Curriculum

Off-the-Shelf or Custom-Made? Why Some Districts Are Designing Their Own Curriculum

Customized materials are often more culturally responsive. They’re also costly
By Sarah Schwartz — September 29, 2022 10 min read
Collage image of classroom and Chicago skyline.
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Alongside the lesson planning, grading, and behavior management that are part of teachers’ day-to-day, most also face another big responsibility: curriculum design.

Over 90 percent of teachers make or seek out their own materials—a situation that’s time-consuming for educators and can be inequitable for students. Quality on the lesson-sharing websites that many teachers turn to varies, and it’s not uncommon for materials to include errors or racist stereotypes.

Most school districts that try to address this issue turn to curriculum companies, purchasing an off-the-shelf program that can then be adapted to fit their needs. But over the past few years, several big city districts have gone a different route, launching projects to create their own homegrown curricula.

In 2018, Baltimore city schools unveiled “Bmore Me,” a series of social studies units grounded in the city’s history and civic society. Other projects have spanned multiple subjects: Last school year, Chicago schools debuted its Skyline curriculum, which offers pre-K-12 lessons in English/language arts, math, science, social studies, world languages, and arts.

New York City, too, announced plans to create a culturally responsive English/language arts and math curriculum in 2021, though it has reportedly since scaled back the project.

The decision to create materials isn’t for lack of options. There’s an abundance of choice in ELA and math, especially, with an increasing number of commercial products receiving high marks from independent reviewers like EdReports. But district officials and advocates say that their work still fills an unmet need—for materials that are aligned to standards and coherent across grade levels, but also reflective of the city where they live and the students they serve.

“Do you see yourselves in this curriculum? Do you feel a sense of relevance with your peers and your community? We really see that as a core outcome,” said Mary Beck, the acting chief of teaching and learning for Chicago Public Schools.

Still, as the recent changes to the scope of New York’s work demonstrates, building a full set of resources in-house is an expensive, uphill climb. New York had originally set aside $202 million for its curriculum; Chicago spent $135 million in upfront costs.

“There’s a real science and smarts behind how to construct a thoughtful curriculum,” said Cami Anderson, the founder and CEO of ThirdWay Solutions, a consulting group that works with organizations on social equity issues, and a former superintendent in Newark, N.J.

“What you teach in what sequence, how you spiral it, whether you teach math concept x before y,” she said. “I’m one of those people who are … glad that there are experts out there who think about that 24/7.”

Giving kids a ‘deep understanding of their history’

Whether it’s bought off the shelf or created in-house, all strong curricula share certain qualities, experts say.

It’s aligned to state learning standards and gives students rigorous, grade-level work. It’s designed to be coherent through the grade levels, so that students build on their knowledge and skills from year to year—one critical part of strengthening reading comprehension. It’s culturally responsive, reflecting students’ lives and identities while also introducing them to new ideas. It’s based on research about how students learn. And it’s written in a way that’s usable—that makes it easy for teachers to plan lessons and teach.

Over the years, the curriculum market has improved so that there are more options that meet many of those criteria, Anderson said. But that doesn’t mean districts won’t have to tweak products to meet their needs, she added: “You’re always having to solve for something,” she said.

Even so, she thinks that it makes sense for districts to pick something on the market as a foundation, and adjust from there—at least in ELA and math, where options are stronger than science and social studies, she said.

Creating homegrown curricula is “exceedingly time-intensive,” and requires in-house subject-matter experts, Anderson said. Districts also need to create processes to organize the work and technology infrastructure to house it, she added.

Most of the time, it makes sense to leave all of that to outside groups that focus on curriculum development as their bread and butter, said David Steiner, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, a research hub that also works with districts to study curriculum implementation. “Designing curriculum and teaching curriculum are both very, very demanding skill sets,” he said.

“When Meryl Streep decides whether she’s going to act in a movie, she doesn’t say, ‘No way, I didn’t write the script,’” he continued. “She says, ‘Give me the best possible script so that my acting abilities can really shine.’”

Steiner sees what Baltimore has done as an exception. The school system uses commercial curricula for ELA and math, and has designed BMore Me as a supplemental social studies option.

“That seems to me to be an intelligent way forward, because you combine a really outstanding nationally vetted curriculum with specific extra background for children about their own geography,” Steiner said.

The BMore Me units, written by teachers, are each designed around a central question—ideas such as, “How does the legacy of Indigenous culture reflect our society in Maryland?” and “How can we build a better Baltimore?”

“Students deserve to have a deep understanding of their history and a deep understanding of themselves,” said Lisa Ann Kim, the program manager for the curriculum. Learning about the city and the people who made it—especially those who share the same identities as students—fosters their academic engagement, she said.

For now, the curriculum is a series of social studies units. But “in the long term, we’d love to expand,” Kim said.

“We want it to be sustainable, we want it to be able to outlive us, because this work is really important,” she added. “I have seen district initiatives that try to move too much, too quickly, too fast, and they end up burning out, especially if you don’t end up bringing people alongside with you.”

Cultural responsiveness: a supplement, or part of the core?

In other cities, though, advocates say there’s also a danger in moving too slowly. Some district leaders, parents, and teachers say that it’s not enough to supplement core materials with add-ons that reflect students’ backgrounds and communities—these pieces need to be woven through the main curriculum.

The argument cuts to a central tension for those who write curriculum: What’s the right balance between ensuring that students’ instructional experience reflects their own lives, and ensuring that it introduces them to a shared canon of knowledge?

As Steiner sees it, the right balance can be achieved by supplementing.

“The national curricula that are strong are very multicultural,” he said. “They explicitly contain texts from a very diverse group of authors, representing a wide range of geographies, ethnicities, races.”

Beyond that “universal core of instruction,” districts can supplement to reflect their student population and their area’s history—Baltimore would do this differently than, for example, San Antonio, he said.

Others disagree. Big curriculum companies like McGraw Hill or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are trying to serve a national, and sometimes international, clientele, said Natasha Capers, the director of the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, a group that has pushed for a culturally responsive curriculum in the city.

“I don’t trust Pearson to tell the story of how COVID devastated New York City, how it devastated Black and brown communities in New York City,” said Capers, referring to an organization which used to have a large part of the U.S. curriculum market share. “I don’t trust those big companies to tell that story. I trust us to tell that story.”

It’s not that New York City students shouldn’t learn about literature and history from elsewhere in the country and the world, Capers added. It’s that these lessons should be grounded in an understanding of students’ lives, enabling them to make connections to topics that might be less familiar, they said.

New York City embarked on such a mission last year. Soon before he left office, former Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced plans to spend $202 million to create a universal ELA and math curriculum called Mosaic by fall 2023. Then-Chancellor Meisha Porter said the materials would allow kids to “see themselves in the curriculum” and “honor the voices of our students and families.”

Now, the Mosaic project faces an uncertain future under Mayor Eric Adams’ administration. Earlier this month, Chalkbeat reported that the department had shelved plans for comprehensive math and ELA curricula, continuing instead with a scaled-back plan to develop collections of “hidden voices” social studies resources centered on Asian American, LGBTQ, and Black histories. New York City Department of Education Press Secretary Nathaniel Styer said that “the work continues” on Mosaic, but would not confirm whether that work includes math or ELA materials.

The uncertainty around the project disappoints Andrea Castellano, a 3rd grade teacher in the city. “If we relegate [culturally responsive and sustaining education] to the other subjects, it’s not going to get done as effectively,” she said.

Getting buy-in and teacher use

Chicago provides a glimpse of what a homegrown curriculum across subjects can look like—and why the work doesn’t stop once the materials have been published.

The city launched Skyline, its pre-K-12 curriculum, for the 2021-22 school year. The district spent $135 million in upfront costs creating the materials, partnering with more than a dozen curriculum and education companies and consulting groups. So far, 360 schools in the district have adopted the curriculum in at least one grade band, representing about 70 percent of all traditional public schools in the city. (No charter schools have adopted Skyline to date.)

As in New York City, one of the driving factors behind the curriculum project was cultural responsiveness, said Beck, the teaching and learning officer. Included are ELA lessons focused on reading and writing about Chicago’s past, present, and future, and science lessons that, for example, explore why an urban coyote population thrives in the city.

But it wasn’t the only factor. Creating something in-house also meant educators could develop other features to their specifications—things like accessibility, or supports for English learners. “We found a lot of different providers had bits and pieces, but not necessarily all of it,” Beck said. In some cases, the district modified templates from curriculum company partners; in others, it worked with them to create something from scratch, Beck added.

A year into the rollout, the district’s focus is on professional development for teachers, and making revisions to the materials. Skyline was developed in collaboration with a group of more than 300 city teachers, and teacher feedback—and soon, student feedback—drives the improvement process, Beck said.

Not every school is interested in adopting Skyline—and that’s OK, Beck said. But the district isn’t letting schools choose whatever materials they want, either. Schools must adopt a curriculum that meets standards the city feels are important. It can adopt Skyline to meet those requirements, or make a case that what they’re using hits the same benchmarks.

Steiner, of Johns Hopkins, questions the decision to spend $135 million only to make the resulting curriculum voluntary. But Anderson, of ThirdWay, said that the costs of purchasing an off the shelf product, implementing it, and training teachers can add up quickly too.

“It’s not always cheaper to do it in-house, nor is it always more expensive. … The most important piece is being really clear-eyed about a three-year plan, and then accounting all the hidden costs to both,” she said.

The end result should be that teachers have a quality resource so that they’re not scrounging for materials on their own. Whether it’s purchased or created matters less. “We’re so far from that, that it’s got to be all of the above,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as Off-the-Shelf Or Custom-Made? Why Some Districts Are Designing Their Own Curriculum

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