The Future of Curriculum: An interview with Dr. Maria Vazquez

Left to right: LearnZillion CEO and Co-Founder Eric Westendorf; Chief Academic Officer for Orange County Public Schools Dr. Maria Vazquez

This is the latest installment in a series of interviews we’re calling The Future of Curriculum. LearnZillion CEO Eric Westendorf is sitting down with education thought leaders from across the country to discuss how technology will continue to shape education.

In this episode, he chats with Dr. Maria Vazquez, Chief Academic Officer for Orange County Public Schools in Florida. She has an extensive background in curriculum and instruction, and has served as a teacher, principal, and administrator in the Orange County Public School system.

Dr. Vazquez has been a part of the Harvard Professional Learning Program, the Progress Energy Leadership Development Program, and the National Urban Special Education Leadership Initiative, and is the recipient of a grant from the Office of Special Education Programs. She received both a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Central Florida.

A selection of Dr. Vazquez's insights on where the future of curriculum will lead her district are excerpted below.

How does curriculum fit into instructional strategy?

Curriculum is the key to ensuring our students meet [the standards] with success. It provides consistency in the instruction. In Florida, we have the Florida Standards, which are a revision of the Common Core standards, and being as large [of a district] as we are, we need to ensure that there is consistency in what is taught in every classroom. That provides equity for our students, who are coming to us with a wide range of experiences and varying levels of readiness.

We have just over 209,000 students. We are a very diverse community. We have students who speak over 200 languages. We educate students that are very affluent, and we also educate students that are homeless. Within that spectrum, we have children who are gifted, and those that are experiencing difficulties in learning.

So having a curriculum that is consistent and standards-based allows us to provide equity for all of our students. With the common understanding of what students need to learn at each grade level and in each content area, students could potentially encounter different expectations, depending on the individual teacher's preconceptions and degree of expertise.

Ensuring that our curriculum is at the cornerstone of what we do ensures that we are preparing our students to be successful and college and career ready when they leave our school system.

Curriculum needs to support everyone involved in the classroom

[Curriculum] also helps to ensure that our principals are able to provide the needed support to our teachers. We have a diverse workforce. And as many [districts] across the country are experiencing, a shortage in teachers. So we have individuals coming to us where teaching was not their first career, and as part of our support, having that common curriculum that is standards-based allows our principals and other school leaders to provide necessary guidance, support, and feedback to our teachers to ensure that our students are receiving standards-based instruction.

Curriculum should support greater teacher ownership

We’ve really taken on a different approach. We took on the challenge of revamping based on feedback we were receiving from our teachers, our principals, and our principal supervisors. And as I mentioned, we have a very diverse population of students, and with the new standards, we really needed to look at how could we best provide a roadmap and the resources for our teachers to be able to meet the needs of all the students they have in their classrooms.

This summer, we began writing curriculum resource materials, develop[ing] lesson plans in certain areas based on the resources that we had. We focused on the courses that had state assessments and on 3-12 ELA and mathematics, along with the daily lesson plans [and] a plethora of different resources. Some of them are digital. Some of them are teacher-created. Some of them are from the textbooks that have been adopted in our district. But they're all [now] in one location on our instructional management system.

A teacher can choose to use the curriculum resource materials exactly as they are, can pick and choose parts of them, or they can help to contribute additional resources as they find them. We have a team that vets [these] resources that teachers want to add to lesson plans.

Teachers are really excited about the idea that everything is there. It's a one stop shop. They're also very grateful for the number of resources that are [now] available to them. So if they have children that are functioning below grade level, if they have students that are higher achieving, if they have students where English is not their first language, everything is there for them to be able to deliver a standards-based lesson. They're not having to hunt around for different resources. It's all there in one place, and it's been vetted, so they know it's aligned to our standards.

As far as our students are concerned, one of the greatest benefits to us with the digital tools, is that no matter where you live, you have access to that curriculum, and it's really helping us bridge the technology gap with some of our families. Our children love the ability to use technology for learning and research. They've got one device that has everything that they need.

Professional development is key to curricular success

A key component of our rollout, both of the one-to-one devices and of the curriculum resource materials, has been professional development. If we just gave the devices to the teachers, you run the risk of having what I would call a digital worksheet. It just becomes another resource that may not be able to engage our students if not used appropriately.

So during the professional development with our one-to-one devices, teachers actually received the devices a year before the rollout, and that year was spent learning how to use the device, learning about the resources, and learning how to integrate technology into your curriculum and delivery.

We’ve seen examples of phenomenal lessons, where students are authentically engaged, and we’ve seen some lessons where we still need to work with the teacher on professional development, and that's where we have individuals at each school that have received training and continue to receive training on the technology, the resources, and how to use them in the delivery of instruction.

We feel so strongly about the role of professional development that we’ve given teachers paid days during the summer and during the school year where that's what they do, they plan.

Teachers can choose to come in on a Saturday. Teachers can choose to work after school, or in some cases, the principal might use a substitute and pull teachers during the day. But then they actually have a chance to look at the curriculum resource materials, look at data from the students that they are currently teaching, and customize the lessons with those resources, and they're not competing for time after school or at home at night.

What does the future of curriculum look like?

I believe personalized learning will be more personalized. That's an area that we would like to be further ahead in than we are currently. There are so many resources available, and I think that's one of the challenges we face and that other districts will face, being able to really select, review, and purchase the best-quality resources for your population. As we become more of a digital educational system, I believe that's going to be one of our biggest issues: how do we go about reviewing the different resources that are available to meet our needs?

Personalized learning is something that we really feel will be very beneficial in our community. We know that some of the children have gaps, and those gaps sometimes are a barrier, but with technology, time is blurred, and so you're not just learning during the school day. Children can have access to different programs and resources that help build on the skill sets that they may not have fully acquired, bridging that knowledge gap. So my hope is that we will be able to see a school system where our children are not held back by a grade level or by a school level. That you would have children in elementary school who really excel in math and science being able to take advantage of more accelerated coursework and more accelerated projects, and be able to engage more in community-based problem solving.

Another issue that I hope we will be able to do a better job with is access. We currently partner with some providers to give our families who may not be able to afford internet access with hot spots. We’ve worked with local providers to look at low-cost internet access. So I would hope that in five years, that will not be an issue, that regardless of where a child lives or where they are, they will be able to access technology and access will not be an issue, because currently it is.

I would like to see professional development expand. We’ve used some videoconferencing to help us coach beginning teachers, so these beginning teachers are able to see master teachers at work. The technology is not expensive. It allows us to help mentor some of our newer teachers, and to provide appropriate feedback and modeling, so our kids are getting the best education possible.

We would [also like to] have more partnerships with local businesses and entities to bring more of that authentic learning to our students. We currently have partnerships that allow our kids to have internships and work on different projects. But really being able to tap into authentic learning through problem-solving with some of our different entities, helping our students really have more career experiences, especially in the STEM field; I believe technology is going to help us do that.

The power of technology in education

I think back to when I was in school, and really, the limits in not only the resources, but in the opportunities. Everything was very rigid, and very time-oriented. When you look at when kids are able to start school, in our district as in many, there's a cut off. By September 1st, you have to be this old to start kindergarten.

Technology has totally revamped our way of living. When you think back even two years ago, how much technology has changed. Unfortunately, education seems to always lag when it comes to innovation.

The majority of our school system [is still] the traditional classroom. For the most part, education has remained pretty much the same, even though technology has been able to not only influence but change the way of work in so many other businesses and professions.

What I would hope is that in our district, five years from now, we could say that technology revamped how school is done in Orange County, because it really has such potential, especially when you're talking about these young individuals. Their capacity to learn [and] to problem solve, we tend to limit [it] because of resources, space, and time.

I just think we leave so much on the table because we see constraints, and that's a disservice to our students. I'm hoping we're able to change that.

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