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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Foundations Series: What is Enacted Curriculum?

Welcome to another fascinating installment of Alignment Foundations! Last month, I dug into the question "What is Intended Curriculum?" Last month, I defined intended curriculum as what students are supposed to learn. I also took issue with textbooks and related materials exclusively (or at least almost exclusively) defining the intended curriculum. However, I do acknowledge that textbooks and related materials do constitute at least part of the intended curriculum, before they are implemented, or enacted.

Hey, look at that! What a great segue into this month's topic in the Foundations series, "What is Enacted Curriculum?". The enacted curriculum is another part of the multi-dimensional framework developed by Andy Porter that also includes the intended, assessed, and learned curricula:

In this framework, the enacted curriculum is:

the content actually delivered during instruction (i.e., instructional content), as well as how it is taught (i.e., instructional practices). Typically, the content targets are based on the intended curriculum.

In other words, the enacted curriculum is what students get the chance to learn, as well as how teachers "deliver" the content. Now, I realize that most folks would rather spend more time talking about instructional practices, or the "how" of the enacted curriculum. It's understandable. The "how" of instruction is what teachers spend a good portion of their day thinking about and doing. However, curriculum alignment is fundamentally about the "what" of instruction, and this blog is about curriculum alignment.

OK, that's really not a good enough reason to focus on the "what" of enacted curriculum to any degree, much less an entire blog. I get excited about this work because of the potential positive impact for students, plain and simple. Let me share some research on alignment and the enacted curriculum.

What the research says about alignment and enacted curriculum

Don't worry, I'm not going to turn this into a thesis on curriculum alignment. As a matter of fact, I'm just going to talk, very briefly, about two studies. If you want a more extensive treatment of alignment research on student learning, check out this link. Otherwise, just stay here and keep reading :).

The first resource I'd like to share is actually a summary of several studies that was done by S. Alan Cohen in 1987. Now, I know what many of you are already thinking: 1987, seriously?!?! Is that the most recent research you can come up with? Old research is no good!

First, no, it's not the most recent research I can come up with, as I will share in a little bit. And second, the age of the research is really irrelevant if it hasn't been refuted through more recent research with equal or great methodology. In this case, I haven't found anything that meets those criteria. So, in my mind, this research is still applicable. Let's see what Cohen has to say, shall we?

          Cohen Studies. Briefly, what Cohen found across all of the studies he summarized in this article is that the alignment between what was taught (the enacted curriculum) and what was assessed (the assessed curriculum) had a significant and large impact on student learning (the learned curriculum). The findings were significant in that groups of students in higher-alignment situations performed better than students in lower-alignment situations. The findings were large based on the effect sizes calculated in the studies. Cohen found effect sizes to generally be between 1.0 and 3.0. If you want some information on how to interpret these numbers, check out this link. Here is my interpretation...THAT'S FREAKING HUGE!

          Gamoran Study. Adam Gamoran and his colleagues, in 1997, found in their study what many of us would consider common sense: as opportunity to learn what was assessed increased, so to did student outcomes. In other words, students did better on assessments when they had a chance to learn what was on those assessments. This is not earth-shattering news to most educators. What was particularly interesting in this study is that the alignment between the enacted and assessed curricula COMPLETELY WIPED OUT the impact of students' prior achievement levels, socio-economic status, and ethnicity, all factors that are typically considered to have negative impacts on student learning.

Practical implications of research findings

I believe that major point to walk away with from findings like these is that opportunity to learn/alignment has the potential to have both a significant and meaningful impact on student learning. So much so that at times, alignment can largely negate the impact on factors like poverty on student outcomes. Now, what I'm not saying is that poverty is not important. That would be foolish. What I am saying is that when we provide all students with an opportunity to learn, it can help level the playing field and students will generally learn.

If these findings and ideas are indeed the case, implications extend beyond credit requirements and textbook adoption cycles. This is about what students actually get a chance to learn. What happens day in and day out in classrooms and other learning environments crafted and facilitated by teachers. In my mind, to ensure all students have the opportunity to learn what they are supposed to learn (the intended curriculum) and what they are assessed on (the assessed curriculum), several questions are worth posing and pursuing. For example:

  • What processes and policies are in place to facilitate all students being able access these learning opportunities?
  • Are teachers comfortable teaching perhaps a broader range of students?
  • Are teachers comfortable enough in their content knowledge and ability to learn new knowledge to meet these demands?
  • What supports does the system have in place to ensure teachers can accomplish these goals?
These are not small questions. Fundamentally, it calls for the system to work as a just that, a system. Teachers need to not only have access to information and materials, but each other for conversations and collaboration. As a matter of fact, to accomplish these goals, I believe teachers should have access to what other teachers are teaching. As in, observation and self-report data. And by self-report data, I'm not talking about consensus curriculum maps or "model" lesson plans. I mean reflective data, i.e., what got enacted. Furthermore, I believe these sorts of data should not be used for accountability purposes. My reasoning is simple: attach high stakes to self-report and observation data, we can surely expect those data to decrease in reliability and validity. And without that, we have nothing of use.

Let's revisit textbooks and related materials, shall we?

Last month, I explored the issue of where textbooks and related materials fit into this curriculum framework, since I'm pushing so hard against the idea of just calling them our curriculum and calling it good. I like using scenarios, so here is another one:

picture source -
At the end of a school year, a district's curriculum director wants to know the extent to which the curriculum materials acquired over the summer were implemented across the district, and then how that implementation aligned with the Common Core State Standards. What sort of alignment comparison would they be making?

I would say they are making an enacted-to-intended curriculum alignment comparison. Here is my thinking...

First, the examination is looking towards what was implemented. In this case, I believe we can use the terms implemented and enacted to mean the same thing. Second, the examination is looking at implementation (i.e., what was enacted) relative to something else, (Common Core State Standards). I have previously used the Common Core as an example of intended curriculum. In this example, it's all about the timing. Since the examination of the curriculum materials is occurring after they are implemented (or not, as the case may be), the materials change from intended to enacted. Make sense? What do you think? I'd love to hear your perspectives.

Check back here next month when I discuss the next topic in the Foundations Series: What is Assessed Curriculum. Thanks again for taking the time to read my thoughts. See you here next month!

Resources Used

Cohen, S. A. (1987). Instructional alignment: Searching for a magic bullet. Educational Researcher, 16, 16-20.

Ellis, P. D. (2010). What are some conventions for interpreting different effect sizes? Retrieved from

Gamoran, A., Porter, A. C., Smithson, J. L., & White, P. A. (1997). Upgrading high school mathematics instruction: Improving learning opportunities for low-achieving, low-income youth. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 19, 325-338.

Porter, A.C. (2006). Curriculum assessment. In J. L. Green, G. Camilli, & P. B. Elmore (Eds.), Complementary methods for research in education (3rd edition). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.