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Content-Rich Curriculum in the Age of COVID

As teachers and students across Partnership Schools enter their fifth week of remote learning, we’ve changed a great deal of how we normally teach. One thing, however, hasn’t changed: the importance of rigorous, content-rich, and coherently sequenced curriculum to our students’ learning. 

Six years ago, when we launched our effort to improve student achievement across our (then) six urban Catholic schools, choosing the right curriculum was top of mind. In the years since, we have seen firsthand how powerful it is when you bring together strong instruction, effective planning, and rigorous curriculum. Today, in the era of coronavirus-driven remote learning, we understand that building an academic model on a strong foundation of curriculum is exactly what we need to adapt to this new world.

When we first faced a rapid transition to distance learning, we encountered–as many educators and parents have in recent weeks–a torrent of possible options for online learning programs. But our long-held focus on giving teachers a clear roadmap to guide instruction in person wasn’t something we were willing to surrender online. So we have worked to make the most of the curriculum that served our classrooms so well, pared to its essentials and adapted to this new era. And so far, while far from perfect, our teachers’ ability to keep students engaged and the feedback we’ve received from families have given us confidence that a strong foundation of curriculum pays dividends even in a time of crisis. 

Indeed, clarity about what to teach next has given us a kind of North Star by which to navigate dozens of other decisions about how to teach in this new era. Thus the last month has confirmed what the previous six years have shown us, and indeed has increased the stakes: curriculum is more important than ever for any of us who seek to minimize the impact our nationwide school shutdown will have on our most vulnerable students. 

Our experience with curriculum is echoed by Johns Hopkins professor, Ashley Rogers Berner. In the first of a series of articles in RedefinED, she highlights the crucial role of high-quality instructional materials and shares a vision of what is possible when they are used. Beginning with the research, she notes that “intellectually robust curriculum” has already driven the narrowing of the achievement gap everywhere from Catholic schools to Chicago’s lowest performing high schools. 

Berner elaborates that “A knowledge-rich curriculum isn’t just about learning facts. It is about engagement with meaningful information about the world and the questions that human life inevitably raises.” As our Vice President of Academics Maggie Johnson noted in her post Planning for ELA in an Age of Remote Learning, really good questions anchored in complex texts are at the heart of what our teachers are doing right now. 

Such queries about deeply meaningful topics, like questions of mercy in The Call of the Wild that Maggie discusses, are equipping students not just with literacy skills but with the tools to grapple with values and human nature in ways that may be even more relevant now that more human foibles are playing out before more young people on a more impactful scale than perhaps they have witnessed before.

And while our teachers are innovating and managing so much so heroically, they aren’t left to develop lessons in intellectual isolation. The coherently structured curriculum that drove our students’ learning before COVID continues to do so now, with necessary modifications we are coordinating as a network. 

There is no question that distance learning is posing real challenges to our students, many of whom live in crowded New York apartments where the quiet and time to think deeply about complex new ideas are hard to come by. But we are finding that most of our students are rising to the challenge and are even hungry for it. 

So as our own network and almost every school system across the country begin to tackle the long-range questions of how to redress the educational gaps that existed before COVID and are exacerbated by it, we hope that high-quality, knowledge-building curriculum isn’t seen as a casualty of the current crisis, but a crucial antidote to it.