By Stacy Winslow, Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Derry Township School District

If it doesn’t matter whether or not all children learn; if any learning is an acceptable measure of learning, then no written set of learning objectives is needed. However, if the standard of belief is that all children can and will learn, and the content of that learning impacts life-long opportunities, then a written set of learning objectives is not only essential, it is imperative. (English & Steffy, 2001). 

Student Background and Advantage

School curriculum must provide focus to identify what is essential and significant for student learning. It must provide connections to reinforce complex learning that leads to mastery within and across grade levels. And, above all, it must provide equity, ensuring that every student has access to the curriculum.

When I think about school curriculum, I am always reminded of a story about Fenwick English, the curriculum “guru” and author of several books detailing the importance of aligned curriculum. As the story is told, English had his children and grandchildren gathered for a visit to the NASA complex in Houston, Texas to see the space shuttle and other NASA artifacts. Upon arriving at their destination, English discovered that there was an entrance fee upwards of $15 a person. A quick calculation led to the realization that this was going to cost him about $300. He turned to his wife and asked what he should do. Her response, “You are going to get out your credit card, pay for the entrance fee, and take your family to NASA like you promised.”

This story resonates with me because for this family it was a surprise, but not out of the question, to pay the fee. For many other families the price of entrance would have been prohibitive. What an advantage to be able to purchase background knowledge. English’s grandchildren will have a serious advantage over less fortunate children when they discuss astronomy and space exploration in science class or read a non-fiction passage about the lunar space module.

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Overcoming Barriers to Success

Without a written school curriculum, this type of cultural capital becomes the determining factor between success and failure in educational systems. Without a written and aligned curriculum, the four variables that will determine student achievement are: a) the education of the parents, b) the number of parents in the household, c) the type of community, and d) the poverty rate (Robinson & Brandon, 1994). Moss-Mitchell’s 1998 research in DeKalb County, Georgia confirmed the importance of a viable, aligned curriculum. She found that after only one year of using a strongly aligned curriculum for third grade students, a 6-point NCE gain was obtained on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and there was no statistical difference when student scores were analyzed for socio-economic status.

Equitable Access to Learning

The primary objective of deep curriculum alignment is to change the opportunity structure that continually favors those students in schools who are fortunate enough to belong to a particular cultural subset. By changing the opportunity structure to include equal access to the school curriculum, schools essentially level the playing field for those students whose achievement would otherwise be measured by their economic status. (English & Steffy, 2001). 

In the United States, there is a legal mandate to offer a free and appropriate education to all school-aged students. I would argue that of greater importance is the moral imperative to provide equitable access to learning for all students. A well-aligned, written curriculum is the foundational structure to ensure that every student who walks through our doors has the opportunity to achieve success within our walls and beyond.

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