The Curriculum Gap

Bridging The Curriculum GapIn the early 2000s, Dataworks founders John Hollingsworth and Silvia Ybarra identified the Curriculum Gap. After processing thousands of test scores from hundreds of schools, they found that students were being taught at a lower level than they were being tested. For example, 5th graders were often taught 3rd or 4th grade standards because they didn’t have certain skills, but this led to consistently low scores on 5th grade tests. The solution they found was to always teach on grade-level and get extra help for low skills.

Today, Dataworks has found that every school is still facing a Curriculum Gap. This one, however, is bigger. It’s the gap between where you are and where you want to be, the gap between current teaching and next level teaching. How do you bridge the gap? We’re not just talking goals here, but real effective implementation of change that makes a difference. Often, this is done in a piecemeal way, trying the latest technology or strategy for a few months or a year.

But we think the first step is to break this big gap into smaller ones and then master each one. We have identified five significant Curriculum Gaps in current education practice with effective solutions for bridging each one.

Curriculum Gap 1 – Student Engagement

Classrooms where students sit passively, following instructions, and tuning out from the lesson are too common. What is missing is engagement. Engagement means getting students involved. Some educators think this means social engagement or involvement in activities. Or else it means working on a project or using a new technology such as laptops or tablets. But we define engagement as involvement with the lesson.

We believe this Curriculum Gap is bridged two ways: 1) by using technology effectively, and 2) by using academic engagement norms. Education technology runs the gamut from using a projector to complete use of laptops or tablets for every student. We believe any movement in this direction is good, but teachers and students work it best when they make incremental steps from where they are. That means, it often is quite effective to use technology you already have in new ways. Comfort level for both teachers and students just needs to be extended a bit, not totally challenged.

Our solution is not to make a textbook digital, not to go full laptop/tablet, but rather to use a website browser to maximum advantage with Educeri, our online lesson service. Nearly every student and teacher is familiar with using Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Explorer/Edge. By creating lessons that can be accessed from any browser and projected for all students to see, a class is immediately involved in technology yet with a low learning curve. Student attention is engaged more, and teachers can easily make it work. This produces engagement for a low cost and low risk.

Secondly, we have developed Academic Engagement Norms. These are a series of eight strategies for involving students in the lesson. They range from choral reading to gestures, from pair-shares to whiteboards, and more. The ideal situation is for the teacher to engage the students every one to two minutes during a lesson. This keeps the students involved and minimizes any classroom management problems.

By using these two programs in tandem, teachers can quickly and easily eliminate the engagement Curriculum Gap. It will make a world of difference in the classroom—and get teachers closer to where they want to be. The result is a well-engaged classroom!

Curriculum Gap 2 – Lesson Design

Too often, lessons are followed or adapted from textbooks or built around worksheets. These have their place, of course, but there is no one-size-fits-all book or activity that will work for every class, subject, or grade.

Textbooks, by nature, cover a lot of content within a certain time span. Depth is often sacrificed to meet the calendar.
In addition, teachers often have to skip around in textbooks to find the examples, the passages, the problems that they want to use. Finding the concept or the skill is often a treasure hunt in some textbooks. Textbooks are not always labeled in the best way – even though teacher’s editions have help in their margins, and some publishers are putting supplementary material online. But it’s still a lot of back and forth. Thus, lessons are often ad hoc and not well organized according to the best research.

What is needed is a proper sequence of research-based components to use as a framework for each lesson. The lesson should be built around concepts not skills, according to the latest standards. There should a clear objective, an activation of prior knowledge, skills practice, a way to establish relevance of the lesson to the students, and a closure or ending where students demonstrate what they’ve learned. This should lead to independent practice (which can be homework), as well as periodic reviews on a consistent schedule. Academic vocabulary should be taught, and students should be asked higher-order questions, not just recall of facts or details from a passage. Additionally, students should be encouraged to cite evidence from the text and actually read and speak in class.

All this can be accomplished through the lesson design approach called Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI). All seven fundamental parts of a good lesson, as shown by current research, are included along with regular Checking for Understanding questions and vocabulary.

The result is high-quality lessons that are easy to use, very focused, and on standard. This content Curriculum Gap –what to use and when — that teachers often face is eliminated. The result is well-crafted lessons!

Curriculum Gap 3 – Lesson Preparation

Teachers are smart, caring, and organized. But they just don’t have time to prepare every lesson for maximum learning. Teachers have to manage multiple subjects in elementary school or multiple periods of students in higher grades. They have to constantly grade papers, meet with parents, run assemblies, decorate the room, and still have a life.

Often, that leaves lesson prep for the early hours of the morning or not at all. The most that many teachers can do is plan what will be covered during the week and write objectives for their principal. But how to present the lesson – with proper examples, higher-order questions, and sequenced skill practice is often missing or improvised on the spot. That’s why textbooks and worksheets become the de facto standard for lessons.

A good solution to this problem is to provide teachers with lesson blueprints or frameworks. Such a service, like Dataworks’ Educeri online lessons, can make sure the right concepts, skills, and standards are covered, relieving the teacher of that concern. It can also provide vocab, higher-order questions, appropriate examples of text and problems, and an engaging way to present a lesson.

Each teacher can then apply their own unique personality as they “work the page” of a projected lesson, and better yet, they can focus on the students and what they are learning. In other words, with content effectively organized, teachers can pay more attention to the students and how they internalizing the concepts and skills. After all, it’s the interaction between teacher and student where real learning takes place.

When the preparation Curriculum Gap is eliminated, then two wonderful things happen: 1) Teachers can really teach; and 2) Teachers can avoid the late-night cram sessions and be fresher in class for their students. The result is well-prepared lessons and teachers, and one less Curriculum Gap.

Curriculum Gap 4 – Lesson Delivery

As mentioned previously, teachers have so many responsibilities – lesson prep, classroom management, assemblies, grading papers, and more – that delivering the lesson is almost the last thing considered each day. In most cases, it’s enough to get up in front of the class, work through a few pages in the text, and assign a worksheet.

But delivering a lesson to students involves a lot more. Teachers could ask: What kind of examples should I use and how should I present them? Should I use gestures? How fast or slow should I read? How many and what kind of questions should I ask students? Should I use a physical demonstration? How can I involve the students in the lesson content? How can I get the students to speak more? How can I help English Learners best? When should I use technology and how?

These are all questions that involve delivery, and commonly these are improvised or left to the teacher’s habitual way of presenting. But research has clearly shown that there are best practices for effective presentation in a class. The problem is how to get teachers to implement these new strategies. That’s the Curriculum Gap. All kinds of professional development workshops aim to help teachers with new ways of teaching, but too often, the new ideas are forgotten by the following week because of the press of getting ready for each class. Even those teachers who try to put some new ideas into practice stumble a bit because it’s new, and then they give up and return to habits that have worked before.

To make new ways of delivering a lesson permanent, every teacher needs repetitions of the practice, and ideally, active cuing and prompting by another teacher or consultant while teaching the lesson. We are all creatures of habit, especially when teaching, because we don’t have time to reinvent how we teach on a regular basis. But to bridge this Curriculum Gap and reach automaticity on new strategies, teachers need repetitions. That’s how the brain works; habits are developed through repeated practice.

One of the most effective ways to do this is through the Dataworks’ Lesson Demonstration program. A consultant teaches a lesson using the recommended teaching techniques. Then, teachers team-teach a lesson using the new techniques with the consultant prompting to remind when to apply new techniques. The result is a well-taught lesson!

Curriculum Gap 5 – School Culture

Many schools are like sailboats in the ocean – with each teacher doing his or her own thing in their individual classroom. There is unity for school teams or carnivals but not for instruction. This leads to uneven results in the different classes, making it hard to improve test scores.

Of course, administrators always guide the teachers to do their best for the children; the goal is to do everything for the students. This seems like good education and makes good sound bites for parents. But it represents a huge gap in the school culture, if there is not a concurrent and consistent focus on instructional excellence in the school.

This is a subtle but very real difference. Of course, schools are doing everything for the children, so they seem unified. But without a unified focus on best practices in instruction, the achievement gap only widens. The best schools have created a culture where every teacher, administrator, and staff member know what instructional excellence looks like and help each other to achieve it. Instead of sailboats floating in the ocean, the school becomes an aircraft carrier with everyone working together for one purpose.

The solution is to get everyone on board with instructional excellence. This requires a common language and common tools. This comes from building a vision of what works in the classroom and how to achieve it. The common language is recognition of the seven research-based components of good instruction by all teachers and leaders. The tools are the strategies for implementing each of these components in the classroom. With a relentless focus and collegial support, from the top down, then instructional excellence soon becomes a reality. The result is a well-implemented school vision and the end of all Curriculum Gaps.


The big Curriculum Gap of getting to the next level of improvement for our schools can be solved by taking steps to achieve well-engaged classrooms, well-crafted lessons, well-prepared lessons and teachers, well-taught lessons, and a complete, well-implemented school vision.

Gaps are not just something missing; they are really a challenge. It’s like we are standing on one side of a river, and we can see what’s on the other side. All we need to do is build a bridge. We have to wade in the current a bit and build a foundation, but soon the structure arises. Then, students can easily cross the bridge to the other side, and our teachers and schools can easily become what they always wanted to be – a bridge to a better life for every student.