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). 

A Teacher’s Thumbprint

Julie and Madeline are two teachers in my district who happen to be a mother and daughter pair.  Julie is in her 27th year of teaching and Madeline is in her first.  Madeline dove headfirst into distance learning, creating apps and videos like a pro.  For the first few days, Julie attempted to replicate everything Madeline was doing in her classroom, which caused her quite a lot of stress until one of the district coaches encouraged Julie to teach to her strengths, rather than to try to mimic Madeline’s.  Julie’s ability to understand and relate to her students academically, through careful questioning and listening, is unmatched.  While it was going to be a shift for her to get to know her students remotely this year, she soon discovered that her strengths could be applied to this new setting as well.   

If there is one thing my over 25 years in education has taught me, it’s that every teacher is so different. With our changing context this year – moving back and forth from in-person to virtual – educators feel unmoored.  When online, their methods of teaching have been narrowed so much that they have a tendency to question if they are doing the right thing.  During this ever changing environment, it would serve us all to remember, and honor, that each teacher has a unique way of teaching—their own “thumbprint.”

A teacher’s thumbprint contains, among other things, the knowledge of how a student learns best. It encompasses much more than just knowing what a child likes to do outside of school, it’s knowing how a student’s personality influences how they learn.  It’s understanding which students are comfortable speaking their thoughts and which prefer to write them down.  All of this starts with teachers knowing what students know. And at the heart of knowing what students know is formative assessment.

Getting to know students when you’re teaching remotely is challenging. It’s hard to do when you can’t just pull students aside, much less when you’re dealing with all the logistical considerations.  Districts using comprehensive, high quality instructional materials have an advantage, and should turn to them for help.  For example, our reading curriculum, Wit & Wisdom, utilizes “notice and wonder” charts.  The wonder section gives the teacher great insights into students’ thinking.  We recommend taking the time to do fluency checks with individual students online and having them use programs like Flipgrid to explain their thinking. 

The teacher’s thumbprint also includes the ability to be analytical about one’s  practice: to not just know what to do, but to know WHY you’re doing it.  Put another way, a teacher’s thumbprint isn’t just the knowledge, it’s what you DO with the knowledge.  

My first experience with really focusing on the analysis of teaching came 20 years ago when I was working on National Board Teacher Certification. One of the Five Core Propositions of NBPTS is that teachers are committed to students and their learning.  Effective pedagogy requires a teacher to take her knowledge of the content and her knowledge of where the students are and adjust instruction accordingly.  For example, most high quality instructional materials include ideal vignettes in the teaching materials.  Focusing on the teacher thumbprint reminds teachers to look at those vignettes not as scripts but, instead, as examples of a dialogue that should be adjusted based on the teacher’s knowledge of the content (including what that vignette is describing), the students in front of her, and what she does best as a teacher. 

The teacher’s thumbprint assumes a level of metacognition about one’s practice.  It’s the ability to see and think about how one’s actions as the teacher interact with the students in the classroom.  We all need to take time to reflect on our strengths as educators and the students in front of us instead of trying to change our thumbprint.  By understanding our strengths, we can apply them to our current context. 

As a district leader, I believe it is my job to help schools create professional learning opportunities that enable teachers to do this.  Earlier this summer, the MIT Teaching Systems Lab released Imagining September, which shared insights into what schooling should look like during COVID-19.   During a podcast about the report, Neema Avashia said we had to lean into our values.  As a district instructional leader, I’m clinging to my values and making them transparent to others.   

I believe the most direct way to improve student learning is to improve teacher practice.  For learning to happen, students have to be engaged – and this is rooted in a teacher’s understanding of the students before her.  Truly understanding students means knowing where they are in relation to standards; all great teaching connects that knowledge to the ways the curriculum supports rigorous teaching of those standards.  

Still, each educator has a unique teaching style that is responsive to students’ cognitive, social and emotional needs. More than ever this year, I’m leading this work by encouraging teachers to place their thumbprint on lessons.  I’m encouraging teachers to be metacognitive about their thumbprint – to reflect on it, and not forget that it requires understanding their strengths and applying them to the current context, which is to say a wide range of learning environments.  When we as educators maintain high rigorous academic content and learning environments, staying in tune with students and their needs, academic success will happen no matter what unfolds.

Jana Beth Francis is the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for Daviess County Public Schools in Owensboro, KY.

Synchronous and asynchronous instructional time are BOTH precious

Of all the topics that we as academic leaders have fielded over these past few months, in contemplating with colleagues what teaching and learning should look in the many different remote and hybrid schooling models under consideration in our districts, few have been more meaty – and, indeed, more professionally enriching – than those surrounding what gets taught synchronously and what can (indeed, should?) happen asynchronously. 

Enthusiasm for the “flipped classroom” – the idea that students are introduced to new material on their own, generally at home for homework, before they’re asked to engage with it at school – was high in many education circles ten years ago.  But since the idea became largely associated with individualized instruction, it probably didn’t receive the kind of mainstream, district-level attention in professional learning that we now, in hindsight, might wish it had.  

Well, COVID has changed all that.  With synchronous instructional time – whether face-to-face or online – more precious than ever, how best to use that time and what can be (indeed might best be) “flipped,” is of pressing importance.   

Between the three of us, our districts are using four different high-quality ELA curricula – ARC Core, Bookworms, Study Sync, and Wit & Wisdom.  In all cases, we’ve been able to work with our publishing and professional learning partners  to help make the decision about which modality is best for different parts of the lesson.  They have helped us to identify what students can and should do on their own and what is best executed collaboratively.

For example, the authors of Bookworms suggest that students in grades 3-5 asynchronously participate in choral and repeated readings of the shared texts using video the teacher has pre recorded and posted.  The classroom discussion of the texts is then conducted synchronously, followed by asynchronous self-selected or partner reading.   

Wit & Wisdom’s authors have created videos that focus on knowledge-building and the core ELA competencies of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking. Some teachers elect to share the videos directly with students and then embed synchronous opportunities for students to share and discuss their ideas or responses to prompts.  Other teachers view the videos in order to further unpack and internalize the lessons themselves, before developing their own plan for synchronous instruction. Teachers also share the vocabulary videos selectively in order to provide explicit, systematic, intensive vocabulary instruction on key content and academic words as needed.

Instructional technology tools like Pear Deck, Flipgrid, and Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook have made our curricular content more accessible to students when they’re not in the same physical classroom as the teacher.  Using these tools has, of course, required a lot of time training teachers on to determine which are best suited to the individual elements of the lesson; which serve to enhance (and not sacrifice) our curriculum’s rigor, best support the student-to-student engagement that is so important when grappling with complex texts, and provide our teachers with opportunities for frequent formative assessments throughout the lesson. 

One of the things we’ve found so galvanizing about this topic of synchronous vs. asynchronous instruction is that it surfaces questions of our teaching staff that can only be answered by deep study of the curriculum being used.  In fact, thinking carefully and deliberately about how we want students to engage with the content – what type of engagement will best meet a particular learning objective – requires our teachers not just to know how the lessons unfold and work together, but how we want students to access and interact with the content.  This is powerful professional learning, requiring the kind of internalization of the lesson that is profoundly rewarding.

As families and teachers alike become normalized to the distinctions between synchronous and asynchronous instruction, and come to appreciate the benefits that purposeful use of each can have on teaching and learning, we have a hard time imagining that some version of the “flipped classroom” (or whatever it may be called in the future) isn’t here to stay.   The agency students and parents have experienced during this time, which is surely one of the upsides of COVID, will permanently transform how content is delivered to students – and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Nakia Hardy is the Deputy Superintendent of Academic Services in Durham Public Schools (NC), Kathleen Skellie is the Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for Ballston Spa Central School District (NY), and Colleen Stearns is the Vice President, Curriculum and Instruction at IDEA Public Schools.

How Supporting the Field Paid Back in Spades: Our modEL Detroit Story

When we created modEL Detroit – a set of lesson resources designed to ease year one implementation of our ELA curriculum – we were trying to support our teachers. Little did we know that we were helping to prepare ourselves for a global pandemic, and also building a bridge to some of the top districts in the country. 

Our story started with an equity mission in Detroit Public Schools Community District. Notoriously, the district had the lowest literacy rate of any urban district, after years of chronic underinvestment and a period of emergency management. New superintendent Nikolai Vitti was intent on raising outcomes for students, and we were excited to take on the challenge with him, after working together with Dr. Vitti to raise outcomes in Duval County.

One of our first steps was to facilitate an audit of Detroit’s instructional materials. In ELA, the district was using Imagine It, a curriculum purchased in 2008. It predated our new state standards, so unsurprisingly, the audit revealed that the curriculum was poorly aligned with the standards. In addition to a curriculum upgrade, we needed to invest in teacher leaders in our district, and we knew that a teacher-led selection would yield the best outcomes. Our teachers selected EL Education for its rich texts, social justice themes, and its integrated social-emotional learning. 

The curriculum has many fans, in part because it incorporates tremendous amounts of professional learning content into the materials. (All of the “high-quality” ELA curricula are described as ‘educative,’ because they proactively support PD about math or ELA; we find EL Education to do an exemplary job.) It’s wonderful that lesson materials actually deliver PD – but the expansive lesson prep materials pose a challenge in year one of implementation: while teachers are learning new materials, they don’t always have time to read all of the content in the teacher guides, particularly in day to day prep.

Our answer was modEL Detroit. With generous support from the Skillman Foundation and assistance from StandardsWork, we worked with Meredith Liben to create PowerPoint slides for each lesson, which dramatically cut down on lesson prep time. (Recent teacher chatter in social media offers a good reminder that slide prep time can be a massive time sink for teachers!) We wrote notes into each slide to lift out the big rocks, then our PLCs could focus on how to scaffold those big rocks in lesson delivery. Our teachers were able to plan more thoughtfully and strategically, with a focus on pedagogy.

Of course, we also invested in multiyear professional learning for our teachers: a 5-day launch institute, as well as monthly professional learning for master teachers. We use the embedded professional learning in the EL Education teacher materials with our coaches and also in our own PD sessions. Our overall investment paid off, as we saw ELA (and math!) gains in every grade and outpaced our state’s average growth.

We published modEL Detroit as an open educational resource (OER), to benefit the community of districts using the materials. Its website has been viewed 62,384 times, so we know these materials have been useful! 

‘Paying it forward’ paid off, as we deepened relationships with other districts using EL Education. People may not realize how many districts using a common curricula have begun collaborating across districts. We talk about how curriculum brings school teams together by creating a common language; the national community gains a shared language, as well. Whenever we see our teachers swapping advice with educators across the country in social media, our hearts swell. 

Peak heart-swell came last summer, when our teachers were invited to provide Professional Development for the teachers of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a North Carolina district beginning its implementation of EL Education! Our teachers felt immense pride at this honor and accomplishment, and it deepened their commitment to our work. It was also a wonderful professional growth opportunity for our teachers: the best way to cement one’s own learning is to teach it. The cross-district bond with Brian Kingsley and his team means the world.

The Remote Learning Chapter   

In 2019-20, we were on track for continued gains. In fact, grades 4 through 8 were on track to have double the growth of the previous year! We were over the moon when Dr. Vitti shared the indicators with our community! 

But… you know what hit in March, 2020. Curriculum made moving into distance learning 10 times easier. It enabled our support of teachers, as our master teachers recorded videos in April for use in distance learning. These, too, were initially published openly; now we use them for PD. 

Our modEL Detroit investment continues to pay back this year as we optimize our implementation. Based on our K–3 data, we saw a need to increase the amount practice with phonics skills that had been introduced, and to increase student time with decodable readers. To roll this out, we enhanced our modEL Detroit K–2 PowerPoints with daily routines, which made this far easier to roll out. We also added interactive workbook pages in K–2, which has helped to eliminate the need for shared resources between students.. 

As we have opened the school year, we are thankful to have a high-quality, coherent curriculum to draw on.  It has provided a familiar foundation and comfortable routines, at a time when teachers and students have had to acclimate to new online platforms. Our teachers have had time to focus on the digital transitions and to expand on the social emotional learning already present in our EL Education curriculum.  We have seen teachers eager to get students into their first novels of the year – a refreshing bit of normalcy in a most abnormal season. 

A Remarkable Two Year Journey

If you walked our district three years ago versus today, you too would feel moved about what you saw. Detroit’s performance data tells a tiny fraction of our story of improved instruction.

Our teachers have learned to give academic ownership over to students; kids do more of the lift because teachers have learned how and when to facilitate. In every classroom, the text is out and the kids are engaged – and all kids are working with grade level texts! Our teachers have learned how to bring this goal into practice, and whereas we initially had some teachers push for leveled libraries, that debate has stopped, because our kids showed they were all up to the task of grade level work..

Seeing our most fragile students discussing great texts with our most advanced students – it’s art in action.

As our story spread, we saw people who once looked down on our district using our modEL Detroit tools! We put ‘Detroit’ in the name intentionally, because we wanted to change the narrative of how people talked about literacy in our city. Our students’ and families’ pride in our growth is palpable, and we are so delighted to share in this work.


Beth Gonzalez is the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction and April Imperio is the Executive Director of K–12 Literacy and Early Learning for Detroit Community Public School District. We welcome inquiries about our work, and we warmly invite you to use and share the modEL Detroit resources linked from this article.

Curriculum Notes

The following high-quality curricula are used in Detroit Public Schools Community District:

K–5 ELA: EL Education Language Arts (all-green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes), provided by Open Up Resources

6–8 ELA: Paths to College and Career (all-green on EdReports)

K–8 Math: Eureka Math (all-green on EdReports in grades K–5, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes)

Image credit: Detroit Public Schools Community District

Getting All Kids Working With Grade Level Texts: Distance Learning Edition

In Baltimore City, all students work with rich, grade level texts in English Language Arts. Evidence shows that this approach fosters the most growth for learners, so we carefully selected a curriculum designed around grade level work for every student. 

The alternative – reading instruction that revolves around leveled reading groups, in which some students get s steady diet of low-level texts – is simply inequitable. Our CEO Sonja Santelises explains it beautifully:

“We know that schools are some of the most powerful places to address the unfinished work around racial justice that we are seeing. There is power in what is taught along with the how it is taught and the context in which it is taught. We’ve seen this with our own materials.  With the new curriculum it has become harder to water down content for certain groups. So the discussions shifted from ‘These kids aren’t ready for this level’ to ‘This is the content – how can we make it more accessible?’”

This approach is key to our equity mission, and our students have been thriving in classrooms where instruction revolves around common texts and tasks. You hear this from our teachers, and you can see it in our outcomes. In fact, we believe that getting all students working with grade level texts was a key reason we saw gains in all grades in Maryland assessments in our first year using our new ELA curriculum, Wit and Wisdom.

The answer to Dr. Santelises’s question, “How can we make it more accessible” for students that are below-benchmark, is scaffolding. Wit and Wisdom includes multiple components to support scaffolding: instructional routines and protocols, as well as practices like questioning, annotating, summarizing, and gathering evidence. Such tasks do double-duty, keeping students engaged with the texts while also integrating formative assessment into lessons, so that teachers can make the best decisions on how to support each student.

In the 2019-20 school year, scaffolding was an area of ongoing professional learning for our team: the area with the most room for additional innovation, teacher reflection, and study. We were asking ourselves questions like, “How do we offer scaffolds only-as-needed, so that we don’t water down instruction unnecessarily, since students often rise to challenges in ways that surprise us?” These conversations were happening before COVID came along.

Now, as we start a school year remotely, we talk constantly about how we keep work with excellent texts at the heart of instruction, even in a distance learning scenario. Which means we need to talk a lot about scaffolding, to prevent “Zooming in and zoning out” by students who’d be unable to access the texts without an assist.

Scaffolding in a Distance Learning Era

Our teachers are accustomed to scaffolding texts in-person. Many of the strategies involve kneeling next to a student’s desk! So, we need to be thoughtful about translating them to remote environments.

Here are the strategies that seem like they’ll work best in a remote scenario:

  • Having students collaborate as learning partners in breakout rooms, to process and plan before completing independent work. 
  • Using digital annotation tools in whiteboards to draw attention to language or text structure.
  • Screen sharing student work exemplars or other models.
  • Providing multiple access points to writing, such as graphic organizers, word banks, or glossaries. Or journaling so students can track thinking for reference or response.
  • To foster checks for understanding: In asynchronous lessons, providing students the option of pausing lesson videos at key points to take notes or jot down questions. Then, during live check-ins, review those notes and questions with students. When teaching live sessions, stopping at key points and allowing students to use the hand raise feature to ask questions. 
  • Model thinking by strategically pausing to share reflections with students, who can gauge their answer against the teacher’s and to add evidence-based thinking to their responses.

It can help to look at an exemplar; one of our strong teachers, Katie Scotti, created these scaffolding resources for a fourth grade writing task, then added reflections on how she will modify the approach in distance learning. They are used only as-needed; Katie looks for evidence that students need a scaffold before automatically providing one. We invite others to use Katie’s scaffolding resources, and/or to suggest refinements.

Leveraging the Collective Wisdom of This PLN

One of our favorite aspects of working with high-quality curriculum is the national community around this work. We have collaborated with districts across the country using our exact curricula, via Zoom meetups and school walkthroughs. Each year we add more educators to our network, which has become an invaluable source of professional learning.

It’s easiest to collaborate when using the same materials, but the high-quality curricula share common DNA, so we can collaborate across curricula on matters of practice, such as scaffolding.

To that end, we’d like to create a collective learning opportunity for this community. Please join Katie and me for a Zoom Chat on Scaffolding Strategies for Distance Learning on Wednesday, September 9th at 9pm. Katie and I will talk through our approaches – and we hope others will be willing to share their experiences and approaches! (You can indicate your interest in contributing via the Zoom registration.)

Teachers who’ve gone back already, what strategies are working? We want to learn from the leaders in our PLN. Surely Katie isn’t the only one developing resources and strategies that deserve sharing; let’s surface others!

Join us for a Zoom chat; We hope to see you and learn with you.

UPDATE: You can now watch a recording of Janise and Katie’s open conversation about this topic, recorded on 9/10:

Janise Lane is the Executive Director or Teaching and Learning at Baltimore City Schools in Maryland. You can read more about her work here.


Good Reading on Scaffolding Strategies

To support teachers with scaffolding practice, here are a few touchstone resources that do an excellent job of unpacking scaffolding:


Curriculum Notes

Janise would be glad to connect about these high-quality curricula which are used in Baltimore City Schools:

K–8 ELA:Wit & Wisdom (all-green on EdReportsin grades 3-8, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believesin grades K–8)

Math, Kindergarten through Pre-Calc:Eureka Math (all-green on EdReportsin grades K–5, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes)

Illuminating the Opaque PD Landscape

Professional Development is my thing. Arguably nothing is more important than investing in our teachers… and yet it’s an area that all too often falls short. I’m passionate about solving that problem.  

It’s an urgent problem. In recent years, we’ve had a national reckoning about the critical need for professional development in reading instruction, as teachers shared frustration about their preparation. Sadly, many teacher prep programs don’t teach teachers how kids learn to read. (I’m shaking my head as I write that sentence.) This issue compels our attention: districts need to understand and address the unfinished learning of their teachers, which aren’t limited to literacy.

Mind you, this isn’t easy. We do our best work when we have truly great PD partners, yet those have been exceptionally hard to find.

Challenges abound, and it helps to name them:

One-size-fits-all PD

The best professional development is tailored to the needs of the team – which vary!

Different roles have different arcs of learning: teachers, principals, and central office staff typically have specialized needs.

The first year of a district initiative comes with very different needs than year three. I can still remember the first year of our literacy work in Baltimore, when the learning revolved around literacy fundamentals, such as the importance of foundational skills as well as getting all kids working with grade level texts. Now we are in year three, and we’re working on refining our approach. Today’s questions look more like: How do you make lesson study relevant to teachers? 

Also, as a believer in curriculum-aligned and job-embedded PD, I know that professional development providers need expertise in any materials that are in use, where districts have adopted high-quality curricula.

Professional Development should come from specialists with expertise that corresponds to these types of contexts, which will be unique to each district.

The challenge of needs assessment

Sometimes districts want help with the first step: understanding their needs and opportunities for improvement. Often this is especially valuable for districts beginning the curriculum selection journey.

Did you know that there are organizations that specialize in auditing the instruction across a district and recommending improvement opportunities – from PD to pedagogy to curriculum? This support is invaluable! Jared Myracle describes how a similar audit illuminated issues in his district, then aligned his team around an improvement plan.

Yet virtually no one knows that this service exists! We need to raise awareness of such options.

“Spray & Pray” PD from many traditional curriculum providers: 

This issue looms large in our space. The big curriculum providers historically offered Professional Development “free with purchase” of a new program, and it was worth what districts paid for it, barely going beyond the anatomy of the materials. This legacy of weak PD from curriculum providers tarnished the impression of “curriculum PD” for many educators.

Fortunately, many of the newer providers offer vastly better professional learning experiences… particularly for curriculum-aligned PD. Yet this development, too, is largely unknown. Just as we talk of a curriculum renaissance, there has been a PD partner renaissance which deserves a conversation.

An opaque landscape:

You’ve probably noticed a theme emerging: the challenge of knowing the new and high-quality vendors and service options. Districts that came early to high-quality curricula have been getting to know the new generation of providers, as Brian Kingsley has noted. Yet this has essentially been insider information, known to a small community of early adopters. K–12 education has lacked a directory, as well as a source of ratings, for these PD providers.

Fortunately, this is changing, too! Rivet Education has just debuted a Professional Learning Partner Guide that is intended to help districts find their ideal partner across all of the criteria above. Trained educators have evaluated the Professional Learning providers, which is invaluable by itself.

For those who know EdReports, the curriculum review site, this new Guide can be thought of as a natural partner to EdReports, but for PD. It helps districts ensure results from curriculum adoption, by finding the right partners for each part of the journey – from needs assessment to the optimization of a mature literacy program. Simply seeing all of the options more clearly can help districts to craft a comprehensive, multi-year roadmap for professional learning.

I believe that this is a revolutionary and essential service to the field, and I have been proud to work with Rivet Education as they brought this work to fruition. Professional Development is a major investment for districts – in time, in dollars, in potential for impact. District leaders will benefit greatly from this insight into the previously-murky PD landscape, through transparency, reviews, and guidance in finding just-right options.
Ultimately, our teachers and students win when PD yields true professional learning. Just as EdReports brought new visibility and discourse into the curriculum space, I hope to see a similar flourishing around professional learning in the years to come.

Janise Lane is the Executive Director or Teaching and Learning at Baltimore City Schools in Maryland. You can read more about her work here.

Curriculum Notes

Janise would be glad to connect about these high-quality curricula which are used in Baltimore City Schools:

K–8 ELA:Wit & Wisdom (all-green on EdReportsin grades 3-8, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believesin grades K–8)

Math, Kindergarten through Pre-Calc:Eureka Math (all-green on EdReportsin grades K–5, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes)

Making an Impossible Challenge More Manageable

We’ve never experienced a school reopening like this one. (Understatements.)

When our ‘squad’ connected this season, the refrain was the same: “We would be LOST if we did not have high-quality curriculum in place in our districts.”

We’ve been hearing this message a lot. This Spring, teacher Kyair Butts explained why Curriculum Matters More in a Crisis. Given the importance of cross-district collaboration in these unprecedented times, we thought it would help to share our experience across districts. Some districts are considering ‘emergency adoptions’ due to the pandemic; perhaps our ‘Why’ will be helpful for the field. 

Here’s why curriculum mattered during our ’20-21 Back to School experience. 

High-quality curriculum eased our pivot to remote or blended learning:

Beth Gonzalez, Detroit, MI

Because we had high-quality curriculum in place, we have, at a systems level, been able to deliver the supports teachers needed to pivot to a digital environment.  I think this is a lesson for the field.  Because we had a curriculum, individual teachers weren’t running around trying to curate online materials; they had a solid foundation upon which to build. That foundation provided them the space they needed to learn the new things the pandemic called for – things like how to use online platforms and digital engagement strategies.  So, we’ve been able to build on our existing curriculum with curated resources that have enabled us to adapt to the new environment in ways that are both supportive of teachers and aligned to the professional learning we’ve been pursuing for the past three years.  

Robin McClellan, Sullivan County, TN

High-quality instructional materials have helped us lay the track for professional collaboration around instruction.  If we had not begun that work already, I’m not sure we could have done it.  But because we had common goals and expectations, we can focus on some of the more critical pedagogical moves – like how teachers can best engage with students.  Our biggest challenge right now is in determining what parts of the lesson can be done asynchronously and what has to happen synchronously; what requires explicit teaching, what needs modeling, how we provide opportunities for conversation, etc.  Such decisions are vital to how the lesson unfolds and we are also keenly aware that we have the luxury of thinking about these nuances of lesson delivery because we have a shared curriculum, around which we have experience planning, which makes thinking about these questions infinitely easier.    

Colleen Stearns, IDEA Public Schools

Because we have a common, high-quality curriculum, we have been able to get laser focused in our training on how the lessons get moved to the virtual platform.  We didn’t have to spend energy on figuring out what we were going to teach – or how the curriculum worked.  As a professional learning community, we directed our collective efforts to identifying specific instructional tools that are best aligned to the delivery of our curriculum.  We even created a resource for teachers that outlines how they could transform each lesson component within the curriculum using the district-supported virtual tools.

Janise Lane, Baltimore City, MD

We receive  ongoing professional learning/implementation support from our curriculum provider (Great Minds) who was able to lift some of the burden from us by updating tools and resources, revising assessment plans, and helping us think through how to help students recover from potential lost learning and how to accelerate where we could in the curriculum.  This allowed us the time and space to plan implementation supports and think deeply about how to best support our learners, teachers, leaders, and families. We continue to work in partnership to now lean in, learn, and listen as we begin studying our implementation.

Diana Fedderman, Palm Beach County, FL

In a distance learning environment, all of our educators face challenges typical of first-year teachers.  The educative features built into high-quality instructional materials have been crucial to our successively pivoting online.  When they’re in a building, working side-by-side, it’s second nature for new teachers to seek out experienced teachers who might help them understand what a standard is saying or provide them with suggestions for some of the pedagogical challenge they’re experiencing.  Well, we can’t do that now – but, fortunately, the answers are there for all teachers in the curriculum.   

Our curriculum providers stepped up with new supports and resources for distance/blended learning:

Nakia Hardy, Durham, NC:

The high-quality curriculum providers serving our district (Eureka Math, ARC Core, StudySync) have been generous in making themselves available for virtual professional learning and office hours to support our teachers and leaders in making the transition.  They want us to succeed.  

Jana Beth Francis, Daviess County, KY:

Our high-quality curriculum provider (Wit & Wisdom) has been extremely helpful in providing digital resources and making suggestions for modifications, both in terms of how a lesson is delivered and in accelerating the curriculum where possible.

Robin McClellan, Sullivan County, TN 

Our provider (Amplify) has many onboarding webinars and reference videos that take teachers through the beginning steps, modeling lessons, etc.  

In the weeks to come, we’ll talk in more detail about how we’re making the distance and blended pivot, as well as the supports on which we’re relying. Please join our Facebook group and follow Curriculum Matters on Twitter to stay abreast of these conversations.