12/9 Zoom Chat: A Framework for Truly Excellent Professional Learning

Brian Kingsley, Janise Lane, and Robin McClellan were spotlighted in a recent report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York on high-quality professional learning, and we think it makes an excellent conversation-starter!

Our teams describe the professional learning aspect of our curriculum work as incredibly empowering and enlightening. Elements of Curriculum-Based Professional Learning explains How and Why this is the case.

It invites readers to consider a model for “inquiry-based teaching” that has teachers  examine their craft in the same way students are asked to tackle new academic standards – by challenging prior ways of doing things, actively embracing new instructional practices, and deepening content knowledge.

Our PLN regularly touches on these Elements – curriculum, equity, beliefs, leadership, coherence, collective participation – in our blogs and events. We look forward to a conversation with the broader community about how this approach enables better teaching & learning – in real and lasting ways.  

Please join us for this discussion at 8pm on December 9th.   

Carnegie’s website has some nice overviews and even an animation, for those wanting to do some pre-reading.

12/3 Webinar: The Shift From Reading Workshop to Research-Aligned Curriculum

With renewed attention to concerns about the Teachers College Reading Workshop Program, many districts are considering a switch to materials that better align to reading research.

Given the popularity of the workshop model with some educators, we often hear common questions about this change, including: How can I persuade teachers who are fond of the workshop model to embrace a different approach? When districts do change, how are new materials received? What kind of professional learning is best?

Two of our colleagues are midway through year one of a move from Reading Workshop to high-quality ELA curriculum. By popular demand, we’re hosting a webinar on December 3rd in which they will share their respective journeys alongside a leader in professional learning. We’ll speak to the above FAQs, as well as questions from the audience. 

Register and submit questions here.


Moderated by curriculum superfan Karen Vaites.

How do you bring the Science of Reading into practice?

The webinar we held two weeks ago (back before the election consumed our collective attention…) had the highest turnout yet of any Curriculum Matters event.  It’s a testament to the level of interest in a topic – the Science of Reading – whose flames were fanned by brilliant reporting, but whose embers were smoldering in districts across the country well before then.

Each of us work in districts for whom the journey to implement the Science of Reading has been underway for at least two years – for a couple of us, it has been over five years.  The first thing we can say about putting this science into practice is, “it takes time.” 

When we talk about the Science of Reading, we’re primarily referring to three things: 

·        The importance of daily, systematic phonics instruction

·        The need to expose all students to grade level texts

·        The role that background knowledge of the world, and the vocabulary used to describe it, plays in reading comprehension

Each of these pillars has such overwhelming academic research behind it that the statements really articulate settled science; nothing controversial or even revolutionary about it.  And yet, the vast majority of teacher candidates are not exposed to this information in their preparation programs – and that’s a travesty. Our nation is paying the price in stagnant reading proficiency levels with only about 38% of fourth graders on grade level year after year after year (after year). 

As we shared on the webinar, 40% is about the percentage of students that easily learn to read, according to research.  The coincidence in these numbers is striking.  If 38% is our national proficiency rate and it’s also (roughly) the percent of students who learn to read without much effort, we really have to ask ourselves, “What’s the impact of our effort?!” 

In each of our districts, our journey to put the science of reading into practice began with examining our data (and confirming that our numbers pretty much tracked the nation; we were stuck around 35-40%.)  It took real humility on the part of our educators to acknowledge that if we were only reaching the students who were going to learn to read despite our efforts, we had a lot to learn about how to reach the remaining 60%. 

Between our three districts, we worked with over 10 different professional learning partners to support our growing knowledge about the science of reading.  UnboundEd helped Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) teachers understand how a lack of background knowledge impacted the reading performance of students living in poverty.  Teachers in all three of our districts received invaluable LETRS Training from Voyager Sopris Learning, perhaps the most highly-regarded training in reading fundamentals (including phonological awareness, phonics, and fluency) available.  TNTP supported principals in both Putnam and Guilford (NC) Counties as they created school structures to support strong curriculum-based instruction and conducted classroom walkthroughs designed to help teachers hone their practice.  Curriculum developers helped us to see how the science of reading was baked into the materials we were using.   

Solid as the professional development we received was, a shift to focusing on the science of reading represented a big change for most of our teachers.  Like us, what they had been taught in their pre-service was whole language or balanced literacy.  When we feel unmoored – and that’s how many of our teachers initially felt, no exaggeration – we tend to cling to what we know.  For many of us, that’s guided reading.  Unlearning old habits doesn’t happen overnight.  “Go slow to go fast” became one of our mottos. 

The shift from lesson planning, which is necessary when you don’t have a core curriculum, to lesson preparation, also represented a big change.  The high-quality ELA curricula used in each of our districts (CKLA, EL Education, and ARC Core) require study, a level of intellectual preparation that our former basals didn’t.  Without a doubt, the quality of the instruction is higher, but that didn’t happen automatically just because we selected a high-quality curriculum.    

Each of us is fortunate to work in a district where a significant commitment has been made to sustained, curriculum-based professional learning.  Beyond learning about the research behind the science of reading, that means time devoted to professional collaboration, lots of coaching, deep engagement by leadership, and unit and lesson studies together with people really knowledgeable about the curriculum.

The lessons we learned from our journey to implement the science of reading may sound cliché, but they are so true. Trust the process.  

Welcoming Nine New Members to Our ‘Squad’

This is an exciting week for Curriculum Matters! In the midst of welcome buzz about curriculum, we’re excited to debut a new website and announce the addition of nine new members of our PLN! It doesn’t get much better from our corner of the world!!!

Two years ago, when a few of us started gathering at the end of a long work week – yes, via Zoom (before it became synonymous with “meeting”) – to notice and wonder about our implementation of new, high-quality ELA curricula, we couldn’t have guessed what it would blossom into. We’ve been able to launch a serious professional learning network that not only allows us important opportunities for professional collaboration but also a platform for pushing good news out into the world.

Curriculum Matters is a network of educators leading district implementation of high-quality, knowledge-building curriculum who have come together to share our learning so that other educators might benefit from, and be able to apply, our experience.    

Our vision is to help bring about a “tipping point” of school districts across the country providing high-quality, equitable, and engaging instruction for all students – instruction that results in a deep sense of professional pride and fulfillment for educators and that encourages and supports all students in achieving lofty academic and life goals.

We hope our new website will make accessing the content the PLN puts out easier for those who could benefit from it and, importantly, easier for you to share it.  Since we have also begun to host occasional webinars and open Zoom chats, we’ve also made it easier to access those Events.  If you haven’t signed up for our email list, please do so here. 

We are ecstatic that our PLN is now 20 members strong (with three more who are now in alumni status, having moved out of their district role.)  We now have members from California to Florida, representing districts as small as 2,500 students and as large as 148,000.  Ten different high-quality ELA curricula are used across our districts. 

An important part of the story we look to share in the months ahead is the one about the professional learning journey our districts have undergone as we’ve adopted our curricula – and the partners with whom we’ve worked to achieve the success we have. 

All of our events are open – as is the PLN.  If you are leading district implementation of high-quality ELA curriculum, and you’re making significant investments of time and money in your teaching community to support their success with your new curriculum, we invite you to join us. 

We seek to build a community of change agents who advance student outcomes through dynamic professional collaboration and sharing – and hope our new website will begin to make this possible.  Enjoy; and welcome to our new members!

– From the Recruitment Committee (Yvette Blue, Nakia Hardy, Brian Kingsley, and Robin McClellan) on behalf of the entire Curriculum Matters Squad

Webinar: How We Brought the Science of Reading into Practice

Our districts have been on a multi-year journey to bring the ‘science of reading’ into practice, and to move away from balanced literacy approaches.

Today, our students receive daily and systematic phonics instruction in K–2, acquire knowledge and vocabulary from texts in each grade, and all work with texts at grade level.

How did we get there? Where did we start – and what did we do in years 1, 2, and 3? Which came first, the PD or the new curriculum? How did we persuade the balanced literacy devotees to change practice?

We answered all of these questions in a conversational webinar on October 29th.


Moderated by curriculum superfan Karen Vaites.

Watch a Recording: 

Curriculum is Trending. Here’s Why.

We love the growing conversation about the importance – especially in 2020 – of high-quality curriculum.

Lately, the buzz about curriculum has been hard to miss. Here’s what has the field talking:

Renewed Concerns About a Popular Curriculum

Lucy Calkins, the author of the Teachers College Readers Workshop program, recently acknowledged a longtime concern about her program – it needs to be “rebalanced” in order to align with foundational skills research. EdWeek’s excellent reporting included an important reminder: seven literacy experts reviewed the program earlier this year, and found issues beyond foundational skills.

Calkins’s pivot has generated quite an outcry – and superintendents whose districts use high-quality curricula made some of the most pointed observations.

We have previously raised our voices about these shortcomings. Brain Kingsley cited the research-alignment gaps of Reading Workshop – as well as Fountas and Pinnell – in his Science of Reading article for AASA’s School Administrator magazine. 

Many of us have much to say on this topic! For today, here’s our hot take:

Every teacher deserves research-aligned curriculum. We believe many districts continue to use unaligned curricula  because they don’t realize that excellent alternatives exist. Nearly all of the curricula used in our districts are new in recent years, which is why we speak of a “curriculum renaissance.” As districts reconsider their use of Reading Workshop, we hope they will check out these high-quality options. We often share the work in our districts using the #CurriculumMatters hashtag, an easy way to get a window into our schools.

The Shock of the Seven Percent Stat

The “curriculum renaissance” has been slow to reach classrooms. One striking stat spawned conversation: only 7% of elementary teachers use high-quality curricula. (The fact that Reading Workshop is used in 20% of schools is one factor.) 

It recently struck a chord: Parents expressed dismay. District leaders shared pride about being “in the 7%”. Our favorite comment came from Superintendent Goffney: “Years from now, educators will look back and wonder why only 7%.” Amen!

A Trend in Battlefield Adoptions

Some districts have accelerated curriculum adoptions during the distance learning era, specifically to aid teachers with the challenges of distance learning. Nakia Hardy and Scott Langford discussed this trend in a recent EdWeek webinar. A diverse group of panelists reflected on the numerous ways that curriculum has eased the burden of these times.

You can watch a recording of the webinar, High-Quality Curriculum: Suddenly the Essential Distance Learning Tool, on demand. 

In Praise of Curricular Coherence

Robin McClellan and two of her teachers joined EdWeek’s Sarah Schwartz in a webinar about their shifts to remote learning – and back again to the classroom – this spring and fall. Between hybrid schedules and the need to offer distance learning options, a common curriculum has become even more essential to keep instruction on the rails for all students. 

You can watch a recording of the webinar, Teaching on a Hybrid Schedule: How to Balance Remote Learning and In-Person Classes, on-demand.

Props From EdWeek

We were delighted to see our work shouted out in EdWeek!

In a recent piece on the PD landscape, Catherine Gewertz noted “a renewed focus in K-12 circles in recent years on the importance of high-quality instructional materials. Many organizations, including the Council of Chief State School Officers and Curriculum Matters, a network of district leaders committed to high-quality curricula, have worked to define and publicize that idea.” 

Janise Lane is quoted in the article; her blog on the need to illuminate the opaque PD landscape makes an excellent companion read.

Hat tip to our squad-mates for raising their voices in support of excellent instruction!

Superintendent Leadership in an Age of Few Easy Answers

The Green Garner Award, presented by the Council of Great City Schools, honors educational leaders from urban school districts. This week, the 31stannual award will be presented to one of twenty finalists—all of whom are impactful, inspiring leaders. No matter the winner, they will have earned it! Leading an urban district at any time is both a gift and a challenge; leading while in the midst of a global pandemic is an undertaking like no other.

Typically, superintendents make numerous challenging decisions before most people even enjoy their first cup of coffee, and they are accustomed to scrutiny. However, they understand that even amid today’s unprecedented demands, every decision they make must be decided in the best interest of children. Superintendents are currently working without a playbook amid turmoil, uncertainty, and unbridled emotions unleashed by critical constituents who sometimes lose sight of the needs of students.

True leaders never lose sight of student equity, access, and excellence.

Leading a district in the time of COVID-19 has forced superintendents to make decisions when they don’t know the right answer— when there may not be a right answer. This uncharted territory has forced our leaders to become public health experts to determine if and when schools should re-open for brick and mortar. They’ve become Wi-Fi warriors, to ensure students have access—not just to devices but to the internet.   

The finalists for the Green Garner Award are just a few of the superintendents leading in an age of no easy answers. They have distributed laptops, invested in Wi-Fi networks, created drive-through lines to distribute food, ensured mental health support for students and staff, written policies to handle unique concerns, comforted employees impacted by COVID, and balanced budgets amidst unimaginable shortfalls. During this time, though, they haven’t taken their focus off academics.

Ensuring successful academics, whether classrooms are brick-and-mortar, virtual, or hybrid, is extremely challenging without high-qualify instructional materials. Fortunately, knowing “the right thing” when it comes to curriculum selection is much easier – we have curriculum reviews from EdReports and Louisiana Believes to help identify the most research-aligned curricula. I can’t help but notice that four pioneers in high-quality curriculum work are well-represented in the Green Garner finalist list.

Dr. Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools, has been leading an impactful implementation of EL Education and Eureka Math; his team created companion ‘modEL Detroit’ resources that are used in districts across the country. 

In Baltimore City Public Schools, CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises has led the district in a very successful implementation of Wit and Wisdom in K-8 literacy classes, as well as Wit & Wisdom for math. 

Under Dr. Sharon Contreras, Guilford County has seen multi-year gains from its curriculum work, using CKLA, ARC Core, My Perspectives in ELA, and in mathematics using Eureka, Open Up Resources, and MVP Math.  

And in my district, under the guidance of Superintendent Dr. Donald E. Fennoy II, we are supporting students in grades K-8 with enVision Florida Mathematics, as well as piloting Core Knowledge Language Arts and EL Education in thirty of our elementary schools. 

Incorporating high quality instructional materials takes strong curriculum leadership, and these superintendents exemplify this commitment.

Use of strong curriculum is far from the norm. A 2019 RAND study showed that only 7% of elementary teachers use high-quality materials in ELA, and the picture was only marginally better in other grade bands. The majority of our ELA and math teachers don’t benefit from the support, time savings, and professional learning that comes with these materials. It should not surprise us that pioneers in elevating great curriculum are well-represented in leaders up for the nation’s top honors.

Equitable access to devices and Wi-Fi access has dominated media coverage regarding academics. Yet savvy leaders realize that entry into the distance classroom is merely the first step. What students find in the virtual room makes all the difference. As a Baltimore City teacher reminded us, Curriculum Matters Even More in a Crisis. This pandemic will forever change the way educators view curriculum and instruction— it has renewed our appreciation for the value of excellent materials as well as the cost of ‘DIY curriculum’ for teachers. For superintendents, the lessons learned are priceless. 

I am optimistic that the conclusion of the school year will bring an end to the countless Zoom meetings, the debates over synchronous vs. asynchronous teaching, and schedules for various hybrid models. Meanwhile, I hope we do not lose sight of the tremendous accomplishments that districts have achieved during this time. Also, if you want a glimpse of the cutting edge in strong instruction, consider learning more about the curriculum leaders on the Green Garner Award finalist list. They won’t steer you wrong.

Diana Fedderman is the Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning in the School District of Palm Beach County (FL).