Transparent and Culturally Responsive Curriculum Audits in Politically Divisive Times: A Case Study from Denver Public Schools
As social studies curriculum coordinators, we know that a high-quality, rigorous, standards-aligned, and culturally responsive curriculum is essential for student learning and growth ("The Opportunity Myth" 2018). We also know that the past few years have brought enormous scrutiny to these curricula and resources. Fueled both by genuine equity-based concerns and ideological motivations, the amount of feedback that comes from parents, teachers, and the community can feel overwhelming. The coordinator's initial response can sometimes be to get defensive and dig in our heels (trust me, I've been there); but even when that early reaction feels justified, dismissing the feedback because others simply just "don't get it" or "aren't qualified" can often backfire and further divide districts from the communities they serve.
Instead, if we reframe our mindset and approach, we can be proactive with feedback, instead of reactive, using listening and empathy to stay ahead of the needs of our communities. While we can't—and shouldn't—change every aspect of our curricula based on every piece of feedback that comes our way, we can build a transparent and collaborative process to channel the feedback and diverse perspectives from stakeholders, and support a way to synthesize that feedback and make informed decisions collaboratively alongside the educators.
The Compelling "Why" in Denver Public Schools
In the spring of 2019, I began to hear comments, both through the grapevine and directly, that teachers in some schools were expressing concerns about the inclusivity of our U.S. History curriculum. I was shocked: our team had worked with integrity and equity-driven intentions to provide units, assessments, and resources that included multiple diverse perspectives. However, my shock did not change the reality: feedback came in claiming that our curriculum did not reflect the lived experiences of students. I decided I wanted to know more.
Our team learned that the feedback was coming from schools serving primary BIPOC students and schools that did not often leverage our curriculum units with fidelity (if at all). My gut reaction was admittedly defensive: "Well, they just aren't using the curriculum, so how can they comment about it?"
After some reflection, I began reframing my questions: Why were they not using it? Why was the feedback only coming from schools serving primarily students of color? Such questions allowed us to move past our initial reaction, and we realized our team could get ahead of the feedback by coming up with a process to capture informed feedback. By keeping our students in the center of the curriculum itself, we could forge ahead with a proactive plan. We realized that even if the feedback did not always reflect the reality of the curriculum or units, it showed us there was an issue either with an understanding of the curriculum, the curriculum itself, or both. We determined all three possible issues could be addressed through a collaborative audit alongside our social studies teachers.
Determining the "How" and the "Who"
As our social studies team thought about how to respond and what to do next, we realized the importance of establishing an audit system and process grounded in research. We dove into the research of various experts on curriculum design (https://educatorsupport.abc-clio.com/TopicCenter/Display/2272721?productId=2002&topicCenterId=2257523&subId=2266967) from across the ideological spectrum, including Dr. James Bank's work on multicultural education, Dr. LaGarrett King's Black Historical Consciousness Framework, and Zaretta Hammond's research on the importance of high expectations and collectiveness practices. From there, we revamped a section of our Culturally Responsive rubric (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1X_1fyiCdwWNB_9YlY4lpoWO8xjoZEtfZFNflu2k-9Uo/edit?usp=sharing), based on the EqUIP rubric and the Steinhardt rubric from New York Public Schools, that we used for evaluating vendors during curriculum adoption.
We reformed the rubric, transforming it as both a communicative tool of what culturally responsive resources should look like, and a way to evaluate the current resources against research-supported criteria. We also determined our non-negotiables, components that we knew we would maintain to ensure our district provided an equity-based experience driven by high expectations and diverse perspectives. For us, those non-negotiables were state standards, the C3 Framework, (especially the focus on student-driven inquiry), and disciplinary thinking and literacy (having students engage with the content like experts do). We then determined that each unit within the course would need to be evaluated against each section and scored with specific evidence from the unit used to justify the score.
At this point, we could have easily just audited ourselves, shared our results, and then made our self-selected changes. No doubt, that would have been more efficient. However, we would have missed an opportunity to support the professional learning of educators, and leverage the diverse experiences and expertise of educators who use the resources and see their impact on students firsthand. Furthermore, we also had to acknowledge the bias we ourselves may have brought to the process had we done the audit ourselves. Even with the best intentions, we were too close to the work: we wrote the units, adopted the resources, and developed the assessments. Our context, and any implicit bias toward the curricular components, would likely have an impact on the outcome. We had to "let go" again: we identified a group of social studies teachers from across the district that could represent different perspectives, including traditional and "alternative" schools, geographic areas of the city, diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds and genders, and varied years of experience.
Collaboration in the Audit Process
Teachers met initially with us to discuss the goals, purpose, and intended outcomes of the audit, and the complexity of the work in politically tense times. A central part of this discussion centered on the explicit and implicit curriculum; how the explicit curriculum, or "officially" written curriculum, can still be taught in a range of ways by teachers, depending on their school community and the needs of learners (implicit curriculum). With that in mind, we moved into who "owns" the curriculum, an essential step at removing ego from the work. For this discussion, we centered on students, as we always should. Students are not only the final consumers of the curriculum, but also the ones who are shaped and influenced by it, and who hopefully feel compelled to take informed action after engaging with it.
After negotiating and setting the audit's outcomes and purpose, teachers individually audited each unit using the rubric, a process that included reviewing the assessments, compelling questions, resources, and I-Can statements: student-friendly objectives that articulate content understanding (see Figure 1). Through their individual audits, each educator was asked to provide evidence to justify their scores. We then brought the educators together with us to share their results during collaborative conversations centered on listening, understanding, and identifying similarities in results.
|Figure 1. Unit Plan "I-Can" Statements|
|Supporting Question (D1):
How did the postwar economic and social changes bring prosperity to some and hardships to others?
We intentionally established that these conversations would not be about convincing others that their score or interpretation of the unit was correct; instead, the purpose would be to listen for points of overlap and commonalities. Sometimes scores shifted as individuals raised aspects that others had not seen or considered. However, once educators understood the purpose was not to debate or convince, but to discuss and understand, conversations became focused on the goal of what we all were seeing and saying.
As curriculum specialists, we had one role during this process: to listen to commonalities and elevate trends. Trends then become the basis for revisions. We chose to use what reviewers found in common, rather than focus on their differences in interpreting the unit, which allowed us to identify what teachers from across diverse backgrounds and schools all identified as both strengths and areas of growth for the curriculum. This allowed the audit process to refrain from indulging personal or ideological opinions, and instead supported actionable, evidence-based feedback.
The Results and Ongoing Growth
Overall, the audit accomplished more than reexamining curriculum; the process enhanced the cultural responsiveness of our units and resources, provided professional learning for our teachers on culturally responsive social studies curriculum, and enabled our district to make significant progress towards a common goal: creating culturally sustaining resources for all students. Curriculum specialists used the trends to make both small- and large-scale revisions: inclusion of more resistance and counter-narratives that focus on the intersectional identities of people (complexity of understanding the past), revision and addition of I-Can statements that better address diverse perspectives, repositioning some unit assessments to focus on continuity and change over time (past-present connections), and more targeted curation of resources from ABC-CLIO's American Mosaic databases. Teachers loved the databases but wanted more guidance on which resources to use and when. Specialists then worked to link ABC-CLIO texts with specific I-Can statements, and then educators could simply click on a link to open up the ABC-CLIO document.
Curriculum is not static. It is always, and should always be, evolving to meet the diverse needs of the students.
The process also led to identification of areas ripe for ongoing professional learning. This included a focus on sharing unit revisions, deepening teachers' understanding of diverse perspectives, the importance of remaining grounded with inquiry, and supporting students in reaching their own conclusions about past and present events, issues, and significance.
Currently, we are continuing to assess the impact of these revisions with focus groups of teachers and students. Leveraging a new group of teachers who did not engage directly in the audit, we are now in their classrooms across the district, observing as the revisions are implemented with students. The same curiosity and growth mindset that drove the initial audit still drives us to continue evaluating our resources and to make them better each year for teachers and students.
One of the most valuable lessons we learned was not so much about the specific changes and feedback identified by the audit; instead, the process reminded us that curriculum is not static. It is always, and should always be, evolving to meet the diverse needs of the students. While it isn't possible to make one-off changes based on every piece of feedback we receive, it's vital that we continue to seek out and hear from diverse voices, and lift up the commonalities that our teachers identify. Ultimately, this process builds unity and cohesiveness not only in curriculum and teaching practices, but within the larger learning community.
I hope this process can not only be replicated by other districts but improved upon as well, since all of us strive to support students in learning a more nuanced and complex understanding of the United States' past and present.
"The Opportunity Myth." TNTP, 2018. https://tntp.org/publications/view/student-experiences/the-opportunity-myth.