Oct 12 2006

How Curriculum Mapping Can Improve Academic Achievement

Schools are using curriculum mapping to ensure that teachers’ lesson plans follow state standards. The goal? Higher student achievement.

Like most teachers, Tracy Kropp is always busy grading papers and preparing for classes. So when school district administrators announced plans to implement something that was called “curriculum maps,” she feared the worst.

But now, five years later, Kropp is a big proponent of the technique that makes sure the schools are teaching students everything that’s in the state curriculum standards.

“When it first came out, I thought, ‘Oh no, another thing we have to do,’” recalls Kropp, who is an earth science teacher at Spotsylvania High School located in Spotsylvania, Va. “But in retrospect, mapping has been a tremendous help. We’re not spending too much time on one topic, and every teacher is on the same page. I sit down with my colleagues and talk about how best to teach things. We never did that before.”

Curriculum mapping allows school districts to use technology to compare state curriculum standards with what is actually taught in the classroom. By using state standards as a guide, school districts can plot out what educators teach, from kindergarten through high school.

Proponents say it eliminates gaps in classroom instruction and reduces the chance that the same course material is repeated at different grade levels. It also promotes collaboration among teachers, allowing them to share lesson plans and teaching techniques. And students who transfer to new schools in the same district don’t miss a beat or have to repeat material they’ve already learned since they’ve been taught the same material as their new classmates. The results, according to advocates, are higher student achievement and improved scores on state standardized tests.

Those positive results are spurring curriculum mapping programs. In fact, according to Heidi Hayes Jacobs, author of Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation and Mapping the Big Picture: Integrating Curriculum and Assessment K-12, curriculum mapping “is becoming common practice. It allows us for the first time to get real-time data and find out what is going on in schools.”

Technology Plays a Role

When school districts initiate a curriculum mapping project, the staff must spend a lot of time meeting to compare state standards with teachers’ yearlong plans for course content. Technology eases that task, notes Jacobs, who is president of educational consulting firm Curriculum Designers in Rye, N. Y.

“Technology is absolutely essential to curriculum mapping,” she adds. “You can’t do it effectively without it.”

Jacobs says Web-based curriculum mapping software enables districts to draw up their maps and then integrate students’ standardized test scores in order to analyze the data and find areas that need improvement. This software allows educators to search maps and collaborate with schools in their district and nationwide. It also lets teachers share lesson plans and teaching techniques, as well as hold meetings via the Web, she explains.

Some districts, like Spotsylvania, are purchasing Web-based curriculum mapping software to enable teachers to key in their course content. Others, such as the Cache County School District in North Logan, Utah, create their maps using traditional spreadsheet software.

Both Spotsylvania and Cache County post the maps on district Web sites to provide teachers and parents with easy access. To aid teachers in instruction, both districts are also adding Web links to suggested lesson plans and tests.

But software alone is not enough. For curriculum mapping to be successful, schools must regularly test students to gauge their progress. By analyzing test results, schools can pinpoint areas where students are either succeeding or failing.

This enables a teacher whose students do poorly in a topic to get advice from other teachers on better ways to teach that subject. If students throughout the district are performing poorly on a topic, the district can review the curriculum maps and see where they can make improvements in instruction.

Teacher Support Is Essential

For a mapping project to succeed, school officials say it’s critical to win the support of teachers and administrators in each school. However, many teachers are initially hesitant about curriculum maps, fearing they will stunt their autonomy. They are also concerned that the maps will be used by administrators to evaluate teachers.

However, advocates insist that staff evaluation is not the focus; curriculum evaluation is the goal.

“We tell teachers what and when to teach so that the children won’t have gaps,” says Sandra Critchfield, director of program development and evaluation for the Spotsylvania County Schools. “But we don’t tell them how to teach.”

Though he understands teachers’ concerns, Steve Zsiray, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instructional services at the Cache County School District, says the goals are to improve children’s education and support the teaching staff. “We’re just trying to make them better teachers and help them reach kids with low proficiency,” he points out.

Making sure that teachers understand those goals is critical. Michael Berta, associate superintendent of Merrillville Community Schools in Merrillville, Ind., advises school districts to promote the idea of curriculum maps to teachers. He reports that his district spent a lot of time addressing teachers’ concerns.

“In the past, teachers were like independent contractors,” Berta says. “But before you start mapping, you need to take the time to get buy-in.”

Katrina Negley, an art teacher at Brock Road Elementary School in Spotsylvania, says that at first she feared maps would stifle her creativity. However, she now believes the positives outweigh any negatives.

One negative is that teachers can lose their favorite lessons because those topics are now addressed at a different grade level, Negley explains. “You do give up some freedom, but it’s workable,” she says. “For new teachers, it’s a wonderful guide. They can look at the curriculum maps and see what pace they need to set.”

To support teachers in core subjects, Negley frequently consults maps to see what others are teaching, so she can address topics that students are learning in other classes.

“I can see at a glance what’s happening throughout the school, and that makes for easy planning,” she says. “There are little things in art that can overlap with math, science and social studies. If they’re learning about Greeks and Romans in social studies, I can talk about Greek and Roman architecture.”

Lessons Learned

While districts use different strategies to build maps, most school officials agree that curriculum map projects should proceed at a deliberate pace.

In Utah, Cache County administrators focused first on building maps for schools in kindergarten through fifth grade. In Indiana, Merryville Community Schools are building maps by subject. During the past two years, they’ve created maps for social studies and math classes at every grade level, and they will create maps for the remaining subjects during the next four years.

Spotsylvania spent three years developing maps for each class at every grade level. Administrators first asked each teacher to write up course content; then they met with other teachers to review each other’s curriculum. After each school developed its own maps, the district analyzed them and developed single maps for every class, Critchfield explains. The district paid a committee of 20 educators to spend 20 hours each to build the maps. Curriculum mapping software simplified that effort.

“The software was critical,” Critchfield says. “It enabled us to analyze maps in ways that would have taken forever by hand. We did keyword searches on topics to see when and where we were teaching them.”

Cache County’s Zsiray has a final word of advice for school districts: Update your curriculum maps once a year to make improvements in classroom instruction and to account for changes in state standards. “A good curriculum is a living, breathing document, and it needs to be flexible and adjusted every year,” he says.

Wylie Wong is a Phoenix-based freelance writer who covers technology and is currently writing a book on baseball.

Five Tips on Building Successful Curriculum Maps

1. Sell the idea. The project won’t work without teacher input and support.

2. Technology simplifies the process. Choices range from Web-based curriculum mapping software to “homemade” approaches that use computers, spreadsheets, word processing software, databases and Web site design software.

3. Take your time. Look at mapping as an evolutionary process, and don’t overload staff with too much work and unrealistic deadlines.

4. Revise maps once a year to account for changes in state standards and teachers’ suggestions.

5. On the school district Web site that houses the maps, add links to lesson plans, assessment tests and videos providing teaching tips to help faculty teach their classes.