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Why A Curriculum Pilot Is Your Best Friend

Rebecca Gray Education, Homeschooling, Parents, Teachers

A 6 Step Guide to Pilot Testing of K-12 Curriculum

We’ve spent countless hours carefully developing a STEM curriculum for middle and high school students. We’ve spoken with thousands of educators, administrators, and curriculum directors in our time in the education field. Over the years, we have been lucky enough to pick their experienced brains about best practices regarding the dreaded “curriculum pilot”.

At first glance, a curriculum pilot looks like a lot of work.  Some administrators even express a fear of “wasting precious time” when pilot testing of K-12 curriculum.  But if done correctly, and intentionally, a curriculum pilot can be an administrator’s best friend.

What is a curriculum pilot?

A curriculum pilot can be thought of as a “test drive” of a curriculum series or educational program.  It’s a way for schools and teachers to implement all or parts of a curriculum in real-time, with real students, in an attempt to gauge whether or not a particular program will meet predetermined goals.

Live-testing a curriculum provides all participants with a vested interest an opportunity to provide first-hand feedback about what works, and what doesn’t.  The need for a curriculum pilot arises when a school district realizes its current programming is no longer meeting one or more needs the district has.

Within budget restrictions, a district will choose 1 or more curriculum programs to “pilot”.  They’ll test out these programs in full or partial capacity for a predetermined amount of time, and then choose one or none of the potential new curriculums.  When done properly, administrators, curriculum directors, teachers, students, school boards, and sometimes even parents have the opportunity to give feedback and opinions on the pros and cons.

3 Reasons Why Districts Pilot Curriculum

There are many reasons school districts decide that a new curriculum is necessary – but they all boil down to one thing:  The current curriculum is falling short.  Some examples:

1.    The current curriculum is becoming obsolete or outdated.

Sometimes school districts notice that the curriculum is not meeting the needs of students.  There comes a time when the curriculum is just, well, old.  It reaches a point in time where it is no longer preparing kids for grade-level standards, assessments, or the workforce.

Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

Some educational programming isn’t necessarily obsolete because of the content, but because it’s designed in a way that no longer keeps kids engaged.  If the program isn’t set up in a way that keeps the student’s attention, it’s essentially ineffective.  Think about the fast-paced, technology-driven world our children are growing up in.  They are surrounded by constant entertainment and stimulation through their easy access to electronic devices.  They can stream full-color, professionally produced education content at the touch of a button.  Answers to any question they could possibly ask are at their fingertips at all times.  Outdated materials and teaching styles are boring students.  It’s a fact.

A curriculum pilot can enlighten districts on engagement levels.   See the difference in your students when they are presented with a more modern curriculum.

2.    The current curriculum is no longer in line with the school’s worldview and/or culture.

We live in a sweeping era of social reform.  More and more, schools are recognizing the need to educate students to think critically about racial injustice, gender equity, and social change.  As they look for ways to reform their pedagogy, and how to bring these things into the classroom in a responsible way, they often find their instructional materials and programming are part of the ‘problem’.  Some education programs don’t meet the standards schools set for themselves, and administrators realize there is a need for change.

Bringing race, gender equity, and social justice into the classroom can be challenging.  It’s difficult to discuss these topics with students and oftentimes brings sensitive matters to the forefront of lessons.  The first step to helping teachers present this material responsibly is to choose a culturally sensitive curriculum. Many educators at the local level, and parents nationwide are pushing for a more anti-racist curriculum in classrooms.  A well-planned curriculum pilot is a perfect way to assess a program’s cultural relevance.

3.    Technology is advancing.

Technology has grown in leaps and bounds in the last two decades.  It has changed the way children are exposed to cultures.  It has changed the way teachers teach and the way students learn.  The sheer number of online learning platforms available as a classroom supplement is astounding.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

To keep up with the times, compete with neighboring districts, and stay relevant to the student body – schools need to grow and change along with tech.  In fact, “Educational Technology” is an entire industry.  Many times, instructional materials become outdated as technology surpasses them.

Best Practices for Launching a Curriculum Pilot in Your School

When it comes to carrying out an effective curriculum pilot – it comes down to a few basic guiding principles. The first is – don’t stress.  Successful pilot programs happen in the education world every day, and you can do it! Start with clear, stated goals. Choose which stakeholders will be part of your focus group.  And create a system for uniform, honest feedback.  The rest will fall into place.  It’s as simple as WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, and HOW (not in that particular order).

Check out the following step-by-step guidelines for launching a curriculum pilot and taking it from start to success!

Step 1:  Figure out WHY you’re piloting the curriculum.  Why the need for a change from the status quo?

Like we said before, there’s usually a good reason or two why a school has decided to let go of its current curriculum and move in a different direction.  Determine your purpose.  WHY are you testing the new curriculum?  What are you looking to address? What needs are supposed to be met with the changeover?

Your WHY might have to do with student engagement.  Maybe teachers, parents, and students have been complaining about student engagement for some time.  Maybe your WHY has to do with student achievement.  If your school isn’t making yearly progress with scores – you may assume it is due to curriculum issues.  Perhaps your curriculum is not culturally relevant to your demographic – and aligning with your worldview is your “WHY”.

Whatever your WHY might be, make sure that that purpose guides the focus of the rubric you use to “score” potential instructional materials.  Wait – you are using a rubric, right?

Teachable Moment!
Rubric:  (n) A predetermined set of criteria used for evaluating and giving feedback on a project or piece of work.

Image by Andreas Breitling from Pixabay

Step 2:  WHAT are your potential curriculum choices?  Pick the curriculums that will be racing to the finish line.

Choosing which new instructional programming you are going to pilot is sometimes trickier than carrying out the test period.  There are a dizzying amount of options to choose from, no matter what subject or grade level you are targeting.  Those with a vested interest in the curriculum may have ideas or suggestions – and figuring out how to let them be heard is important.

Newsflash:  Budget restrictions cannot be ignored when choosing a potential curriculum.  There’s no use spending a semester test driving programming that is sure to be shot down by the school board for sky-high costs. 

Reach out to neighboring districts.  See what’s working for them, what they love and could do without.  Ask around at professional development conventions.  There are also a plethora of internet reviews – but take those with a grain of salt. One of the best things you can do is ask your faculty for their thoughts.  They might have great suggestions for instructional materials.

Step 3:  HOW are you going to document advantages, efficacy, and potential disadvantages?  Develop some kind of tool for ongoing and final feedback.

Stakeholders need to be able to record and provide ongoing feedback of the curriculum choice as the pilot goes on.  While we love the idea of a rubric here at Thimble, there are other ways.  Whether it be a rubric, a weekly review, or even something as simple as a journal of anecdotal observations – some kind of observation tool is necessary to collect data for final decisions.

A rubric is a multifaceted tool that should be adjusted for each stakeholder group.  While the rubrics should be written with a specific goal/goals in mind, they will not all be identical.  The rubric given to a teacher to evaluate the new materials will NOT look exactly like the rubric given to students, parents, or administrators.

While the feedback tool for school board members and administrators might have questions concerning budget restrictions – those things aren’t necessary on a student rubric.  Student rubrics could have questions about things such as engagement, or time spent on homework – which wouldn’t be necessary for an administrator’s rubric.

Before you begin – use your predetermined goals to develop a tool that each group of stakeholders can use to keep track of their thoughts and observations.

ProTip: Including stakeholders in the development of this tool will create a sense of inclusion that can sky-rocket buy-in and active participation throughout the pilot.

Image by 14995841 from Pixabay

Step 4:  WHEN will you need a final decision? Create a timeline for your field test.

Decide when your school board and administrators will need to make the final curriculum switch to vote.  When you have a date in mind for that final decision – you can begin to develop a timeline by working backward.  This timeline can include things like:

  • Submission deadline for new curriculum suggestions
  • Potential curriculum choice deadline
  • Teacher training sessions (They need to know how to use the curriculum before you launch your field test.)
  • Evidence collection tool development deadline
  • Weekly or Bi-Weekly deadlines for written or verbal feedback from stakeholders
  • Final discussions
  • Meeting of all stakeholders to review key findings

Your timeline can look different depending on the type of pilot and the time you have available. Planning ahead is crucial to success.

Step 5:  WHO are your stakeholders?  Select and prepare your participants.

Choosing who should participate and provide opinions during your field test can get dicey.  While everyone wants some input on potential changes – it’s impractical to think that a consensus will come from allowing the ENTIRE faculty and student body to test materials.  Choosing a few teachers from each grade level is an option.  Consider creating a small focus group consisting of a few of your most experienced educators.

Everyone wants to have a say – including some parents.  It’s difficult to figure out where all of these important figures fit into your timeline.  Here are some tips to remember when choosing who is going to be providing feedback – and ultimately participating in decision making:

  • Be inclusive when designing evidence collection tools mentioned in Step 2.  Choose teachers early, so that they can provide some input with that process.
  • Prepare teachers by giving them professional development for the new instructional materials.  Don’t send them into uncharted territory without some training!
  • Make sure your chosen stakeholders are a true reflection of your district’s demographics and diversity.  Is your panel of participants lacking in any particular race, age, experience level, or gender?
  • If there is a way to include parents – do so!  All districts should be a partnership of parents and teachers working together to provide the best education possible for the young people of the community.

Step 6:  Gather data from your field test and make a choice.

Decision-making is the worst, right?  The elusive “well-informed decision” becomes much easier when you’ve got solid data on all sides.  While this data can come from a written evaluation tool that you’ve developed, don’t lose sight of the value of discussion.  Sitting and talking with stakeholders as individual groups – or as one big team – can shed insight on things that they couldn’t articulate within the confines of a written rubric or evaluation tool.

Another reason discussion is important – people like to feel heard.  Your teachers, students, parents, and administrators all want to feel as though their opinions, thoughts, and ideas are important.  Excluding any group of participants can end in resentment and poor buy-in.

Be realistic with yourself.  As with any decision where large numbers will be affected – you can’t keep everyone happy.  Just try to focus on making a student-centered, positive step forward with your change.

5 Mistakes to Avoid With Your Curriculum Pilot Test

Before you begin, run through this quick list of common pitfalls.  Avoid bumps in the road by being proactive and planning ahead.

  • Unchecked Budget Restrictions
    Know what you can spend on a new program before pilot testing of k-12 curriculum programs.
  • Overlooking Stakeholder Group
    Teachers are always number one on the priority list, but parents, students, and in some cases community members should have some input before a final decision is made.
  • Make a Burdensome Evidence Collection Tool

Your stakeholder groups are busy.  If your evidence collection tool (rubric/feedback method) is too much trouble, participants aren’t going to do what they’re asked.  If it takes too much time or requires a crazy amount of effort – you may find participants, well, don’t participate.

  • Judging Success of Pilot Testing With Student Achievement

Pilot testing of K-12 curriculum happens over a very short period of time in a student’s educational journey.  It’s often too short to produce measurable achievement data.

  • Poorly Prepared Teachers

Teachers need explicit training to implement the curriculum and its accompanying instructional materials. Poor prep can lead to frustration.  That can boil over and affect perceptions and final data.

If your school district is looking to shake up its instructional materials with a pilot testing of k-12 curriculum, the key is proactive preparation.  Cover all your bases.  Leave no stones unturned, your teachers might end up hating your curriculum.  Feel free to use this blog post as a skeletal guide for your planning purposes.  A curriculum pilot truly can be your best friend.

If your curriculum makeover lands in the STEM department, consider bringing Thimble to the table. Inspire your teachers with our carefully planned STEM curriculum for middle and high school students. We promise, you won’t be disappointed – and neither will your students.