The School Leader’s Influence on Curriculum

The competent school leader can profoundly influence the curriculum. Their use of positional and personal power, authority, and persuasion as an administrator can largely define the curricular program. It is vital then that school leaders know, and have clearly set in their minds, the essentials of being a school. Those essentials include:

Three simple things: reasonably coherent curriculum (what we teach); sound lessons (how we teach); and far more purposeful reading and writing in every discipline, or Authentic Literacy (integral to both what and how we teach). But as numerous studies demonstrate, these three essential elements are only rarely implemented; every credible study confirms that they are still pushed aside by various initiatives, every year, in the majority of schools.[1]

Therefore, the competent and trusted leader focuses all the resources available to them, including their positional and relational power, to be sure all stakeholders understand the curricular program is the essential priority of what makes their school a school. Without a high level of commitment, focus, and resource designation to the curricular program, their operation is not essentially a school. This ability to rally all stakeholders around the school’s central function and work is dependent on the school leader clearly defining and demonstrating Competency in their knowledge of curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices. This requires the ability to communicate the curriculum clearly and concisely to stakeholders.

Formulating a concise definition of curriculum can be challenging. It may be said the curriculum of a school is all about the means and the materials; but even that simple statement begs for more definition and unpacking. Typically, curriculum is defined by categories or disciplines offered. There has been debate for centuries on what should be included and what categories of study should possess the highest level of importance.

In Medieval Europe, curriculum focused solely on grammar, rhetoric, and logic (aka the trivium).[2] As the years passed, the quadrivium was added to include arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.[3] These seven core subjects are still very much the foundation of a liberal arts education.[4] However, identifying the core subjects does not represent the full  curriculum –  included within the means and materials are extracurricular activities and clubs, athletics, performance groups, student government, and more. Some would argue that any planned learning experience is part of the school’s curriculum, and others would include even the unplanned. It is the very nature of good teaching and instruction to take advantage of every opportunity for student learning.

Most working definitions of curriculum focus on the what of the curriculum. In other words, curriculum is defined by the disciplines or activities of study and participation. The philosophical foundation of the school’s curriculum, however, is mostly focused on the why and perhaps the when. In centuries past, the philosophical foundation of the curriculum was based on the student’s educational or learning experience. The answer to the questions of ‘why we do what we do,’ focused on the process of the learning. For good or bad, today most school’s embrace a curriculum philosophy focused on outcomes. This is not to say the learning experience is not valued or considered of great importance, but answers to the why questions of the curriculum philosophy are now typically answered in measurable outcomes and objectives. This movement to an outcomes-based curriculum philosophy, rather than an experience-based philosophy, is largely motivated by increased calls for accountability in education.

Today, government education departments, districts, accreditation agencies, school administrators, parents, and even teachers focus more on measuring and quantifying curriculum outcomes than in previous generations. “The 21st century is an age of accountability. The essence of accountability is to determine that teachers are teaching what they are supposed to teach and that students are learning what they are supposed to learn.”[5]

Competent and trusted school leaders recognize a school’s curriculum is an ever-evolving process, today integrated with 21st century skills. They recognize that the curriculum must be relevant to be meaningful and purposeful in the long-term. In identifying the key players in the curriculum developmental process, they must begin at the student level; asking questions like, “What elements of the curriculum are relevant to students and to their future?” Competent curriculum leaders hang on to those elements. They recognize that students no longer live in a time where the memorization of facts and information are critical to an education; there is more information instantly available today than ever before and this grows exponentially literally with each hour.

Other key players in curriculum design and modification include teachers, subject or area specialists, the instructional and curricular leaders of a school (e.g. Curriculum Coordinators, Instructional Facilitators, and Specialists), as well as the school’s moral owners. The moral owners are those who provide the context for the school’s existence. In the public school setting, the moral owners are the general tax-paying citizens. Their cultural setting will place demands on the curriculum design and learning expectations in their community. However, in the Christian school setting the moral owners may have quite different or additional expectations of the learning experience of students; anticipating faith-based integration. In both cases, the moral owners will entrust the competent leadership of the school to guide and influence the curriculum development process.

©2017 Toby A. Travis

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[1] Schmoker, Focus, 36-38, Kindle.

[2] “Trivium,” Wikipedia, accessed 22 June 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trivium.

[3] “Quadrivium,” Wikipedia, accessed 22 June 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quadrivium.

[4] “Liberal Arts Education,” Wikipedia, accessed 22 June 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_arts_education.

[5] Susan M. Drake, Creating Standards-Based Integrated Curriculum: The Common Core State Standards Edition (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2012), 14.

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