Karen Cichon is the Director of Curriculum at Partnership Schools. More than anyone we’ve ever met, she loves putting together pacing guides for our courses. She will gush over the particulars of the schedule for 4th grade language arts or 7th grade math with a joy that lights up her entire face and makes a kid with all their Halloween candy spread out on the living room floor look like a study in ennui. So this week, we asked her why pacing guides are so important.
Since the Partnership network began, our students have made exciting academic gains—beating pre-pandemic national averages last year, for example—and content-rich curricula are at the heart of our approach. But keeping that heart pumping relies on my favorite curriculum support that the network team provides to our schools: curriculum pacing guides.
My colleagues will tell you I take curriculum guides super seriously! They address something I know would have made a monstrous difference in my 20-something self’s classroom.
Simply put, a pacing guide suggests what a teacher should teach on a given day.
Pacing guides provide a layer of accountability that I wish I’d had back when I was filling out my plan book every week. It pains me to remember the days I would end up repeating the content that I had expected to do the previous week, but, alas, we just hadn’t gotten to it.
Why hadn’t we? Well, maybe we were interrupted by an afternoon assembly, or it happened to be the annual picture day. Maybe we were finishing a book we loved, so we read an extra chapter and skipped Social Studies that day. Maybe my students loved a topic we were studying—so we added an extra day or two to dig a little deeper before starting the new chapter. Or maybe it was just a beautiful spring day and taking a nature walk sounded more appealing than the Science lesson—we could make that up tomorrow, right?
Those little detours I made didn’t seem like a big deal at the time—but boy, I realize now that they were short-sighted. I was approaching my teaching day-to-day—and not realizing how quickly 180 days go by. If I could have a do-over, I’d go back to 1990-something with a far deeper sense of urgency and understanding of the depth and breadth of content my students needed to learn over the course of their year in my classroom. And the first thing I’d do would be to build a pacing guide like the ones we share each August with our teachers at Partnership Schools.
Building our pacing guides certainly isn’t rocket science; I always compare the exercise to putting a puzzle together. We take a blank template of our academic calendar, and map out an ideal schedule of each grade and subject area’s units and lessons. Of course, curricula tends to have more lessons than an academic year has days—so important choices have to be made about what stays in and what gets cut.
“Go as fast as you can, but as slow as you must.”
Our classroom teaching schedules are built to accommodate the curricular recommendations for daily minutes, which means our default plan is to teach one lesson every day for the whole year. Of course, we don’t want pacing guides to make our Partnership teachers feel like hamsters trying to keep up with a dizzying wheel in motion. Life happens, and there are interruptions to the daily routine. More importantly, we know that sometimes it’s critical to stop, review, and reteach something that students just didn’t get the first time. Particularly with our K-2 reading skills lessons that require mastery of very specific learn-to-read skills, we urge teachers to follow the guiding principle when it comes to their pacing guides: “Go as fast as you can, but as slow as you must.”
Feedback from teachers and school leaders helps us tweak our pacing guides to keep them realistic. Some of the lessons learned over the years:
- Build in occasional “flex days” that teachers can use for catch up, remediation, or enrichment. Certainly, some grades and subjects will need them more than others; Saxon Math, with its incremental development and continual review, rarely needs a “flex day;” tackling the rigorous novel The Narrative of Frederick Douglass benefits from a flex day at least every other week.
- Be mindful of the busiest times of the academic year: December has Christmas shows that compel practice, and May brings sacraments and 8th grade graduation. Instruction certainly happens in those months—but we try to help our teachers balance instruction and interruptions with a few extra flex days or spreading one lesson over two days.
- To the extent possible, we avoid placing a new lesson on the day before a holiday break like Thanksgiving or Christmas. Teachers can use that as a catch-up day before the break, or maybe they’ll insert a holiday-themed lesson and activity.
- “First Fridays” in our schools usually begin with Mass and end with an early dismissal. In our first few years, that particular day on the calendar caused a lot of stress for our teachers, who wanted to remain on pace but literally didn’t have enough time in the day to teach both Math and ELA. We now alternate months so teachers only have to teach Math or ELA—an easy fix that made First Fridays much more manageable.
At the network level, we don’t track whether teachers are on pace or not.
We don’t manage pacing guides with an iron fist. In fact, at the network level, we don’t track whether teachers are on pace or not. We believe our role is to give our teachers a picture of what their year can look like if they keep their foot steady on the pacing pedal.
And we encourage our school leaders to be aware of where each teacher is vs where they could be. If they find that someone is more than two or three lessons behind, it’s worth a conversation to see what’s going on, and how they can get back on pace. Oftentimes it’s something easily fixable—like helping a teacher see that their morning “Do Now” needs to take five minutes, not 15—or realizing that inefficiencies in the breakfast routine or bathroom breaks are interfering with instructional time.
Another benefit of our pacing guides is to keep all of our classrooms aligned as a network, and to ensure that Partnership students share a common knowledge across subject areas. And when we pull our teachers together for a network PD, it’s so useful to have the teachers from the various schools all talking about how to get the most out of the same content that they’re all teaching at the same time.
Trista Rivera, who has taught middle school language arts at the Partnership’s Immaculate Conception School and now serves as academic dean there, adds that “the pacing guide is a road map, not a straight-jacket. It gives you the most straightforward path to the destination. That doesn’t mean you can’t deviate from it—you can go a slightly different route if you hit a roadblock. Without it, teachers might be more hesitant to move forward, which would take away from the rigor of our curriculum and the high expectations.”
School days go fast, and there tend to be lots of distractions and interruptions. I sometimes think I should send an apology note to those students from my earliest years of teaching for letting those interruptions keep them from the content they should have learned from the late chapters of their books. Certainly, they’re in my mind each summer when we sit down to plot out exactly what and when our Partnership students will learn in the coming academic year. It’s a bit of a personal penance: I can’t go back and make up for the content I didn’t get to in my teaching days, but I sure can do my best to help our teachers see how important it is that our students are equipped with the knowledge and skills they deserve—and can give them a realistic road map to help them get there.