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  • Writer's pictureMichael DeNobile

Reflections on Curriculum Leadership for Equity by Michael DeNobile

“Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire.” ~William Butler Yeats

Curriculum goes above and beyond the content choices made in the classroom. As Yeats notes, curricular choices should not (solely) be about filling students’ heads with knowledge but engaging them in the realities and complexities of life itself: college, career, and lifelong experiences. In this way, student engagement in a well-rounded curriculum will lead them to discovery, just as the woman learned from her mother with the carrots, eggs, and coffee beans. A young woman confides in her mother about her life and how she was struggling. The young woman did not know how she would persevere and felt the best solution was to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. When one problem was solves, another arose.

Bringing her daughter to the kitchen, the mother filled three pots with water. Carrots were placed in the first pot; eggs in the second, and ground coffee beans in the third. She allowed them to sit and boil. After twenty minutes, she turned off the burners, fished out the carrots, pulled out the eggs, and ladled the coffee into respective bowls. She asked her daughter what she observed.

"Carrots, eggs, and coffee," replied the daughter.

The mother pulled her daughter closer and said, "Feel the carrots, and note their soft texture. Break an egg, and you will see that it's hard-boiled. Sip the coffee, and taste its rich aroma."

"Mother," replied the daughter, "what's the point?"

"Each of these objects faced the same adversity--boiling water--but each reacted differently. Carrots go in strong, hard, unrelenting, but come out soft and weak. Eggs go in fragile, a thin shell protecting a liquid core, but come out hardened. Ground coffee beans, however, are unique; they're not changed by the water, but change the water itself.

"So, child," asked the mother, "which are you? When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? As a carrot, an egg, or ground coffee?"

A simple science experiment combined with a literary story, and the young woman probably learned more about life in those brief moments than she did in years of textbooks and classrooms. As Mark Twain is noted for saying, “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.” With that said, I believe that “schooling” could and should have these authentic experiences that lead to authentic education so that students can experience the verisimilitude of life in the classroom.

In Chad Folkersma's “What is Curriculum?” Folkersma discusses Larry Cuban’s points of the four-way division of curriculum, the “official,” “taught,” “learned,” and “tested” curriculum. It is evident that a building leader must be well aware of these different aspects of the curriculum, and where the building’s curriculum exists within the realms of the district, state, and national expectations and student achievement outcomes. The hope is that the student outcomes support a learner profile as discussed by the International Baccalaureate Organization—that is, that the school’s curriculum pushes students to be inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced, and reflective young adults . . . so that, they have the agency to continue to develop the skills of a learner throughout their adult lives.

As a school building leader, it seems like this dichotomy is the very essence of the leader’s job in the school. If the curriculum is the “what” and instruction is the “how,” then the forces bearing down (teacher preparation, assessment, and accountability) should dictate the school leader’s choices and actions in order to affect student achievement. Sometimes the most obvious course of action may not always be the right one, especially in light of all of the stakeholders involved in every decision.

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson

Over the last few months, I have been finding myself starting conversations with, “I’d like to make a proposal—plant a seed now—and you can let me know when you’ve had a chance to think about it.” In my personal and professional lives, this has been game changing in many ways. In our instant gratification, thirty-second burrito world, gathering immediate so-called “wins” gives the perception of success, but in the end, all they are, is a batch of un-hatched eggs with no guarantee of long-term success. Meanwhile, seed planting has the opposite effect; they are potential opportunities for future growth. And while the success is just as guaranteed (or lack thereof) as the former, the probability of long-term success is much higher with each planted seed than an immediate “pick” on the front end.

This concept directly relates to education in general, but specifically to curriculum, and moreover, the philosophy that structures it. Philosophy provides “a framework for organizing schools and classrooms,” defining the “school’s purpose,” “what subjects are of value, how students learn,” “and what methods and materials to use,” as well as “a framework for broad issues and tasks, such as determining the goals of education, subject content and its organizing, the process of teaching and learning, and, in general, what experiences and activities to stress in schools and classrooms” (Ornstein, Pajak, & Ornstein, 2015, pp. 2-3). In this fashion, logic dictates that a philosophy that establishes a framework of “seed planting” would provide more long-term successes for adult (teachers) and child (students) learners in a school than one of “cherry-picking.”

This leads to the basic question of what is the purpose of general education—and more specifically a school—and what are the desired goals and outcomes for all learners? According to the 1918 Cardinal Principles, the defined seven goals of schools and their programs are “health, fundamental processes, worthy home membership, vocation, civic education, worthy use of leisure, and ethical character—encompassing nearly every aspect of human existence” (Ornstein, Pajak, & Ornstein, 2015, p. 14), and whether one agrees to this broad list or the more limited goals set by theorists in the latter twentieth century, it seems safe to argue that the purpose of education is to plant seeds (whatever leadership and the community in collaboration with the state deems worthy of cultivation) and not a quick harvest of a perception of success. In other words, the curriculum developed for a school should be rich and diverse in skills building, rather than cherry-picked, short-term “wins” for data on an exam. While the assessment data is what keeps the lights on in a school, those ends cannot be justified in the means of short-changing both the true success of students and the intelligence of professional teachers. As noted by Wiggins & McTighe (2005), this is the difference between understanding (skills building) and knowing (mere test prep).

Old principles do not necessarily mean they are outdated; in the end, it is about the timeless principle of inspiring change and innovation, specifically from the bottom-up, that dictates the success of an organization (Manley & Hawkins, 2013). Plato (2017) discussed it best in his “Allegory of the Cave” in his renowned Republic. The Socratic philosophy centers around denying that education is the filling of student vessels with knowledge but rather “the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world” (p. 961)—the animation of the human spirit of what makes one human and separates one from all other living things. A true education follows as releasing the shackles and limitations of the mind and guiding pupils through the dangerous task of critical inquiry and thinking—dangerous because it is difficult to control an individual capable of critical inquiry and thought. This dangerous mission thus becomes the essence of leadership to cultivate teachers who know how to navigate the darkness of the cave through their curriculum and lead students into light.

As a leader, curriculum development seems to be the backbone of a school administration’s work. ~Anonymous

In the current model of US-based education since the publication of A Nation at Risk (1983), once a state dictates its education standards, district leaders create education objectives for their schools, then building leaders develop learning goals to guide the curriculum. The teacher then develops objectives within the classroom for units and individual lessons. The last three are known as Level I (district), Level II (school/department), and Level III (classroom) objectives (Wiles & Bondi, 2015, p. 123). Philosophy—more specifically, the philosophies of the school leaders—drives the development of this curriculum. Wiles & Bondi (2015) notes, “To be decisive leaders and consistent decision makers, curriculum specialists must know their values and those of the persons around them” (p. 121). Philosophy also includes the underlying behavioral, developmental, and perceptual learning theories that school leaders and teachers assume about formal learning in classrooms (Wiles & Bondi, 2015).

Even more so than philosophy and theory, I believe as a leader, establishing a growth mindset as an institution through the curriculum and school environment is foundational for student success. Equity of access to scholastic excellence has been linked to “teacher’s mindset about the capacity of each learner to succeed” and that the greatest barrier of student learning “is often not what the student knows, but what the teacher expects of the student” (Ornstein, Pajak, & Ornstein, 2015, p. 200). Because it is the relationship between teacher and student that dictates this, it is the role of the leader to set up the environment to allow this to happen by establishing growth mindset programs school-wide for both adults and children.

The leader needs to ensure that policies and procedures are in place so that all students may succeed in any aspect of their scholastic and social lives. The backbone of a school leader is the education of all students, and that education is transferred through the school’s curriculum. Therefore, curriculum building is a vital part of the school building leader’s work.


Manley, R. J., & Hawkins, R. J. (2013). Making the Common Core Standards Work: Using Professional Development to Build World-Class Schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Ornstein, A.C., Pajak, E.F., & Ornstein, S.B. (2015). Contemporary Issues in Curriculum (6th Ed.). New York, Pearson.

Plato. (1888). The Republic of Plato [eBook]. (3rd ed.). (Jowett, B., Trans.). University of Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. (Original work published in 380 B.C.).

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. (2005). (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall.

Wiles, J.W., & Bondi, J.C. (2015). Curriculum Development: A Guide to Practice (9th Ed.). New York: Allyn & Bacon.

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