Sarah Hanawald is the Senior Director of the Association for Academic Leaders.
A Guide to Conducting a Curriculum Audit Supported by Data
One of our most popular courses at the Association for Academic Leaders is titled “Leading a Curriculum Audit,” and there’s good reason for that: if you’re an academic leader, there’s a strong chance that at some point in your career, you will probably be asked to assess and revise an element of your school’s academic program.
In our evolving landscape, independent schools must constantly evaluate the effectiveness of their curriculums and then implement changes to a school’s academic program in small increments every year. While most of these adjustments are intentional and carefully considered, over time they can lead to “curriculum creep,” where the lived curriculum of the classroom is no longer in alignment with the original design. Often this happens when (well-intentioned) additions without any subtractions lead to bloat and student learning risks becoming shallow.
Even worse, this approach can take a program in a direction never intended; what seems like small additions can eventually skew students’ understanding of core tenets of the program. Conversely, schools may also realize that an element missing from the program — whether intentionally excluded or not — now needs a closer look.
Launching a Curriculum Audit
An important first step to a curriculum review should be a curriculum audit, an in-depth process designed to document the current status of a school’s curriculum. Department leaders, DEIBJ leaders, curriculum coordinators, or learning specialists will often lead a curriculum audit, or they may be completed by a small team or led by the school’s Chief Academic Officer. Ultimately, the individual within a school who leads the audit will depend on the scope of the audit to be performed.
Regardless, it’s important to complete this valuable step before starting the analysis or revision phase — otherwise, you risk having an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of what you currently teach. And that misunderstanding can reverberate through the process of program analysis and revision. A thorough and accurate audit helps academic leaders determine the program’s adherence to the school’s published mission and guiding documents.
Three primary drivers typically lead participants to begin thinking about a curriculum audit
- Trends in assessment results over time are concerning;
- Somebody has attended a conference and heard (or read) about another school’s audit;
- There’s a recognition or suspicion of staleness accompanied by market anxiety.
Whichever one of these (or maybe it’s something else entirely) leads you to decide it’s time for an audit, there’s a lot to consider before you jump in. Conducting a curriculum audit is necessarily a labor-intensive process, but the benefits of a well-done audit are myriad.
Begin with Curiosity
A curriculum audit is essentially an inquiry into the current status of your teaching program. When conducted thoroughly, it will help you provide a clear picture of how well your curriculum aligns with your school’s mission, the latest educational standards, and published statements about your program.
Make sure the questions driving the audit are clearly articulated and understood by everyone involved. As you go through the process, ensure you are explicit about what you ARE and ARE NOT auditing. One popular formula for audits is to look at “the written, the taught, the assessed,” which is usually part curriculum, part pedagogy.
However you decide to organize your audit, everyone needs to know what you’re looking for and what you’re looking at.
Narrow Your Focus
Critical to the success of any audit is the ability to delve deep into specific areas of the curriculum. This narrow focus allows you to identify and subsequently address any weak spots once the audit is complete and you’ve moved into program revision.
Once an area is identified as a focal point, academic leaders can go back to the aforementioned three-point process and gather curriculum materials and assessment data that align with the audit’s focus. This level of thorough examination ensures a useful audit that will be instrumental in enhancing the overall effectiveness and quality of the program.
“If the ultimate goal is better alignment to your school’s mission, then understanding the reality of the current program is essential to leading change.”
Ensure Alignment with Your Mission
Mission alignment is crucial for independent schools to ensure they deliver on their promises to students and parents. What you say you do should align with what’s actually happening in the classroom.
Audits are designed to document the curriculum to determine whether it’s in service of your mission, and to help pinpoint problems or gaps which may include untaught content, unconscious bias, misaligned sequences, or systemic omissions. Once these challenges are identified, possible solutions can be explored in the curriculum review or revision process.
The Power of Data to Inform Your Analysis
With the increasing emphasis on the importance of data fluency for academic leaders, you are charged with carefully tracking and monitoring the data available to you through myriad sources. Just collecting data is easier now than it’s ever been – electronically available syllabi, reading lists, and course descriptions give insight into the intent of the curriculum. Now that most schools leverage learning management systems, auditors can also look closely at actual class assignments.
The Role of Assessment Data
At some point though, the auditors need to examine the outcome of all that intent. Outcomes can best be examined via assessment data, and it’s important that the audit designers set out a process to identify how the assessment data you include in your audit align with the aspirations of the curriculum.
Assessment data will also need to be organized in such a way that the thread of the audit is visible. Large data sets, such as a school’s SelfWise inventories, might need to be broken into subsets for an audit, perhaps by grade level.
Making Thoughtful Decisions About Data
As an academic leader, you want to consider a key question: Which data set(s) will allow auditors to consider alignment with the school’s mission? With robust data sets available, auditors can look to multiple sources to find meaningful intersections.
For example, if intent is represented by a syllabus calling for students to explore major eras in American poetry and assigned texts and activities, do the assessment data include successful identifications of poetry forms? Or should the audit include a study of the poems subsequently written by students? Another option might be to extract library data to show how often students engage in independent reading of poetry following a unit.
Analyzing the Data
Only after the data are gathered and organized can academic leaders move to the analysis phase of curriculum review. Remember: the audit provides the objective data you need to determine how well your curriculum is aligned with your institutional goals and where your attention is needed. So, to start, look back at your original reasons for initiating the audit and see what the results indicate.
You may discover the assessment data collected are concerning because they suggest differing curriculum priorities among faculty. At the same time, you may decide an area needs an extensive overhaul as suspicion of staleness is now confirmed. A thorough curriculum audit can help point you in the right direction.
Taking a data-informed approach ensures any decisions you make are based on reliable evidence and not on intuition or anecdotal reports.
A Significant Lift That’s Worth the Effort
Undeniably, conducting a curriculum audit is a significant lift. It requires time and resources, and it requires you to ask important questions: Will there be a stipend or release time offered to auditors? Do outsiders play a role, and do they need to be identified and compensated? There must be a commitment on the part of leadership to receive the results in a thoughtful way. However, the benefits an audit yields can be substantial. From improving curriculum quality to fostering a culture of continual improvement, a curriculum audit can transform an independent school’s educational program.
A curriculum audit can be a critical first step to a change or revision. And, it might affirm that the school’s processes for vetting and implementing curriculum are sound. In either case, the audit provides the information necessary to ensure your school delivers the most mission-aligned education possible to your students.
Hear more from Sarah Hanawald as a keynote speaker at our ERB Connections Regional Conferences Series, where she will speak on topics including conducting a curriculum audit. Conferences are open to educators from both ERB member and non-member schools and will be held in Atlanta and Philadelphia in Spring 2024.
About the Author
Sarah Hanawald is the Senior Director for the Association for Academic Leaders, a professional association supporting educators who hold academic leadership roles in developing the competencies that empower them to further their schools’ mission-aligned growth. Hanawald spent over 35 years leading education innovation in curriculum and pedagogy in independent schools. During that time, she worked as a classroom teacher and advisor, a technology director, and an academic dean at three independent schools in North Carolina. Sarah also worked as a consultant to schools seeking a strategic partner in making sense of the intersection of technology, curriculum, and pedagogy.