How Supporting the Field Paid Back in Spades: Our modEL Detroit Story

When we created modEL Detroit – a set of lesson resources designed to ease year one implementation of our ELA curriculum – we were trying to support our teachers. Little did we know that we were helping to prepare ourselves for a global pandemic, and also building a bridge to some of the top districts in the country. 

Our story started with an equity mission in Detroit Public Schools Community District. Notoriously, the district had the lowest literacy rate of any urban district, after years of chronic underinvestment and a period of emergency management. New superintendent Nikolai Vitti was intent on raising outcomes for students, and we were excited to take on the challenge with him, after working together with Dr. Vitti to raise outcomes in Duval County.

One of our first steps was to facilitate an audit of Detroit’s instructional materials. In ELA, the district was using Imagine It, a curriculum purchased in 2008. It predated our new state standards, so unsurprisingly, the audit revealed that the curriculum was poorly aligned with the standards. In addition to a curriculum upgrade, we needed to invest in teacher leaders in our district, and we knew that a teacher-led selection would yield the best outcomes. Our teachers selected EL Education for its rich texts, social justice themes, and its integrated social-emotional learning. 

The curriculum has many fans, in part because it incorporates tremendous amounts of professional learning content into the materials. (All of the “high-quality” ELA curricula are described as ‘educative,’ because they proactively support PD about math or ELA; we find EL Education to do an exemplary job.) It’s wonderful that lesson materials actually deliver PD – but the expansive lesson prep materials pose a challenge in year one of implementation: while teachers are learning new materials, they don’t always have time to read all of the content in the teacher guides, particularly in day to day prep.

Our answer was modEL Detroit. With generous support from the Skillman Foundation and assistance from StandardsWork, we worked with Meredith Liben to create PowerPoint slides for each lesson, which dramatically cut down on lesson prep time. (Recent teacher chatter in social media offers a good reminder that slide prep time can be a massive time sink for teachers!) We wrote notes into each slide to lift out the big rocks, then our PLCs could focus on how to scaffold those big rocks in lesson delivery. Our teachers were able to plan more thoughtfully and strategically, with a focus on pedagogy.

Of course, we also invested in multiyear professional learning for our teachers: a 5-day launch institute, as well as monthly professional learning for master teachers. We use the embedded professional learning in the EL Education teacher materials with our coaches and also in our own PD sessions. Our overall investment paid off, as we saw ELA (and math!) gains in every grade and outpaced our state’s average growth.

We published modEL Detroit as an open educational resource (OER), to benefit the community of districts using the materials. Its website has been viewed 62,384 times, so we know these materials have been useful! 

‘Paying it forward’ paid off, as we deepened relationships with other districts using EL Education. People may not realize how many districts using a common curricula have begun collaborating across districts. We talk about how curriculum brings school teams together by creating a common language; the national community gains a shared language, as well. Whenever we see our teachers swapping advice with educators across the country in social media, our hearts swell. 

Peak heart-swell came last summer, when our teachers were invited to provide Professional Development for the teachers of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a North Carolina district beginning its implementation of EL Education! Our teachers felt immense pride at this honor and accomplishment, and it deepened their commitment to our work. It was also a wonderful professional growth opportunity for our teachers: the best way to cement one’s own learning is to teach it. The cross-district bond with Brian Kingsley and his team means the world.

The Remote Learning Chapter   

In 2019-20, we were on track for continued gains. In fact, grades 4 through 8 were on track to have double the growth of the previous year! We were over the moon when Dr. Vitti shared the indicators with our community! 

But… you know what hit in March, 2020. Curriculum made moving into distance learning 10 times easier. It enabled our support of teachers, as our master teachers recorded videos in April for use in distance learning. These, too, were initially published openly; now we use them for PD. 

Our modEL Detroit investment continues to pay back this year as we optimize our implementation. Based on our K–3 data, we saw a need to increase the amount practice with phonics skills that had been introduced, and to increase student time with decodable readers. To roll this out, we enhanced our modEL Detroit K–2 PowerPoints with daily routines, which made this far easier to roll out. We also added interactive workbook pages in K–2, which has helped to eliminate the need for shared resources between students.. 

As we have opened the school year, we are thankful to have a high-quality, coherent curriculum to draw on.  It has provided a familiar foundation and comfortable routines, at a time when teachers and students have had to acclimate to new online platforms. Our teachers have had time to focus on the digital transitions and to expand on the social emotional learning already present in our EL Education curriculum.  We have seen teachers eager to get students into their first novels of the year – a refreshing bit of normalcy in a most abnormal season. 

A Remarkable Two Year Journey

If you walked our district three years ago versus today, you too would feel moved about what you saw. Detroit’s performance data tells a tiny fraction of our story of improved instruction.

Our teachers have learned to give academic ownership over to students; kids do more of the lift because teachers have learned how and when to facilitate. In every classroom, the text is out and the kids are engaged – and all kids are working with grade level texts! Our teachers have learned how to bring this goal into practice, and whereas we initially had some teachers push for leveled libraries, that debate has stopped, because our kids showed they were all up to the task of grade level work..

Seeing our most fragile students discussing great texts with our most advanced students – it’s art in action.

As our story spread, we saw people who once looked down on our district using our modEL Detroit tools! We put ‘Detroit’ in the name intentionally, because we wanted to change the narrative of how people talked about literacy in our city. Our students’ and families’ pride in our growth is palpable, and we are so delighted to share in this work.


Beth Gonzalez is the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction and April Imperio is the Executive Director of K–12 Literacy and Early Learning for Detroit Community Public School District. We welcome inquiries about our work, and we warmly invite you to use and share the modEL Detroit resources linked from this article.

Curriculum Notes

The following high-quality curricula are used in Detroit Public Schools Community District:

K–5 ELA: EL Education Language Arts (all-green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes), provided by Open Up Resources

6–8 ELA: Paths to College and Career (all-green on EdReports)

K–8 Math: Eureka Math (all-green on EdReports in grades K–5, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes)

Image credit: Detroit Public Schools Community District