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Guest Blog: Managing an Overcrowded Curriculum

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

We were particularly excited about this week's #edchat on the topic of how to manage standards and an overloaded curriculum. Brian J. Nichols (@bjnichols), principal of Hidenwood Elementary School, in Newport News, Virginia, provides a great big picture as well as practical perspective.

-- Betty Ray, Community Manager (@EdutopiaBetty), and Elana Leoni, Online Membership Coordinator (@elanaleoni)

I joined #edchat on Tuesday night ready to discuss issues related to the number of standards that have to be met in an overcrowded curriculum. Edchat is truly an ADHD person's paradise, as ideas came from all over the world about the problems with -- and, more importantly, solutions to -- an overcrowded curriculum.

As an elementary school principal, I see this issue firsthand each and every day as we fight the battle of the number hours in a day versus the number of standards to be taught. The fastest hour on Twitter attempted to find a solution to this problem, and, from my perspective, several themes emerged:


We are preparing students for an uncertain workforce that will require a certain set of skills with technologies that haven't even been developed. Our current standards are measured by multiple-choice tests that are largely reflective of a student being able to recite facts and apply some knowledge.

Success in the future workforce is going to be largely dependent on the ability to create new ideas, synthesize information, and problem solve with people from all over the globe. Choosing between four answer choices and shading in bubbles hardly lines up with what we know students need to be successful in life.

What Is Essential?

Many authors, researchers, and bloggers have summarized that it is statistically impossible to effectively teach all of the required standards in grades K-12. I talk to teachers on a daily basis about the struggles to "fit it all in" or "cover" the required material.

I've always been in favor of being able to do a few things well than a lot of things poorly. Our standards are set up so that kids learn a lot of things at basic level or not at all.

The most effective teachers do more than cover the material that will be tested at the end of the quarter, year, etc. These professionals are masters of determining the essential knowledge, skills, and questions that students need for success. Several people referenced this type of approach to curriculum.

@lhiltbr: Our curricular frameworks should be created with backward design and include "the big ideas" and essential questions.

@daylynn: Content that is connected to authentic learning, answers the essential ?, and draws connections between eras is needed.

@Mr_Lister: An overwhelming curriculum leads to moving topics before students have mastery, and that's a dangerous scenario.

A hot topic of debate during this hour came in the form of this question by @mbteach: Is there any subject/content area that people think can be dropped?

My immediate response was anything that could be Googled. That may seem like a simple response, but honestly, when was the last time you picked up a dictionary, atlas, thesaurus, etc.? This question brought forth a wide variety of answers and the final theme of this post.


Many people were very quick to point out that the problem with time constraints and the number of standards is that we tend to teach subjects in isolation. This happens to be something I'm very passionate about, so I was quick to join this portion of the conversation.

@bjnichols: Nothing in life happens in isolation, but we are forced to teach subjects that way. Integration is the best current solution.

@cybraryman1: Instead of dropping, why not combine some subjects.

Project-based learning is a method we are experimenting with as a way to integrate content, teach for a deeper understanding, and prepare students for their future. Students spend their time working on something they are passionate about while teachers seamlessly integrate all subject areas. Students have a much deeper understanding of essential knowledge while incorporating collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

In summary, #edchat did what it always does best: It leaves my brain hurting with questions about how to improve my practices as a leader while ensuring success for all students. The answer to an overcrowded curriculum involves determining what is essential, integrating content, and making sure students are prepared for more than multiple choice tests.

The power to change a broken system and an overcrowded curriculum begins with us. It starts with moving from islands of isolation to peninsulas of potential. It started on Tuesday at 7 p.m. EST on #edchat. We are all connected, and our power is limitless. Twitter, #edchat and my PLN teach me that lesson every day.

Check out the rest of the #edchat transcript. If you have never participated in an #edchat conversation, please join us on Twitter every Tuesday at 12 p.m. EST/6 p.m. CET or at 7 p.m. EST/1 a.m. CET.

Brian Nichols has served as a classroom teacher, instructional specialist, assistant principal, and principal. His schools have received numerous awards and have been recognized for closing the achieving gap. He has served as the principal of both a No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School and a State Title I Distinguished School. He is principal of Hidenwood Elementary School, in Newport News, Virginia, which has been recognized for its achievements related to 21st-century learning and leading.

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia
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Nicole F's picture
Nicole F

Jeff I am interested in your comment that "teachers need to think more about what is really important for students to learn." - Do you think this is leaving it too open for teacher interpretation? Especially for those who are generalists?

I have often thought about what you note as the academy system where students choose their direction, but then I wonder how early are we expecting them do this? What are the consequences if they change their mind or are not successful in their chosen direction?

Nicole F's picture
Nicole F

This brings to my mind the question of elementary generalists and whether this is truly an effective system. I teach in Canada, and as an elementary generalist, am expected to teach the students 9 subjects. This poses a good question as to how one is supposed to"find what is essential" within the curriclum. I also think this points to the argument of integrating subjects.

Heather's picture

My school is also experimenting with a project-based learning program called IMPACT. This is the first year we have worked with it and it has had some bumps along the way, but, in all, I have seen in my students have higher engagement in the curriculum and deeper understanding. The idea is that teachers collaborate in planning to provide students with a more well-rounded, multi-sensory experience. The media specialist, classroom teacher, and school technology facilitator all get together once a grading period and work together to come up with ways to help students succeed. I truly believe in this program and cannot wait for the next few years to see where it will take us. This is one way that really helps with integration of content.

Jeff Myers's picture

I think vertical curriculum alignment is a great idea. I recently spent a day with a couple of English teachers from other grade levels to discuss this. We found that many of the state standards are similar from ninth through twelfth grade, yet we all feel quite stretched to cover the numerous standards. Therefore, we began the process of breaking up the standards per grade level to vertically align the curriculum so that all of the standards would be covered (and some reinforced), each teacher would have less to cover, and each teacher would know what the other grade-level teachers were responsible for. Though we just did this, I believe it was a worthwhile endeavor.

Jeff Myers's picture

Great questions. I do think that the classroom teacher knows the needs of their students better than a generalized curriculum, and that as a professional, he or she must make informed decisions about what to cover. The article was correct in its assumption of an overcrowded curriculum. I do want to point out, and am sorry if I was misleading, that the teacher's decisions about what to cover should be tied to the curriculum standards set forth by the state or district. However, since it is so broad, a teacher should responsibly design instruction that does not spread the curriculum too thin. The best place to start in this endeavor is through careful assessment of student needs.

In response to the academy questions, I was referring to students at the secondary level and do believe that guidance is needed through the school counselors, administrators, and teachers. Obviously, such young learners are likely to change their minds about the chosen academy path. Therefore, it is of vital importance that the instruction, despite the academy, is still tied to the state curriculum standards. If a student switches academy paths, they are merely switching their approach to learning and applying the concepts, but the concepts remain the same. For example, a student studying "Macbeth" in the Health Science Academy may take a more "crime scene investigation" approach to understanding character motives. On the other hand, a student in the performing arts academy may study character motive through role play or "getting into role." Either way, they are still learning character.

Andrea's picture

I feel very overwhelmed trying to meet the standards, follow the curriculm and prepare for standardzed tests. I teach special ed and I need to focus more on baic skills with my students, ecpecially reading. I feel that I have no time to be creative because I need my students to meet certain benchmarks. I especially feel the pressure because I am a new teacher under probation and need to show student progress and results. I am lucky to have a lot of support and patience from my administration. I can understand why most new teachers give up the porfession after only a couple of years, it can be very stressful!

Lisa McMindes's picture

I am a first year teacher and I find it very difficult to teach everything that the curriculum has in it. I feel some days that my students have so many specials, I do not have time to teach at all.
In my teaching I try to balance the essentials; the things the students will need to be successful in their education, with the nonessentials; the things that would be nice for the students to know.

Brandie's picture

What has helped us in our School District to narrow down our focus is to begin participating in Professional Learning Communities or PLC's. Each week we meet in a grade-level PLC group to discuss, first, what are the skills in each area that we consider "essential." These would be skills that are essential to be successful at the next grade level and in life and that are measurable. We then create common assessments for those essential skills so that we can look at our data each quarter to determine what type of intervention needs to be done on each student. While we still teach all of the standards, we are deciding which ones are absolutely essential and really focusing on mastery of those skills. It has been helpful to us so far, even though there still is NEVER enough time in a day!

Kimberly Rigney's picture

I enjoyed reading this post. The public education system is broken, and I think you offer a fantastic way to repair it. Students are being taught to a multiple-choice test of facts they won't remember their first year in college! Integrating curriculum seems like a great option!

Kimberly Rigney's picture

I enjoyed this post! I agree that integrating curriculum is the best way to fix the broken public school system in America. It seems teachers often get stuck teaching to a multiple-choice test. The sad part is, it is facts the students forget their by their first year in college!

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