How Can We Develop a Curriculum That Matters?

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By Angela Di Michele Lalor

“We believe that students should learn in a safe, supportive and student-centered environment. We are committed to meeting the needs of all students, helping them to achieve academic excellence and preparing them for a global society.”

“We will provide our students with a safe, supportive environment and prepare them with the knowledge, values and skills to become responsible citizens in a diverse global society.”

“We will work together with our community to create an environment where our students can develop personally and academically to become active members in the local and global community.”

Signs and banners, with similar statements as those above, welcome students and visitors to schools across the country. They are carefully worded mission statements that proclaim the intent and purpose of the school in which they are found. While the wording may vary slightly, in general, these mission statements focus on how the school provides opportunities for academic, social and emotional learning in order to prepare students to be members of the community at large.

Many school do try to live up to their words. They may incorporate practices for differentiating instruction, hold anti-bullying rallies, and offer professional development for teachers on critical thinking strategies, all in support of preparing students to be members of the community.  There is no doubt that these actions will benefit the school community. However, their benefits would be even greater if they were intentionally made with the goal of aligning to the district’s mission and vision.  This would be a curriculum that matters: one that reflects the values and priorities of the district and community it serves by developing the academic, social and emotional attributes of its students.

In this article, I discuss two first steps in creating a curriculum that matters. First, by identifying what matters and second, by aligning the curriculum documents that teachers use to guide classroom practice.

What matters?

There is no need to begin with a blank slate, since what matters in schools has been articulated in many ways. It is up to those embarking on the curriculum design and revision process to take stock of what has been communicated about what matters, both explicitly and implicitly; to ensure that these outcomes and practices really do matter; and then to articulate what matters in a way that can be used when teachers engage in the curriculum design process.

A walk around the school building, a look at the school calendar, and a review of school documents can all reveal what matters in a school.

For example, in one local elementary school the hallways are lined with student writing. The  writing samples represent a wide range of content, genres and authentic experiences. The first grade classrooms display “how-to” booklets about a process selected by each student to showcase his/her expertise. Outside the fourth-grade classrooms are “newspaper accounts” of events that students have participated in within the local community.

Peer-to-peer feedback can be a valuable learning aid for students.  This downloadable tool can help teachers foster quality feedback techniques in their classrooms.


Sprinkled throughout the classrooms and culminating in a bulletin board outside the main office are words of inspiration, “the future is always beginning now” and “take time to listen.” These phrases are reflective of the mindfulness workshops that the teachers participate in monthly and are using with their students along with mindful practices.

A peek inside a classroom reveals students working with partners in a peer review process. One student is intently listening to another’s feedback, knowing that his classmate is offering valuable advice that will help him to revise and improve his work.

What the viewer sees is evident of what the school values: an interdisciplinary curriculum, community involvement, the writing process, mindful practice and teacher learning. It focuses on the academic, social and emotional aspects of learning. It is very different from a school where tests are hung on bulletin boards and students work independently in rows, which communicates something entirely different.

Once a school has taken stock of what it communicates about what it values, the next step in the process is to evaluate whether its actions support its words. For example, the school described above might find that while there are areas in need of improvement, they are taking actions to “live” by what they value for their students. If the school where students worked independently in rows has been examining different forms of discourse during professional development, they need to stop and consider what is preventing collaborative discourse in the classroom from occurring.

The school walk-through is a perfect opportunity to carefully consider the distance between what a school wants for its students and what is occurring. However, even though there may be a disconnect between what is and what is desired, this should not prevent a school from creating a curriculum that matters. In fact, finding the disconnect may be the first step in making the changes that the school desires and influence other needed decisions to remedy it.

A quality curriculum that supports the vision and mission of the Southampton School

  • is accessible to everyone (staff, students, community)
  • aligns to standards (content and process)
  • provides all students with the opportunity to meet standards
  • includes different assessment types and moments
  • actively engages students in their learning
  • represents all
  • incorporates an interdisciplinary approach 
  • addresses dispositions i.e. critical thinking
  • allows students to engage in service to their community and/or each other


The next step in creating a school curriculum that matters is to create criteria for what to include in a curriculum guide so that curriculum documents reflect what is most important to the school or district. Consider the following criteria created by a group of administrators, teachers and curriculum liaisons in the Southampton School District to guide the curriculum design process:

The criteria identified by this group supports the school mission and identifies specific expectations for the curriculum that can be used to create a curriculum that matters.

Aligning Curriculum

With specific expectations in place, the important work of aligning the curriculum can begin. Here are two ways a school can ensure that what matters is embedded within the curriculum. The first is to use the criteria as a checklist to guide the design/revision process and the second is to actually explicitly code and incorporate the criteria into units of study.

In the Southampton School District, the criteria for a quality curriculum have been personalized to the district to guide the curriculum design process. Currently, the social studies team is designing their curriculum. They are striving to create a curriculum that meets the criteria by taking such actions as:

  • creating interdisciplinary units at the elementary level to help students make connections and engage more deeply in their learning
  • explicitly stating content and process standards as well as language objectives for each unit and aligning learning targets and experiences to these outcomes so that all students can engage in learning
  • providing students with multiple ways to demonstrate what they know and are able to do, including curriculum-embedded performance assessments
  • aligning curriculum vertically across grade levels by using common organizing centers

As a result, students in the Southampton School District will engage in a curriculum that matters.

After reading and responding to the story, Because of Mr. Terupt, students design a compelling question for a Socratic Seminar (Mission and Vision – Communicators). Students use the book and other texts to prepare for and participate in a Socratic Seminar in which they 

  • share their opinion
  • draw evidence from texts to support their opinion
  • express their own ideas clearly
  • build on others’ ideas 
  • consider alternate views in discussion (Mission and Vision – Habits of Mind)
  • be respectful as others share their ideas (Mission and Vision – Habits of Mind)

After participating in the Socratic Seminar, students write a one paragraph reflection (Mission and Vision – Metacognition) of their experience in which they share what they learned from the discussion, how they can use their learning in their daily experiences (Mission and Vision – Life Long Learners), and how the processes of discussion impacted their learning (Mission and Vision – Communicators).


In the Croton Harmon School District, the school district worked diligently to create a clear mission and vision statement. Embedded within the mission and vision statement were the following outcomes: habits of mind, metacognition, life-long learners, communicators, critical thinkers. In order to ensure alignment between the mission statement and the curriculum, fifth grade teachers Alison Romm and  Emma Akhondzadeh created a curriculum-embedded performance assessment in which students examined the essential question, “how do we effectively communicate?” When designing, the teachers coded key words from the mission statement into the assessment description so other teachers could see the connection between the two. The result was the following:

The ideas shared here are only two among many creative approaches for aligning a curriculum to what matters. What is important to learn from these examples is that if what schools articulate as what matters, truly does matter, it should be an integral part of the documents that teachers use to guide instruction in the classroom.

Final Thoughts

If we are to engage our students in an education that prepares them for a world that we can only begin to imagine and if we want our students to grow intellectually, socially and emotionally, we, as educators, need to take steps to explicitly communicate what matters and hold ourselves accountable to those outcomes. Since a quality curriculum serves as a go-to document that teachers use to help make informed and purposeful decisions about what happens in the classroom, it makes sense to ensure that these documents align to what is valued. In doing so, the possibility exists that education can move from placing so much value and time on standardized testing and show support for the learning experiences that develop all aspects of a student’s life and prepares them to live in a global community.

Thanks to the teachers of Southampton and Croton Harmon School Districts, who allowed me to share their work. 

Related resources:

Attributes of quality curriculum can be used to help educators conduct a mini-review of their curriculum.