‘Teachers Are Convinced by Results’: The Laurel Curriculum Journey

This blog series shares the curriculum implementation journeys of districts across the country, through interviews with each of our squad members.

In your district, what problem or data prompted you to adopt new curricula? How did you hope the curriculum you chose would help you address it?

If you look back to 2015, our students across subgroups were performing among the worst in the state—single digit proficiency in some grade levels in mathematics and literacy proficiency well below state averages. 

To address it, starting in about 2016, we focused on just achieving consistency in structures and routines, which by themselves brought our scores up considerably. Still, at that time, teachers were building out their own curriculum with lessons from various resources, which is really challenging. It’s hard to write the music and sing the songs! Not everyone is Paul McCartney, and it isn’t really fair to ask of teachers that they be both composer and performer. Their results were varied and inconsistent.

So we started talking about high-quality curriculum in both literacy and math that would allow everyone, new teachers and veteran teachers, to walk in and have a firm ground to stand on, one that is based on the winning combination of knowledge building, clear structures, and effective routines. We’re very happy with the results. Our average growth across grade levels in Math and ELA from 2015 – 2019 was 18%!

What shifts in mindset were necessary for a successful implementation? How did teachers’ mindset change? How did leaders’ mindset change? 

Let’s talk about that in terms of math. Between 2015 and 2018, we did about 3000 instructional walkthroughs across the district. What we wanted to see was students engaging in productive struggle and teachers using a problem-based instructional approach. But what we saw was that 80-85% of the time, students were just doing repetitive, algorithm-based practice problems, which resulted in less rigor and low student engagement. 

So we presented that data to teachers alongside the Illustrative Math curriculum. What teachers immediately recognized is how, by the time students would have to solve a real-world math problem, they would have had the conceptual understanding and the math vocabulary and many opportunities to explore those ideas and apply them to a variety of problems. Right away after starting with Illustrative Math, the middle school started seeing dramatic success. We went from 20% proficiency in eighth grade in 2015 to 58%, outscoring the entire state, in 2019. 

In elementary school, the shift in mindset was a little different. Our teachers love their students so much and want badly to see them succeed. This, coupled with the challenging task of supporting struggling subgroups of students, often led to over-scaffolding. They were committed to piloting the curriculum because they saw how it worked in middle school, but they also had to really trust the process and wait for results. 

The same has been true for elementary school teachers with regard to literacy. Bookworms sets up a really fierce pace, building up foundational phonics skills, grappling with authentic texts, and demonstrating comprehension through evidence-based thinking. It was very hard at first, but teachers started seeing students’ language decoding skills develop earlier and earlier. Before long we were able to drop our big intervention programs for non-readers in first and second grade and just have a few small-group pull outs for high-dosage tutoring. Our teachers were convinced by results and feel proud to have been part of the pilot that led to those results.

How is this curriculum work driving greater equity in your district? What are teachers, leaders, and students doing differently to achieve a better outcome?

The biggest equity move you can make is implementing high-quality instructional materials, which give every single student the opportunity to build knowledge. The most impactful factor in implementing a new curriculum is how much your leadership leans into it and how much they’re willing to learn the curriculum themselves, including the structures, routines, and content of daily instruction in both math and ELA. They have to go into the classrooms alongside the coaches and see it for themselves. What they saw in our classrooms is that kids have a hunger to just know stuff about the world. Even at the lunch table, kids would talk about what they learned in a Bookworms text, like, ‘Hey, did you know human fingernails keep growing even when you’re dead?’  That’s a compelling topic for a seven-year-old! 

The other thing that is driving equity in our community is the content of the texts themselves and the discussions kids are having around them. This was a challenge at first because our rural district is not without its racial struggles and talking about those issues initially made some teachers uncomfortable. For example, in fourth grade the Bookworms curriculum includes the book Steal Away Home by Lois Ruby, a story about a girl who finds a skeleton in the wall of her home, which used to be a station on the Underground Railroad during the time of slavery. Because the book raises difficult racial justice questions for nine year olds, a lot of districts chose to replace it. But we didn’t do that. We chose to stay where it’s a little uncomfortable and we brought in the University of Delaware as partners to help us learn how to talk about those issues with our kids. We believe that content like this that really reflects our entire community will help us achieve equity over time because it’s content that engages and empowers all students. 

What missteps did you make along the way that others can learn from? What would you do differently if you could do it over?

I know that every year kids don’t have access to high-quality materials affects their long-term outcomes. That makes me want to implement our curricula as quickly as possible, even in a pandemic year. So, if I could do something differently, when people are upset because it’s not what they are used to, I would try to figure out what is valuable in their feedback and how we can make the experience better for them. Opening lines of communication and really listening is key. Especially with our veteran teachers who have been doing a good job for a long time, I would have created a regular feedback committee involving those teachers so that the things they maybe said only to their coach would have come all the way up to me. We did this a bit better in our Illustrative Math Alpha/Beta pilot in the elementary schools and the great feedback from our teachers really informed the final version of that curriculum, which is something we’re pretty proud about.  

Can you share one exemplary aspect of your implementation that might be a model for other districts to follow?

I have come to realize that when you’re doing whole group professional development, with teachers sitting in an auditorium while the kids are at home, , it’s really more like a cheerleading event than a learning one.    We try to be a constant support to teachers, feeding them a steady diet of feedback through really job-embedded, personalized (curriculum-specific), professional learning. Our professional learning partners, our internal coaches, our instructional leaders participate in weekly PLCs organized by grade level or content area. They regularly go into classrooms to coach teachers or meet with teachers one-on-one. When we do a walkthrough, we give teachers immediate (digital) feedback so that they know we’re here following and supporting them every step of the way. That way teachers feel like they’re growing as much as their students. That’s the secret to true continuous improvement.