Washington area private schools provide a limited view of their curriculum to prospective students and their parents. This usually includes brief class descriptions, graduation requirements for middle and upper schools, and high-level sketches of activities for lower-school grades. This thumbnail sketch will appear on the school’s web site and will be the basis for school tours. You have to decide if you are comfortable “letting go” and trusting the school to take it from there or if you want to know more before you commit to enrolling your child.
Course descriptions provide an incomplete view of the educational objectives and philosophy of a school, and tell you nothing about how the school monitors and support faculty efforts to implement and improve the curriculum. Take a look at the curriculum guides provided for some prominent programs in the region. (See links to a few curriculum guides here.) If you want to know what your child’s academic experience will be like and whether the school has a cohesive curriculum, you will have to push for more information. How do you do this?
First, consider who oversees the development and implementation of the curriculum. Pay attention here. The school’s commitment of human resources in this area is an indication of how much they care about the consistency and cohesiveness of the education your child will receive. As you can see, the titles held by the relevant administrators vary from school to school and the responsibilities for these positions are rarely made clear. (See a partial list of administrators for selected schools here.) You should ask exactly what these administrators do. What is an “assistant head of school for academic innovation,” for example?
Is the head of school or principal expected to oversee curricular quality, implementation and faculty development while running the school? Or are these jobs assigned to faculty with classes to teach? These positions have many other demands on their time and curriculum may be neglected. There should, at the very least, be a person primarily focused on curriculum development and implementation. Remember, you will be sending your children to this school. The answer will typically be an academic dean or curriculum developer. Strong schools also have dedicated staff to assist faculty to implement the curriculum on a daily basis. Look for titles here such as dean of faculty or head of faculty development. Expect a curriculum or program of studies director to have an advanced degree in curriculum development and to be fluent on multiple learning theories within disciplines. A good dean of faculty usually needs extensive classroom experience. It is this dean’s responsibility to help teachers to learn on the job–they observe classes, help design rubrics, clarify objectives, keep learning management pages current and help to communicate with parents. Increasingly, integrating technology into the curriculum is more and more important, so pay particular attention to how fluent these administrators are in current methods.
An example of a clear focus on curriculum and faculty development is St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac. This PK-12 school sets an extraordinarily high bar for transparent curriculum mapping and faculty development under the leadership of its Director of Faculty Development and Evaluation Programs. St. Andrew’s curriculum map is online. Move on to the school’s Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) to get a sense of what well-supported faculty might look like. Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School recently committed to training all of their faculty at CTTL. Maret supports the Case Institute which provides remarkable opportunities for their faculty to create programs and activities that are integrated into the school’s curriculum. Even if the school that you are considering does not reach the high level of commitment to curriculum of St. Andrew’s, Visitation or Maret, consider a school such as Good Counsel or Stone Ridge which stand out as having 2-3 long-standing faculty positions dedicated to creating and implementing curriculum and supporting faculty development.
Failing schools will usually cut corners with their educational programs first because the changes are not immediately visible. School leadership might do this by overloading faculty with additional responsibilities rather than funding separate positions, or leaving a shell of a support staff to develop and implement curriculum. At the same time, these schools may have a top-heavy advancement team promoting non-tuition revenue opportunities, fundraising, alumni outreach and message control. For example, one local private school on our list supports a PK-12 population with no discernible staff in the vital positions of curriculum development, implementation or faculty development. So, be cautious if you see a private school that that does not provide the support staff to develop and implement curriculum.
Drilling down to specific courses
After studying the curriculum guides and sizing up the administrators, you will want to be sure that each class has a set of clear objectives anchored in the curriculum, measurable outcomes, and that these are visible to parents. That is, you want to see the schools’ curriculum “map” and see evidence that faculty and administrators work together to keep the educational vision of the school transparent at the macro and micro level. Ideally, you should have access through a portal to the school’s learning management system (LMS) which will show you exactly how all class pages appear at the school (not just a few classes that they select for you!) This is a view of how the school functions academically and if a private school is unwilling to allow you to tour their LMS as part of the admissions procedure, don’t consider enrolling your child in the school.
The school’s curriculum map should break each class into units with clear objectives and measurable outcomes. When looking at learning objectives, be discerning; these are the building blocks of your child’s educational life. A proper learning objective should show what the students are expected to do, under what circumstances, and the standards for student performance. Each class should have a page on the school’s learning management system (LMS) where course objectives and outcomes are linked to the class scope, course sequence and activities, and where nightly homework is consistently available. It should be clear that for each course, you can track in real time what’s being covered in the class. Making the curriculum map completely transparent down to the core objectives and outcomes holds teachers, students, administrators and parents accountable. A sign of a good school is a cohesive academic curriculum map throughout the school that is not just thrown together for an upcoming reaccreditation. Remember that a curriculum map should be a constant reflection of a collaborative faculty working to improve their teaching methods and course designs.
In the end, each private school chooses how transparent to be. The benchmark for transparency is your public school system, where a wealth of information is typically provided online. For any aspect of the private school that remains opaque, the message is “trust us.” Remember that you’re purchasing a vital service for your family and you’re entitled to know in advance what you’re getting. Keep asking questions until you’re comfortable. Once your child is enrolled, you will need to have a healthy, continuous dialog with the school at all levels and how the school handles your questions at the admissions stage is a crucial indicator of whether the school welcomes inquiry from parents.
 For a good discussion of curriculum design and course planning that includes incorporating instructional technology and learning management systems, see Reiser, R. A, and Dick, W. (1996), Instructional Planning: A guide for teachers. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bates.
 See, for example, the page for a math class in the Montgomery County Public Schools, found here, and one public elementary school’s curriculum maps found here.
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