Curriculum Is Misunderstood. Let’s Overcome That, in Service of Equity.

I have always been passionate about equity. And the longer I have been in K–12 education, the more I appreciate curriculum as a powerful equalizer, ensuring strong teaching and learning in every classroom.

This first became clear to me when I became a principal in 2005. Our school was highly impacted with a high-needs population. It was apparent to me that the experience and talents of individual teachers determined the experience of my students. So naturally, I wanted resources that could help my newer and my less strong teachers to catch up with the top teachers. Curriculum was the best arrow in my quiver, and I saw teachers elevate their instruction when they had the support of better materials.

When I became a district leader, the effect became even more pronounced. I served in a rural district (Rockingham County Schools), an urban district (Baltimore City), and a district with a mix of urban, suburban, and rural (Guilford County), and my insight was the same across systems: curriculum – paired with aligned professional development (a must!) – was the best lever I had for improving instruction.

I absolutely know the classroom teacher matters. I know the school leader matters. But the tools we give those teachers and leaders also truly matter. Anyone that wants to impact instruction at scale needs to know that curriculum MATTERS.

Curriculum is becoming even more important as the years pass, for it’s getting more difficult to rely on an experienced and trained teaching pool. In North Carolina, we have been struggling with dwindling applicant pools. Across the state, districts are hiring folks transitioning from other careers. For those non-traditional teachers, the resources we give them for year one in the classroom matter even more.

I’ve been fortunate to be in systems that supported curriculum-plus-PD as a catalyst and an equalizer. It has been my top priority in every district I have served. Honestly, it has been such valuable work that I struggle to understand why curriculum-centric ELA and math work isn’t the top priority in every district. It’s the hardest work to do, but also the most important.

Why doesn’t every district make this work top priority? I can only guess that misconceptions are obstacles, at least in some cases. So, let’s have straight talk about curriculum-related misconceptions.

Misconception 1: Curriculum is a script.

Some folks – including some strong teachers – will talk about curriculum being “a script” that they are expected to follow, with fear that they’ll lose their creative flair in the process.  

Central Office leaders may bear some responsibility for that perception. We sometimes create experiences for teachers that make them feel like we want them to be Fidelity Robots. We need to design fidelity checks that honor the professionalism of our teachers, and make clear what the instructional Must-Wins are, while also actively pointing out the places where teachers can bring their personalities into the lessons.

In the end, district leaders should give teachers materials that ensure standards- and research-aligned practices across classrooms and that provide structure and content as a springboard. Nationally, teachers spend 7 hours a week seeking and creating materials. This poor use of time is simply an injustice to teachers!

Then, teachers can bring personal flair to making the instructional experience soar for students. They bring personality, creativity, and imagination to lesson delivery. I really like this blog by teacher Morgan Stipe, addressing how teachers bring themselves to the use of strong curriculum.

Misconception 2: Curriculum is ‘just content.’

Funny enough, the second misconception is almost the opposite of the one above. It’s the misconception that curriculum is “just content” almost like it’s just a pile of texts and questions, with little thought to how those materials get delivered.

Good curriculum is designed for the instructional approaches we seek! If we long for more paired reading by students, it builds in more paired reading for students. When we want more student discourse and collaboration, we should seek a curriculum that incorporates materials, routines, and protocols that make it so, such as the Socratic circles that are prevalent in top ELA curricula.

With excellent curriculum, we don’t just prepare kids to be successful on assessments, but also in life: as communicators, synthesizers, critical consumers of content, and more. Demand curricula that are designed for these objectives. Ask to see where the materials tee these practices up for teachers.

Seek out curriculum that incorporates support for differentiation and for meeting the needs of all learners. Great curriculum empowers teachers with formative assessment resources that  help teachers understand where students are, leading teachers to target skill gaps. Materials can be tailored to each skill gap. That, too, goes well beyond ‘just content.’

Misconception 3: Most curriculum that schools can buy is decent.

You only need to spend 5 minutes on EdReports or the Louisiana Believes educator review websites to see that there’s still bad curriculum out there. A lot of it. And guess what? Those vendors are still selling those curricula to schools even after faring horribly in educator reviews.  

Because we don’t train teachers and building leaders on the  principles of instructional materials design, it’s too easy for principals and teacher leaders to get bamboozled by vendors. I have been in schools that selected curricula because of the “shiny things” that were built in and I’ve had to explain that the materials weren’t aligned to literacy and math research. In one district, we had schools that spent thousands of dollars on resources that were “all-red” on EdReports. The principals who bought the curricula had no clue that EdReports existed. They were well-intentioned, but not well-informed consumers.

District curriculum leaders need to own the responsibility to ensure every classroom has aligned materials. We need to find the weak curricula in our districts and have the authentic conversations with the educators who’d like to keep using them. And we need to resource the new materials and the right levels of PD. Which brings me to…

Misconception 4: You can succeed without a big PD investment.

Professional development to accompany curriculum implementation is a must, a must, a must!

And I don’t mean the ‘spray and pray’ PD that notoriously came with some curricula from less pedagocially-oriented providers. One day of PD that runs through the table of contents and shows teachers where to find the scope and sequence won’t cut it. You want PD that gets into the instructional weeds.

Again – good curriculum is designed for an instructional approach! Teachers need to know HOW the materials are designed to be used, and critically, Why they should make any necessary practice shifts. You want teachers to know that you are giving them resources that align their work with research, standards, and best practice. PD is how to really invest in the pedagogical knowledge of your teachers, and it’s the key to buy-in by your team.

Don’t forget to bring your building leaders into the PD, so that they are evaluating for the right instructional virtues.

Curriculum directors and Boards can get frustrated because they adopt materials and don’t see gains. If you adopted a quality curriculum and your kids aren’t moving, you probably suffer from an underinvestment in professional learning.

As a CAO, you need your superintendent and school board to know that 2-3% of your district budget should go to professional learning. The professional learning will often cost more than the resources, and it should. This can surprise some district teams.  It’s your job to explain how this investment in your staff returns dividends with your kids.

Misconception 5: Teachers can just create curriculum.

Friends, teacher prep does not guide teachers in how to be curriculum designers!

I was a North Carolina teaching fellow. As a part of that program, I spent four years doing bigger-picture work around instruction: unpacking standards, and reviewing scope and sequence implications. Conversely, most teacher prep programs spend little time on these matters. I spent 4 years learning how to do that work and I consider that work to be complex, challenging, and nuanced. How can we as teachers that didn’t have similar preparation go create materials for the year? How can we even gauge the quality of the things they find on Pinterest?

Also, let’s say you have a building of highly skilled teachers who had my training. Do we give teachers enough time to do curriculum development work? Can teachers really write scope and sequence docs during their prep? And do we want them to – or do we want them focusing on student work, on differentiation opportunities for struggling learners, on family engagement, and on bringing their most creative selves to instructional delivery?

Let’s Debunk Misconceptions Together

I am excited about a national PLN for curriculum because it will let us discuss these misconceptions in a powerful way across districts. I want to learn from leaders solving problems of practice, and I want to share what I am learning with my peers.

I also believe it is important to note that all content areas deserve high quality curriculum resources and professional learning.  This is important for all areas beyond English, Science, Social Studies and Mathematics; Arts, CTE, and World Language deserve strong curricula and professional learning as well.

Please join our PLN, and consider co-piloting this work! There is great strength in numbers.

Nakia Hardy is the Deputy Superintendent of Academic Services at Durham Public Schools in North Carolina.

Curriculum Notes

If you’d like to speak with me about the specific curricula used in my district, I should note that I recently joined Durham Public Schools, and we have been engaged in a collaborative process for adopting both Literacy and Math curricula in our schools.

We recently selected Study Sync (all-green on EdReports) for use in grades 6–12 beginning in the 2019-20 school year.

I can also speak to the experience I have with high quality curricula used in Guilford County Schools, my former district:

K–2 ELA: Core Knowledge Language Arts (all-green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes)

3–9 ELA: ARC Core (all-green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes)

K–5 Math: Eureka Math (all green on EdReports in grades K–5, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes in K–12)6–8 Math: Open Up Resources (all green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes in K–12)