Data Discussions Drive Progress: Pentucket’s 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 a new literacy curriculum? How did you hope the curriculum you chose would help you address it?

This is my fourth year as assistant superintendent here in Pentucket. We are a smaller regional district, about 2500 students, just north of Boston. Before I arrived, the district curriculum was really driven by talented and motivated teachers and educators who were writing the curriculum and creating the learning experiences. That served some students well, but, especially because we are a regional district, we found that there were a lot of differences in the experiences students had not only from one building to the next but also from classroom to classroom. That’s the thing that prompted us to seek greater consistency in curriculum and instructional practice together.

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

The mindset that shifted most had to do with how teachers analyze and use data. In the past, like in a lot of districts, we were using a leveled literacy assessment that gave students a letter, and that is how teachers decided whether students were at grade level or not. What we noticed is that while teachers said 80% of students were at grade level based on those assessments, our state MCAS scores showed only about 50% were proficient. That discrepancy showed that we had a flaw, so what we needed was more skills-based data that aligns with our curriculum, was a predictor of reading proficiency, gave us information on what skill to intervene with and that would help us determine if we are delivering the Tier 1 curriculum effectively. 

What we did then was expand our use of DIBELS beyond second grade and decide that we’re all going to look at data the same way and respond consistently whether to change our instruction at Tier 1 or intensify the instruction for particular students. Now that teachers are looking at data together and making those decisions consistently, they are seeing how the curriculum makes a difference for their students. We use the phrase, “assess to the point of breakdown, then instruct from there.”

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 impetus for choosing the new curriculum was that we realized not all students were getting grade-level content. We didn’t do it all at once. We started with foundational skills for all students in grades K-2. And then we added Heggerty for phonemic awareness. In just half a year of using those lessons, we saw our phonemic segmentation scores in kindergarten go from about 70% at mid-year to 93% by the end of the year. That one difference made it clear that when you use a particular curriculum that is designed to do a specific thing and you use it correctly, it has a positive impact! If you use the right stuff at the right time, in the right way, all students make progress. Using a tiered approach rooted in strong Tier 1 curriculum and instruction and then intensifying it for those who need it, is how we move toward equity. 

What lessons did you learn from missteps along the way that would be helpful to other district leaders? What would you do differently if you could do it over?

I think anyone doing this work must realize that it takes time. We all want immediate results to “prove” it works and to build the trust of others, but sometimes these adjustments take time. What we realized is you can’t do it all at once, but you must balance the adult learning capacity with a sense of urgency because that’s what the kids deserve. I have frequently relied on what Brene Brown says about change: People do not fear change, they fear irrelevance. I think we need to remember that when working with adults who have only ever known things in a certain way. If you are challenging that, some may fear their knowledge will become irrelevant, so we need to lean into that and help them.

We also grew to realize that no one thing will fix the whole. It is a system that really makes the change. Curriculum and professional learning for instruction and implementation are important but they are only effective when you have a data system, schedules, and administrative functions that make the best use of these initiatives.

What is one especially exemplary aspect of your implementation that might be a model for other districts to follow?

What’s really made a difference for us is that our emphasis is not on “fidelity,” which often leads teachers and students to just reluctantly comply.  Instead, we focus on “skillful implementation.” You can have a great high-quality curriculum, but if teachers don’t understand the purpose of it, the why of it, and how to use it as it is designed, then it won’t work. By emphasizing skillful implementation, we’re valuing teachers’ understanding, we’re valuing teachers’ judgment in the moment to see when they need to twist, turn, pivot, zig, or zag, and how they can use data to make adjustments. 

You don’t just hand people a teacher’s guide and say “here’s your high-quality curriculum.” You need to help teachers understand how to use it, and that requires ongoing professional learning and data analysis. We don’t rely solely on the curriculum publishers for that. We have to build some in-house expertise and also connect the curriculum implementation to what the research says about best practices. 
In our district, this broader view pushed us to become more purposeful in using the systems and structures related to data, personnel, curriculum, and resources. Using the correct assessment tool and creating a structure for using that data and targeting instruction actually meant changing our building schedule to allow for collaborative data meetings and to allow us to move personnel to have really intensified instruction for students grouped around specific needs.