Accelerating Student and Staff Learning: Purposeful Curriculum Collaboration


Kay Psencik

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    In my career I was honored on several occasions to participate on district-level curriculum writing teams. Each experience was professionally rewarding. And while I believed my individual students benefitted from my experience, there were many students whose teachers were not given similar opportunities. The district tried to compensate for this situation by offering curriculum orientation sessions. However, there were limits as to the impact these one-shot sessions could have on my colleagues' teaching.

    Research consistently reinforces that the most important factor in a student's learning is the quality of teaching experienced each day. That quality is influenced not only by the qualifications of the teacher, but the content of the lesson, and the strategies applied by the teacher to facilitate student learning. My experience demonstrated for me that when teachers are given the opportunity to study and design powerful lessons based on standards, more students experience success.

    Years later what I learned “in practice” was explained to me “in theory.” In 1998 Susan Loucks Horsley and several colleagues wrote a comprehensive professional learning strategies guide for math and science teachers. It was my first exposure to the concepts of curriculum implementation, replacement units, and curriculum development and adaptation as professional development. Considering curriculum development as a powerful form of professional learning was based on several shared assumptions as follow:

    Those closest to the level of implementation are best suited to develop curriculum. Through the process teachers increase their content and pedagogical knowledge and reflect on their teaching.

    The development of curriculum provides teachers with numerous opportunities to learn from others who have expertise outside of the classroom.

    Teachers can increase their understanding of both content and pedagogy by thinking carefully about the broad goals of the curriculum and the specific content, skills, and attitudes that students need to acquire. (p. 80–81)

    For too long the potential impact and relationship of school and team-based curriculum development has been ignored. Too many school systems still hold curriculum development as a district-level responsibility and fail to recognize the potential benefits to sharing the responsibility between the school and central office. Our current system of education is organized around standards and assessments at each grade level. And while ensuring all students are held to similarly high standards, schools and teachers need the flexibility to design the curriculum and lessons that will ensure their students successfully meet the standards. Districts that hold the curriculum reins too tight may unwittingly fail to realize many powerful benefits that may accompany sharing the responsibility with leadership teams at the school, grade level and department levels. These benefits may include the following:

    • Curriculum that addresses the immediate needs of the learners. Data driven decision making provides teachers with insights as to the standards that are challenging students and the curriculum that will be most helpful in addressing those challenges. Data indicates what students know and where they are struggling. While curriculum may be sequenced for one particular approach, much of it is better revised when the data indicates students are either not ready for what is scheduled next or can move faster than the curriculum recommends.
    • Curriculum that addresses the interests and strengths of students. No independent group of curriculum writers knows teachers' students interests and assets better than the assigned classroom teachers. Teachers provided the context and support for ongoing curriculum refinement are better situated to meet student needs. In addition, research demonstrates connections between student engagement and student learning.
    • Curriculum adjustable to the identified needs of students. In addition to strengths and interests, students have unique needs. Once again teachers are best positioned to understand their students' needs and need to feel empowered to make the decisions regarding how the curriculum can be adjusted to meet their students' needs.
    • Curriculum that is understood and appreciated by the classroom teachers at a deep level. In fact, teacher who divide up lesson assignment responsibilities as opposed to collaborating in the development of lessons have very different experiences in classrooms. There is no substitute for the depth of knowledge that results from the joint development and assessment of classroom curricula. Scripted lessons can have limited impact on teachers and their students.
    • Curriculum that considers the context in which it is delivered. Schools, communities, families, can bring different strengths to a learning community. When teachers are encouraged to develop curriculum that takes advantage not only of their students' strengths but their families' backgrounds and strengths, then they can find ways to engage families in the learning process and leverage the benefits that accompany family involvement.

    Kay Psencik understands all these benefits. In fact she has understood them for almost 30 years. Having spent most of her career at the central office level she recognized the importance of balancing the roles and responsibilities for curriculum development in the ways that best served the educators and their students. This book represents a compilation of her best strategies.

    Educators who choose to embrace the professional learning approach advocated by Psencik will unleash a powerful, proven, and practical process. Psencik writes like the skillful facilitator she is. She begins each phase with a discussion of her core beliefs, outlines steps to reach an identified goal, and shares strategies for assessing progress. She is detail oriented out of respect for the many challenges and expectations that confront educators and her hope to help others surmount the problems many educators face.

    Psencik creates a powerful and compelling vision—all students performing at standard—for school leaders committed to school-based professional learning. Curriculum development as professional learning for teacher leaders is an effective strategy to achieving the vision. As teachers work collaboratively to review standards, evaluate curriculum, design lessons, and create assessments, they engage in embedded curriculum development and adaptation. Over the course of a school year, they create a useful student-focused and standards-based curriculum that ensures all students meet objectives. Psencik's approach to curriculum development offers a powerful job-embedded professional learning model.

    Psencik's approach is practical as well. Through each phase, Psencik reviews the assumptions upon which she bases her recommendations, then moves to a review of the relevant research base, and finally offers questions to focus the learning team on the critical issues. During each phase, educators are encouraged to reflect, write, and adapt. Psencik includes case studies that demonstrate the results she experienced with the process in many different school settings. The results are indisputable, demonstrating the process can work. At the same time, she recognizes that each site has its unique challenges and she closes with reflective questions to further support the team learning process.

    Kay Psencik's approach to curriculum development and school-based professional learning has proven results to support it. Her approach has demonstrated impact with many constituencies in diverse settings. Her ideas were shaped by her experience working in both a rural school system and a large, urban school system. Psencik advocated for curriculum alignment and development during the school year as opposed to after the school year, and for professional learning that enabled teachers to understand deeply the standards their students were expected to master long before others were thinking about the issues. The book she has written exemplifies her countless success stories from the west coast in Oregon to the east coast in New York.

    Kay Psencik has been a valued colleague for almost 30 years. I marvel at how much she has learned and how much she has accomplished since our first meeting. Enjoy the passion and expertise that Kay Psencik brings to life in this book. Use this text to transform your learning communities—you will gain the knowledge and skills to begin the important journey to ensuring every educator experiences effective professional learning every day so every student achieves.


    Loucks-Horsley, S., Hewson, P., Love, N., and Stiles, K. (1998). Designing professional development for teachers of science and mathematics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


    I especially want to thank Jack Reeves and Charles Patterson, two dear friends, who served as superintendents in Temple and Killeen, Texas. Both mentored me. They modeled leadership strategies essential to ensuring the success of all students. Through observing their passions for and commitment to student outcomes, to high expectations for all, and to collaboration and learning of staff, I grew as an administrator. They led professional learning communities long before those were common terms, and during their service as superintendents, the achievement of students in these districts reflected their commitment to teaching and learning.

    So many people shaped who I am as an educator: Shirley Hord and her deep thoughtful research, writings, and leadership in building professional learning communities. Dennis Sparks, executive director emeritus, Stephanie Hirsh, executive director, Joellen Killion, assistant executive director, and Linda Munger, senior consultant, National Staff Development Council coached and guided me to deep understanding of the principles and standards of professional learning. I thank them so much for their commitment to student and staff learning and their vision that when educators engage in effective professional learning every day, every student achieves.

    I also want to thank those school district leaders and school principals that I have been privilege to serve over the past several years. These leaders have a clear vision of their schools as high performing, communities of learners. I am so grateful to them for all the many stories that we have shared. I especially want to thank Kathy Larson, principal of Heritage Elementary and Victor Vegara, principal of Valor Middle School, both from Woodburn, Oregon, who made fundamental leadership decisions to engage teaching teams in collaboration and learning around curriculum, assessment, and instruction. I am also grateful I have had the opportunity to work with Judy Tyson, principal of Iduma Elementary in Killeen, Texas, who led a new school family to a shared vision around a fundamental commitment to high expectations in curriculum, assessment, and instruction.

    Many of the stories in this book reflect a districtwide commitment to professional learning. Linda Reeves, Superintendent of North Marion, Aurora, Oregon; Gloria Shamanoff, Northwest Allen School District, Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Ione Bonds, Petal Schools, Petal, Mississippi; have been models for others of how to build districtwide focus on professional learning communities and sustain the effort through the challenges.

    Most important, the stories of significance in this book are stories of teachers and their work. The examples shared in the book are actual works and products of teachers from all across the country who honestly engage in learning with other teachers and who share the impact of that work on their own learning and the learning of their students.

    Another gift I have been given is my editor, Dan Alpert. I was always more eager to work harder, more inspired, and more encouraged after talking with Dan. I feel truly blessed that he was my editor. What was most inspirational is his commitment to professional development and his passion for inspiring this author to do her best. I have had a wonderful team of editors and I am grateful for the assistance of Megan Bedell, Amy Schroller, and Adam Dunham for all they have done to make sure my words told the story I wanted to tell.

    Finally, I have always been most fortunate to have a family that encouraged me. I want to thank Don, my husband of forty years and my two wonderful daughters, Annette Jones and Erin Psencik, and my son-in-law Ron Jones who have known me as a passionate educator for a long time and who accept me as I am. And I live in joy and gratitude for my beautiful granddaughter, Kate, who rejuvenates me to work even harder so that the world in which she lives is hopeful, peaceful, healthy, creative, and compassionate.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following individuals:

    Yolanda Abel, Instructor of Teacher Preparation

    Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD

    Judy Brunner, Instructor

    Missouri State University, Springfield, MO

    Teresa Cunningham, Principal/Literacy Leader

    Laurel Elementary School, Laurel Bloomery, TN

    Boyd Dressler, Associate Professor of Education in Leadership

    Montana State University, Bozeman, MT

    Mike Greenwood, District Teacher Leader

    Windsor Public Schools, Springfield, MA

    Steve Hutton, Elementary Principal/Educational Consultant

    Kentucky Department of Education, Villa Hills, KY

    Barb Keating, Principal

    F. W. Howay Elementary School, New Westminster, BC, Canada

    Kandace Klenz, Middle Childhood Literacy

    Moses Lake County Schools, Moses Lake, WA

    Dori Novak, Director of Leadership Alignment Initiatives

    Maryland State Department of Education

    Linda Diane Patin, Aldine Resource Center

    Aldine Independent School District, Houston, TX

    Thomas Payzant, Professor of Education in Leadership

    Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

    Bess Sullivan Scott, Principal

    McPhee Elementary School, Lincoln, NE

    Vicki L. Vaughn, Principal and G/T Coordinator

    Edgelea Elementary, Lafayette, IN

    Paul Young, Executive Director

    West After School Center, Lancaster, OH

    Rosemarie Young, Principal

    Watson Lane Elementary School, Louisville, KY

    About the Author

    Kay Psencik is an education consultant committed to increasing the performance and quality of life of all of the nation's school children by facilitating the development of focused, visionary, powerful professional learning communities in districts, supporting organizations, and schools.

    Dr. Psencik earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, a master's degree in educational administration from Southwest Texas State University, and a doctorate from Baylor University. She has been an educator for over 39 years. She served in public schools in Texas as a teacher and administrators until her retirement from Austin ISD in 1999, where she served as deputy superintendent. Since her retirement, she has assisted school districts and other educational organizations across the nation and internationally in efforts to transform their organizations. She assists them by facilitating development of professional development plans, developing professional learning communities, developing teacher leaders, facilitating strategic planning efforts for districts and schools, designing and implementing curriculum and instructional plans, designing authentic, meaningful assessments, evaluating programs and establishing evaluation systems, and developing leadership capacity.

    Dr. Psencik serves as a senior consultant for the National Staff Development Council.

    She has published several articles: “Site Planning in a Strategic Context” and “Educational Leadership” in Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, April 1991; “Orchestrating Resources for Students at Austin ISD, Insights” in Texas Association of School Administrators, 1996; “Building Facilities to Equalize Opportunities for Kids, Insights” in Texas Association of School Administrators, 1997; and “Instruction First: A Process for Facility Planning” in The School Administrator. 1997. She and Stephanie Hirsh, the executive director of the National Staff Development Council, authored Transforming Schools through Powerful Planning (December 2004).

    Dr. Psencik is married, has two wonderful daughters and a beautiful granddaughter, and she spends much time with her delightful friends—Baylor, a happy sheltie, and Brinkley, an 85-pound golden retriever!


    This book is dedicated to the thoughtful, skilled, and artistic teachers in America's schools who give selflessly of themselves every day to ensure that all children are learning well, and by doing so, they shape the very fabric of our communities, our nation, and the world. Through their historic, humble commitment to teaching and learning and their passion for children, each of us has the opportunity to discover who we are and to find our place of service.

  • Resources

    Resource A: Our Assumptions About Student and Staff Learning

    Resource B: The Principles of Professional Learning

    Resource C: Our Vision of Our School: Iduma Elementary School, Killeen ISD, Killeen, TX

    Resource D: A Learning Walk

    Resource E: We Are a School Community That Values Learning

    Resource F: Our Learning Community's Norms

    Resource G: Quakertown High School Goals

    Resource H: Example Letter to Parents

    Resource I: Critical Attributes of a Performance Task or Project

    Resource J: Template for Culminating Demonstrations

    Resource K: Example of a Second-Grade, First-Term Culminating Demonstration

    Resource L: Example of a Second-Grade, Third-Term Culminating Demonstrations

    Resource M: Precision in Adverbs

    Resource N: Exemplary Rubric: Middle Ages Scoring Guide

    Example produced by Valor Middle School Encore Teaching Team

    Resource O: Culminating Demonstration Rubric for First-Grade Students at Heritage Elementary

    Resource P: Kindergarten Literacy Lesson Plans


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    Corwin: A SAGE Company

    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK-12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

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