Written by Christine Zimmermann, Atlas Consultant and Retired Director of Curriculum and Instruction, NJ
During my first years as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for a New Jersey public suburban PreK-12 district of six schools and approximately 3000 students and 300 staff members, my eyes would routinely pop open at about 2 a.m. My first thought? “QSAC.”
It’s no wonder my subconscious was working overtime. In NJ curriculum director circles, the term “QSAC” often conjures up the same kind of negative emotions like the name “Voldemort” does for characters in the Harry Potter series. (For those not familiar with the villain Voldemort, he is also known by the moniker “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”)
QSAC Monitoring Expectations
QSAC stands for Quality Single Accountability Continuum. The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) uses the QSAC system to monitor and evaluate districts’ compliance with state regulations in five key components: Instruction & Program, Fiscal, Governance, Operations, and Personnel. Districts must undergo QSAC monitoring at regular intervals, and, at best, the process is perceived by most as burdensome – taking precious time and resources from the supervision of instruction.
The components and their indicators are many; the challenge for districts is how to best track their compliance to ensure a successful monitoring that earns them the coveted title “High Performing.”
Before our district switched to Atlas in the spring of 2013, our preparation for state monitoring of Instruction and Program consisted of months of internal review, record gathering, and the creation of electronic and physical binders that would be shared with state monitors.
While all district curricula included state-mandated items and met timelines, our curriculum templates were inconsistent across the district; this inconsistency meant that our curricula could not be easily searched for various components or compared for vertical or horizontal alignment, etc., making the monitoring process more challenging.
Mandates and Best Practices with a UbD Structure
Atlas allowed us to customize a curriculum template that would not only help us to proactively plan for QSAC monitoring by capturing state-mandated/monitored curricular items in consistent, easy-to-find ways across all grades and subject areas but would also follow the gold-standard in curriculum writing process and structure: Understanding by Design (UbD).
Using a UbD template enabled our staff to create well-articulated, intentional curricula that, according to UbD co-creators Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, would “focus on teaching and assessing for understanding and learning transfer, and design curriculum ‘backward’ from those ends.”
Future adjustments to the district template can be made to ensure that the template reflects not only updates to mandated curricular items, but, just as importantly, any changes in district focus or our common understandings of best instructional practices.
Purposeful Change Takes Time
Since our previous district curriculum templates were inconsistent (and most did not follow a UbD format), the transfer of curricula into our customized Atlas template was a challenge at first. The Atlas team took our Word documents and did their best to retrofit information into our new template.
New courses were written entirely in our Atlas template, with a customized district-specific Atlas style guide to ensure consistency across the subjects and grade levels. Teachers charged with writing curriculum appreciated the ease of the Atlas interface, with its pre-populated information, check boxes, drop-down menus, text boxes, and helpful hints.
We did our curriculum revisions in two phases. For Phase 1 (compliance) revisions, parts of the template were left unaddressed if they weren’t state-mandated. Phase 2 (complete) revisions waited for their turn in our curricular review cycle, when our UbD template was addressed in its totality. Christine shared a unit template that combines QSAC requirements with the Understanding by Design framework to align state mandates with curriculum best practice.
Using Reports to Identify Gaps and Inconsistencies – and Spark Conversations
One of Atlas’s most powerful features is its ability to run reports to find a myriad of information about a district’s curriculum. Reports are helpful in finding gaps and inconsistencies in curriculum – before QSAC monitoring. Regular collegial conversations around reports can also yield many “a-ha moments” for administrative and instructional teams, providing opportunities for improvements in teaching and learning.
Some of the helpful reports users can run in Atlas are:
Standards Analysis Report
- Which standards have we targeted?
- Not targeted yet?
- Which standards have been assessed?
- Where can we find ___________ in the standards?
Standards Overview Report
- How do the standards progress and build on each other from one grade to the next?
Assessment Methods Report
- What methods are being used by a school, grade, subject, teacher, and/or course?
- Are we using a mix of formative, summative, benchmark, and alternative assessments?
Scope and Sequence Report
- How does the curriculum spiral from grade to grade?
- What are the gaps or repetitions in the targeted curriculum?
- How do we create more interdisciplinary units?
- Are we helping students draw connections between their different courses?
- Do we have any missed opportunities to collaborate across subject areas?
- How does the curriculum spiral above and below grade levels?
- How do we build upon the skills our students already have?
- How do we eliminate learning gaps and redundancies?
Comparative Unit Calendar Report
- What grades teach certain topics?
- How many units address a particular topic in a grade?
- How are concepts spiraling from grade to grade?
Professional Development is Key!
It was important to our district that our use of Atlas was dynamic – as well as realistic. To prevent Atlas from becoming just another “electronic binder,” we were intentional and inclusive with our rollout. Some of the steps we took to ensure that Atlas would be a meaningful curriculum resource for our staff were:
- Professional development in Atlas for all administrators and curriculum writers
- Our first half-day professional development sessions were delivered by an Atlas staff member to representative groups of PreK-5 and 6-12 administrators and teachers
- Subsequent PD was given by district administrators or teacher “Atlas experts”
- Creation of a district-wide Atlas Leadership Team that included teachers and administrators from all school levels and subjects
- Volunteer members of this group served as the “Atlas ambassadors” for their respective schools and departments
- Members sought feedback from their colleagues and brought it back to the Atlas Leadership Team for consideration and problem-solving
- PLC/Department/Grade level Atlas conversations
- Administrators routinely used Atlas to guide rich conversations about curriculum, instruction, and assessment
- Multi-day Understanding by Design workshops
- This training allowed our teachers to better understand the philosophy and practices that inform the “why” and “how” of UbD, affording our staff a much deeper understanding than they would have had by simply reading information contained in the boxes of our template
In addition to using Atlas to capture state curricular mandates, districts can also use it to document professional development (state required and otherwise), including new teacher and administrator mentoring, PLC sessions, team meetings, etc. Agendas, minutes, and resources can be easily included in dedicated PD “courses” that have their own unique template. We work with school leaders from all over the world to create strong foundations for quality curriculum and instruction. Here are a few of the sessions we can tailor for you: Building a Curriculum Process, Managing Change: Building Buy-in and Commitment, and Creating a Curriculum Review Process.
If districts keep in mind state QSAC monitoring requirements when designing – or revising – their Atlas templates, those charged with the responsibility for meeting and documenting state mandates will probably sleep a bit easier knowing that Atlas is the right tool for this complex task!
With over 25 years of experience in public, parochial, and private schools in both suburban and urban settings, Christine Zimmermann served as a PreK-12 district curriculum director, PreK-8 principal, and teacher of every grade from preschool through eighth before becoming a consultant for the FariaPD team. As curriculum director, Chris was instrumental in creating a comprehensive district-wide curriculum process using both Atlas and Understanding by Design while supporting and empowering both teachers and school leaders as agents of meaningful change.
Chris has presented at national and regional conferences on a variety of topics, including literacy leadership, curriculum development, and social-emotional learning, and she helped to facilitate best practices in curriculum and instruction in her role as co-president of the Bergen County (NJ) Curriculum Consortium, working in cooperation with the New Jersey Department of Education.