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What is the ACPS Curriculum and Why Does it Matter?

One of the strengths of ACPS—its comprehensive written curriculum for all courses and subjects in all grades—is also one of its best-kept secrets. Even among parents who know of its existence, there is a lot of confusion about it.

First, some background: Prior to 2010, ACPS had no fully-developed written curriculum. The school division had Standards of Learning (SOL) Pacing Guides for teachers to use to gauge their progress in covering the minimum standards required by the state of Virginia. These pacing guides only identified SOLs that should be covered by the end of each quarter. But beginning in 2010, the Virginia State Board of Education mandated a completely revised set of Standards of Learning, and as a result, the old ACPS Pacing Guides had to be replaced or significantly updated.digital textbooks

At that time, ACPS began publishing a comprehensive written curriculum that uses the design principles of Understanding by Design, an internationally-recognized curriculum framework. This was one of the goals of the School Board’s 2010-2015 Strategic Plan. The new ACPS curriculum guides contain multi-week units comprised of three stages: Stage One (Desired Results); Stage Two (Assessment Evidence); and Stage Three (Unit Learning Plans).

These new guides are periodically upgraded and revised based upon ongoing teacher and administrator feedback. For the 2014-2015 academic year, the guides will be even more streamlined and technology-infused, using hyperlink enhancements to make them easier to navigate and to provide teachers with access to an even wider range of resources.

Dr. John L. Brown, Executive Director of Curriculum Services and Design, is the mastermind behind the ACPS Curriculum. He served on the faculty of ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) before coming to ACPS. I recently asked him some of the questions about the curriculum that I often hear from parents.

How does ACPS approach its curriculum?

ACPS approaches its curriculum as a comprehensive system for promoting and monitoring student learning. Like all successful curriculum systems, ACPS is committed to aligning its written curriculum with other elements of the learning environment, including tests and other assessment tools; textbooks and other learning resources; and teaching techniques.

How does a teacher implement the curriculum in the classroom?

Teachers prepare daily or multi-day lessons based upon the units in the course or grade level they are teaching. In effect, the unit is the broad road map (providing an overview of the entire journey) and the lesson plan is the step-by-step journey itself.

A well-designed teacher lesson plan addresses three important components: elements that the student should have mastered by the end of the unit; strategies that the instructor will use to evaluate the progress each student is making and to provide feedback to them; and the sequence of teaching-learning activities for a day or multi-day period.

The ACPS curriculum guides provide teachers with extensive suggestions about strategies for addressing individual student needs, including differentiation for English Language Learners and Special Education students as well as acceleration and enhancement strategies for Talented-and-Gifted and Honors students. These suggestions can be easily incorporated into teachers’ daily lesson design.

Advanced Placement (AP) and Dual Enrollment (DE) curriculum is presented in the form of a course syllabus posted on Blackboard with a section detailing the course’s instructional sequence. This approach addresses the need for AP teachers to have their syllabus annually updated and approved by either the College Board (for all AP courses) or the credit-granting college or university (for DE courses).

We all hear about “transfer tasks” from our children. What are they? And how are they connected to writing instruction, specifically, and to the curriculum more generally?

Every unit in the ACPS curriculum has a transfer task. These performance assessments measure students’ levels of understanding, transfer, and real-world use of important skills and processes from the unit.

Parents and community members can best understand the purpose of a transfer task by considering the assessment system for getting a driver’s license. The written test for the license assesses the individual’s knowledge of key concepts, rules, facts, and laws related to driving. The actual driver’s test in which the applicant goes out on the road with a DMV representative to drive, complete a 45-degree turn, and parallel park successfully is equivalent to the unit transfer task. In effect, it confirms the applicant’s ability to engage in independent use and automatic application of key driving skills and procedures.

Unit transfer tasks always require some form of written response. For the 2014-2015 academic year, ACPS will publish on its website a complete K-12 matrix of transfer task writing products (color-coded to identify which tasks require expository/informational, persuasive, procedural/technical, narrative, and descriptive writing). This matrix will be available to parents and community members in August.

Additionally, three versions of each task are published in the curriculum guides: (a) a comprehensive version (for use with most students); (b) a differentiated version (for use with students who need extra support and coaching); and (c) an accelerated version (for students who may benefit from a more independent and creative approach to completing the task).

Every task also contains one or more scoring rubrics (with direct-to-the-student feedback).

How do you get feedback from teachers about the curriculum and how has the curriculum been revised to reflect that feedback?

The Curriculum Blackboard website contains a feedback tab that allows teachers to provide feedback directly to the Curriculum Developers. Additionally, every content area has a representative team of teachers who give regular feedback and suggestions for enhancing and streamlining the curriculum.

Because of this feedback-adjustment process, the ACPS curriculum is continually enhanced. For the 2014-2015 academic year, we are publishing a much more streamlined version of the curriculum (in response to teacher concerns about over-long documents that are sometimes difficult to navigate). The new documents contain electronic hyperlinks that will allow teachers to access support resources (including Virginia Department of Education materials) at their discretion (rather than these materials being contained within the guides themselves).

Additionally, teachers this year will be actively involved in creating multi-day lesson planning resources. These multi-day lessons will focus upon teacher- and division-identified priority areas for instruction, including strategies for improving student achievement in targeted areas based upon Virginia SOL data and School Education Plans.

How does the ACPS Curriculum compare with what other high-performing school divisions use? 

The design of the curriculum is based upon an internationally-recognized framework called Understanding by Design. It emphasizes the importance of having a set of outcomes clearly in mind, builds in a strategy for presenting the material to students, and includes methods for measuring whether the desired outcomes have been achieved. Like all 21st century curricula, the focus in the ACPS curriculum is on student understanding and independent transfer. The curriculum is highly learner-focused and emphasizes the need for a challenging, rigorous, and engaging learning process for every student (including suggestions for differentiating student learning to personalize the learning process).

All high-performing schools use a curriculum that emphasizes performance assessment, independent transfer, and such 21st century habits of mind and higher-level processes as problem solving, decision making, research, writing in the content areas, critical and analytical reading, and data collection and analysis.

How does it compare to the Common Core Standards which 44 states and D.C. have adopted?  And what would happen to the ACPS Curriculum if Virginia were to adopt the Common Core Standards?

The curriculum developers have been cognizant of the national significance of the Common Core Standards. If Virginia were to adopt the Common Core in the future, some modifications and realignment of our curriculum may be necessary, but those adjustments could be done without major disruption.

The textbooks and electronic resources that we use are well-aligned with the Common Core Standards since, by now, much of their market has, in fact, adopted the Common Core.

What kind of training for using the curriculum is provided to teachers, especially those who are new to ACPS?

Ongoing professional development related to the curriculum is provided at both the central office and school levels. All administrators and teacher leaders are continuing to participate in ongoing professional learning in the reformatted curriculum (to be used in the 2014-2015 academic year).

Additionally, professional learning coaches work with our curriculum developers to provide site-based orientation and training sessions in use of the curriculum.

Every year, new teacher orientation contains a professional development session on the curriculum, its design, and its instructional implications.

For more information:

Check out the Course-at-a-Glance area of the ACPS website to view one-page summaries that describe the sequence of units for every subject area. The revised versions of these documents will be posted for parents and community members in August 2014.

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