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The Challenges of Curriculum Design

Through her work with the New York City Department of Education, Simone Wright, Ed.L.D.'22, has realized the value of a more user-centered approach to curriculum design.
Simone Wright
Photo: Jill Anderson

Ed.L.D. class marshal Simone Wright, Ed.L.D.’22, refers to her in education as a calling. And her decision to pursue her calling, she says, is because education touches everyone and can be transforming for students — especially for Black students — in ways that can lead to an improved society. 

“I really needed the time to think about what it meant to drive change at scale,” she says of being part of the Ed.L.D. Program. “The opportunity to cultivate the skills to lead at scale and influence change. And some of that was the network, but some of it was also really leaning into the opportunity to think a little bit more intentionally about what change I wanted to have.”

The former Teach For America teacher, who spent years working in the public schools and charter schools in various capacities, leaned fully into the experience, especially her residency at the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) as the special adviser to the chief academic officer. She longed for a project that would allow her to lead among different constituenst both inside and outside of the NYCDOE. When the NYCDOE undertook the development of a rigorous, inclusive, and affirming K–12 English Language Arts and Math Curriculum — one that would reflect the diverse experience of the million plus students it served — Wright jumped at the opportunity.

“The project really did push me to bridge the lines of thinking around how the community perspective could inform a teaching and learning strategy and practices,” she says. 

While she did not think that the core of her work at NYCDOE would disrupt the process in which the education space traditionally develops curriculum, she admits that going through the design process, she has realized the value and need for a more user-centered approach to curriculum design.

Here, Wright discusses working at NYCDOE, the challenges of curriculum design, and what it means for a curriculum to be truly culturally responsive. 

Why curriculum design? 
When I started my residency, I was involved in everything. New York City was preparing to welcome every student back to in-person learning and had devised a strategy around academic recovery to leverage the ESSER dollars to really accelerate learning as we returned to full in person learning. One of the components of this plan was to develop a culturally responsive Math and ELA curricula that was reflective of the diverse experiences of our students across New York City. I knew that as an aspiring Chief Academic Officer that this particular project would further prepare me to lead teaching and learning at scale, but I also saw this project as a place where there was some additional capacity needed. 

Everyone was kind of talking about culturally responsive curriculum and I believed in the notion of it, but I didn't fully understand what we meant when we said it. I think that curiosity really pushed me in a way to lean in and learn more. 

How did you approach the need for a culturally responsive curriculum?
The notion of us building our own curriculum was rooted in the real call to action from different constituents for our student experiences being reflected in their learning. There wasn't a product already built by a vendor that indicated the rich diverse experiences of the students and communities across New York City. As mentioned above, this curriculum was a part of our larger academic recovery strategy, and we believed that after almost two years of hybrid and blended learning, this was really an opportunity to reimagine the student learning experience. While representation of our students and community experiences that are historically underserved was a key driver to this work, we saw this as an opportunity to provide educators with a high-quality tool that could support them with increasing student outcomes for our most historically underserved student populations — Black and Brown students, multilingual learners, and student with disabilities. Curriculum has not always been explicitly designed to equip teachers to meet the needs of each student, particularly our most vulnerable.

How did this play out?  
We designed a participatory curriculum design strategy, leading with engagement. Historically engagement when it comes to curriculum usually only entails educators and typically engages educators after the core components have been developed. We developed an approach to design curricula that is responsive to the insights of students, families, educators, and community members. We launched citywide engagement where we asked them, "What are your most meaningful learning experiences?" "What would you want to see in this curriculum?" Other core components of design included continuous loops and cycles of feedback with different constituents to ensure the curricula was responsive to their feedback and high-quality (e.g. standards aligned etc.).  

It’s interesting to think of curriculum design happening within a community. What did you hear from parents and the community? 
There was a true call to action around ensuring learning experience really prepared students for the skills they would need to be successful post-K–12, both cognitively and experientially.

There was a lot about how do you ensure school prepares students to navigate the world and ensuring that learning experience really set them up with a level of like thinking required to be successful. 

What does a more user-centered approach to curriculum design look like? 
I think it starts with really understanding the end user's experience with curriculum, specifically students and teachers. Curriculum is a core tool to really ensuring that teachers have the knowledge and skill to effectively ensure each student is learning. The teacher facing side is one piece of it, but we actually have to look at how curriculum is informing student performance. 

We have to consider, how does curriculum inform the actual student experience in the classroom? Are students engaged? Can they explain what they're learning? Do students feel comfortable asking questions? Are they empowered to really challenge the ideas or add to the ideas that are coming up in classrooms? Curriculum can be one of the foundational tools to informing a rich classroom experience. If we cannot understand the educator experience — what's working, what's not — we can't strengthen the effectiveness of this tool. 

Once NYCDOE announced that we were building out this curriculum, it attracted a lot of attention from different stakeholders across the ecosystem. We were able to leverage a lot of thought partners in helping us think through this idea of a more user-centered curriculum that really lifted the perspectives of students, families, educators, community members and other constituents, to strengthen a critical and foundational element of teaching and learning. There’s research and education reports that talk about how curriculum is actually one of the most cost effective way to transform student achievement. Most teachers actually say that their curriculum is not aligned with standards and it detracts from their ability to effectively teach students. It's one of the things that we haven't really grappled with as a larger ecosystem as to how we could make it better. New York City really set out to do that. 

Why do you think curriculum has yet to really be challenged in a certain way? 
I don't actually know that there are that many people with the expertise to challenge how we approach curriculum development and those with the expertise, do not necessarily have the capacity. A lot of the shifts to make curriculum effective for students fall on teachers. I remember as a teacher, I could never say, "Oh, the curriculum you gave me was bad." I was accountable to ensuring that whatever I put in front of my kids met there learning needs. I took that onus on myself to make those shifts and make those edits, which is unfortunate because that's time I could have spent analyzing student work and really thinking about other ways to strengthen instruction. 


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