The urgency I feel around instruction – and why I look to curriculum

In recent years, as I have sought to deeply understand our new standards and put them into practice, I’ve had my eyes opened widely to some serious issues and misunderstandings with the reading instruction in our schools – both in the districts where I served as an educator and in the 15+ districts where I worked as an instructional support provider during my time at D2D, the nonprofit that became Instruction Partners.

My most striking insights came from spending time in classrooms. I used the Instructional Practice Guide (IPG), a superb resource from Achieve the Core that lets you gauge your instructional alignment to the new standards. I’d walk into a classroom and use the tool to compare the instruction I was seeing to the standards targeted by the teacher. In most classrooms, my heart would sink, because the text being taught was grade levels below the students. Or the instruction was geared to an earlier grade’s standard.

As an administrator, it’s easy to become defensive the first time you see this issue. ‘What do you mean my teachers aren’t teaching their grade’s standards?” But after seeing the same thing in many classrooms, that initial defensive reaction succumbs to a harsh reality: teachers haven’t been given the right tools and training to help them raise their day-to-day instruction to the level of our new standards.

Using the IPG in classrooms is a deeply impactful, tangible professional learning experience for school and district leaders. It illuminates the instructional realities so clearly. For me, it generated insights that pushed me to deepen my understanding of literacy and math practice. I started digging deeper into the research.

Recht and Leslie’s ‘baseball study’ was a huge eye-opener, helping me realize that background knowledge is absolutely critical to reading comprehension, then Why Knowledge Matters by E.D. Hirsch cemented that truth as gospel. More learning came from David Liben’s Why a Structured Phonics Program is Effective, as well as a slew of research on the shortcomings of leveled reading.  

In 2017, I took my current position as the Chief Academic Officer in the Jackson-Madison County School System, the district I attended from kindergarten through 12th grade. When I began, I made sure that my entire team did classroom walkthroughs with the IPG in hand, after getting familiar with the research. As I had seen in other districts, most of the instruction we observed was simply not aligned. It left our team downright anxious about implementing a solution: within days of those walkthroughs, and sometimes within hours, the principals and district leaders asked for help in closing our gaps. Our path to new curriculum immediately followed.

I’ve seen it time and again: once you know better, you feel an urgency to do better.

It’s odd to think that a 5th grade math class isn’t teaching 5th grade math, or that a 7th grade English/Language Arts lesson more closely aligns with 5th grade English/Language Arts, but a growing body of research – and my experience across 20 districts – suggest that this is a distinct possibility in a school near you. That likelihood is dramatically higher if your district isn’t implementing aligned curricula at all grade levels. I believe many district leaders are making an important mistaken assumption: that teachers have what they need to align their instruction to the standards.

This mistaken assumption is unfair to teachers. First of all, the newfound focus, coherence, and rigor of the standards shouldn’t rest totally on the shoulders of our teachers. It’s a big lift, and teachers deserve tools and support. School and district leaders bear the responsibility of ensuring the presence of strong curriculum. Secondly, we’re measuring teachers against these new expectations, but too often, we aren’t giving them the tools to get there. It’s not fair to them or their students.

Curriculum is the solution I look to, because it’s the best way to align school and district teams around instructional goals quickly. In my district, we talk a lot about ensuring we have the right “what” and an effective “how,” meaning that we need a strong curriculum and we must teach it effectively. One without the other won’t get you very far. But one of the easiest and most cost-effective boxes a district leader can check is that of ensuring high-quality materials are in every classroom in the district.

That solves the issue of “what” is being taught. Curriculum must then be paired with tailored PD focused on  HOW it is intended to be used. That said, really great curriculum itself is often educative, and embeds professional learning within the materials, so teachers are having new ‘aha’ moments as they teach. Instructional routines and protocols for each lesson and activity offer invaluable cues for important practices, such as fostering rich discourse around texts in ELA, conducting math talks, etc. Lesson planning becomes more about internalizing the content and activities outlined in the curriculum and how to best teach those to the students in a specific class and less about creation of materials. Teachers shouldn’t be expected to write the music, conduct the symphony, and play the instruments all at the same time.

Loads of research says that curriculum is a powerful agent to improve outcomes. I have lived that research in Jackson-Madison County Schools: last year was our first year implementing new curriculum in K–12 ELA and math, and we were one of the fastest-improving districts on the TVAAS index, Tennessee’s value-added assessment system. We credit our curriculum work as playing a significant role in those gains.

I don’t see enough districts appreciating the potential of curriculum. Perhaps that’s because a few years ago, there weren’t many curricula aligned to the new standards. Fortunately, that has changed – education leaders describe a “curriculum renaissance.” I’ve seen that firsthand: all four curricula that we adopted in Jackson-Madison County became available in the last few years. If you haven’t looked at curriculum lately, I’m betting that what you find will surprise you.

Right now, I particularly sense growing anxiety about reading instruction. Between Emily Hanford’s Hard Words, Sue Pimentel’s excellent spotlight on instructional issues, and the rest of the news coverage, we’re having a national “Uh Oh” moment of reckoning about a major problem: our teacher preparation programs haven’t given educators a baseline knowledge of research on how kids learn to read. Essential practices are missing from classrooms, and misunderstandings abound.

With that growing awareness and anxiety, it’s an opportune moment to build a national Professional Learning Network (PLN) of curriculum & instruction leaders addressing these issues. Let’s connect around curriculum – the best toolkit we have for improved instruction in our classrooms – and around the professional learning that is needed to shift practices. In Tennessee, where the TN Lift network (organized by TN Score) has provided an invaluable PLN for my work. I am excited by the potential of national collaboration.

If you are feeling urgency to improve your literacy and math work – I hope you’ll join a community of like-minded educators in the Curriculum Matters PLN. Whether you join because you are trying to understand the critical research… or because you are grappling with understanding the new curriculum options… or because you’re implementing a new high-quality curriculum, and want a PLN to aid your success… you’ll find a growing community working through the same problems of practice.

As school and district leaders, we face a lot of complex issues. But we shouldn’t overthink this one. Identifying and procuring aligned curricula is a fairly simple process, if you know of review sites like EdReports.

Implementing effectively? That’s a whole separate issue. People like the notion of having something “better” but they generally don’t like the word “different.” Let’s tackle these change management challenges together as a community of practitioners.

Most of all, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this work. The outcomes we’re seeing with excellent curriculum in my district, and the outcomes I hear from my peers in other districts, deserve a national conversation.

In Jackson-Madison County, we are in the early stages of this process and are encouraged by the growth we see in students every day. Jump in with us and let’s learn together.

Curriculum Notes

If you’d like to speak with me about the specific curricula used in my district, they are: