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 by 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. 

Cecil County Had the Highest Literacy Growth in Maryland. Here’s How We Did It.

Right now, we need to be sharing positive stories in K–12 education! That’s true because we’re going through a tough moment – and we don’t just mean the challenge of the coronavirus. Midway through this school year, the nation reflected on worrisome NAEP outcomes suggesting that literacy instruction needs work. 

Once, Cecil County had a flawed approach to literacy – and weak outcomes. We think our turnaround story can add important and encouraging color to the conversation.

In our district, a focused effort to improve literacy outcomes paid off for students and for teachers. Jeff calls it the biggest win of his career! Yet it once felt like a gamble.

In 2016, we brought in a new curriculum called Bookworms, in order to align with key reading research. It puts a huge premium on work with authentic texts; kids read 205 authentic books between kindergarten and 5th grade during Tier 1 instruction! 

Bookworms is a relatively ‘scripted’ program, but its daily routines are tightly optimized to develop skilled readers. Foundational skills are emphasized, and frequent assessment is paired with targeted differentiation resources, which has really accelerated student growth for our learners.

And boy, has this work paid off. In Cecil County:

1. Our reading outcomes went through the roof:

We were clearly underperforming in literacy before the change. Of 24 counties in Maryland, we are #16th for wealth, but our reading outcomes were near the bottom of the state.

After changing curricula, our proficiency growth went up 11.4% points between 2016 and 2019, which made us the fastest-improving county in Maryland on the PARCC assessment.

Our steady growth continued through this winter’s midyear assessments

After the curriculum change, we noticed that our 4th graders performed higher than the previous year’s 5th graders in MAP testing, which is normed against millions of kids. We’ve seen drastic jumps in all sub-groups and in all grades.

Perhaps the most powerful outcome: our intervention program is shrinking! Today, we have very few children needing Tier 3 intervention for reading. Before, children were doomed to repeating the same intervention without making much improvement. Now our kids are moving and growing!

2. Our students are demonstrably more engaged with reading. 

After we changed curriculum, our public libraries reported shortages of books with the authors and themes studied in Bookworms! The library asked for our text list, in order to expand its collection in these areas to meet the growing demand.

3. We empowered our teachers as instructional leaders. 

Our teachers say they have become actual teachers of reading because of Bookworms, which is so carefully aligned with reading research that it has an “educative” effect. Teachers can’t help but learn excellent practices in the initial years of using the materials. Their comfort with foundational skills is far higher, for example.

4. We gained a culture of collaboration.

When the curriculum was Do It Yourself, teachers were on different pages… literally.

Using a common curriculum created a systemwide Professional Learning Community. Our teachers now have a common language and understanding. In meetings, they no longer simply share out what they are doing in class – instead, teachers actually have substantive conversations about student work.

5. We improved equity.

Our previous “hodge podge” approach to curriculum resulted in significant discrepancies in instruction classroom to classroom. We’ve nipped that in the bud.

6. We saved money. 

We saved around $1M per year by using Bookworms instead of Journeys or Wonders, the other programs we considered. Best of all, a significant portion of our investment goes to PD each year. We’re investing more in teachers.

As district leaders, we aren’t the only ones thrilled with the outcomes. In surveys, 80% of our teachers give this new curriculum a thumbs up.

Does this all sound too good to be true? It shouldn’t. These gains didn’t come easy, so we’ll share the journey – including its challenges.

Jeff was Associate Superintendent of Academics when our 2016 PARCC scores showed 30% proficiency. It simply wasn’t good enough. He’d been a high school math teacher, and didn’t have strong opinions about how reading should be taught. Jeff simply wanted improvement, and when the Bookworms curriculum was recommended through University of Delaware contacts, it sounded promising.

Yet at the time, guided reading was nothing short of gospel in Cecil County. In retrospect, we can see that we were not really teaching reading: we were good at getting kids to read in their comfort zone, but not always delivering instruction that would grow students as readers. Also, guided reading was keeping many kids trapped in low-level texts.

We had to make a serious mindset shift to implement Bookworms. That mindset shift started with Cathy, a long time believer in guided reading. Once she began learning reading research behind Bookworms, she was stunned at how much she hadn’t known, and ready to lead a change.

Some folks plan a phased rollout of new curriculum, but our implementation approach was “all in.” We went whole hog with a districtwide implementation of Bookworms in the 2016-17 school year. In the process, we asked folks to take a leap of faith. We provided PD on the materials and how to use them, but we saved a lot of the PD on the reading research behind the curriculum for year two. Our thinking was: when you’re asking teachers to change practice, sometimes you have to go ahead and change practice, and the change in beliefs follows when teachers see students respond… which is what ultimately happened.

We had growing pains in the first 4-6 months. Teachers were concerned about pacing; some struggled to get through 45-minute lessons in 45 minutes. The culprit: they were over scaffolding, unpacking texts so much before reading that students almost didn’t need to read them! Teachers learned to dial back the pre-teaching and allow students to learn from the text itself, which is a beautiful thing. 

Teachers also had fears: Did the curriculum go too fast for struggling kids? Was the text complexity simply too high for our lowest learners? Was it taking away teacher autonomy? 

We needed to work through those fears, and that meant a lot of time in schools in that first year, logging listening time. Sometimes you just need to let people vent. And while you’re being proactive with support, you also need to hear – and react to – the issues you didn’t anticipate.

The fears began to dissipate as soon as teachers saw growth in DIBELs and MAP testing. We knew things were on track when teachers said, “I’ve never seen my kindergarten students reading so well so early in the year.” Now, two years later, we hear NONE of the initial concerns about this work. It’s amazing what schoolwide reading improvement does to motivate a team. 

We embraced two key things in order to foster success:

First, grace and space for teachers. In Year 1, we told building leaders to stay out of classrooms at the beginning. We didn’t think they knew the curriculum well enough to know what to look for and critique, and teachers deserved time to get their feet wet before being evaluated, even informally. We gave everyone time to come up the learning curve.

Second, flexibility. We had to alter the school day for Bookworms, which has a firm requirement of 2 hours and 15 minutes of instructional time. We also allowed teams to departmentalize, because we were implementing math curriculum at the same time, and this allowed all teachers to focus on one change, rather than two.

But the ultimate success factor was the quality of the curriculum. Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but our positive story only came together because the curriculum quickly drove up our outcomes, leading to buy-in. Evidence-based curriculum works – implemented well, of course.

Seeing our outcomes, some might wonder why everyone isn’t doing this work. So… why do other districts persist with weak reading programs – or even try high-quality curriculum and bail on it? Some district leaders aren’t ready for the hard conversations. It’s difficult to ask teachers to put practice ahead of beliefs, and leaders need to be ready to work through doubts and fears. In addition, we have seen districts attempt curriculum pilots in which a small number of naysayers create resistance to change. It’s one reason that we recommend the just-go-whole-hog approach.

Our advice to district leaders: this is a risk worth taking, with a payback that is greater than we could have imagined. 

Dr. Jeffrey Lawson is the Superintendent and Dr. Cathy Nacrelli is the Elementary ELA Supervisor in Cecil County Public Schools (MD). They can be reached at and

A Note on the Distance Learning Era

You might wonder how we are experiencing distance learning while using Bookworms. We’ve enjoyed the reflections on this topic from teachers in Baltimore and district leaders in Tennessee.

Although we didn’t use the Bookworms curriculum in our recent “at home learning” materials (because students didn’t have access to the books at home), we certainly used the Bookworms routines, and we relied on our Bookworms-inspired learnings about good reading instruction, to craft lessons that: 

  • Provide quality grade level texts, fiction and nonfiction, for all students 
  • Incorporate reading and then rereading opportunities in our “at home” lesson plans
  • Utilize questions that help students identify and discuss text structures
  • Focus discussion questions on grade level standards
  • Incorporate discussion and sharing of ideas around fiction and nonfiction texts
  • Interact with text rather than completing isolated grammar worksheets
  • Read and write about what you’ve read
  • And READ some more!

People talk about the “educative value” of high-quality curriculum, and this is something we have experienced, as well. We know what good looks like, so our team is better prepared to create lessons for this unique challenge, with focus on the right instructional priorities. 

When we think about our “hodge podge” curriculum era, and what distance learning would have looked like if every teacher was tasked with DIY Distance Learning, we are even more convinced that our curriculum investment has been essential to our efforts to provide strong instruction to all students.

Curriculum Matters Even More in a Crisis

I never thought I’d be explaining how curriculum helped me to navigate a global pandemic – but here we are. 

It’s a story that deserves to be told. In social media, I see many teachers struggling with the challenging transition to distance learning; often, it causes me to reflect on how much harder this transition would have been for me just two years ago.

In Baltimore City Schools, we’re in our second year with a new ELA curriculum, Wit & Wisdom. I was initially hesitant about new curriculum, but it won me over for its excellent texts and intellectually stimulating content. The depth of knowledge that students build is incredible, and lesson planning is enjoyable again because it’s about helping kids to internalize content. Also, representation matters, and I saw myself, my kids, and our community represented in various stories and themes. 

Finally, this curriculum has been a springboard for equity: I can finally see all of my students – lowest and most adept, most shy to most outgoing – participating in a single lesson because the class builds essential knowledge together, giving all students equal footing in class discussions. 

This school year felt full of promise. I knew the ropes of the curriculum. My confidence had surged thanks to professional development and learning communities. Powerful gains in our district scores (in every grade!) inspired our team and our community. Every sign told me that we were doing the right work: students felt they were better readers, the quality of student work kept improving, and families took notice. 

And then the coronavirus news hit.

As we began transitioning to distance learning, I realized early on that having a knowledge-building curriculum was the truest of blessings. 

What does that mean, a knowledge-building curriculum? It’s a curriculum designed to help kids build knowledge about science, history, and the arts during the course of their ELA instruction. Why? Because research shows that background knowledge is critical to reading comprehension. I don’t want to teachersplain anyone, but the ‘Baseball Study’ is worth reviewing to learn this research. It dispelled misconceptions that I had about strong teaching practice. (Here’s a quick listen on the study.)

Understanding this research helped me focus on the most important objectives during my distance learning shift. Pedagogically, I know the curriculum goals: to help students build knowledge and vocabulary and to engage deeply with texts, through writing and expressing themselves in class discussions. This empowered me to make smart substitutions when I couldn’t give kids the texts for the curriculum: I found excerpts of the text, videos, or other online resources to support learning on the topic of study.

For example: my students were in Module 3 studying forensic anthropology, so to remain immersed in that topic, we watched videos featuring excavation experts and  took a virtual tour of Jamestown presented by an excavation team. We took the same approaches with the virtual tour that we took about texts: talk, write, debate, and sketch about it. 

It was magical, as if the toy store of resources was open and I was Kevin McCallister alone in the store all night, exploring new ways to make learning come alive online! But I know I’m still honoring the goals of excellent ELA instruction. This empowered flexibility is freeing. Some refer to curriculum as a ‘script;’ I think a roadmap is a more apt description, and our roadmap has felt like a support, not a constraint. 

I credit the quality of my teaching right now to a focus on knowledge building, because it’s simply easier to deliver lessons that promote history, science, and art study than it is to try to “teach skills” remotely. “Reading skills” teaching lacks flair and flavor. It also has diminishing returns on instructional time! Skill-based teaching feels like the mile wide, inch deep approach that doesn’t serve our kids in classrooms. I can only imagine how flat it falls in distance learning.

At a practical level, Wit and Wisdom made our pivot easier because the authors produced “Knowledge on the Go” videos: actual lesson videos delivered by teachers which I could incorporate as the asynchronous component. This was a godsend for the students who weren’t attending classes. Yet I’m using these Knowledge on the Go videos with all students, to great effect, and I see teachers across the country doing the same.

Honestly, if I was comparing in-class work to on-line work and we did a blindfold-Coke-or-Pepsi type test of student work, I honestly don’t think you could tell the difference. And that’s a curriculum story. 

If this distance learning shift occurred before our curriculum upgrade, I would be fretting about building out lessons. Probably whipping up packets. (Really, it’s such a relief that I wasn’t scrambling to assemble skill packets that “drill and kill the skill.”) 

Instead, I’ve been finding tactics to translate rich instruction. I focused where the curriculum focused – knowledge building – because I’ve learned that if you get that right, other skills present themselves more naturally, from comprehension to writing. 

With a relatively low burden of lesson creation, I focused on helping parents with resources. If kids could join me for lessons, great! When parents informed me that tech might be an issue, I coached parents to make a list of interesting topics, and to research, talk, read, write, argue on that topic. All of a sudden, distance learning didn’t seem so daunting. 

Wit and Wisdom has basic structures that anyone can do at home. Routines like Notice/Wonder, Organize Information, and Closely Analyze transfer to a home easily. It’s low-burden for families to ask basic questions about a topic, such as: what did you wonder about X? What is happening? If we look at this deeper, what do we learn? How did this build your knowledge? Parents can push students toward greater rigor and depth of knowledge without being experts themselves.

One last detail that I appreciate about Wit and Wisdom: its themes are easily relatable for students. Our third Module was ‘Narrating the Unknown’. Our fourth Module explores the theme of courage under fire; reading and talking about how heroes respond to harsh circumstances feels very ‘of the moment’. Students always found these themes engaging, but boy do these substantive topics relate to our world currently. 

Such themes are also natural springboards for Social-Emotional Learning. The texts and topics promote conversations about character wholeness; I go deep with students on social emotional wellness… not as some skill to be mastered or passed but rather a continuing life skill that we cultivate through openness, practice, and feedback. 

Our district CEO Sonja Santelises has been steadfast in her commitment to curriculum that is evidence-based and designed for an inclusive ride. Designed to promote comprehension and participation by all students, which we unlock when we give them equal access to knowledge about a topic. Designed to allow all kids to work with excellent, grade-level texts. I’m deeply grateful for her leadership.

Beyond my good fortune to have a great curriculum, I feel grateful that kids are pretty adaptable. They want to learn, and enjoy delving deeper into compelling topics. 

I want to be back in my classroom for sure, but I’m reveling in this opportunity to challenge myself and my kids. They’re responding with extraordinary results! From the early weeks of distance learning, my kids have produced three-paragraph essays complete with text evidence and proper structure. Given the compromised state of learning right now, their work is downright humbling, and certainly something to celebrate.

To Learn More About My Distance Learning Approach:

You can explore the Wit & Wisdom Knowledge on the Go lessons here.

As far as my own personal distance learning adaptations: recently, I hosted an #ELAchat on my approach to distance learning. (You can get a glimpse of my virtual classroom leading up to that chat here.) We actually modeled breakout rooms for users.

You can watch a recording here.

Kyair Butts was the 2019 Teacher of the Year in Baltimore City Public Schools. You can connect with Kyair on Twitter or Instagram.