By Josh Ruland, Indian Prairie School District 204


When working with teams, don’t underestimate the importance of speaking the same language– words matter. At the beginning of our journey in curriculum development, it became very apparent that we were spending much time arguing about what we meant… while actually meaning the same thing. We were essentially talking past each other. Our Curriculum Advisory Team was using different terms to mean the same thing, but because we all had different ideas of what those terms meant, we were having difficulty moving forward.

One of the most productive meetings we had was coming to consensus on a common working language.  We were not going to be able to develop a common vision and philosophy about curriculum and its development until we started to speak the same language.  We discussed and came to a shared understanding of the terms curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  While we all agreed these pieces are connected during the teaching and learning process, they are also different and serve different related purposes in that process.It was interesting to see how different members of our team placed different emphasis on each part.  For teachers, it was the instruction that was most important as it was what they did day in and day out.  For principals and those held to accountability, the assessments held a higher level of attention.  For curriculum developers and course designers, curriculum was paramount.  As a team we needed to step back and view the whole and not just the parts.  Each part was supportive of each other and worked together for the whole.  It took our team some time to come to a common language and a common understanding of each of the parts and how they supported the whole.

When we began to speak using specific language with a common meaning, we began to move forward to plan our approach to district consensus curriculum development. Our vision for district consensus curriculum essentially followed the four questions used by our PLCs:

  • What do we want our students to know (student outcomes)
  • How will we know that they have learned those outcomes (common assessments)
  • What will we do when they have already learned those outcomes(instruction)
  • What will we do when they have not learned those outcomes(instruction)

We decided that by developing district consensus about student outcomes and common assessments we would be developing a district approach that supports and respects our teachers and their ability to focus and innovate their instruction.  Essentially, we defined the district consensus curriculum as the consistent student outcomes and assessment evidence for each unit along with the required resources.  This definition gave more freedom and flexibility for teachers and teams of teacher to try different instructional approaches and have meaningful conversations about how students are responding to instruction.

District Consensus Curriculum

As a district team, it was important to develop our curriculum development process collaboratively.  We decided to take the approach of developing the consensus curriculum first instead of starting with diary mapping.  By taking this approach, we would be addressing the changes required to curriculum from new standards.  We adopted a tight and loose coupling
mentality.  We came to the conclusion that district consensus curriculum would reflect the consistent student outcomes, the common summative assessments, and the required and/or approved resources identified with that course.  Being a large district with multiple schools, it was imperative that we created courses that had the same expectations for students no matter what teacher or campus you attended.  It was also important that we measured student success in the same method– common summative assessments.

It was important to recognize that this new development process would result in curriculum that would be both tight and loose.  That is to mean that there would be components of the curriculum that were consistent and components that would encourage teacher creativity and innovations.

It was not as easy as it sounds for everyone to come to this understanding.  The initial concern came from the classroom teachers who were afraid that this process would remove their creativity and innovation from teaching.  However, it was quickly discovered that having consistent outcomes and common assessments would actually increase their ability to be creative and innovative in the teaching of these courses.  This design would also create an atmosphere ripe for discussing instructional approaches and sharing the results with colleagues through the PLC process.

A Mindshift about Assessments

It was easy for the team to agree that the same courses should have the same expectations.  It was less easy to come to a common understanding that each course should have some degree of common summative assessments.  It took a mindshift about assessment before we could move on with common summative assessments.  We had to move away from assessing students on the ability to complete the lessons and activities, and move to a summative assessment schema that assessed students on their performance of the outcomes designed in the curriculum.  The result of this shift created the platform to encourage and respect teacher innovation and flexibility for planning lessons and teaching their students.  We did not want to design a curriculum that would be so narrow that all teachers would be using the same lessons.  We did want a curriculum that would establish the consistent student outcomes for each course and unit. Our goal was to respect teachers as professionals to develop daily lessons, activities, and classroom formative assessments and give teachers and PLCs information about how students met or exceeded the expectations of the course outcomes through common summative assessments.

This change in curriculum design required us to focus on what you would gain by developing a viable curriculum with consistent outcomes and common assessments– teachers that were respected for their ability to be innovative in their development of lessons and armed with information about the impact their instruction had on student performance on those curricular goals.

Final Thoughts

Don’t underestimate the need to collaborate to develop a common language, common vision, and common process.  In addition, once you have these pieces in place, don’t be inflexible in adapting the process to serve the common vision.  Your teams do not have to do everything the same, but as long as they understand the language, agree on the vision, understand the general process they will create excellent curriculum, instruction, and assessments that support and focus on the teaching and learning of students–and that is exactly what we want.


Josh Ruland, the 9-12 Curriculum Director at Indian Prairie School District 204, the 3rd largest school district in  Illinois, shares his district’s process in developing a district wide consensus curriculum that honors the needs of all stake holders.

Read Josh’s related blogposts, “Steps to Developing District Consensus Curriculum” and “Building Conversations Around Common Assessment Data”

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