Opportunities Through Future-Focused Curriculum
March 31, 2023
Appears in April 2023: School Administrator.
AASA Learning 2025 Lighthouse Demonstration System: Coxsackie-Athens Central School District
There’s more to preparing students for an unknowable future than simply offering updated tech skills or staging group practice for solving problems.
What does it mean to be “life-ready” in the current world? What do students need to know and demonstrate to find employment, to succeed at college or to navigate the basic tasks of daily life?
Those were the fundamental questions that motivated New York’s Coxsackie-Athens Central School District to explore what students should obtain from their school experience in terms of both content and skill sets. Then the district redefined how to measure the personal growth in a meaningful way.
“We’re a small, rural district,” says Randall W. Squier, who leads about 1,180 students in a district located 20 miles outside Albany, the state capital. “How do we open up the world to our students so they see the opportunities waiting for them? It’s the whole idea of readiness. How do we get them off that testing hamster wheel?”
Starting back in the 2016-17 school year, Squier says the overriding question for educators in Coxsackie-Athens was “is there a better way for kids to showcase themselves for postsecondary life?”
With the support of the board of education and a team of teacher leaders intent on shifting the paradigm of how students can be educated, the district developed a far-reaching curriculum and distinctive benchmarks that looked at the attributes and skill sets graduates would need.
The district also sought input from colleges that were admitting Coxsackie-Athens students, the chamber of commerce and local employers to gauge what the various parties expected to see in high school graduates.
Starting from what Squier calls “anchor strategies” that underscore how his schools operate, the district came up with self-directed benchmarks for students. These are reflected in specific digital badges that attest to their mastery of particular skills and content.
For an elementary school lesson in Colonial American history, students would choose three colonies from different geographic sectors and write a paper about an aspect of colonial life — economic, social, political or cultural. Or students could earn a Musical Math Master badge by devising five musical equations that equal 10 beats.
“There’s real-time feedback,” Squier says, with students and their parents able to see individualized dashboards reflecting student accomplishments. It helped that teachers had pursued self-directed professional development and saw the benefits of this kind of assessment. Teachers could take on specific micro-credential challenges and earn digital badges in areas such as anti-bias instruction or learn about digital citizenship and positive online behavior from a Google unit.
The goal is attaining a mastery badge that can be redeemed for release or comp time, says Squier, now completing his 12th year as superintendent.
Subject content is given context in real-world applications and skills students demonstrate.
“It’s similar to a portfolio,” says Kerry Houlihan, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Coxsackie-Athens schools. “These are ways for students to showcase their mastery of certain content areas. It’s critical thinking, expanding on social skills and how to problem solve,” she says. It’s showing “what they’ve learned in a productive fashion.”
Houlihan adds: “This gives us a broader picture of who this kid is. Grades are just one avenue. No one hired by Regeneron (Pharmaceuticals) or GE is hired because of a 95 on the biology Regents,” referring to the standardized tests high school students in New York must pass to earn a high school diploma. What matters more to employers, she suggests, are students’ ability not only to collaborate and use critical thinking but to be “self-directed and figure how to get past barriers.”
Although the school district doesn’t have statistics on how many of its eligible students voted in the last state and federal election, the superintendent says 100 percent of the seniors registered to vote.
Drawing upon the social and emotional skills that Coxsackie-Athens also inculcates, students learn how to improve their performance.
It’s moving beyond effort to perseverance, Houlihan says. “It’s not just trying your hardest. It’s about how do you put your feedback into play, how do you take these lessons and implement them to get better? In kindergarten through 2nd grade, kids will try something over and over.”
Students are encouraged to take a close look at what didn’t work or even what failed and figure out “what did (they) learn from it not working out, “ Houlihan says.
As Squier adds, “Kids will have to learn how to advance. It’s about getting better or falling behind.”
With a focus on the whole learner, students are expected to demonstrate competency in areas such as citizenship — in the form of community service for all students and voter registration for high school seniors — understanding health and wellness, leadership in class activities and extracurriculars, financial literacy (how to write personal checks, sign a lease and manage credit cards). There’s even an “adulting day,” featuring the practical skills involved in cooking, changing a tire or handling a health emergency.
“Life is going to be coming at them,” Houlihan says. “We want them well-prepared for life.”
MERRI ROSENBERG is a freelance education writer in Ardsley, N.Y.