This article appeared as "Outside In" in the Fall 2022 issue of Independent School.
Schools conduct periodic reviews of their curriculum to ensure that they are teaching relevant content and skills and that their academic program is coherent both within and between grade levels. But while countless books have been written about curriculum review processes, few explore the complexities of facilitating a curriculum review in an independent school specifically. Independent schools have the privilege of developing mission-driven curricula that can be informed by, but are not beholden to, externally imposed state and national standards. While this autonomy is generally an asset, it means that independent schools must be especially intentional about their approach to reviewing curriculum. Without a robust, well-designed review process, schools risk providing a disconnected educational program to students, one that is not cohesive from course to course, grade to grade, or between the school and outside world.
Given that independent schools aren’t subject to external standards, one of the most pressing decisions each school must make is which metric it will use to assess the strength of its academic program. Should schools use an internal, school-specific understanding of what a strong program looks like, or should schools use external standards to review their curriculum?
Figuring out how to facilitate such processes well is difficult. When I was director of curriculum and instruction at The Evergreen School (WA), I found one framework—qualitative research—to be particularly helpful in leading review processes and opening the door to opportunity.
Finding the Framework
There are many ways to structure a curriculum review cycle. Some schools cast a broad net, choosing to map their entire curriculum. Other schools analyze their curriculum through a particular lens; for instance, many now conduct equity audits that assess the degree to which their curriculum is diverse, inclusive, and equitable. Some schools focus on vertical coherence by reviewing their curriculum within a given subject area. Others assess their horizontal alignment, exploring how certain concepts, essential questions, and skills cut across subject areas.
In my time as an educator, I have tried many of those approaches. Each has benefits and drawbacks. However, regardless of the unique context and objectives of the schools where I’ve worked, qualitative research has been most informative of—and useful to—my approach to reviewing curriculum.
Qualitative research is a set of tools used to understand people and how they make sense of their experiences. I first learned how to conduct such research while interning at Research for Action, an applied educational research organization in Philadelphia. Since then, I have honed my skills through my continued graduate studies and professional life. Qualitative research has informed my approach to reviewing curriculum in three concrete ways.
First, like qualitative researchers, schools ought to use both inductive and deductive approaches to analyzing their curriculum. According to Sharon M. Ravitch and Nicole Mittenfeiner Carl in their book Qualitative Research: Bridging the Conceptual, Theoretical, and Methodological, an inductive approach “stays as close to the data as possible,” whereas a deductive approach may “take what you are looking for from prior literature, prior research” and use these external frameworks to make sense of participants’ experiences. In other words, when using an inductive approach, researchers focus on themes that emerge from participants’ own words and experiences; with a deductive approach, researchers use external theories to make sense of the data. Schools can similarly choose to leverage the internal knowledge of their faculty (inductive), or they can rely on external standards to assess their curriculum (deductive).
Schools also need to determine the methods they will use to see their existing curriculum clearly. By reviewing program documents and unit plans, schools aim to understand and assess what is being taught in classrooms each day. However, as educators well know, the written curriculum rarely manages to capture the richness and complexity of the curriculum-in-practice. Therefore, schools must also seek to understand how the written curriculum is enacted.
By incorporating qualitative research methods, such as observations, interviews, and focus groups, into the review cycle, my colleagues and I have developed a more comprehensive understanding of our curriculum. By observing classrooms and analyzing report card comments, schools can discern what actually happens in classrooms each day. When schools interview teachers and students, they can also solicit their input on the current curriculum and their hopes for curricular changes.
Finally, qualitative research can help schools treat the review cycle as a participatory learning process. According to Ravitch and Carl in Qualitative Research, in participatory approaches to research, “participants are also researchers and are from the community or group at the center of the study. …[T]hey may define the topics or problems to be addressed, design their own studies, and engage in collaborative data collection and analysis toward answering their guiding questions and goals in ways that emerge from within their own communities.” It is not a top-down effort with an end goal of making changes to the curriculum. Rather, the process invites inquiry. School leaders can create opportunities for teachers to be involved in the curriculum review process, as opposed to solely participating in it.
Examples in Action
I personally used a combination of these approaches when I designed and conducted two review processes for The Evergreen School. In 2021–2022, I began a review of Evergreen’s early childhood curriculum as one facet of a broader strategic planning initiative. I interviewed each of the eight early childhood faculty members individually to better understand the language they used to describe their curriculum and its purpose as well as their opinions about the curriculum. This participatory process helped me identify trends, such as teachers’ shared emphasis on play-based learning.
However, looking at our curriculum solely through the eyes of our current faculty would have caused us to miss opportunities to better align the curriculum with the most recent educational research. So, from there, I researched language from organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children. We came across different language—such as the responsive curricula model—which better captured our desired approach. In addition, drawing on tools such as Massachusetts’s play-based learning standards helped us develop rubrics that could be used to share information about students across courses.
The combination of inductive and deductive approaches made this process of reviewing Evergreen’s early childhood curriculum so impactful. Had we only viewed our program through the frame of outside standards, we may have missed some interesting details such as the implications of an early childhood program in a preschool to grade 8 school, which influenced the resources available (art room, makerspace, etc.) and therefore the curriculum for our early childhood classes. Similarly, only relying on our internal understanding would have deprived us of the most recent best practices in the field of early childhood education.
During the 2021–2022 academic year, I also reviewed Evergreen’s social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum in collaboration with a committee of teachers. During this yearlong process, we took a participatory approach. In the earliest stages, we invited teachers to respond to the following question: “If at the end of the school year you looked back on the curriculum review cycle and thought, ‘That process felt meaningful and useful to my work as an educator,’ what would have had to happen?” The responses heavily informed the review. We learned that teachers craved greater alignment in SEL language and approach and were eager to receive concrete tools. This focused our committee on honing a clear scope and sequence and developing accompanying tools, such as an SEL language handbook.
Similarly, teachers on the review committee were instrumental in shifting our focus as a school. In my capacity as the director of curriculum and instruction, I had intended to focus on refining and aligning our existing SEL program. But multiple teachers on the committee pushed to also include an aspirational component. This led us to design an SEL visioning exercise, during which all Evergreen teachers thought about what a child with strong SEL skills in their grade would ideally look like, sound like, feel like, and think like. As this example demonstrates, teachers on the committee had opportunities to review the curriculum and consider the best approaches for making such a process meaningful for them and their colleagues.
Qualitative research can provide a useful framework for the curriculum review process in independent schools. By inviting teachers into the process and validating their professional understandings, school leaders can affirm faculty expertise. Yet external frameworks and tools such as classroom observations can also help make the program more visible; it can help schools see what students are learning, intended or not. This balance of strategies makes the curriculum process livelier and more engaging. It is no longer focused solely on the end product but rather embeds inquiry into the process itself.
Framing curriculum reviews as a source of professional learning can support schools in building a culture of inquiry. This reflective practice will in turn help ensure that the review process leads to tangible changes. For example, in the coming academic year, Evergreen’s early childhood faculty will engage in ongoing professional learning around the responsive curriculum model. In addition, all teams of teachers at the school will meet with other grade-level teams to share notes about how they’ve implemented the school’s new SEL standards and to agree on shared language to use with students. And this is just the beginning.