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Navigating the Every Student Succeeds Act: Well-Rounded Curriculum—It’s More Than Math and Literacy

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The narrow focus on English and math as sole indicators of student success in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was widely criticized. Districts and schools responded by limiting course offerings, changing schedules, and prioritizing funding around only those courses that were measured by high-stakes assessments. In response, authors of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) chose to emphasize a well-rounded education and it is referenced more than 20 times in law. Offering students an opportunity to learn a variety of academic subjects, including the arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences, in addition to English and math is critical for preparing students for continued post-secondary study and a future workforce that is ever changing.

The Importance of Focusing on “How”
While only 4 of the 17 states that have submitted ESSA plans (August 2017) have included accountability plans that incorporate other subjects beyond English and math, local education agencies should not wait. Districts should determine how best to help students reach their academic and social potential and embrace an educational program for the whole child. To accomplish this task, districts will want to consider not only the course offerings and state standards, but also the curriculum. While academic standards clarify the learning expectations for each course—the “What We Teach,” it is the curriculum that is the means to mastery of standards. Curriculum is the program of instruction, the “How We Teach,” pacing, units, lessons, tasks, resources, and assessments. The lack of attention placed on curriculum in reform efforts in the United States means that we have left pedagogy and evidence-based practice to chance. Studies of top-performing countries across the globe indicate a commitment to a high-quality, content-rich curriculum that emphasizes a body of knowledge that must be mastered, rather than the acquisition of skills.

ESSA defines a well-rounded education as . . . courses, activities, and programming in subjects such as English, reading or language arts, writing, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, geography, computer science, music, career and technical education, health, physical education, and any other subject, as determined by the State or local educational agency, with the purpose of providing all students access to an enriched curriculum and educational experience.
(Every Student Succeeds Act: S. 1177-298)

Five Questions to Guide Your Focus on Curriculum
Educational leaders, both at the district and school levels, should conduct an audit of your curriculum and seek evidence to answer the following questions:

  1. Do you offer courses that provide students with a well-rounded education as defined by ESSA? (The definition is included above for your reference.)
  2. Do you have an articulated curriculum (pacing guides, units, lessons, tasks, resources, etc.) for each core course, at a minimum?
  3. Are your instructional resources, both print and digital, aligned to standards and content-rich?
  4. Do your classroom assessments meet the performance expectations of the standards?
  5. Have you prioritized time, space, and funding to teach a well-rounded curriculum?

There is compelling evidence that proves improving curriculum can positively impact student outcomes and improve teacher quality. Providing students with equitable access and an opportunity to learn requires that all teachers are provided with clear guidance and sound pedagogy aligned to rigorous performance expectations. Using a process such as Rigorous Curriculum Design can provide a sustainable model for the development of a curriculum with articulated priority standards, aligned assessments, engaging learning experiences, research-based strategies, and instructional resources. Districts and schools that make an investment in developing content-rich, high-quality curricular frameworks realize an immediate impact.

As states, districts, and schools continue to navigate ESSA, it is important not to overlook the foundation for accelerating student achievement—a well-rounded curriculum. Enlist teacher leaders from across content areas to become designers of learning experiences that are rigorous, relevant, and engaging. Communicate high expectations for learning while providing teachers with a roadmap to achieve student success.


Want to learn more about strategies to effectively address district and school accountability indicators in ESSA? Join Dr. Bill Daggett, founder of ICLE—a division of HMH—for a one-day institute in Albany, New York, on October 9, 2019. Register here.

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