The Curricular Conundrum

Relationships. Community. Faculty. These are what we say makes the independent school experience special. All true, but these elements leave out the core of what we do–the what and how of teaching and learning. The curriculum. We know curriculum matters but it’s hard to get our arms around in our schools. Is it content? Resources or scope and sequence? Pedagogy? A colleague recently described “curriculum” as “everything we do with intentionality.” Another colleague said the curriculum is “the roadmap to our portrait of a graduate.” Curricular review is hard without this starting point, and is further complicated by the nature of independent schools.

One of the great strengths of independent schools is the freedom to determine the curriculum and pedagogy that best suits their mission (and market). This independence allows for innovation, flexibility, and the ability to tailor learning experiences to the unique needs of the student body. However, this freedom can also present a challenge when it comes to curriculum review and articulation.

A clear and well-articulated curriculum is core to the strength of the school program and its value proposition for families and students. It ensures quality and consistency in the student experience and provides a useful framework for faculty. Why do many independent schools grapple with reviewing and articulating their curriculum in a strategic or ongoing way?

Twin Challenges: Guiding Principles and Faculty Autonomy

Two key challenges often arise in this context: a lack of curricular guiding principles and a culture of faculty autonomy. Our schools are not mandated to use set textbooks or follow prescribed state standards or benchmarks. Without a larger framework or organizing curricular principle, an individual’s classroom might have a creative and engaging course curriculum, but the overall school’s curriculum can end up as a potpourri of projects, content, and resources that have accrued over time. 

A culture of faculty autonomy, while fostering creativity and innovation, can sometimes lead to a series of unrelated “acts of curricular greatness” or unexposed areas of weakness. This can result in a lack of alignment or through lines in the curriculum and thus gaps in skills and content with a corresponding loss of a narrative connecting individual classroom experiences to the larger portrait of a graduate. It also leads to inequity in terms of student experience from teacher to teacher and grade to grade. Additional and related challenges that come with creative independence of faculty gets exposed with both newer and more experienced teachers. When early-career teachers or those joining a school aren’t brought into an existing curricular framework, they can expend an undue amount of energy developing curriculum on their own or importing practices from other contexts that may not harmonize with the rest of the program. On the other side, it can be hard when veteran teachers in a school are asked to examine, share, align, and even change what they do; practitioners used to creative independence are sometimes challenged or even threatened as comprehensive curriculum review can expose teacher vulnerabilities and thus resistance to change. What is a thoughtful administrator to do?

The Goals and Processes of Curricular Review

The ultimate goal of a curriculum review cycle is not merely to document what’s being taught but examine and improve what’s being learned. The process should catalyze shifts in culture and practice that will sustain and amplify over time–not simply be a checklist begrudgingly completed by a task force. It’s about moving from a collection of individual efforts to a cohesive, mission-aligned program that serves all students effectively and equitably.

A deliberate and thoughtful curricular review process is grounded in a school’s mission and vision. It creates and provides a corresponding framework with which to think about curriculum. The review process is then designed based on an understanding of how change happens–within an organization as well as within an individual teacher. There is no single one-size-fits-all recipe or approach to curriculum review; rather, a healthy process is reflective, iterative, and respects the unique context of each school. 

Leaders of curriculum review would do well to consider the following types of questions when charting out the process:


  • What is “curriculum” for you/your school? What is the purpose of the curriculum?
  • (How) Is the curriculum currently articulated? How is the curriculum used? By whom?
  • What’s the history of this work? What’s driven the process? What went well (or not)? Why?
  • What is the “north star” for teaching and learning at your school?
  • What guides the culture of your school?


  • What will you review and WHY? What is the scope of your review? What is the reason for doing the review; what’s likely to be different or better because of the process? Is the review in response to a known issue? Part of a cycle? In service of a school-wide strategic focus area? etc.
  • What are the non-negotiables?
  • What are the opportunity or challenge drivers?


  • When “complete,” what will the outcome of this process look like? How does that outcome connect to the context and purpose, above?
  • What “product” matches your purpose/use?


Team around laptop
  • What understandings about people, change, and leadership are going to inform your process?
  • Who will be part of the work? Who will lead the work (set the vision)? Who will manage the work (oversee the process)? Who will be involved in various stages? If multiple, how will teams be structured? Who will make decisions about what things? How will decisions get made? What voices need to be part of the work and how will those voices be made welcome and truly heard? etc.
  • What are the systems you’ll need? To gather people? Information? Documents? Data? What artifacts or structures will represent or house your curriculum? What features should they have?
  • How much time will you spend on various stages? Identifying review objectives? Articulating the current curriculum? Identifying programmatic aspirations or intended outcomes? Collecting data or other resources? Evaluating and reviewing the curriculum? Determining possible changes and making recommendations? Curricular change implementation? etc.
  • How will the work be communicated? Before the process begins? During the process? After the process? To the external community? Between faculty and staff directly involved? With faculty and staff not directly involved? What forms of communication? Frequency? Tone? etc.
  • How will the process be resilient and sustainable? What are the deadlines, deliverables, and accountability measures? Who determines those? How can the process generate creativity, critical reflection, and collaboration? What are the ways (and how might) this curricular review process can advance (or compete with) other school goals? What check-points, reflective practices, or pivot moments can you build in? How will you know if and when and how to adjust the work? How can this work be integrated into ongoing school practice instead of a periodic “add on” for folks?

Finally, while curriculum review ought to be an inclusive, collaborative process within a school, it can often be lonely for those steering the process. It’s well worth finding thought partners and working communities outside one’s own school to share strategies, successes, sticking points; workshop ideas; and get validated that–while there are principles that guide the process–there’s no single magic recipe for this work!

Support for the Journey

To support educators in this critical work, SAIS is offering a hands-on professional learning cohort, Curriculum Review: Mission-Aligned Process & Planning. This workshop, designed for program leaders, will provide the tools and strategies to ensure your curricular review process is grounded in your school’s mission and vision, and is designed based on an understanding of how change happens.

This blended workshop will be held over four 90-minute sessions in January and February and include meaningful asynchronous engagement between sessions. The professional learning cohort will cover topics such as connecting curriculum to mission; embracing both autonomy and alignment; stakeholders, metrics, resources, and timelines; and action planning.

This workshop is ideal for division heads, department heads, academic deans, and curriculum coordinators. Participating as a team is encouraged to maximize the benefits and impact of the workshop.

The SAIS Curriculum Expo provides the opportunity for independent school leaders to connect with educational publishers, see products in person, and attend informational breakout sessions. Whether your school is looking to adopt a new program now or in the future, or you’re just interested to see what’s on the market, this event will provide the necessary resources and information to help you make informed decisions. 
February 2, 2024 – Atlanta

  • Leadership
  • Teaching and Learning

Meera Shah started her career as a very rookie science instructor but fell in love with the art of teaching and the science of learning and went on to serve several independent schools as a department chair, academic dean, associate head of teaching and learning, and director of studies. She loves to connect the big ideas in school redesign and learner-driven and competency-based pedagogy with the practical realities of running a school. She is passionate about professional growth for teachers at all career stages and the co-founder of Trey Education.

Trey Education offers customized solutions to independent school teachers and administrators, with a focus on instructional coaching and professional learning for early-career teachers and career-changing teachers. We are passionate about partnering with schools and educators who share our vision that schools should be joyful places for deep and transformative learning for both students and educators.