The Current State of School Curricula

4 min read
Source: Gaelle Marcel/Unsplash

Source: Gaelle Marcel/Unsplash

Many K-12 learning resources underwent an overhaul during the COVID pandemic, yet curricula available to teachers and students often still require changes to meet their needs. Materials labeled as “standards-aligned” were often designed for older, different content standards and retrofitted later, not necessarily as successfully as if they had been designed specifically for current needs. With teachers being busier than ever, with so many demands already on their plates, it is unrealistic to expect each individual teacher to modify curricula on a regular basis. So, what do we know about ways in which school curricula can improve?

When surveyed on the heels of the pandemic, “Only half of all teachers report their curricula to be high quality and well aligned to learning standards. This decreases for teachers in schools reporting a majority of low-income students (44%), students of color (41%), and English Learners (33%)” (Educators for Excellence, 2021, p. 18). A key observation from this survey study was that “Teachers want changes in content, curricula, grading, and assessments to provide an excellent education during the pandemic and in the future” (p. 14).

Post-pandemic, the need for adaptable content became evident, as a sudden transition to online teaching could happen again in the future. In May 2020, while teaching remotely, 45% of educators continued with their pre-existing curriculum. In contrast, 27% opted for a different one, either self-made or sourced from peers. A mere 4% to 23% were provided with a new curriculum by their respective educational institutions (Educators for Excellence, 2020). “Distance learning has made the challenges with curricula even more acute, as 31% of teachers report their curricula are easy to adapt for distance learning” (p. 18). Having limited appropriate curriculum led to diminished student involvement.

While 81% of educators believed their online curriculum in May 2020 was suitable, and 92% felt it adhered to state standards, a significant 86% identified low student participation as a major hurdle (Educators for Excellence, 2020). To illustrate, only 48% of teachers (from a sample of 1,000) stated that three-quarters or more of their students actively participated in the remote learning tasks set in spring 2020 (Hamilton et al., 2020). Multiple factors might have influenced this low engagement, such as students’ mental well-being during lockdown.

However, the curriculum failed to captivate most students. By the end of 2021, 57% of educators noted that student involvement throughout the fall was still not up to pre-pandemic levels (Educators for Excellence, 2021). Reduced student participation can lead to challenges like classroom disruptions and increased academic support needs. Furthermore, just 35% stated that their “curricula include high-quality formative assessments to measure student learning” (p. 18).

U.S. demographics have changed, yet class content sometimes fails to speak to the learners consuming them. As Carlotta Pope, an 11th-grade English teacher at Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School in Brooklyn, New York, expressed, “As a Black educator and native city girl, I am constantly reminded that learning materials and policies do not support my students’ identities” (Educators for Excellence, 2021, p. 20). Only 41% of educators felt their “curricula are accessible, appropriate, and engaging for all learners,” and a mere 35% believed their “curricula are culturally relevant for their student population” (Educators for Excellence, 2021, p. 20).

These deficits force educators to source or create their own resources, which can be draining. For instance:

  • Data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that public school educators spend a larger portion of their working hours (30%) on lesson planning than on actual teaching, which occupies only 25% of their time (Krantz-Kent, 2008).
  • A survey from the U.K. indicated that teachers, across all levels, put in more unpaid overtime (an additional 12 hours weekly) compared to other professionals, including legal and medical practitioners (Stanley, 2014).

Post-pandemic data on curricula quality is still being collected and analyzed, but even the 2021 findings offered curriculum designers information for future improvements. Meanwhile, 85% of educators feel they have autonomy over their course content (Erberber, 2020). However, the downside is that personally adjusting lessons to meet current learning needs likely requires extra effort from teachers, whose demanding profession already grapples with another pandemic: teacher burnout. Regularly collecting data on the state of curricula and following paths to improvement can offer teachers and students the support they deserve.

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