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7 Simplifications for Curriculum Maps + Pacing Guides

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

I began teaching in a small private school with about 35 teachers and 350-390 high school students. We had academic merit scholars, excellent pass rates on AP exams, and each graduating class earned multi-millions in academic scholarships to private and state universities. We were small but mighty in producing scholars, and the school culture was collaborative and collegial.

Administrators believed in hiring great teachers and giving them a lot of autonomy, and all of us felt empowered.

But then our administrators took some courses one summer, and our principal read Understanding by Design (Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe). He announced we needed to submit something called standards-based unit plans and assessments as we planned our instruction. Our small, amicable staff quickly turned into a group of grumbling and frustrated teachers. Arguments ranged from “If we are already doing things well …” to “I have taught this way for years and I already know what kids need to learn…” to “Why is this necessary?”. I realize now how naïve and teacher-focused our complaining was. Because we had good leaders, most of us got on board.

Since that time, I have reviewed high school curriculum for incoming athletes at the NCAA and have served as an instructional leader in other schools. I’ve seen curriculum maps and pacing guides that hit all the learning targets and those that missed many marks. Since I have experienced the unit planning process through both a teacher and leadership lens, I’m sharing some ideas to create student-centered curriculum mapping and pacing without battling resistance from your teachers.


1. Clarity First

Some educators believe a list of topics and content outlined per unit or week for a course is a curriculum map. It is not. I have coached teachers who integrated fascinating, engaging topics in their lessons but not critical thinking activities that align with standards-based objectives. A curriculum map lists the standards with skills to be mastered for each unit and how those will be assessed. A pacing guide breaks those down by week or segments of time.

For example, one PLC I worked with created a document for each quarter that contained both mapping and pacing. Teachers started with identifying the unit standards and decided what kind of unit summative would best assess those standards. Next, teachers “paced it out” by listing the standard(s) and formative(s), a brief description of a common lesson, and instructional texts and/or materials they planned to use for each week. For more on the power of pacing guides, check out Pacing Guide Love.

Some felt frustration about the initial work, but they were later relieved to reference it at every PLC meeting and for lesson planning. Both veteran and beginning teachers were clear and confident in what to teach and assess. Here we provide a sample blank Curriculum Map + Pacing Guide document. Your team can use this as as starting point to capture the most important information to guide alignment. And if you are looking for a way to compile all of your maps within your district, check out our DIY Curriculum Warehouse Systems.


2. Engage Your Teacher Leaders

Depending on the size of your school, talk to 6-12 of your top tier teachers before initiating changes. Brainstorm the reasoning and value of standards-based guides and maps with your department heads, PLCS leaders, and other teacher leaders. Ask for input to anticipate teacher concerns or confusion. Confirm leadership knows the difference between course outlines, syllabi, curriculum maps, and pacing guides. Staff needs consistent explanations from your leaders.


3. Reflect on the Why

You might want to do this with your teacher leaders first, but consider providing staff with targeted, extended time to reflect on why a framework and timeline of standards and assessments are needed. One strategy might be using 30-60 minutes at an in-service or department meeting to rate teacher confidence levels regarding success rates of their students, their ability to reach those who struggle most, their alignment of pedagogy with standards, and the amount of time designated to teach each standard. Allow time to discuss in small groups. Teachers should then rate their individual confidence levels, with 1 for least and 5 for most confident. Have teachers anonymously share through an electronic survey (e.g. Poll Everywhere) for a live, on-the-spot staff pulse.

You can also integrate standardized test data or other assessment results and ask for observations about whether or not their confidence levels align with student performance. Teacher leaders can facilitate these activities as a segue into why curriculum mapping and pacing guides are necessary.


4. Timing

Give teachers at least a few months to do the work. Begin with having them identify which standards will be covered per semester, then have them work on the details for one semester at a time as they break their units down into weekly pacing guides. Teachers had multiple preps in that private school where I first taught, so the principal gave us more than a year to complete the process. Larger public schools where I have worked have given less time. However, expecting teachers to do the work during prep periods or voluntarily outside of school is not realistic. Time allotted during department meetings, professional development, or in-service days will be needed.

One district allowed PLC leaders to take input from other colleagues during the academic year and work with an administrator over the summer to complete the curriculum work for the following year. Some PLC leaders worked with a PLC partner over the summer, and teachers were compensated with a stipend for their time. When it is clear administrators value the time teachers invest in the process, staff will see it as meaningful work and not just checking off tasks to complete.


5. Modeling & Feedback

Show exemplars to review and critique before the teacher work begins. These can come from your own staff, other schools willing to share, or from consultants on this website (templates available, too!). Once first drafts of curriculum maps and pacing guides are complete, review them and let teachers know what they’ve done well and what needs changed. A lot of teachers fight the process, because they are unsure of expectations and fear failure.


6. Equity & Growth

Many teachers believe, like I arrogantly did when I taught AP U.S. History in that private high school, that if MOST of my students do well and I teach good content, there is no need for a pacing guide. The reality was that 10 to 15 percent of my students did not pass the AP exam, and I could have aligned my instruction and supports more with skills-based standards.

When I co-taught in ELA classes, the pacing guide with visible, weekly standards was a lifeline that helped me close achievement gaps for nearly all my students. I was able to focus in on specific skills needed for their success on state qualifying exams. Together, we created clarity around what they needed to learn. Find and share success stories from teachers in your school or others on how curriculum mapping and pacing guides can help ALL students succeed.


7. Celebrate Success

Finally - since student victory is the shared goal for you and all your teachers - command their energy with encouragement and frequent reminders that you believe in their work!

Maps and pacing guide documents should go hand-in-hand, and they should be living, breathing documents. Celebrate what your teams have done prior to creation or revision, and celebrate their work of sticking to their plans (once established!)

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