Colorado Teachers Leading New Standards Adoption

Nine teachers work around a table on model unit.

Pre-service elementary teachers enrolled in the School of Education at the University of Colorado, Boulder work on a third grade social studies unit entitled “State your Claim.” From left to right: Jody Hunt, Lyubov Panchenko, Lauren Finn, Michael Lund, Whitney Johansson, Clare Eisinger, Ellie Roberts, Grace Im, and Katie Molnar. Photo credit: Jenny Arzberger, Colorado Department of Higher Education

Teachers create tools to help peers develop rigorous lessons focused on college- and career-readiness.

Pam Gibble is a veteran teacher with 25 years of classroom experience. She teaches health and physical education at Mountain Range High School in Colorado’s Adams 12 school district—a large suburban district outside of Denver—and serves as the district’s health education coordinator. Over the past two years, Gibble also was among a group of teachers that worked together to prepare curriculum materials that will help their colleagues across the state to smoothly navigate the transition to Colorado’s new standards for health education.

In the process, Gibble developed a deeper understanding of the new standards and how to teach in a more engaging way, one that pushes her students’ thinking. “This project has gotten me so much more familiar with the standards and understanding what needs to be taught,” she said. “It helped me focus on [the question] ‘Are my students actually learning the standards?’… and has taken me away from just teaching the factual to the conceptual.”

Karl Remsen, a high school mathematics teacher in Lake County—a tiny, rural district in the mountains south of Vail—worked with other teachers on sample curriculum for first-year algebra. In framing educators’ thinking about these new standards, Remsen asked, “What are the key questions teachers should ask of their students? [And] how could you organize a year with the standards so you [are] really focusing on the big ideas you want your students to walk away with?”

Gibble and Remsen were among about 500 teachers from 61 school districts who, in fall 2012, worked on the District Sample Curriculum Project, which produced 670 curriculum samples based on the Colorado Academic Standards in 10 subjects. The materials are not meant to impose a state curriculum on Colorado’s 178 school districts. Instead, they offer a starting point for teachers to design their own curricula.

The samples provide overviews of possible curriculum units, suggest how the standards might be sequenced, and offer a foundation teachers and districts could use to design their own units and lessons. The samples also clarify the concepts and skills students are supposed to learn, provide ways to assess their progress, and give teachers examples of how to emphasize 21st century skills—such as critical thinking, collaboration, self-direction, and invention—that teachers should be stressing.  

Implementing the new standards is one of the priorities outlined in Colorado’s Race to the Top plan. Although standards outline what students should know and be able to do, a curriculum is a roadmap for helping students to meet those expectations.  The curriculum project is designed to engage teachers in helping their peers across the state create those roadmaps. “We felt strongly that educators needed to be the authors of any curriculum samples,” explained Brian Sevier, the standards project director with the Colorado Department of Education.

According to their responses to a 2013 follow up survey, teachers who participated said that they valued being treated as professionals.  Teachers also said they joined the effort because they’re committed to supporting their fellow teachers in the transition to the new standards.

Melissa Colsman, executive director of the Colorado Department of Education’s Teaching and Learning Unit, said, “The process is resulting not only in high-quality instructional resources for Colorado educators, but it is also building the capacity across districts to design standards-based curricula.” 

Teachers Driving Shift to New Standards

The genesis of the curriculum-development project was a March 2012 gathering of teachers organized by the State to discuss what it would take to implement the new standards. “One hundred percent of the participants identified a sample curriculum as the number-one need,” Sevier said. A group representing superintendents and other district officials also asked for the State’s help. In response, Sevier and his team created a process that put teachers in charge of translating the standards into the overviews, templates and curricula for each grade and subject. “The goal is for the teachers to be able to see what the unit is trying to do so they can easily adapt it for their needs,” he said.

Daniel Newmyer, a high school mathematics and science teacher in the rural Center Consolidated School District, 250 miles south of Denver, worked with two other teachers to develop four earth science units, including his personal favorite, “Earth’s Place in the Universe.” Because he worked on the units himself, Newmyer is personally invested in what he is teaching. “This IS my curriculum for my earth science class,” he said. “This gives me a huge sense of ownership.”

Ongoing Teacher Collaboration

Sidebar explaining that "Colorado’s Academic Standards (CAS) In 2009, Colorado adopted new academic content standards in 10 subject areas, including the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts.  What’s Different? The new standards focus on: •	The skills and knowledge students need to be college- and career-ready, such as information literacy, collaboration, critical thinking, self-direction and invention skills. •	Deeper student understanding and application of content. •	Interdisciplinary relationships between content areas and across grade levels that make learning more relevant and engaging."

Newmyer, whose school only has 230 students, said the project also led to the creation of a regional network of teachers, who collaborate with one another. “If you’re in a small school district, you don’t have a group of teachers you can work with,” he said. “There is no science department. This project gave me an opportunity to get connected with other science teachers specifically on my topic.”

He now works with colleagues from 14 nearby school districts on common assessments and how to teach specific science skills. Similar networks have been established across the State.

Focus on Deeper, More Relevant Learning

Creating curricula and assessments that promote deeper learning has been a key focus of the project. “The biggest thing that’s changed for me is the idea of how do we get students to think deeply? This has helped me understand how to help my students see the bigger picture and how it fits into everything else,” said Remsen.

One example of this is a fourth-grade social studies unit on “boom and bust” economic cycles developed by teachers who were part of the project. Students explore this topic by connecting the past with current issues through a series of inquiry-based questions, such as:

  • How do the decisions we make and the values we hold affect people around us and the state in which we live?
  • Why are some demands “passing fads,” while others remain constant?

Teachers were encouraged to develop units that are relevant to the students they teach. For example, teachers from Plainview, a rural district in eastern Colorado, developed a first-grade literacy unit focused on farming as a way to explore how seasonal changes impact the physical environment and activities in community life.  “The unit itself absolutely reflects the life of kids who live on or near farms,” Sevier said.

A Resource for Districts to Use as They See Fit

Unit overviews are being used as curriculum maps by educators around the State and more than 40 districts have adopted them as their curriculum.  The State is now working with educators to build out full curriculum units based on the overviews.

“We came up with a model where we go out to districts, [the] district pulls together a team, they choose a content area, and they decide which units to create,” explains Brian Sevier. Together they produce full curriculum units, which author-teams are using in their classrooms. 

Over 100 units representing all grades and content areas are now available through the State’s Standards and Instruction website. The State collaborated with educators on evaluating the effectiveness of the units. Sevier’s team will be conducting webinars throughout April focused on the creation of and uses for the units in each content area. Anyone can participate and details will be listed on the Standards website.

All of the initiative’s work will be published online so teachers will continue to benefit long after federal Race to the Top support finishes. “We want teachers to understand the process we went through so they can easily adapt these tools for their needs. It’s all about capacity-building,” says Sevier.

Sevier also has been building partnerships with higher education institutions to ensure that new teachers have a deep understanding of the new standards and instructional strategies. “We really wanted to reach out to new teachers because of the fundamental changes to the standards so that they’ll be a part of the conversation about what it means to build curriculum around college- and career-ready standards,” he said.

“New teachers need to feel confident about teaching to the expectations of these 21st century standards,” he said.


  • Listen to feedback from teachers across the state.  Taking the time to hear directly from educators about what they needed to successfully implement the new standards was a key element leading to the success of the initiative.
  • Go out into the field. Educators work hard on serving their students’ needs, leaving little time to review curricula and provide feedback. Getting that feedback requires going out to schools and districts.
  • Let teachers lead the way. “Everything we’ve done has been in response to the field, and they’ve stepped up to the plate every time we’ve asked.” (Brian Sevier)

Tools and Resources