As we look back on 2020, it’s hard to deny the chaos and uncertainty around our work that this global pandemic has foisted on educators. Together with an awakening about racial injustice, the pandemic has inspired necessary conversations about educational equity and access – with no easy answers.
For curriculum leaders and academic officers, we have had to face penetrating doubt about the contributions we have made to the academic progress of every student under our care. Despite our best efforts, there has been significant learning loss (and we weren’t doing all that great even before the pandemic.) Our systems and classrooms need an overhaul.
Most urgently, we must improve how we teach students to read. If you can’t read, you won’t succeed. Period. Reading is essential to success — in school and in life.
Well before the pandemic, research clearly indicated that student success in reading and growth in school was closely linked to the quality of the instructional materials used to teach them and the amount of background knowledge their curriculum exposed them to. It turns out that what we teach matters an awful lot.
Despite this knowledge, only 7% of elementary schools across the country are using high quality curricula in their classrooms, according to a 2019 RAND study. Why is this so?!!
The challenge many district leaders perceive is that, before they move forward with curriculum, they need to first build buy-in, optimize their organizational systems, and dismantle current structures that promote the status quo. But how do you do this?!
In both of our cases, our journey started with asking ourselves if we were satisfied with our current level of performance. We looked at our data and said this was not good enough – we can do better. By reading the research, we realized we were not teaching reading correctly. No wonder we were getting underwhelming results! After years of stagnant proficiency, because we were only teaching reading strategies, not building knowledge and comprehension, it became abundantly clear we had to make a change.
Engaging teachers in this exercise of self-examination was key to building support for change. Conversations with your teachers will reveal a lot. If you sit down with them and enlist their feedback on how to strengthen the curriculum (or program, if you are not following a specific curriculum). You will likely learn that they have a great sense of what’s missing and what would work. We listened to teachers, and they helped shape both our actions and our messages as we moved forward.
Our teachers told us they were spending too much time creating and curating materials. We saw that high-quality, comprehensive curriculum – based on research, and without a DIY burden for teachers – represented an opportunity to put more of what they love about teaching back into the profession. They gain time to connect deeply with students and the content, creating a more authentic and engaging classroom experience for both. Our teams quickly came to understand that high quality materials are not about replacing teacher creativity and expertise, but rather about empowering teachers to use their previous time in better ways.
Teachers in classrooms everywhere list time as the resource they need most. They spend endless hours searching various sources for lessons and content that engage students and hopefully works; in fact, the average teacher spends 12 hours per week! What our teachers came to see was that adopting a high quality curriculum eliminates the endless endeavor of scratch planning for instruction and locating engaging content. Consequently, the time they would have spent doing that could be devoted to building relationships and knowledge of their students, using PLCs for deep analysis of student work, thinking deeply about meaningful texts and problems, and important self-care to keep them engaged and ready when the bell rings.
As academic leaders, we marvel at the teachers who arrive at dawn and work until the street lights come on, but applauding them for this work ethic may only be leading them to increased burnout and status quo results in their classrooms. Messaging our efforts around adopting a high quality curriculum in a way that truly shows how this work supports teachers every bit as much as the students is a key first step to building buy-in.
Piloting curriculum under consideration is a great idea. Putting the materials in the hands of teachers was a game-changer for us, because it helped them see how much support was provided and also how some of the things we knew were wrong with our previous curriculum had been dealt with. Plus, the fact that the kids were so immediately engaged in the content was a big selling point. In the end, we didn’t have to worry about how we messaged the change because the results spoke for themselves.
The pandemic has left a chasm in public education, but it can also provide the opportunity for a true renaissance in classrooms across the nation – a rebirth centered around empowering teachers and students by giving them the materials they need to be successful.
We hope you will join us in a “reading revolution” brought about by a high-quality curriculum!