The Powerful Impact of Curriculum Gaps

Steven WeberBlog, Connect Better, Lead Better, Lesson Plan Better


  • Traditional curriculum design involves a focus on key skills, conceptual understanding, and assessment strategies.
  • Identifying curriculum gaps is crucial for student success and requires collaborative efforts.
  • Strategies like SWOT analysis, evidence-based evaluations, and identifying common misunderstandings help bridge these gaps.

Traditional curriculum design teams focus on key skills, conceptual understanding, essential questions, formative assessment, resources/materials, and instructional strategies.  Most school districts have a common curriculum.  The curriculum may be purchased, designed by curriculum teams, written by a curriculum coordinator, or designed by teachers at the building level.  According to Linda Darling-Hammond (2010-2011), “A quality curriculum alters a student’s academic trajectory; it is a more powerful determinant of eventual achievement than their academic readiness when they enter school” (p. 23).

The problem many school teams are trying to solve is identifying what every student should know and be able to do by the end of a grade level or course.  Curriculum design teams write the curriculum, curate resources, and design assessments.  A school district can spend thousands of dollars on curriculum design and never identify a larger issue known as curriculum gaps.

Identifying Curriculum Gaps

Jacobs (1997) wrote, “If there are gaps among teachers within buildings, there are virtual Grand Canyons among buildings in a district.” These gaps have a detrimental effect on student understanding.  Here are some strategies for identifying curriculum gaps. 

When school teams identify gaps, they will be able to change direction. Students don’t need us to continue driving down the same path when gaps may be interfering with learning. Click To Tweet

Questions For Curriculum Design Teams To Consider

  1. Does our school/system have a written curriculum?
  2. What are common student misunderstandings? (by unit)
  3. What are the key skills that are addressed in the grade levels/courses prior to our grade level/course?
  4. Are teachers implementing the school/system curriculum (loosely, frequently, or consistently)?
  5. What does common formative assessment data indicate about the written and taught curricula?
  6. How often do teachers have scheduled time to meet to discuss the written, taught, and assessed curricula?
  7. Is the written curriculum having the intended impact on student growth and student

Curriculum Alignment

Educators often talk about the need for curriculum alignment, but time is rarely scheduled for teachers to collaborate across schools and within a school.  The most common meeting is between teachers who teach the same grade level/course.  Curriculum alignment requires a focus on what is taught and the skills students are able to transfer from one course to the next.  

In the absence of vertical conversations, curriculum gaps will continue to impact student understanding.  Imagine driving down the interstate and avoiding a pothole that could cause your vehicle to steer off course, collide with another vehicle, or damage the tire.  Hitting a pothole while driving 75 mph is akin to a student hitting a curriculum gap in the eighth grade.  When a student steers off course, due to curriculum gaps, it can lead to a lack of skills, confidence issues, lack of preparedness for high school courses, and could potentially lead to a student dropping out of high school. 

While the first scenario would cause a driver to call the Department of Transportation, the second scenario should be more alarming.  Curriculum alignment is “an ongoing process that asks teachers and administrators to think, act, and meet differently to improve their students’ learning” (Hale, 2008).

5 Strategies For Identifying Gaps

1. Form a District Committee

A school district could identify teachers from each grade level to meet on a regular basis to identify gaps.  It is important for the district team to have representatives from each grade level and to carefully reflect on the written, taught, and assessed curricula.

2. Conduct a SWOT Analysis

A SWOT Analysis allows teams to identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of the curriculum.  Traditional teacher teams spend a majority of their time writing curriculum and they do not pause to ask if the curriculum is supporting teaching and learning.  A SWOT Analysis will identify gaps and help teachers reflect on areas they need to address.

3. Ask – “What’s Missing?”

While this strategy is not as effective as a SWOT Analysis, it is a simple strategy that can impact curriculum design.  At the end of each unit, teachers typically discuss what they covered.  Take time to ask, “What’s Missing?” 

Did you have enough time to support student understanding?  Did students in 3rd period struggle with the key skills?  Were you out sick for three days and felt rushed to cover the unit when you returned?  Does the unit need a different anchor text or more hands-on learning?  Do you need to frontload the vocabulary the next time you teach this unit?  

4. Show Me – Where’s The Evidence?

Teachers can take writing samples from across the same grade level.  Next, teachers place the writing samples on a wall and identify each student’s work as Level 1-4.  The professional conversation helps teachers identify how many students met or exceeded the goal(s) for the unit.  Evidence should be used to identify curriculum gaps.  In the absence of persuasive evidence, teacher teams should revisit the curriculum and instruction.  “The student should be considered innocent of understanding until proven guilty by a preponderance of the evidence” (Wiggins, 1997).

5. Identify Common Student Misunderstandings

One of the least time intensive strategies for identifying curriculum gaps is a conversation between teachers at the same grade level, as well as vertical conversations.  This can take place before or after a unit is taught.  It is easier to focus on one unit at a time.  Teachers should document the conversations in order to support future curriculum planning and instruction.  Students enter each grade level with different understandings and readiness levels.  Misunderstandings can be caused by prior experiences, untaught skills from the previous year, or the inability to transfer skills into a new situation. 

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Mind the Gap

A common myth is that grade level teams that meet on a weekly basis can support student understanding by co-planning and writing curriculum for the next unit.  Schools should provide time for common planning.  The problem is when school teams focus all of their time on a written curriculum and fail to discuss potential gaps.  No curriculum is perfect and students enter each classroom with multiple readiness levels. 

In order to support student understanding, teacher teams must constantly reflect on gaps that impact teaching and learning.  A gap should not be viewed as a deficiency in teaching or a poor lesson.  Gaps can be influenced by the amount of time remaining in the unit, the skills taught in a previous grade level, lack of scaffolding, or poor instructional materials. 

When school teams identify gaps, they will be able to change direction.  Students don’t need us to continue driving down the same path when gaps may be interfering with learning.  Schedule time for your school or district team to identify gaps and identify areas that should be addressed.


Darling-Hammond, L. (2010-2011). Soaring systems. American Educator, 34(4). 20-23.

Hale, J.A. (2008). A guide to curriculum mapping: Planning, implementing, and sustaining the process. Corwin Press.

Jacobs, H.H. (1997). Mapping the big picture: Integrating curriculum and assessment K-12. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Wiggins, G. (1997). Understanding by Design. Retrieved from

About Steven Weber

Dr. Steven Weber is a curriculum leader. He has served on multiple state and national boards. His areas of research include curriculum design, multiplying leaders, professional learning, and school leadership.