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Henningsen: Curriculum Reform

Curriculum reform can work, but it requires the right conditions. I’m reminded of a school whose history department developed a 9th grade world history course. Research and planning took two years. Would they follow a narrative or go by topic? What readings would work for their students? What historical skills to stress? How would they assess?

They field tested in Year Three: introducing segments of the proposed course into the existing 9 th grade course. Planners got regular feedback from students and teachers, which led to further analysis, discussion, and revision.

In Year Four they rolled out the course for all ninth-graders. Once again, course planners conferred regularly with students and faculty. Teachers met weekly to discuss progress and the entire department met monthly to review it. At year’s end they pooled what they’d learned and re-worked it yet again; fine-tuning it even more the following year. By Year Six they had a terrific course, popular with kids and teachers alike and featured as a model by the World History Association.

It took five years to get right. Professional studies show that’s the national average for implementing new educational policies and practices.

But the average tenure of the administrators who oversee curricular change is less than that. For high school principals nationwide it’s three and a half years. Some 20% of Vermont’s school principals leave their posts every year. Last June, 30% of Vermont’s school superintendents departed. Do the math: few principals or superintendents stay long enough to design and implement successful reform. That leaves teachers subject to constantly changing directives from regularly changing administrators. It’s no wonder successful curricular reform is rare.

The process I described occurred at an independent school, not a public one. You might think that explains their success, but think again. Sure, they weren’t hampered by union regulations, but unionized teachers have been similarly successful. They weren’t subject to government curriculum standards, but their course met them. Nor did they need school board approval, though many boards have since approved courses modeled on theirs. What made their work successful was that the entire process was originated and carried out by the teachers themselves. Administrators encouraged their work and got out of the way.

In curricular reform it’s not just the what that’s important – it’s also the how and the who.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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