You don’t have to be a teacher to notice it: the world is changing faster than ever.
It’s true in our personal lives, it’s true in technology, and it’s especially true in education. It can seem like there is a new wholesale revision every couple of years of what were once seemingly core and immutable concepts passed down from generation to generation.
Math today isn’t recognizable to anyone who came of age in the 80s or 90s. Common Core shifted everyone’s textbooks and expectations. Standardized testing trickling out of No Child Left Behind mandates turned many schools into cram factories. And where once there were just science classes, today the impact of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is felt across all grade levels.
Many of the biggest and fastest changes in education were coming on even before the pandemic turned learning on its head.
These changes occur almost constantly and in every field of study. If you thought history is safe because it consists mainly of things that have already happened, think again. Not only is more history happening all the time, but new evidence, new interpretations, and new perspectives are emerging all the time.
Also, the field of teaching is constantly evolving. New research and a better understanding of psychology and human cognition leads to new developments in the most effective ways to engage with learners.
It’s a full-time job to keep up with new developments in education. And in many schools, that job has a title: curriculum and instructional specialist.
The curriculum specialist, also frequently called an instructional coordinator, is an expert in pedagogy and state-of-the-art instructional and educational material. They may have a particular specialty, whether STEM or special education, or may instead focus on epistemology and classroom instructional methods and material that span all subjects.
All that knowledge and expertise isn’t something they keep to themselves. Instead, they are a valued resource, either working for individual schools or serving entire districts.
Curriculum Specialist Job Description: What Role Does the Curriculum Specialist Plays in Modern Schools?
The curriculum specialist job is all about two things:
That makes it a critical leadership role in the modern school. Like other educational administration roles, that means curriculum specialists need a graduate-level education not just in pedagogical methods and content, but also in on-the-ground leadership skills.
When Curriculum and Instructional Leadership Became a Full-time Profession
The systematic design of curriculum and the effort to tie that material to scientific methods of instruction stretches back to World War II. The American military was faced with an influx of draftees from across the board of educational attainment. As technology developments came in fast and furious with conflict-fueled research, highly technical concepts and advanced systems needed to be introduced to those draftees quickly and clearly.
Unfortunately, the military didn’t have anywhere near the number of professional trainers needed to deal with the mass of recruits. New trainers would have to be trained as well.
So psychologists were brought in to break down the learning process, analyze tasks that needed to be taught, and to develop efficient ways of doing that… and to train the trainers to use their system.
In time, the field of training itself came to be viewed as a system, one in which the design and structure were important and worthy of professional focus. The movement from ad hoc interpretation by individual instructors to a systematic process designed and monitored by experts is the work of instructional coordinators.
This can clearly overlap with other kinds of specialty instructional coaching roles, and you’ll find that different schools and states have different interpretations of what a curriculum specialist does.
Most states require licensing for curriculum specialist jobs, but they may have very different titles, requirements, and permitted activities for those licenses. Some of the license titles you can find in the wild for curriculum specialist positions include:
In general, whatever the title, instructional coordinators are a vital addition to school systems. They help schools keep up with the latest developments in their fields, as well as adjusting to specific challenges and needs in their own student populations.
What Does a Curriculum Specialist Do?
The daily tasks of instructional coordinators revolve around learning, instructing, and evaluating. But you can find a wide range of responsibilities depending on how the role is envisioned by other educational leaders, such as principals and superintendents. The curriculum specialist may report to one or the other of these, or, in large districts, even to assistant principals or superintendents.
In very large school systems, instructional coordinating and curriculum development may be its own department. In those cases, a whole staff of instructional coordinators may work together, specializing in various parts of the job.
In other cases, a school may have only a single curriculum specialist, with broad expectations for the type of consultation and assistance they can provide.
In some districts, curriculum specialists can have a moderate supervisory role in addition to being trusted advisors. They may observe and rate teachers or evaluate outcomes according to testing and other data.
The specific tasks that most often come with the job include:
Of course, like many of these roles, smart principals will often adjust the details to match not only the needs of the school, but the specific talents of the coordinator.
Instructional Administrators Need a Skillset That Can Train the Trainers
It takes a special skillset to be a great curriculum specialist. In addition to understanding developmental psychology and the learning process for students, they also have to be able to teach teachers.
As a field, instructional coordination is an outgrowth of behavioral psychology and systems engineering.
That’s on top of holding a systematic command of subjects and the latest theories and practices in pedagogy itself.
To perform effectively, curriculum specialists need to build on their base of core teaching skills and knowledge and mix in:
Behavioral and social psychology
While the average teacher can get away with a rudimentary command of development and behavioral psychology, curriculum specialists need to dive deeper. They need to be able to do more than just implement new teaching techniques; they need a depth of understanding to allow them to unpack and understand the why and how of those techniques, as well as the ability to modify or develop their own systems.
Written and verbal communications skills
The fundamentals of teaching will always be rooted in the ability to communicate clearly. This goes double for curriculum specialists, who have a broader audience and more complex ideas to get across. So excellence in written and verbal communication is necessary.
Creative thinking and problem-solving
As a resource for educators who run into tough problems in the classroom, curriculum specialists need to be able to apply their knowledge in innovative ways to deal with unique problems that land on their desk.
Research and analytical skills
Staying up-to-date with the most current development is a part of the job. Similarly, many instructional coordinating jobs are expected to analyze and evaluate the performance of teachers in their system. They make recommendations based on their analysis, so it’s not something teachers or principals take lightly.
Planning and project management
Building a new curriculum, or rolling out new texts and materials, is a complex process. Curriculum specialists develop standard project management skills to ensure these processes happen smoothly and on the right timeline.
Meeting the State Requirements To Become a Curriculum Specialist
Curriculum specialists may be on the lower rungs of educational administration positions, but they are a leadership role. That generally means a separate kind of educator license is required over and above a basic teaching license. Qualifying for the position in most states requires:
In some cases, you’ll need a different license or endorsement depending on whether you are engaged in instructional coordination work at the level of an individual school or district-wide. Some states allow single-school instructional coordination to happen under a basic teaching license, sometimes with a subject area endorsement, while requiring a step up to a full-blown administrative or supervisory license for district-level activities.
The test for the job may just be an advanced subject-matter mastery test, the same as you might earn for an additional teaching license endorsement. And like those endorsement tests, many states rely on the Educational Testing Service (ETS) series of Praxis exams. Where states use their own exams, they are typically pretty similar to a corresponding Praxis test in any event. That means:
Particularly when you get to the district-level instructional coordinating license, though, you may end up at a whole new level of testing. Some states require passing leadership-oriented exams, such as one from the ETS School Leaders Licensure Assessment series, or the Praxis Educational Leadership: Administration and Supervision.
The Path to Instructional Coordinating Jobs Runs Through Master’s-level Studies
There are many master’s-level programs that are specifically designed for curriculum specialists. They include degrees like a Master of Science in Learning Experience Design, a Master of Science in Curriculum and Instruction, or a Master of Education in Instructional Coordinator and Teacher Leadership.
But there are other degrees that may be appropriate, particularly considering the leadership skills required for the job. The basic Master of Education in Educational Administration can be built around a set of electives that improve your pedagogical and curriculum design skills, while still including core leadership elements.
That will include coursework in important subjects that most teachers don’t need to consider, including:
You can also frequently find degrees like a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership and Instructional Design, or a Master of Education in Instructional Leadership that put those skillsets together from the outset.
In states that require specific EPP coursework for licensing, your master’s program also needs to include classes that comply with those requirements. You may also be able to pursue a post-graduate certificate that will fill in the blanks.
Curriculum Specialist Salary – How Much Do Curriculum Specialists Make?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) happens to track curriculum specialist salaries, with a curriculum coordinator category separate from teachers and other educational administrators. As of 2021, the Bureau found that just over 200,000 were employed across the United States.
Job growth is projected to be 7 percent, or within the normal range, through 2031.
According to BLS data from 2021, the median salary for curriculum specialists was $63,740.
But the most experienced and most highly trained coordinators, working in larger systems and with more responsibilities, can find their salaries escalating rapidly.
The top ten percent in the field make more than $101,090 per year… more than the average principal.
Like other roles in educational administration, instructional coordinating jobs take much that you love about teaching and amp it up to the next level. If you enjoy diving down into the details of how kids learn and the latest research results on teaching techniques, this is a job that lets you absorb that knowledge to your heart’s content. If understanding the newest ideas and interpretations in your subject area is your true love, this role gives you the time and space to absorb them.
And most importantly, if you started teaching to make a difference, becoming a curriculum specialist turns up the dial. Rather than changing how a single classroom full of kids explores the subject you love, you can suddenly reach a whole school full. While it’s not a job that fosters the same kind of direct connection as a classroom teacher, it’s one that has a much greater impact in your community and on the future.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Instructional Coordinators reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2023.