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Guest Blog: Managing an Overcrowded Curriculum

Betty Ray

Senior Editor at Large
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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.

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Betty Ray

Senior Editor at Large

Comments (23) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Sheena's picture

I agree that there are so many standards in each subject it is very challenging to allow critical thinking. Combining subjects is a new concept and sounds very interesting. There are many days where science connects to math and language arts. Have any schools tried this with success?

Paulen's picture

Often I find that it helps to remember that schools are a social structure and part of the overall society. Don't we try to do too many things and we don't do them as well as we'd like? I feel this way often when I'm trying to squeeze in just a few of the requirements. I think it's a less effective way of learning and just makes everyone more stressed. I'm resolving to do less but to pursue it deeper. Now, is this going to be possible considering state wide testing is within a month? I don't know. Maybe I just need to be more creative in my approach.

Ellen's picture

I work in a district where the curriculum is written by supervisors and a handful of teachers. It is created so that it is linked to the standards and we therefore, do not need to look up the standards. When they created the curriculum they also adapted different ways to integrate the curriculum across many of the subjects. In my classroom we do many projects which usually spans across 3 or 4 content areas. I think it may be easier for me to integrate the content because of the fact that I teach elementary school and I am responsible for teaching 6 subjects, unlike a secondary teacher who teaches one or two subjects. Since I am the only teacher for all of the subjects I teach, I can maintain control over every part of what I am teaching and I don't have to rely on other teachers to be on the same page as me.

Janine's picture
8th grade math teacher

I have worked in my district for 7 years and every year we rework the curriculum map to try to cover every GLE before the state assessment in the spring. This past year I worked with my instructional coordinator to try to "fit it all in" before the test. We line everything up based on what the students should have learned in previous years.
The hardest part is when you try to teach a building block, expecting the students to know the basics, you find that you have to go back and reteach what they should have retain from the previous year. This throws your curriculum off pace and makes it even more difficult to cover everything that needs to be covered. I may teach every GLE, but the students don't have the time to learn them all.

Tiffany's picture

I found this article very interesting. This year I have taken a new approach to the overcrowded curriculum at my school and I am seeing a definite payoff. I used the state standards as a guideline and have geared my teachings towards what my students need specifically. I give them more of what they struggle with, less of what they don't. The students are more active in the learning process as well.

David Roepcke's picture

I teach 5th and 6th grade math and there is a lot of pressure to get the indicators taught before the achievement test in the spring. This has forced me to identify the ways the curriculum links together from one indicator to the next. For example, one of the 6th grade indicators I have to teach deals with proportional relationships that can also be linked to another indicator of drawing similar figures. Instead of viewing what I need to teach as a set of 45 grade level indicators, I attempt to categorize the ones that are linked closely enough together in order to teach what I need to more efficiently. Even if one is able to instruct to all the indicators then there seems to be a sacrifice to some of the mastery. So there is a very delicate balance between duration of time spent on any given topic before moving on to the next.

I really like the idea of doing projects that combine four or five indicators in order to provide a more meaningful application for the students to practice their skills and avoid teaching to the test. This also provides the opportunity to let the students to use their critical thinking skills required in today's everchanging job market.

A strategy I have used this year to review is to give a set of about five problems a night over different indicators already covered. I just keep rotating in a new indicator to the five review problems each day so they will see the same indicator for five consecutive days. For example, question #1 on Monday would be about modeling fraction multiplication. Then the next day it would be question #2 and there would be a new indicator as question #1. This allows for intervention without using a lot of class time. Enrichment can also be added to this method as I can make the problems more challenging. This helps with retention of the indicators as well because it prevents students not seeing certain indicators for months at a time.


Natasha's picture

I am a second year teacher and I too find it difficult to teach everything that the curriculum requires. If I breeze topics and do not focus on ways to make the content stick, then I am able to get through everything. If I make the topics connect to prior knowledge or make the topics interesting, the students become so involved that they do not want to stop. I feel that this article points out many key points as to why we should not teach to the test, but teach lessons as they apply to the real world.

Jeff's picture

If we as teachers were not so micromanaged then the education system might actually be effective. In my state (I am not sure whether this is nationwide) we are required to obtain a Master's degree and consistently fulfill required professional development hours to obtain and maintain our certification. After all of that work and effort you are still instructed on what you need to teach and how you are expected to teach it. Perhaps our government(s) should consider placing education back in the hands of educators.

jack mark's picture

[quote]If we as teachers were not so micromanaged then the education system might actually be effective. In my state (I am not sure whether this is nationwide) we are required to obtain a Master's degree and consistently fulfill scripts required professional development hours to obtain and maintain our certification. After all of that work and effort you are still instructed on what you need to teach and how you are expected to teach it. Perhaps our government(s) should consider placing education back in the hands of educators.[/quote]

Yes I fully agree with your comment.

Nicole F.'s picture

I teach seventh grade math and I feel that there are too many standards to cover throughout the year. It seems like the students are just learning how to solve a problem and do not understanding the reasoning or explanation that goes along with it. This year I took a different approach to teaching, I looked at previous statewide assessments and found the core standards and started focusing more time on these areas. I think it is a great idea to collaborate with other teachers and integrate the curriculum across the different subjects.

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