counseling may also be desired. In our case, we decided on a two-phased approach. During the initial phase we had a committee of six, and in the second phase, we expanded to a committee of 10. During the second phase, we sought to have a member from each of the major academic departments. As committee chair, I made a plea to all at the outset to strive to rise above their parochial departmental views and keep in mind, as best as possible, the good of the entire school.

Schools also need to consider how the committee members will be compensated, if at all. Ideally, the committee is more or less sequestered for several weeks during the summer until its work is done, with all members receiving a stipend. A contrasting approach is for the committee members not to be compensated at all for their work and to be asked to accomplish the review during the academic year, with all its attendant pressures and distractions. This is less desirable, but may be the best a school can do.

Though not essential at the outset, it is also helpful to know the committee's ultimate authority when the final stage is reached: Who will decide which of the committee's recommendations will be implemented? The committee, the head, the faculty, the board — or some combination of these key figures?

The Charter

The committee's written charter serves as the foundational and guiding document and should address as a minimum: 

  • The reasons for the academic review;
  • The mission of the committee;
  • The overall concept of how the committee will do its work; and
  • The organization and makeup of the committee.

In our case, we established the following mission: "To study the School's current academic curriculum in relation to the School's Mission Statement, its peer schools, and the needs of Abbey graduates in today's world."

The "concept" should include, in general terms, how the committee will pursue its mission and the general time period for its existence. It should also list the specific tasks the committee will perform in accomplishing its mission and, by omission, those it will not. This is best done here in the charter to ensure that all agree at the start on the ground the committee will cover and what is outside its scope. This can help to reduce wasted effort by the committee down the road and also avoid disputes later, in the event that the committee infringes on a department's academic turf.

In our case, our charter enumerated the following specific tasks: 

  • Review graduation requirements, departmental philosophies and course offerings, grade course loads and the weekly schedule.
  • Review the various teaching styles/methods used by the faculty in light of the school's mission statement and its implications, in light of the curricula of selected peer schools, and in light of the needs of Abbey grads in college and beyond.
  • To determine needs, survey selected Abbey alumni and parents, and research selected colleges.
  • Make recommendations.

The Process

Once the headmaster has blessed the charter, the committee can launch. This process should follow a number of steps to achieve its mission, some of which are discrete with clear end dates and some of which may be iterative and require revisiting more than once.

Step 1: Examine the school's foundational documents.

In addition to the mission statement, some schools have formulated a "promise statement" — what the school "promises" parents it will develop in their children for their sizable investment. Independent School Management prescribes two other "purpose and outcome statements" in addition to the mission statement: (1) the Portrait of the Graduate and (2) Standards of Professional Excellence.1 Other documents that may be consulted include the school's strategic plan, the statement of philosophy or overview of the school's academic curriculum (usually at the beginning of the school's curriculum guide), the latest school self-study in preparation for the formal evaluation, the report of the accreditation visiting committee, and any documents prepared by the school in response to the report.

Step 2: Examine relevant educational material.

This is an optional step; however, it's one that can be very useful to the committee members if they are not in the habit of reading the latest educational literature. In our case, I prepared a book of readings incorporating some 40 articles mainly from Education Week, Independent School, and online educational sources covering the following major subject areas: 21st-century knowledge, skills, and attitudes; the purposes of curriculum; specific academic disciplines; technology and education; pedagogy; and education innovation in the U.S. and other nations.

Step 3: Survey alumni.

While certainly not mandatory, this step can help generate useful information from former students who actually experienced the school's entire program. The survey does not have to be long. The school's development office can help provide the necessary contact information once decisions are made concerning how wide a net to cast. With just a handful of key questions, the survey can produce information, not on what the academic program is supposed to do, but rather on what it has actually done for students.

Step 4: Collect information on peer schools.

With guidance from the headmaster on the most relevant peer schools, the chair may ask committee members to accomplish this or, to spread the workload, may assign this to the academic department heads. The latter approach allows the collateral benefit of forcing all department heads to undertake the healthy exercise of reviewing the comparable programs of the peer schools.

Step 5: Prepare an academic portrait on an ideal graduate.

With all this accumulated information, the committee must wrestle with a rational methodology for proceeding to formulate recommendations on the academic curriculum. How to proceed? One logical way to get its arms around this challenge is to generate, if not already in existence, a portrait of the school's ideal graduate: those key knowledge areas, skills, and attitudes or habits of mind each graduate should possess upon graduation. This can be a relatively short list of five or six items, or a more comprehensive list with several dozen items.

Our list included the following attitudes: 

  • An open mind: willing to receive new concepts, ideas, and methods.
  • A critical mind: reasoning clearly and recognizing weak logic and poorly developed ideas.
  • A motivated mind: desiring understanding and intellectual growth.
  • A confident mind: recognizing the value of his/her own abilities and opinions.
  • A civil mind: being able to debate issues in a civil, dispassionate manner.
  • A curious mind: possessing a sense of wonder about the world and about themselves.
  • A civic commitment: possessing a sense of responsibility for the local and larger communities and for the environment.

It also included the following skills:

  • The ability to communicate, analyze, argue, and evaluate effectively, orally and in writing.
  • The ability to listen carefully, with discipline, and in an active rather than a passive manner.

Step 6: Prepare an academic portrait of the actual graduate.

After sketching the ideal graduate, the committee can then proceed to build a sketch of the actual graduate. Though challenging, this is a useful exercise, for in the process of painting this portrait of the real graduate, as opposed to the ideal, the weak points of the academic curriculum should surface. Whether or not consensus is ever achieved on the portrait of this actual graduate, the exercise will help identify areas in the curriculum that require improvement.

Step 7: Identify gaps (between the ideal and actual portraits) and determine changes to the curriculum to address the gaps.

To perform this step, an organizational change may be in order so that the committee does not find itself sitting around the school's large conference table with each member valiantly defending his/her wedge of the academic pie — which leads to paralysis. At Portsmouth Abbey, we decided that it would be helpful to separate into subcommittees. I appointed subcommittee chairs, gave them two months, and asked them to conduct as many meetings as necessary to formulate a list of recommendations with accompanying rationales. I again challenged all members to be good citizens of the entire school, rising above their respective departmental interests.

Step 8: Consolidate and vote on the recommendations.

In this step, the chair collects all recommendations and prepares a presentation for the entire committee. Before the voting, the chair should address several issues with the committee. First, what constitutes an "approved recommendation" — a unanimous vote, a majority vote, or something in between? Second, how will the voting be presented in the final report — only note "approved" recommendations or include all proposed recommendations? Third, will dissenting votes be reported? If so, by name or simply by number?

Step 9: Prepare the final report.

With the most politically sensitive step over, the chair, with assistance as he or she pleases, can prepare the final report and briefing. The head will wish to be briefed first and should have the chair brief the academic department heads, the entire faculty, and perhaps even the board of trustees.

Step 10: Implementing the approved changes.

The committee's recommendations are just that — recommendations. If not already done, the authority for deciding which of its recommendations to actually implement must be clarified. The head of school may wish to keep this to himself or herself, or he or she may delegate this authority to another body.

In his essay "A Game-Changing Model for Financially Sustainable Schools," Patrick Bassett, then- president of NAIS, noted the unsustainability of the "old normal" high yearly tuition increases and the increased competition in the marketplace from public charter, magnet, and college-prep parochial schools. He called for private schools to adopt a "new normal" approach in their financial and budget planning in the post-recession environment.2 Schools should also adopt a "new normal" approach to their curricula to improve the real and hence perceived quality of their graduates. Regular, comprehensive academic curriculum reviews can improve this quality by ensuring a school has an integrated, coherent, and current academic curriculum, aligned with the school's mission and a desired set of attributes in its graduates.


1. "Purpose and Outcome Statements: Capture the Essence of Your School," Ideas & Perspectives, Vol. 31, No. 5, Independent School Management; "Purpose and Outcome Statements: Portrait of the Graduate," Ideas and Perspectives, Vol. 31, No. 7.

2. Independent School, Spring 2010, 9–10.

Fred Zilian

Fred Zilian is an educational consultant with Catholic School Management and also an educator at Portsmouth Abbey School (Rhode Island) and Salve Regina University. He served as the dean of faculty at Portsmouth Abbey from 2007 to 2010. He can be reached at See his education