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     July 2003

Education Up Close

Roadmap to Success: A Curriculum Mapping Primer

Central office personnel, building administrators, teachers, and parents are all interested in understanding the content, skills, and assessments addressed in classrooms throughout a school or district.

While the questions offered by all aspects of an educational system are important, perhaps none drive the curriculum more so than the questions classroom teachers ask of themselves and their colleagues.

What do my students know? What did they study last year? What are they studying in the classrooms throughout the school? Is my colleague across the hall, who works with students in the same grade and level as students I teach, covering similar content? Where do I begin, and how do I help my students understand the connections between my subject and others?

School districts as well as individual schools are turning to curriculum mapping as a method to quickly and accurately answer many of these questions.

What is a curriculum map?

Curriculum maps cover a wide range of important curricular activities. Typically, they attempt to:

  • address the total education of the students in a building
  • create a "word snapshot" of the educational activities of every classroom within a building or district
  • capture the content, skills, and assessments taught or administered by every teacher within a school building or district
  • organize this information into an easily accessed visual that presents a timeline of instruction by teacher and course. One example is the database curricular map organized by the teachers of Louisa County High School.

Depending on available technology, curricular maps can be simple or elaborate, and can encompass individual schools or complete systems, such as the curriculum map organized by Spotsylvania County Public Schools. Information can even be entered into a purchased software package that organizes the data and provides keyword searches to locate specific curricular information.

Regardless of the organization method, curriculum maps address the major ideas and projects that drive a class, as opposed to attempting to map every topic of discussion in classrooms, which would unnecessarily consume time and energy. One of the most important features of curriculum maps is that they are geared to the school calendar, and each teacher's time line is precisely displayed on the map.

Who creates the curriculum map?

There are two groups of people crucial to the creation of a curriculum map: the teachers who provide the information and the curriculum team who organize the information.

The curriculum team begins working before asking teachers to become involved. This group creates a vision of the curriculum map and investigates whether school or district resources permit such a vision to become reality. This organizational hub should be comprised of educational leaders within the school or system, and might include central office personnel, instructional leaders, and department chairpersons.

Once a vision of the curriculum map is clear, the data collection process begins. Mandatory participation of all teachers is essential, as each provides information about the content, skills, and assessments administered in his/her class. The inclusion of every teacher's information determines the development of a comprehensive curriculum map that will eventually promote higher achievement. Teachers are requested to chronologically map important skills, content, and assessments addressed in each class taught. The information is then submitted to the organization team.

Why create a curriculum map?

Questions regarding what is taught in the classroom are an intrinsic and useful part of formal education. Curriculum maps lead educators and their community to ask and answer the provoking questions that improve instruction and promote achievement.

For example, parents of students in the same grade might ask "Why is my friend's son studying decimals in Mr. J's class and my own son is not studying decimals in Mr. C's class?" Teachers might inquire, "Why do some of my students recognize the parts of speech while others are totally lost?" Parents, students, and educators ask these questions when pacing is not evident in common courses.

Members of an educational community can look at the school's curriculum map to discover when and if specific content is covered. This helps to reassure interested parents when specific information will be taught. It can also serve as the impetus to align courses horizontally. A curriculum map provides insight into the big picture, and responsible use of the information contained by a curriculum map can strengthen instruction school wide.

Most teachers, department chairs, and supervisors for curriculum agree that the creation of pacing guides and course outlines is easy; convincing skeptics to accomplish the goals mandated by such documents often requires proof that following prescriptive curricula best serves the students.

These skeptics are usually convinced when reviews of the curriculum map clearly magnify problem areas in instruction, such as redundancy, inconsistencies, and misalignment. A faculty or department review of a curriculum map is designed to motivate teachers to correct such problems, bringing their instruction into line with prescriptive curricula.

What happens to the completed curriculum map?

Once teacher data is organized, the labor-intensive portion of curriculum mapping is complete and the review process begins. Once the review is complete, the benefits of curriculum mapping are apparent: issues in sequencing of instruction become obvious and easily correctable.

While review teams should be comprised of any combination of administrators and educators, subject review by department is a logical beginning point. Departments can investigate the map to identify gaps in the vertical and horizontal alignment of courses.

Courses that are correctly aligned permit teachers to quickly assess what students mastered in the preceding grade and to focus on building skills and knowledge, as opposed to consuming valuable time with unnecessary reviewing and re-teaching.

Horizontal alignment, often referred to as "pacing guides," assures that all teachers of a common grade level address specific subject matter following the same time line. Such alignment is crucial in school systems dealing with state-mandated, standards-based assessments. Initial review of the completed map by each department assures vertical and horizontal alignment and segues into a broader review of the map.

After vertical and horizontal corrections have been made, a different review team comprised of instructional leaders from throughout the school reviews the map in search of common points of instruction. This team of reviewers informs teachers of overlaps in content or major assignments to promote interdisciplinary connections. As teachers begin to build on interdisciplinary connections, students naturally begin to link information between and among courses, increasing the relevancy of skills and content in such courses. Additionally, teachers can verify skills or content addressed in other courses and alter their unit plans to a higher level, making learning more relevant.

While curriculum mapping is an intense and time-consuming undertaking, improvements to instruction such as vertical alignment, horizontal alignment, elimination of redundancies, and facilitation of interdisciplinary linking builds stronger curricula and improves instruction throughout a building.

When is the curriculum mapping finished?

"A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. . . . As the work grows, it gets harder to control."
-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

This description, although meant to describe the writing process, is certainly applicable to a curriculum map. The addition of new teachers, alterations to the program of studies, changes to state standards—the factors that affect instruction within a building are manifest.

A curriculum map is a work in progress and schools that view it as such create and recreate review teams for it, always looking for ways to build bridges among curricula. Schools with established review teams are keenly aware of the changes within the building that impact instruction and assure that such changes are reflected on the curriculum map in use.

Review teams work regularly to maintain an up-to-date curriculum map that can be reviewed quickly and efficiently by novice and veteran teachers alike. These regularly scheduled reviews preserve an on-the-same-page mindset among educators, asking and answering the questions that drive effective instruction.

Read More About It

"Focus On Curriculum Mapping"
Curriculum Technology Quarterly
This site offers an interview with Heidi Hayes-Jacobs, author of the 1997 ASCD book Mapping the Big Picture.

"Guide to Curriculum Mapping"
by Joyce Payne
This site provides a to-the-point description of the logistics of curriculum mapping.

Mapping the Big Picture: Integrating Curriculum and
Assessment K-12

This site offers in-depth information about the theories, processes and applications of curriculum mapping.


This article was contributed by Janice West-Christy, M.Ed., English Department Chair, Louisa County High School, Louisa, Virginia. Ms. Christy coordinates an at-risk language arts program for Louisa County High School and teaches both at-risk and gifted ninth-grade students.

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