From the Blog

Opening the Can on Your Canned Curriculum

by Courtney Jacobs and Steve Sell 

Steve and Courtney's blog

Why bother creating performance-based assessments if I have a set curriculum? Also, a state-wide accountability system? At the heart of these questions is a concern about the lack of engagement and empowerment educators and students can feel when teaching and learning from a “canned curriculum.” 

In working with educators across New England, we frequently hear excitement about the potential of creating and using performance-based assessments. The questions come when teachers refer to their school or district curriculum and wonder where there might be room to innovate. They are surprised to learn that one benefit of a set curriculum is that learning outcomes have been defined and lessons mapped out for a unit, which provides space and time for teachers to consider new ways of measuring student growth with performance-based assessments.

Here are a few reasons why you might consider creating your own performance-based assessments:

  • Opportunities for students to be seen and heard: The chances the assessments offered by a packaged curriculum align with your students’ backgrounds and identities, and are tailored to the particular issues and histories of their community, are slim. This is where most packaged curricula fall short. As Cornelius Minor states in his book, We Got This, “No curriculum—no matter how good—is ever going to see my kids.” Creating performance-based assessments is one way to “see” your students. It is a way for students to be seen and heard. It is also a powerful tool for measuring their growth and identifying what supports and interventions they might need. Empowering students to see themselves in the curriculum and apply that learning in ways that feel authentic and relevant is something our students deserve.
  • Opportunities for teachers to stay engaged and excited: Teaching is a hard and important job. If we want teachers to stay in teaching for the long haul and to stay engaged and passionate about what they do, we need to give them both support and opportunities to be creative, to continue to develop their skills, and to create engaging experiences for their students that they, too, are excited about. Having an outlet for creativity, whether teachers are creating performance-based assessments from scratch or modifying tasks created by others, can be empowering and fulfilling for teachers. Minor reminds us in his book that, “Laboring to know children and using our most audacious creativity to act on that knowing leaves us with a curriculum that authentically seeks to teach and not just to instruct or to control.”
  • Opportunities to promote collaboration and community engagement: Performance-based assessment also offers important, and often missing, opportunities for collaboration between teachers, students, and community partners. Minor notes that,  “…an approach to curriculum that labors to see and to know kids for who they are and then acts on that knowing helps to grow us into sharper professionals…It deepens our knowledge of content by helping us to become more flexible practitioners of what we teach, and it keeps the focus of our work on transference by ensuring that the things that we teach can be used by children to impact life beyond our classrooms.” Strong performance-based assessments require teacher collaboration with community partners to develop authentic, engaging, and relevant tasks. They also require students to collaborate with each other. For example, students might work in groups to investigate issues of water quality in their community with the help of a community organization with expertise in this area. Finally, and importantly, teacher collaboration in the scoring of student work and in reflecting on and revising performance tasks provides some of the best professional development that teachers experience. Through this process teachers have an opportunity to clarify expectations for student learning and growth, challenge each other’s assumptions about individual students and groups of students, and generate ideas for how to better support and challenge students.
If you’re still wondering whether you should bother creating performance-based assessments when you have a set curriculum, the answer, resoundingly, is yes. Performance-based assessments offer an opportunity for you to help students see themselves in the work they do. They help teachers stay excited about and engaged in the world of teaching and learning. Finally, they help offer powerful opportunities for student, teacher, and community collaboration. If we hope to equip our students with the knowledge and skills they will need to successfully navigate a changing world and to challenge the deep inequities that exist in our current educational system and society, we must leverage the power of deep, authentic learning and assessment. Creating performance based assessments is one way to do that.