Why Tennessee Should Be the National Model for Literacy

Tennessee has been in the news this year for our reading progress – well-deserved recognition for a smart strategy, well-executed. As states look for ways to improve reading outcomes, I believe the Tennessee model should be the Go To approach. Here’s why. 

Tennessee hasn’t just trained teachers, we’ve given them the right tools: curriculum.

Teacher training has become increasingly-popular as a means to bring the Science of Reading into classrooms, for good reason. Tennessee didn’t forget this; our Reading360 initiative trained 30,000 Tennessee teachers over the last two summers, and our teachers have raved about the experience.

However, training isn’t enough. If you simply tell teachers what needs to change without giving them the tools to do it, you become that coach that yells, “Run” or “Tackle” on the sidelines, without providing the plays and the playbook required for success.

By 2019, the “Best for All” initiative ensured that all districts now use high-quality ELA curriculum.  This has been a game-changer. Curriculum enables the changes we’ve asked teachers to make to be tangible and feasible. It is the proverbial playbook.

This is the cornerstone of our improvement, and the backbone for everything else that follows.

This curriculum focus stands in marked contrast to other states who’ve made a ‘Science of Reading’ investment; Mississippi has been rightfully cheered for its teacher training successes, but recent reporting reminds us that they are still catching up on bringing high-quality, knowledge-building curriculum to schools, to address the other aspects of the Science of Reading. Tennessee leads on literacy by investing in the Both-And of curriculum and training.

We are doing “curriculum-aligned professional learning” at statewide scale.

The Reading360 training was especially impactful because teachers had curriculum in hand during the training. The professional learning incorporated study of, and practice with, either the district-adopted foundational skills curriculum or the Tennessee Foundational Skills Curriculum Supplement – free, excellent materials developed by the state. Educators worked from the playbook, while learning why those plays were strategically essential. They weren’t just learning about why foundational skills matter, they were practicing classroom implementation. We can’t underestimate how much this makes the concepts more “real” to our teachers.

Education leaders talk about the need for professional learning to be curriculum-aligned, so that teachers have the playbook in hand as they are learning the concepts of the game. I consider #Reading360 training to be a proof of concept. Fortunately, this idea is getting traction nationally, and resources like Rivet Education’s Professional Learning Partner Guide have made it easier for districts to find partners for curriculum-based professional learning.  

We aren’t just focused on foundational skills.

Foundational skills are critical, as we have seen firsthand in Sumner. So many of our kids were guessing at words, and we didn’t know it until we started using more rigorous curriculum and it exposed our foundational skills shortcomings.

Still, we knew that we had issues beyond the early grades. Our test results were OK in the lower elementary grades, but when our kids got into upper grades, things started trailing off. 

But, since our shift to knowledge-building curriculum, we are seeing improvements that cross grades – something that is also reflected in Tennessee’s statewide testing results.  Tennessee districts saw gains across K–12, with the strongest gains actually happening in high school. That’s an important proof-point for the knowledge-building approach, which really shines when cumulative learning is assessed.    

Foundational skills are the easy (and important!) win; knowledge-building is harder Other states need to take note of Tennessee’s success.

We didn’t forget our secondary teachers.

When I taught high school history and English literature, I had students with so many reading needs, but no toolkit for dealing with them.  I’m proud to be in a state that brought Science of Reading training to teachers in upper grades and across the content areas. This summer, Secondary Literacy training was unsurprisingly hailed by our teachers as incredibly beneficial. “I have felt pretty helpless until now,” said one 7th grade teacher, and boy could I relate.

Our investments in knowledge-building ELA curricula also gave essential tools to our upper grades teachers. Investing in the Science of Reading means more than success with decoding in K–2.

We didn’t just support teachers, we nurtured leaders.

Tennessee also supported Literacy Implementation Networks, in which districts across the state using common ELA curriculum are working with high-quality professional learning organizations to support implementation.  Districts with mature implementations are partnered up with those that have newly adopted.  These networks have been phenomenally successful, and the added benefit is that they’ve helped to create a collaborative culture, and shared experience, across the state around our literacy initiatives.  

To my knowledge, Tennessee is the first state to truly scale curriculum-centered design for literacy. Keep an eye on our state in the years to come. With these investments taking root, I believe they will continue to bear fruit.

Curriculum Chatter: Lower Rates of Learning Disabilities, Rich Writing in Science Class, and More

Sometimes, a tweet can stop you in your tracks. We had a number of those moments in recent weeks – and we want to make sure that our friends beyond Twitter have a chance to see the special stories coming out of classrooms using high-quality curriculum.

Student outcomes move us every time! Jonathan Criswell shared that the number of students identified as having learning disabilities has dropped since the use of high-quality curriculum, and we can’t think of a better outcome:

Rich writing isn’t just for ELA! This stellar writing in a Grand Island science classroom using a high-quality science program knocked our socks off:

We could listen to math discourse all day, so we loved Kelly Carvajal Hageman’s share from a Seaford math class:

Is there anything more delightful than students becoming so engaged in their learning that they can’t stop talking during breaks? In Aldine ISD: 


In an era of curriculum myths, Abby Boruff was mythbusing, and we are here for it:

A Twitter thread can speak a thousand words, and Katie Scotti has been prolific! Check out her thread on knowledge-building, which really shows literacy acceleration in action:

Also, Katie’s thread on shared reading, and its role in fluency development:

Did we mention that Katie also wrote a superb column, Knowledge-building IS social-emotional learning, and it’s a must-read?

Please keep the posts coming, and use #CurriculumMatters in Twitter and Instagram so that we can see your shares! You can also follow our Facebook page or join our Curriculum Matters group.

Curriculum Chatter at the Close of October, 2022

It’s too hard to see into classrooms using high-quality curriculum, something we know all too well, because of all of the requests we get to host visitors! Social media can offer an excellent way to glimpse work with high-quality materials, so we have collected some nice illustrations from Twitter in the week-ending October 30th.

We are a sucker for evidence of student gains, so our Post of the Week was this kindergarten reading data from the Milton Terrace teachers in Ballston Spa, NY:

Other posts we adored:

Kyair Butts sharing that they are “using fluency as a driver for excellence” in Baltimore, MD:

April Imperio talking about positive math identities in Birmingham, MI:

Kelly Carvajal Hageman reminding us that “Everyone gets what they need in core instruction” in Seaford, DE:

Gorgeous student work in Aldine, TX:

Proud students showing off their knowledge in Pentucket, MA:

Please keep the posts coming, and use #CurriculumMatters in Twitter and Instagram so that we can see your shares!

You can also follow our Facebook page or join our Curriculum Matters group.

As More Districts Choose Wonders, We Should Revisit Basal Bloat

Recently, I have met a number of district leaders who are committed to using high-quality curriculum, and who have recently selected the Wonders 2020 curriculum – without realizing some of the concerns in the field about the program (as well as other recently-revised basal readers). As such, it feels like a good time to revisit the learnings from our July webinar on Basal Bloat, which discussed the Student Achievement Partners recent review of Wonders.

Listening to Sue Pimentel, Meredith Liben, and Sonia Cabell, what struck me most was how much work teachers and leaders will need to do in order to adapt the materials for successful implementation. I also learned quite a lot about the design differences between basal textbooks in general and some of the newer high-quality instructional materials.   

The discussion centered on questions that curriculum leaders need to understand: How does “basal bloat” manifest? And what can we do if our district is using such a program? Also, what is the risk to knowledge-building that some of these programs pose? 

Let’s revisit.

What is Basal Bloat?

Our speakers suggested that basal bloat is the result of publishers’ efforts to be “all things to all people,” that is to cover every content standard with the widest possible range of topics to achieve maximum appeal. Basals that suffer from this kind of bloat also often lack intentionality when it comes to building background knowledge. Usually more thematic than topical, literacy activities are often unrelated across the days and weeks of the scope and sequence. There are so many things jam packed into the basal that the “bloat” can make it hard for teachers to know what to prioritize.

Meredith Liben put it this way: “It’s like a smorgasbord—one of those big truck stop buffets where there’s just so much. You can make bad choices right down the line because everything is there; it is really easy to get lost. The research-based work that we know moves students’ literacy forward is hard to find because there are layers of fat obscuring it.” 

Sue Pimentel added:  “It’s got so much, you can either choose the wrong stuff, or you can try to cover everything, but in doing so, just hover on the surface—which means you don’t go deep and also that students often don’t get enough practice. If you have everything there, but you can’t find it, or it doesn’t stick out, or isn’t a priority, then you’ve got another problem.”

How does Wonders fall short on knowledge-building? 

Sonia Cabell led the review of how Wonders does with knowledge-building and, in doing so, unpacked the issue with this program and other basals. Essentially, Wonders organizes itself around themes, for example, What Do We Learn from Animals or What Makes Us Special, tying weeks together into a unit even if the topical connection is pretty loose. The goal really isn’t to build content knowledge in a particular topic.

Wonders units are made to look like they’re building knowledge, but really what they’re offering are activities that attempt to activate prior knowledge, which is a problem if students don’t possess it.  Also, there’s often nothing sequential about the knowledge that’s being built.

By contrast, with content-rich ELA HQIM curricula, the knowledge approach is intentional and builds coherently across a module or unit. Students deeply study the content (e.g. arctic animals) and each successive reading in coherent text sets builds on that topic. The writing and the reading are designed to advance the knowledge building, and the word selection and the relationships among words are taught in ways that really tie the pieces together. Curricula that were intentionally built to build knowledge are generally more integrated than basals like Wonders. 

What should you do if you have Wonders in your district?

Multiple folks recommended a resource offered by Achieve the Core:  The Materials Adaptation Project (MAP) provides guidance for streamlining basal programs. Recommended adaptations elevate the best materials while supporting additional modifications for college- and career-ready instruction. Each grade level’s MAP contains an introductory overview, Week at a Glance (WAG) Planning Template, and specific Rules of Thumb for handling different instructional components of the basal. According to Achieve the Core, “Following the MAP guidance can help teachers who use basals maximize the positive and effective elements of the materials, while avoiding the pitfalls caused by the overwhelming amount of content in the bloated curriculum.”

Following are specific recommendations from Achieve the Core/ Student Achievement Partners

  • Always support foundational skills.  ALWAYS.
  • Elevate the best texts…they’re there!
  • Let rereading of less complex texts happen outside of whole group instruction (in small groups or independently).
  • Cut to the heart of the instructional purpose of the lessons (avoid extraneous activities or questions).
  • Build knowledge and vocabulary where possible!
  • Reduce the number of transitions your students have to make each day.  

Sue Pimentel also noted the importance of doing the work of real implementation. Focus on the training with teachers and provide time for teachers to get together and talk over how it is going. They need to understand what is being asked of them in the curriculum, they need to understand research behind the curriculum. They need to spend the first couple of years understanding what’s in the curriculum and what to prioritize and keep that up over the first few years. She suggested leveraging the collective experience of teachers to streamline and make the curriculum more coherent. Meredith Liben referred to this as “crowdsourcing” and suggested that it could turn an obstacle into opportunity.  

Each of the speakers noted that there is a lot of information in this review. They recommended taking the report bit by bit and focusing on the components most relevant to you, your students, and the teachers in your building.

A Work in Progress, Focused on Equity: The Richmond Curriculum Journey

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

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

We are a school district operating under an MOU with our State Department of Public Instruction due to low performance. What I noticed when I arrived three years ago is that a lot of our students were receiving instruction below grade level, so we were never catching up. So, in 2019 we looked at ELA curricula that would engage our students in reading at grade level, and would do so with a diversity of rigorous, multicultural  texts.  Having a curriculum that includes social-emotional learning and character development, and that recognizes many students have had to manage trauma, was also important. Finally, we wanted a curriculum that would help students build content knowledge and, obviously, that aligned to state standards and had the capacity to support mastery of them. These are the reasons we chose EL Education Language Arts and Eureka Math.

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

The hardest thing for teachers was understanding how the curricula aligned with our state standards.Teachers were focusing on individual standards in isolation, which we know doesn’t work. So we needed to shift the conversation to outcomes, and we created a crosswalk that matches the learning targets in the curriculum to our Virginia Standards Of Learning (SOLs). We helped teachers translate the vocabulary of our standards to the vocabulary in the curriculum. Then we took each test item in the assessments for the EL Education Language Arts curriculum and matched it to the state standards that it addresses. This is all still a work in progress, but when teachers really understand that the curriculum is aiming at the same knowledge and skills as our standards, they feel more confident about implementing it.

The other important groundwork was helping teachers understand that  these are not plug and play curricula. We intentionally talk about implementing with integrity, not fidelity. We don’t want leaders coming in and saying, “You’re not on this lesson,” or “Why aren’t you doing this piece right now?” Instead, leaders need to figure out how to give teachers choice and freedom and also support them in deeply learning the curriculum so that they know when and how and when they can modify lessons appropriately.   

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

All of our principals and assistant principals attended the virtual summit with UnBound Ed this summer focusing on equity.  Now we have a small group participating in a cohort that is looking at antiracist education and the ways in which grade-level work and the high expectations we set can lift students up. The curricula we’ve selected invite students to take ownership of their learning, and that’s what we want. We want students to have a voice—no matter their race, color, or gender—to be advocates for what matters to them.  Also, conversation cues, especially for ELLs, are built into the ELA curriculum. Linguistic development is built in, speaking and listening time, and structures that encourage conversation between students. This is all a part of driving equity too. 

Your district is just three weeks into the new school year. What are you hoping for or focusing on now as you reorient to in-person instruction?
Last year we were using EL Education’s Flex Curriculum, which is designed for virtual instruction.  This year we are just three weeks into in-person instruction, so we are very much in reset mode.  One of the things I’d like to see is that every elementary and middle school engage their families, either virtually or in person, in better understanding what’s happening instructionally. Let’s introduce our families to each module before we teach it so that families understand the conversations students are having and can ask questions and get excited about the conversations they can have with their students at home. Deep conversations is what our ELA curriculum, in particular, is intended to evoke. Opening those doors at home as well as at school will help accelerate learning for all children.

Recenter Your Beliefs about Literacy: The Daviess County Curriculum Journey

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

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

Jana Beth Francis: Even before implementing high-quality curricula, our district was in the top 25 districts in the state. So, our goal was to move the needle of proficiency up to even higher levels for all kids.  We realized this would be hard to see in quantitative data, at least at first. On a more qualitative side, what we wanted was to push children’s thinking and emphasize their independence and autonomy as learners. We wanted our kids to be engaged with truly complex text and learning how to learn more, not just reading what was already easy for them.

As a district, we set some priorities for our schools to choose instructional materials that were “all green” on EdReports, materials that would align standards and resources so that teachers would have the time to focus on the “how” of pedagogy without worrying about the everyday “what.” Of twelve elementary schools in the district, six chose Wit & Wisdom and six chose EL Education. While the two curricula are different, both of them support the instructional shifts of science-based reading, and both promote high-quality student work.

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

Jana Beth Francis: Leaders’ mindsets are especially important.  The challenge of running a school during a pandemic has pushed all our leaders back into a manager role. Our job has been to keep reminding principals how they impact students as instructional leaders. I analogize it to using Google Maps. In the beginning of our implementation, we all knew where we were going and we had a pretty good plan for getting there. But along the way, these past two years, circumstances have presented obstacles, and we need to recenter. Doing so will require all of us to refocus on our core principles about how students learn to read and what defines quality literacy instruction. 

Shiryl McAdams: To hold that center, some schools in the district unpacked the framework of literacy instruction as the core of their beliefs. Kids have to have complex texts. They have to have quality vocabulary and explicit foundational reading instruction. Every time they implemented something new, they went back to that framework and their beliefs about good reading instruction. It’s a red thread you can follow to get where you want to go: a place where all students are growing into thinkers and problem solvers, not just automatons who can find the main idea.

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

Shiryl McAdams: Our schools have used a hodgepodge of assessments in the past—MAPS, Fountas and Pinnell, Brigance—and state data collected during the pandemic isn’t yet conclusive. But what we’ve noticed is an uptick in the quality of student work. We analyze it as a team and we look for discrepancies in how the work is scaffolded or guided by the teacher and what kind of instruction supports students really doing their best work with deep understanding. 

What it comes down to is knowledge building.  Students have to think in complex and deep ways in order to have something to write about or present in their work. For some of our students that means specialists are also pushing in and using Geodes (decodable texts that align with the Wit & Wisdom curriculum) that make the text more accessible, but never takes them completely out of the content that the core/anchor text is building. This means students who are still building their foundational skills can stay at grade level and produce good work just like their peers.

Many of our schools have increased time for SPED teachers to plan collaboratively with general education teachers so that they can review assessments together and identify specific needs they can address through modifications. We look at the student work together and then unpack the next module or arc of lessons before we teach them. The result is that we see students communicating with confidence about their ideas, listening to others and building on other’s ideas. It’s really discourse at it’s finest, all the way through middle school. Students are able to write with evidence, are excited about compelling topics, really wanting to dive in, seeking additional texts on the topic or conducting independent research at the library. These are the outcomes we want for all of our students!

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

Jana Beth Francis: Our missteps had mostly to do with the unevenness of implementation in different schools. In the schools that had the strongest success, the faculty spent more than a year building a coherent set of beliefs about what good reading instruction looks like. Then they looked for a curriculum to match those beliefs. In contrast, when a principal just said, “Here’s what we’re going to do,” without building those beliefs first, the journey was not as smooth and teachers were inclined to grossly modify the curriculum in ways that changed the intent of the learning.

Can you share one exemplary aspect of your implementation that might be a model for other districts to follow?
Jana Beth Francis: Universal curriculum is all about providing a baseline of equity, so that a student’s success or failure is not dependent on an individual teacher. Every student deserves to be exposed to high-quality instructional materials taught with integrity. Because our leaders made sure that every teacher knew the pedagogical shifts they expected to see in the classroom and the kinds of texts students needed to be reading, we all agreed on the look fors. Keep your beliefs about good reading instruction at the center. Keep asking, “Is the text worthy of reading and complex? Is the vocabulary rich? Is needed time spent on foundations? Can you see these skills evident in student work?” If that’s the heart of every conversation with elementary principals and teachers, you’ll keep your forward momentum.

Data Discussions Drive Progress: Pentucket’s Curriculum Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Engaging, Knowledge-Building Curriculum Pays Off in Performance: The Des Moines Curriculum Journey

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

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

For some years, our district has been working on building teachers’ ability to use high-impact instructional strategies, but often we were using them with instructional materials that were below grade level. The gaps between student groups continued to widen even as we got better at using the strategies! Then in 2018 we went to the Standards Institute, where we realized that we needed a scope and sequence that was the same across the district so that we could ensure all students were getting high-quality instruction at grade level every day. The other big driver we identified was the need for a phonics approach that went beyond the Orton Gillingham interventions we were using. We needed all of our kids to get phonics, and to get vocabulary, and to have access to materials that were culturally relevant and knowledge building. We were looking for the whole package, and we found it in EL Education Language Arts.

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

The first nine weeks were really difficult. It took time for us to understand where the instructional strategies we’d learned lived in the curriculum and why the lessons were so detailed. The real shift came with student writing, because teachers saw that student work products were so much better than they had ever been. They realized that the slow and meticulous building of knowledge and skills in the lessons had enabled students to make connections to their own lives and to want to advocate for their own communities, and then to be able to write it down. 

At first some teachers said “this is too hard. The text is too hard for my students to read. The task is too hard.” Or they pushed back on reading aloud to fifth graders. But when they carefully followed the detailed lessons, teachers discovered that students, even students who were pulled out of ELA previously, were able to discuss with amazing insight the people and the experiences and the issues they were reading about. They were able to make connections to their own challenges and hardships. They were rereading the text to find information and using evidence in their discussion. When we started to hear these stories, we invited some of the teachers to share their experiences in a video that we could share with others. That’s when teachers’ mindsets really changed to embracing the idea that all kids can do the work and that they themselves could do the hard work of learning the curriculum so their kids could succeed.

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

This curriculum has really leveled the playing field. Students who normally would have been pulled out of the classroom for different instruction are able to participate in grade-level work because the supports for them are built right into the curriculum. We don’t have all the data yet, but we can see that we didn’t lose as much ground during the pandemic as other districts in Iowa, even the suburbs which outscore us all the time. The other data point we’ve noted is that students are participating more, putting their heads down on the desk less. That’s a real win, and we know that an engaging curriculum will pay off down the line in performance as well, because students like what they are reading and learning.

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

If we did it over again, we would make sure that all of our teachers got the advanced PD with EL so that they would have really solid professional learning around the curriculum and experience unpacking the lessons prior to them ever digging into the materials. We would also ensure that we had a couple more touch points with teachers in that first semester. As it is, we just sort of jumped in with implementation and we had to backpedal some and fill in gaps to reach all of our teachers. So what we learned is that you’ll be much more successful if you give teachers the time and learning up-front before you expect them to use new materials in the classroom.

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

We really strive to empower our building leaders to make instructional decisions appropriate for their setting. We’ve been very intentional about supporting them with the full suite of PD, including academic vocabulary and foundational skills, that the teachers get and also differentiating our support so that when leaders take the learning back to their teachers they can do so in a way that fits into their unique implementation needs either in PLCs or school-directed days. Also, our coordinators in math and literacy have monthly touch points with leaders and support them with solving questions that come up, for example, “What would a tier two response in their curriculum look like?”

Finally, we do regular walkthroughs with leaders as partners, not as evaluators. ​​The principals and the district leaders look at the implementation indicators from the walkthroughs and the student outcome data side-by-side, and that really helps us to analyze what we can do better and what’s really working. Building leaders feel like they are growing right alongside their teachers and we’re all motivated by supporting the students to succeed.

Sparking a Love for Reading: The Cape Henlopen Curriculum Journey

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

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

First we knew it was time. We had been with our then existing  reading program, throughout its many iterations, for over 20 years. Bute looked at the data and saw that, while overall our kids had done really well, our subpopulations—our special education and our African-American populations—weren’t faring as well. 

I was an elementary school principal and before that I had been a reading specialist and a second and third grade teacher. I knew the research, which shows that kids who can read on grade level by third grade will likely be successful and that those who don’t will struggle throughout their school career. We also wanted our kids to read books by authors that represent them, Black and brown authors of books where the main characters looked like our students. I knew this would be an important part of changing the culture of reading in our schools. ARC Core has a strong focus on that culture, and I knew that if our teachers had the best tools in their hands they could teach all kids to love reading. 

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

ARC Core is more of a framework than a script. It affords teachers some creativity to make choices about texts and lessons. For example, in third grade we use the weather research lab during our ELA block. To engage the students, teachers on the team dressed in weather themed outfits accessorized with rain boots and other gear. They invited local “weather” celebrities into their classrooms to help with the research and even zoomed in with a parent who was stationed in Antarctica. Their creativity inspired students to take on the role of scientists and investigate the evidence about weather.

The big shift for teachers is instruction. Teachers had to give up some authority and put it back on kids to do the thinking work. They had to invest time in teaching students how to learn and talk about their learning. Also, at the same time as we implemented ARC Core, we also implemented standards-based grading pre-K-5, which is a much better fit for the curriculum than the way we were doing things. It was a lot of change, but it meant that teachers could really see the growth from this new way of teaching. Both changes—teaching the curriculum and standards-based grading—were supported by ongoing and job-embedded professional development from American Reading Company. They were real partners in our learning, providing individualized and differentiated support. Last year one of the vice presidents of ARC zoomed into a fifth-grade classroom once a week and gave feedback to the teacher so that she could be sure the curriculum was really serving her students in the best way possible.

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

It’s hard to measure results quantitatively because we didn’t get standardized test data from 2020. I was actually looking forward to those results because I know that we’ve done a lot of work and I think the data would show that we’ve begun to close the gaps! Formatively and anecdotally, we see that kids made at least a year’s growth in reading, even in our sub populations. If I had to attribute that to what teachers are doing differently, I would say it’s because they have really created a strong culture of reading in their classrooms, a place where students love to read and to learn. I witnessed a kindergarten class that was having a full-blown debate on whether a slug is an amphibian or not, a truly evidence-based conversation based on their reading. When students take ownership of their learning like that, they are engaged and they want to succeed.

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

After a successful implementation at the elementary level, we expanded our implementation into middle school. Unfortunately we did that during the pandemic year, in 2020-21, when our middle schools were using a hybrid model—two days in-person, three days virtual. On top of that, we don’t use standards-based grading in the middle school, so there’s a disconnect between the way the assessments work in the curriculum and what teachers have to do to report a grade. In hindsight, I would have waited a year until kids were in person/in classrooms every day. That would at least have taken away one big learning piece for teachers so that they could just focus on new instructional routines and content. 

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

One thing we’ve done is get the building administrators involved directly with the students, taking on the role of teacher themselves so that principals know who their kids are and who’s struggling. 

When we look at reader engagement, we’re asking three questions: 1) How well is this student reading (which you see through conferencing)? 2) How much is this student reading? And 3) Is this student growing? If a student isn’t reading enough to make growth, a principal or vice principal can pull them for 15 minutes to get in those extra minutes of practice. Those few minutes of conversation about books can turn the corner for a resistant reader and really get them excited about reading. 

We also make sure that the reading specialist is working with that child, so we can triangulate between principal, specialist, and teacher, each taking a part and supporting the other. Our students can’t miss the commitment adults in their school have to their reading success and it has made a world of difference in the love they have found for reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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