Tired of Choosing Quality or Flexibility? – Digital Curriculum Yields Both

By Abbas Manjee, Co-founder and Chief Academic Officer, Kiddom

When it comes to curriculum, quality and flexibility are becoming increasingly crucial to educators.

A Quick Definition – curriculum quality dictates the level of education we deliver to all students, while curriculum flexibility ensures that we are able to meet the needs of individual students and evolve with the ever-changing times.

A recent study identified having high-quality instructional materials as a top funding priority (Scholastic). Yet, only 18% of teachers report that their district or school’s instructional materials are aligned to college and career-ready standards.

When teachers don’t have access to high quality instructional materials, they spend valuable time searching for them online or creating content themselves. In reality, we cannot expect every teacher to slave 80+ hours per week, year over year. Imagine the opportunity cost – teachers who don’t have to do this will have a higher sense of awareness in the classroom.

It’s 2021, and we’re all walking around with computers in our pockets. When you take a picture from your phone, it automatically tags the photo with metadata (date, location, who’s in it, what type of event, etc.) so you have the flexibility to quickly access and use the photo later. Similarly, education technology should automate repetitive tasks for teachers (like tracing standards to individual questions or inputting assessment data) so they have the flexibility to quickly access high quality materials and teach.

What’s that, you say? Many of these tasks have been automated already?

That may be true, and I agree there are some amazing tools in this diagram. But holy cow, that’s a lot of tools.

Automation can only get you so far without the flexibility of integration, as many education experts have pointed out. When the tools don’t connect, we create more work for our teachers. And take it from a former high school math teacher, no educator signs up to become a teacher to spend their precious planning periods copying and pasting data from one application to another.

Some education tools get flexibility really well – they’re easy for teachers to contextualize and use with students, some even auto-grade assignments and offer skills-based reporting. But these resources are rarely vetted for quality and are often supplemental curricular tools. Consequently, districts gain little to no visibility on usage and efficacy.

A spreadsheet from my teaching days.

On the other hand, some districts avoid this scenario by adopting rigid curriculum management solutions that ensure all teachers “follow” the same scope and sequence. However, these platforms are generally designed for administrators to “view the curriculum” before the rubber meets the road, i.e. before the school year takes off. What happens next in practice is often missing from the picture. These set-it-and-forget-it solutions generally lack adaptability or the instructional and assessment toolkits necessary for teachers to connect planning artifacts with materials used to assess student learning when it comes to instruction.

We can be sure the pandemic has exacerbated these issues. As we saw in our 2021 State of Digital Curriculum report (out this spring), the top two ideas around curriculum that communities have adopted more readily due to COVID-19 were “curriculum and learning resources should be flexible so content can be adjusted should we need to switch to or from a virtual setting” (63%, n= 1361) and “high-quality curriculum is crucial for supporting teachers and engaging students” (48%, n= 1361).

Quality, or flexibility?

Historically we have been trained to assume there is a tradeoff because “curriculum” and “education technology” are not yet synonymous. With a truly digital curriculum, and by that we mean a dynamic digital curriculum, there’s no need to make a sacrifice.

As you can see in the diagram below, most solutions in the market today only offer, at best, two of three crucial features (high-quality, flexible, or digitized) for curriculum management. And while each of these features can improve different focus areas of the educational workflow (curriculum, instruction, and assessment), districts should seek to improve all of them. 

What Dynamic Digital Curriculum Isn’t

So what is “dynamic” digital curriculum? It’s a fairly new concept, so perhaps the best way to answer the question is by taking a look at what dynamic digital curriculum isn’t.

Static digital curriculum ≠ dynamic digital curriculum. “Digitally available curriculum” is not “digital curriculum.” A curriculum stored in PDFs and/or several docs on a public drive may be accessible online – and that’s a step in the right direction – but it’s a static curriculum if it’s not easy to share and extract data on usage and standards mastery.

When an assessment artifact lives in a PDF, it inherently requires human intervention to grade and evaluate. As such, the first step many learning communities take is they break the PDFs apart into components (1) lesson plans and resources for educators (2) student-facing artifacts for instructional delivery (3) student-facing artifacts to assess the fidelity of instruction. A PDF-first experience sets learning communities up with the pre-work of manually breaking down the materials for themselves and their students.

To get out of the static digital curriculum realm, many learning communities opt for a platform specifically designed for learning management. However, to our next point:

Rigid digital curriculum ≠ dynamic digital curriculum. Rigid solutions are not dynamic because they lack flexibility. Many rigid curriculum solutions, AKA “set-it-and-forget-it” solutions are designed, not for discourse or exploration, but for standards alignment and uniformity across all classrooms and schools (if district-wide). Now, this is a great cause when the end goal is to ensure high fidelity in implementing a high-quality curriculum as it was designed.

However, as the pandemic revealed to us, certain situations necessitate greater flexibility in curriculum management – for example, many communities were forced to choose the most important standards and skip the rest.

Those on set-it-and-forget-it solutions faced a tradeoff here: administrators lost visibility on instruction or else teachers lost flexibility in instruction. In practice, most teachers changed the scope and sequence but administrators did not know because the curriculum lived in their curriculum management system (CMS). What was happening on the ground would be captured in the Learning Management Systems (LMS) where daily assessments were shared and graded, but the disconnect between CMS and LMS left administrators scratching their heads.

Even before the pandemic, rigid set-it-and-forget-it curriculum solutions caused frustration for teachers who felt they were unable to add their own magic to instruction, and this was only exacerbated when they were thrust into distance learning with a curriculum designed for in-person instruction.

It’s worth pointing out that in both examples above, communities suffered content loss (the opposite of rigid solutions’ intended design) when teachers turned to supplemental online content, which came with its own set of challenges…

Digital supplemental content ≠ dynamic digital curriculum. While the general consensus agrees that unvetted, supplemental content found online is no substitute for a quality curriculum, there is overwhelming evidence that supplemental content continues to make its way into lesson plans.

A 2017 RAND analysis found 96% of teachers use Google and 75% of teachers use Pinterest to find lessons and materials – there are many more stats like this in The Supplemental Curriculum Bazaar (Thomas B. Fordham Institute). Supplemental content is not dynamic digital curriculum because it isn’t vetted, it provides little or no visibility to the learning community outside of the classroom, and it’s not high quality core curriculum.

Now that we’ve gone over what it isn’t, let’s hone in on the art of the possible – what is dynamic digital curriculum, and what can it unlock?

What IS Dynamic Digital Curriculum?

It’s the state of having quality WITH flexibility, and then some.

Full disclaimer: I’m a former teacher who believes in this notion so much that I co-founded a company to build it into reality. I knew when I was trying to solve these problems in practice I wasn’t the only educator doing this work and we often convened together and

We need to undo the mental model we’ve built that says curriculum and technology have to be two separate things we buy in pK-12

I’d rather focus on sharing this idea with you and what that means for the roles in your community. Simply put, we need to undo the mental model we’ve built that says curriculum and technology have to be two separate things we buy in pK-12. This model manifests in the pK-12 buying cycle: Curriculum (supplemental and core) is procured by the academics teams. Technology (LMS’s, CMS’s, SSO’s) is procured by IT teams.

But great technology can only get you so far without great content – curriculum should reign supreme. Improving student outcomes has to start with an excellent curriculum. And what makes a high-quality curriculum truly digital, dynamic and digitized, is when it is connected to the main educational workflows (curriculum, instruction, assessment) with integrated tools for communication that connect every role in your community:

  • Administrators and Curriculum Leaders should be able to trace standards and skills from curriculum to instruction to assessment to see how curriculum is intended, enacted, assessed, and learned. They should have visibility of standards from the district, school, teacher, and student levels.
  • Curriculum Leaders and Teachers should be able to collaborate on crafting their curriculum without having to worry about messing up the original curriculum map. They should be able to easily share with other teachers and other classrooms across their community.
  • Teachers should be able to easily ascertain how the curriculum was intended. They should be equipped with the ability to contextualize curriculum and the tools to quickly personalize learning and engage students, online or in person.
  • Teachers and Students should be able to communicate easily around assignments as a class, in groups, or 1:1. They should be given the granularity to communicate directly on assignments or questions within their assignments.
  • Interventionists, Students, and Guardians shouldn’t have to wait 6 weeks for report cards to understand content mastery. They should have access to real time student achievement data so they can intervene quickly when help is needed, and they should be equipped with the exact skills to target.

How Does This Connect to Existing Curriculum Thought Leadership?

Around the turn of the 21th century, Porter and Smithson created a framework (with the help of peer review) that identified the four components of a curriculum delivery system. These components were named the intended curriculum, the enacted curriculum, the assessed curriculum, and the learned curriculum.

This framework offers a helpful way to examine and compare curriculum “at different points in the system” – from policy, through curriculum, instruction, and assessment, to student outcomes.

This diagram, taken from the study linked here, could be easily mapped to our diagram above. A dynamic digital curriculum platform connects a high-quality curriculum (yielding visibility on the intended) to instruction (visibility on enacted) to assessment (visibility on assessed) with communication (visibility on the learned). All of this connection enables transparency and accountability along each of these curricular components.

A dynamic digital curriculum platform can only exist if there is already high-quality curriculum ready to deploy and consume for the end user(s). Kiddom gives districts a head start by having high quality instructional materials “ready to order” on top of the curriculum, instruction, assessment tech ecosystem. We partner with the highest-quality curriculum providers in the market (e.g. EL Education published by Open Up Resources, Fishtank Learning Math, and Illustrative Mathematics published by Kendall Hunt) so you can have your excellent curriculum, and use it too.

Why dynamic digital curriculum, why now?

Inconsistent access to high-quality materials impacts student learning in schools across the country, but is more frequent in schools that have a higher proportion of students with special needs who have consistently been neglected pre and post pandemic.

By allowing inconsistent access to quality materials to continue in our school systems, we are perpetuating inequities. We are perpetuating disbelief in science. We are perpetuating division by accepting illogical discourse driven by fear. And we are perpetuating a class divide. While we can’t single-handedly close the wealth, opportunity, and achievement gaps, we can focus on the levers within our locus of control: by enabling educators to access high-quality instructional materials and utilize dynamic pedagogical models to meet the needs of all students, via technology.