How We’re Refining Our Curriculum to Achieve Instructional Equity

In 2020, if you were doing equity work, you were taking a hard look at your curriculum. The big equity conversations happening across the country are appropriately asking: “How do we ensure that students are experiencing culturally sustaining instruction? How do we bring the ‘science of reading’ into classroom practice, so that all students become skilled readers?”

Both are key to equity, and both are questions that have been central to our work in Guilford County Schools. We have sought systemic solutions to address equity in teaching and learning so that we can reach all 72,000 scholars in our urban district. This goal has taken us on a multi-year curriculum journey, under the brilliant leadership of Dr. Sharon Contreras. 

There’s no such thing as a perfect curriculum, and I want to talk openly about how we chose and modified our materials to achieve our equity goals – a journey that continues into today.

In ELA, we started by selecting curriculum that aligned to the ‘science of reading’. Our equitable instruction ‘musts’ included: all students having access to grade-level content; daily, systematic phonics in early grades; and the support for knowledge-building in science and history. Finding high-quality instructional materials to meet these goals wasn’t the hard part. Curriculum options have vastly improved in the last five years and we had multiple options to choose from. In Guilford County, we chose Core Knowledge in K–2 and ARC Core in grades 3-8.

The more challenging journey was the adaptive work that came next. 

First we had to adapt our own instructional practices, to ensure that we were developing ALL students as readers. This meant leaving skills-first instruction behind and, instead, systematically building knowledge. It meant implementing a structured approach to teaching decoding and encoding skills. Our teachers needed to learn scaffolding strategies to support all students with grade-level texts and tasks. 

Our curricula were designed for these practices, and our teachers received support via job-embedded coaching from technical assistance partners, including TNTP, American Reading Company, and SAVAAS. We also brought in supporting PD, such as Language Essential for Teaching Reading and Spelling (LETRS) training, to give our teachers the deepest possible understanding. My colleague Whitney Oakley described our ‘science of reading’ journey in more detail in a recent webinar.

As our instructional adaptations were taking root, we set out to ensure that our curriculum was culturally sustaining – which requires more than vetting for alignment to standards and rigor. 

There is a careful balance needed between trusting a vetted resource and reviewing it with a critical eye. As a first step, we created teams of teacher leaders to review each component of the curriculum—holding the materials up to our vision for equitable and culturally sustaining teaching and learning. Teacher leaders didn’t grapple so much with the importance of building knowledge as critical, as what (and whose) knowledge was being built. Which parts of the curriculum perpetuate singular narratives that omit sharing diverse perspectives? How accurately does the curriculum share historical information? How do we share an honest picture of historical figures that explains their role in shaping the world we live in today?

These are not easy questions! To investigate them together, our teacher leaders participated in book studies, including Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain. They also considered the authors, people, stories, history, and perspectives that are present or silenced in the materials, and whether texts and topics acknowledge the accurate histories and full humanity of people and historical figures. These collaborations produced new unit overviews with additional content for our teachers to use alongside the district-adopted materials that provide a tangible resource for teachers to rethink how content is presented and discussed. So far, teacher leaders have considered content in units on Christopher Columbus, Manifest Destiny, and Kings and Queens.

To share a specific example: teachers realized that a fourth grade text about the state of North Carolina included information about Dolley Madison, but neglected to cover the birth of the sit-in movement that took place when four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat at a local lunch counter. Rather than overlooking the obvious absence of the four NC A&T students who made history, we provided this feedback to our curriculum publisher, then our team assisted in re-writing the book to include the historically-significant A&T Four. Though this specific example impacted one page in one chapter of a book, it matters for students, and our feedback to the curriculum provider began a dialogue that demonstrated the district’s commitment to disrupting dominant narratives.

Our curriculum reviews have yielded important changes – yet we started from a curriculum baseline that was strong on the science of reading, so it was getting many fundamentals ‘right’ from the outset. The win was that our team’s common vision for culturally-sustaining materials crystallized while working together from a common starting point. Curriculum literally helped to put our team on the same page.

While the district’s destination is clear, our journey is ongoing. 

From an instructional equity perspective, we are still shedding our past approaches. We keep wanting to have the final funeral for guided reading, but evidence of it in practice still surfaces from time to time. Dropping the ‘literacy drills’ of test prep season has been difficult, but it’s been vital as we shift towards achieving educational equity. We are still encouraging our teams to fully trust the power of building knowledge, in lieu of test practice and isolated skills instruction, as the lever for improving reading comprehension.

And around cultural responsiveness, our teacher leader teams continue their work – analyzing how the curriculum shares stories and who is centered in those stories; finding the texts needed to provide students ‘windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors,’ in the words of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop; and making progress towards the kind of culturally sustaining instruction each of our students deserve.

Our equity work is stronger for keeping all aspects of instructional equity at its fore.