The Urgent Need to Scale Research-Based Reading Instruction

My journey to understanding the research on how kids learn to read was decades longer than it should have been.

I started my career in the classroom, as a special education teacher. I hadn’t learned the essentials during my teacher preparation. Then, even though I worked with children with disabilities, I didn’t learn what I needed to know about reading on the job, either.

I went and got a Masters degree in Special Education, thinking that would be the magic solution to learning how to teach reading! Sadly, it was not.

Next, I trained to become a school psychologist. This increased my knowledge on how kids learn to read, but I still didn’t find the answers I needed.

I became a district Special Education Director. Then in 2014, I became the Director of Literacy in Lauderdale County. And finally, my role allowed me the time to study the research in greater depth, and in the years that followed, I began to have a command of the science of reading. (In 2019, when Robin McClellan, Jared Myracle, and Brian Kingsley shared that they’d only learned key reading research as district leaders, this felt all-too-familiar.) 

I thought to myself, “In this role, I can impact change in a larger way!” Yet here was the harsh reality: I had a lot of knowledge about literacy, but my teachers did not. And I didn’t have a way to bring this knowledge to our teachers at scale… districtwide, and in depth.

My first opportunity to influence instruction at scale came with our adoption of high-quality curriculum. The materials gave teachers a clear roadmap for research-aligned instruction, and more importantly, our professional learning partner TNTP was incredibly helpful in crafting a learning journey for our team.

Then, I watched as literacy networks like the SCORE LIFT network and the Curriculum Matters PLN augmented that learning. These networks give our teams opportunities to collaborate and grow professionally. Our teachers need these growth opportunities! We can only truly scale awareness of the science of reading with deep professional learning, at scale. 

That’s where the next chapter of my career comes in: I’m joining the Tennessee Department of Education during an exciting time, when the Reading 360 initiative is bringing this potential to fruition. 

I hope you’ll follow Reading 360, if you aren’t already. This summer, Tennessee is training almost 12,000+ teachers on sounds-first instruction, while providing an excellent, free foundational skills curriculum. More than 20% of K–2 parents have signed up to receive free decodable readers! All of this work ties back to the crucial role of curriculum; finally, a state is supporting extensive professional learning and aligned materials, in parallel.

At first, it felt bittersweet to leave Lauderdale County just as our work with high-quality curriculum was really taking off. Yet I have come to see this opportunity to network teachers across Tennessee through professional learning as the ultimate complement and accelerant to my goal, and the goals of the Curriculum Matters PLN: high-quality instruction at scale. Watch this space, y’all.

Teacher Preparation’s Big Opportunity

As high-quality instructional materials (HQIM) become increasingly prevalent in K-12 classrooms, the instructional landscape is undergoing significant change. We need teacher preparation programs to keep pace with this evolution.

Historically, teacher preparation programs have treated individual lesson plan creation as THE essential teaching skill. Teacher candidates are graded on their ability to create a lesson from scratch, with professors looking for criteria such as learning objectives, cognitively demanding questions, and opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery as measures of successful planning. The focus is almost entirely at the individual lesson level; rarely is a teacher candidate challenged to sequence lessons into coherent units of study.

While teacher preparation programs certainly shouldn’t be in the business of training teacher candidates in how to write entire curricula, are tomorrow’s teachers being prepared for the curriculum reality they will encounter in the classroom today?  

In addition to learning to write lesson plans, what constitutes much of teacher preparation is introduction to a rapid succession of topics like effective pedagogy, meeting individual student needs, and assessment. After such a course of study, newly-minted teachers head off to their classrooms and begin teaching their hearts out, satisfied to stay a lesson or two ahead of their students. Teachers burn midnight oil by the barrel, but particularly in their first few years. With little training in the actual demands of writing aligned curricula, teachers without an adopted curriculum have struggled.  

But now, as districts move away from asking teachers to create lessons and design curriculum, and they have increasingly high-quality options to tap into, everyone’s focus should shift from lesson creation to effective implementation. That goes for teacher preparation, too.  

Districts bear the main responsibility of training teachers to use their adopted curriculum effectively. But, unfortunately, though models of effective implementation exist, not all teachers receive the professional learning necessary to utilize them. A recent study found that teachers implementing HQIM are only receiving an average of 1.6 days of professional learning as they begin to use the new materials that will be the primary basis for teaching and learning in their classrooms (Kane, 2019). The reality is, teachers receive more professional learning in a week while in their teacher education program than they will in a year after they’ve been hired by a district.

Herein lies the big opportunity for teacher preparation programs. 

Rather than placing such significant emphasis on training teacher candidates to create lesson plans (as preparation for life as a content-creating teacher), time with future teachers can be leveraged to lay a firm foundation for the selection and effective implementation of high-quality instructional materials. How much better, for example, would our candidates be if their preparation included deep dives into the following topics:

  • What are high-quality instructional materials?
  • What is the research underpinning these materials?
  • How can you distinguish high-quality instructional materials from lesser quality resources?
  • What are examples of high-quality instructional materials in math and reading? 
  • How do you access, plan, and assess with high-quality instructional materials?
  • What do you do if your school or district isn’t implementing high-quality instructional materials? 

Evidence suggests that teachers who work closely with HQIM as part of their student teaching work hit the ground running in year one.  Given this is the case, in regions where districts are using specific HQIM, teacher prep could even consider taking things a step farther and offering training on the specific programs being implemented. Where districts aren’t using HQIM, a cohort of new teachers who can advocate for use of stronger instructional materials could spur transformative change in school communities. 

Teacher preparation programs have a lot of standards and regulations thrown at them, from accreditation processes to state policies. But they can do a real service to the field if they proactively respond to their ultimate clients, the districts that hire their teachers. Partnering to train new teachers on HQIM would have a dramatic impact on “Day 1” readiness, and could significantly improve teacher retention and student achievement. 

In Jackson, TN, where I was Chief Academic Officer, I saw firsthand that higher education leaders were willing to align teacher preparation with district needs. My district built relationships with our university partners, and once the leaders of the teacher preparation programs understood our goals for implementing HQIM, they were much more open to integrating its use into their programs.  

We saw a discernible difference in the effectiveness of teacher candidates who were able to incorporate our HQIM into their internship experiences over those who had not been given this opportunity.  They simply became valued members of the team more quickly, because their assignments were more aligned with our priorities and, therefore, our experienced teachers and school leaders were able to provide better guidance. Consequently, principals were more motivated to hire these candidates, as they knew they would have a running start as new teachers. Other Curriculum Matters leaders have sought similar changes from their local universities. Now we need to seek this shift in programs across the country. 

Burning the midnight oil preparing the next day’s lessons has always been a rite of passage for teachers, but we can make the transition to the classroom easier for new candidates by helping them tap a stronger materials landscape. The win for teacher prep?  As they begin to align their programs with the curricular reality on the ground, they will surely deepen their partnerships with local districts and carve a more meaningful role in the curriculum renaissance occuring in K–12 education.

93% of students lack evidence-based ELA curriculum. We think that’s a crisis.

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!

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.

Making the Case for a Break With Reading Workshop

Our recent webinar, The Shift From Reading Workshop to Research-Aligned Curriculum, was the most popular #CurriculumMatters event yet. We weren’t surprised… in fact, we held this webinar by popular demand! After recent acknowledgements of flaws with Reading Workshop by its author Lucy Calkins, a number of schools appear to be considering a change.

Accordingly, questions from our webinar attendees followed a pattern: requests for advice on how to make the case for changing curriculum. We happily shared our best advice in the webinar.

Here, we want to expand a few points, based on our experience with schools making the shift.

Teachers might be less wedded to Reading Workshop than you think.

In Aldine ISD, district leaders worried that teachers might resist a new curriculum. Yet, surprisingly, most of them didn’t push back when district leaders introduced new materials. In fact, when Matt announced that the new CKLA curriculum incorporated daily, systematic phonics, some actually applauded!

Aldine saw most of the reluctance at the district leader level. A few of Matt’s ELA and Spanish Language Arts colleagues were strong Reading Workshop devotees and they chose to opt for new roles when the curriculum change was announced. In the end, these transitions left Aldine with a team very committed to the new direction. 

When teachers were hesitant about the change, their primary concern was maintaining choice and voice in reading. By showing teachers that Aldine’s new materials, CKLA and Wit and Wisdom, both actively promote student discourse – even including Socratic Seminars! – and by reassuring teachers that independent reading would still enable choice, the concerns diminished.

Hamilton County Schools had a similar experience. District leaders decided to introduce the new curriculum to a small group of schools before the district wide adoption and pilot teachers quickly embraced the change. They had long realized something was missing – and that the new materials provided more resources and support than they had enjoyed in the past. Teachers went from creating everything from scratch to learning how to deeply build on a foundation of strong resources. 

In fact, teachers chose EL Education in Hamilton County Schools, based on the pilot! They recognized that this curriculum is a heavy lift when it comes to implementation. Still, they overwhelmingly opted for the success of their students, even if it meant learning something new and different. The choice became obvious when they saw what the students could do with the new materials! 

Generally, fears of teacher resistance to a change may be overblown – or overcome as part of a good adoption process.  

Disaggregate your data to see essential gaps.

Kristen McQuillan’s advice to districts with the appearance of “strong” literacy performance was succinct: “disaggregate your data.” In an affluent district, where parents can afford the costs of tutors for struggling readers, overall outcomes can look quite good – yet outcomes for subgroups tell a different story.

She followed up in Twitter with the perfect case study:

It’s not a surprise to see significantly lower proficiency outcomes for English Learners and economically disadvantaged students in this school; Reading Workshop received poor reviews from literacy experts for its ELL supports and its ability to help build  background knowledge necessary for reading comprehension.

Proof of such shortcomings can be found in the disaggregated outcomes, which can be immensely helpful in making a case for change.

In our experience, you can trust the process.

The mantra in our PLN is “Trust the process.” It has become one of the emblems of high-quality curriculum work, because across our network, we have each seen teachers turn from curriculum skeptics to curriculum fans once they’ve actually had a chance to use excellent materials, supported by strong PD. 

The mantra works for transitioning away from Reading Workshop, too. When teachers make the shift to high-quality curricula, they say what we hear elsewhere about that process: 

  • When lessons are centered around excellent, engaging (often beloved) whole texts, teachers become excited about how the students respond. 
  • When writing activities are connected to the reading, it’s actually a lot easier for students to write effectively. Teachers see this firsthand once students begin writing from more text-centered writing prompts.
  • Below-benchmark students grow more quickly, and participate more, when they are working with the same challenging texts as peers. Naturally, teachers respond to that!
  • Literacy instruction is stronger when it supports the acquisition of background knowledge. Teachers see how much the background knowledge and newly-acquired vocabulary impacts reading comprehension.

We’ll close with a quote from one of Yvette’s teachers, because it drives home the point. Just months into work with a new curriculum, teachers really do talk like this:

“This year my students have had conversations around texts (both fiction & non-fiction) like I’ve never experienced. This curriculum seamlessly integrates vocabulary, conversation protocols, research skills, and provides background knowledge which are all essential for student success and keeping students engaged in their learning. My students have much better comprehension skills, as well as their speaking and listening skills. I have never seen a curriculum hit the speaking and listening standards so hard! The assessment with this curriculum is built in, ongoing and purposeful. We are able to tell quickly what parts need to be retaught or reviewed, and where to go next with our teaching.”

Change is never easy, but our move away from Reading Workshop was both easier and more rewarding than we could have imagined. May our experiences reassure school and district leaders following in our footsteps!

With Literacy Matters, Aldine ISD is Blazing Trails

It’s no exaggeration to say that we’ve been gobsmacked by the Aldine ISD team this year!

We were delighted to add one of its leaders to our ranks: Matt Warford, the Executive Director of Teaching and Learning – who hit the ground running with his first webinar.

We had to share some of the exemplary Aldine work that has caught our eye this year.  Here’s what makes this district one to watch:

Hosting its own literacy conference

Aldine is hosting a free, open-invitation Literacy Matters conference in January, with speakers from our PLN, including Robin McClellan and Janise Lane, as well as literacy luminaries like Natalie Wexler.

The best part?  Aldine’s motivation for the conference is to help neighboring districts! As Matt shared, “In Texas, we really are the first big public district to make this shift, so we wanted to see if any of the neighboring districts would like more information while also giving our internal staff members some meaningful training. Then we figured, since it’s virtual, the more the merrier.” 

This event is a first of its kind in the Curriculum Matters community and we hope it’s not the last!

Please join the Literacy Matters event on January 30th.  

Making literacy a key pillar of its anti-racism plan

In June, Aldine’s superintendent Dr. Goffney sent a powerful letter to families in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, detailing the district’s plans to address systemic racism. It was authentic and rich with actions that spanned many parts of the district’s work. One distinguishing factor: literacy was front and center.  When it comes to reading outcomes, “the statistics related to Black males are shameful,” wrote Dr. Goffney when she introduced the district’s “new approach” to families.

Every district equity plan should make instructional equity a key pillar! Aldine is a model for keeping academics at the heart of equity work.

Successful implementation in a pandemic year

No one would choose a global pandemic as the time to roll out new curriculum, but knowing the stakes, Aldine didn’t hesitate to proceed with its planned ELA adoption of two new curricula.

For a smooth launch amidst all of the other complications, they have earned our respect!

Aldine’s implementation got a boost from the Texas Reading Academies, a new state program to train K–3 teachers and building leaders on the science of reading, which Matt describes as a “nice complement” to their own curriculum-aligned PD. 

We look forward to hearing more about each of these initiatives and so much more in the months and years to come!

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

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).