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Curricula on the cutting-room floor: What are we learning about high school priorities, scope, and goals?

This year has been an endless stream of hard choices for teachers. Perhaps the most consequential of these is what curriculum they will cover amid the year’s many distractions, shifting schedules, and the challenges of remote and hybrid learning. Teachers face pacing decisions every year, but this year they described facing a daunting tradeoff: press on with the required curriculum and risk high course-failure rates, thereby crushing some students with stress and anxiety and losing others who just opt out of it all, or pull back and risk disrupting students’ learning trajectories—and for high-school-aged students, do so with little time to correct for the disruptions.

Across the five New England school systems we’ve been studying, teachers answered this dilemma, more often than not, by cutting back the curriculum. They cite as justification less time overall with students, students’ difficulty staying engaged, and the clunky delivery of remote instruction. In some cases, cutting back was intentional and planned. In all cases, there are open questions about the consequences of narrowing curriculum, which students saw their curriculum most curtailed, and what we should learn about the nature of curriculum itself from the year’s experience.

A great deal of attention is being given to strategies that will remedy the gaps and shortened progress that can result from this narrowing. But the year’s experience should also spark some new conversations about the curriculum itself: its scope, prioritization, and the support teachers have to deliver it. 

Strategic choices, shortened calendars, and lowered expectations leave curriculum on the cutting-room floor.

Some teachers strategically cut back on the content or material covered but saved the core concepts and skills students need to acquire. For example, a social studies teacher explained her priority for her class was to “build skills, get some good practice, and build good habits.” She further specified what she decided to keep:

“[I kept] historical thinking skills, like comparing and contrasting, understanding continuity. We do a lot with primary sources, reading primary sources. [Some of my students] struggle with reading comprehension and writing. So we do a lot with reading difficult texts, whether they’re primary sources or secondary sources. But reading them, analyzing them, responding to them. Those are all skills that are going to translate far beyond this exam.”

Though she planned to cut content—she wouldn’t cover all of the historical eras she might normally cover—she hoped to engage students in all of the concepts they would need to succeed in the next class. Similarly, English teachers have narrowed the curriculum by cutting books from the syllabus—they might cover four novels instead of five—but still cover all of the desired standards

Students in classes that cut down on content but saved the concepts stand to be better positioned to address grade-level concepts in the coming year. 

Strategic cuts were more difficult for teachers of subjects like math, where the standards tend to be tied to specific content with new standards building off of prior standards. One teacher reported to us that she simply ran out of time with three units left to complete. She raced through the units but doubted her students really learned what they should have.

The heart of the issue is that when classes are truncated, essential skills that students will need to learn may go by the wayside. This past year, teachers might have staved off potential challenges incurred from covering less than they planned to by chunking and reordering material in a strategic way.

Lowering expectations is the third, and potentially most dangerous, way curriculum narrowed this year. The teacher who had to quickly cover three units at the end of the semester upon reflection also noted that she had lowered her own expectations:

“I would say that I did my best through the first couple of months to hold students accountable. I have very high standards as an educator. I would say probably around December, I did start lowering the bar a little bit because I knew that the semester was going to end in January, I was pressed for time. I had so many more topics and standards that I had to get through that I kind of just wanted to say, ‘All right, we’re done with this unit, let’s move on. You’ve shown some sort of evidence here.’”

Teachers, feeling cornered by the difficulty of teaching and learning in remote or hybrid models, lost time stemming from reduced or compressed schedules, and genuine concern for the mental well-being of their students, have reported to us that they were wary of holding the line on expectations this year. As one teacher explained, “For me, this year, I’m mostly focusing on SEL and holistic [education].”

The consequences of lowering the bar for students, however, is that students really haven’t acquired the skills they need to stay on track for graduation without serious struggle. That is bad enough. The most dangerous part is that the students may be moved to the next course, the next level, or college with a record that says they’ve built these skills when they haven’t.

Tailored support will be essential next year, but is that all we should be talking about?

Systematic data on the curriculum covered this year is scarce, but it is probably safe to conclude that next fall teachers will greet students who have covered widely varying standards to varying levels of depth. The goal will be to engage students in learning that is on grade level so that those who saw their curriculum most narrowed this year don’t continue to be shortchanged.

Right now, the focus and energy in schools and districts is, understandably, sorting out an assessment strategy that will help teachers understand what skills and concepts students need to cover or revisit, supporting teachers to provide greater differentiation and scaffolding, and standing up or expanding high-quality targeted interventions, such as tutoring and extended day. Many argue this approach will most likely address any gaps that need to be filled and could provide valuable structures to support students for years to come.

Before moving beyond the 2020–21 school year, it is worth pausing to reflect on why so much curriculum hit the cutting-room floor this year.

  • Why were curriculum standards so vulnerable to the move to remote learning, missed days, shifted and shortened schedules, and other disruptions the pandemic wrought?
  • Which students most often faced nonstrategic cuts in their curriculum, why, and with what consequence?
  • What materials, resources, and knowledge would have helped teachers to sustain curriculum even as students spent more time learning independently?
  • Are there useful insights on how to revise curriculum standards that we should take from the strategic efforts to prioritize and trim curriculum?

Recently, Morgan Polikoff offered a sobering critique of standards implementation across the country. By and large, he argues that teachers, lacking quality materials and support, haven’t implemented standards. As a result, standards haven’t yet ushered in improved learning outcomes. Over the last year, teachers across the country—out of necessity—had to think hard about the curriculum they were teaching. It seems worthwhile to take this opportunity and the experiences teachers have had to reflect on how standards could be structured and supported in order to realize the impact they were meant to have.

Tanji Reed Marshall is director of P-12 Practice at The Education Trust.


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