Learning and Growing Alongside a Professional Learning Partner: The Seaford 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 curricula you chose would help you address it?

The data showed that our students were last across the state in both reading and math. They weren’t learning, despite the fact that we’d invested a lot of time and money in curricula that were supposed to be Common Core aligned but were not. We invested a lot of time for our teachers and school leaders to really, deeply understand the standards, which revealed that our curricula were not going to meet the needs of either our students or our teachers. That’s when we partnered with Dr. Walpole and her team at the University of Delaware. They helped us unpack the standards and learn about the science of learning and the science of reading, which led us to adopt the curricula we have today.

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

When we began our curriculum journey, there were some educators who didn’t believe that our students could achieve the rigor of the standards. Some teachers wanted to make things easier for students. We had to work on shifting their mindsets about what students can do, and also what teachers can do, like fit all of the rigorous pieces of this curriculum into the school year and the school day. When teachers saw how the standards are cyclical, how students could develop knowledge over time with a repetition of skills and routines, then they started to believe. This was true in both reading and math.

In the first year, before we had a lot of data, the quick wins from our short-cycle common assessments really helped us realize that our efforts were working. That really motivated teachers. After the first year when we showed a lot of growth on our state assessments and people from other districts were noticing and wanting to come see what we were doing, that really motivated our leaders too. Once leaders and teachers were all on the same page pulling together, leaders were even stepping into the classroom to teach lessons. Then student results really skyrocketed.

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

We have a very high percentage of English Learners in our district, as high as 25% in some of our schools. When we first started, some teachers were asking “How can I teach these kids who don’t even speak English?”  They basically said, “You need to fix them first, and then bring them to me to teach.”

We worked really hard to help teachers realize that these students are multilingual, and it’s an asset. Then we made another big change, shifting from a pull-out model to a push-in and co-teaching model. For the first time EL teachers joined our professional development, learning right alongside regular classroom teachers.The result was that they all got better at using the curriculum and engaging all kids. In 2014-15 we were on a Title III improvement Plan for our English Learners. But now in some grade levels we’re number one in the state for English Learner performance. 

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

We definitely made some missteps during our journey. Thankfully each provided us with an opportunity to learn about the standards, the materials, and ourselves.  Most recently, we committed to middle school Bookworms Reading and Writing.  As expected, the curricular titles Dr. Walpole and her team selected were culturally relevant and thought provoking. However, the teachers were somewhat uneasy because the content was racially sensitive and brought forward topics they were not yet prepared to discuss. When teachers expressed their concerns, we made adjustments to the books and lessons rather than proactively helping teachers figure out how to deliver the lessons as written. What we would do differently today, and will do as we move forward, is provide dedicated training on how to facilitate classroom conversations about race and culture. Furthermore, we will ensure we have access to models and opportunities, with coaching support, for all teachers to lead discussions around sensitive topics in a way that lifts up all voices, builds relationships across races, and encourages everyone to recognize and stand up to race-related injustices.

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

One thing we do is use a consultancy model with our external experts at the University of Delaware. For example, despite the differentiated instruction in our foundational reading block, we had some second grade students who just kept cycling through the same set of skills without making progress. Through a consultation with one of the professors at the University of Delaware, one principal came up with the strategy of “double dosing.” Instead of moving that group of second-graders into a Tier 3 intervention, we decided to try a double dose of Tier 2. We accelerated their learning and moved them faster through the skills and up to more challenging work. As a result of that experiment, which totally worked, Bookworms is developing more support for special education and English Learners called Bookworms Intensive (BWI). This partnership with Delaware is special because we are learning together. Anytime they say, “We’ve been rethinking this lesson or this routine in light of this research and would you have a group of teachers who can try this new thing,” we always say, “Yes, we’ll pilot that!” As a result we are constantly learning and growing, deepening our knowledge and refining our practice.

Building an Army of Teacher Leaders: The Jefferson Parish 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 literacy curricula? How did you hope the curricula you chose would help you address it?

Our District Performance Scores had not grown in five years before we started on this journey. We needed to address that along with the vast array of curricula being used across the district. We only looked at tier one curricula. CKLA made sense for us in the early grades because our teachers had already been using the Skills Strand and it was familiar. What we added was the Listening and Learning Strand, which is the knowledge piece. For 3-8, we chose Guidebooks because it’s a Louisiana, Tier 1 product. We believe in the way it was built, and we also believe in the way it’s continuing to evolve and grow in order to better support and prepare students to meet grade level expectations.

What shifts in mindset were necessary for a successful implementation? 

Initially, it may have felt to some of our teachers that we were taking away autonomy. The shift for them was in realizing that what might seem like a scripted curriculum is really a resource, and you have to have the best resource in front of students. The “scripted” model can be a great support and access point for new teachers.

Secondly, we have come to realize that teachers are yearning for more support in content and pedagogy to be effective with the curriculum. We focus hard on deconstructing the standards and learning content, planning quality assessments to meet them, building teachers’ pedagogical moves, and building teachers’ knowledge base so that they can build students’ knowledge base. Content drives curriculum, and they work together.

Finally, our district has seen great change in leadership and materials over the last few decades. We have really underscored shared leadership: We invested in our leaders learning right alongside our teacher leaders, getting everyone on board with content, pedagogy, and curriculum that actually impacts student achievement and the structures to support schools. In SY 18-19, we had 78 teachers wanting to become teacher leaders, and now we have over 500! 

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

We have a highly diverse student population—38% Hispanic, 31% African American, and 25% White. Even in the wake of COVID, we are seeing proficiency gains in our ELL and SPED populations. I think the reason is the increased level of engagement inspired by the curricula we’re using. Our kids enjoy working with these texts, even though they’re challenging. Even our students with disabilities can access them, receive appropriate support that still retains rigor, and communicate about the topic. Recently, I visited a class where the teacher does Flashlight Fridays with tents set up in her classroom and students have their own flashlights. They just find a place and read from novels they love.They don’t check out and they are able to grow and get results.The entire class is still rooted in Tier 1, with activities and centers to support growth for all students.

What missteps did you make along the way that others can learn from? 

The initial implementation was really hard because it was just an overload. We weren’t prepared for such a learning curve. We could have been better in letting teachers know it was okay to struggle and that, with time, they would grow and ultimately achieve life-altering instruction. We didn’t yet have the capacity at the district level to support 300+ teachers! But now, through our shared leadership model, we’ve built an army of leaders who are systematically building expertise in content and curriculum, and the skills to coach and support the work. It’s a powerful force that can build shared efficacy and has helped to implement our curricula with fidelity and integrity, not just compliance.

What is one exemplary aspect of your implementation that other districts would be wise to follow?

Adaptability. Adaptability. Adaptability. Our teacher leaders embody what it means to be a change agent. They have mastered the curriculum and implemented it successfully in their classrooms. The secret to our shared leadership and a 95%+ retention in teacher leader roles is that we have so many levels and types of leaders all working toward the same goal. We have about 170 Teacher Leader Fellows (TLF) who go through coaching cycles, monitor, evaluate, adjust, and consistently support teachers through the implementation process. Then we have Content Leader Fellows (CLF) who lead PD for the district and for new teachers, differentiating for varying levels of content and curriculum knowledge. They are also part of the school’s instructional leadership team. In addition we have ELL coaches in a majority of our schools and also mentor teachers with more defined responsibilities. Finally, we have master teachers who are not full-time classroom teachers but are in classrooms 80% of the day engaged in field testing, coaching, modeling, co-teaching, and analyzing data but are not full-time classroom teachers. They also plan cluster meetings, centered around content and curriculum using student work to drive decision-making. So, we’ve built a pipeline that takes you from mentoring instruction to mentoring content and to coaching and to data analysis. What we’ve seen is that people who invest in the options available to them are now becoming our assistant principals and principals. That’s something I’m really proud of!

‘Everyone has a place at the table’: The Haywood Curriculum Journey

This is the first blog in a new series in which we share the curriculum journey for each of our Squad Members.

Q: 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?

Our state testing data showed that some kids were not performing well. When we went into classrooms, we saw that one class was doing one thing and the next class was doing something else and the next class something else again. We wanted to equalize what was going on in our schools and to support every teacher and every student to be successful by exposing kids to high quality texts and making sure that instruction was consistent across the board. We started with Ed Reports and only brought curricula to the table that showed all-green.

Then right from the beginning, we started using the Instruction Partners Curriculum Support Guide, which really helped us to have an intentional process for bringing everyone on board. We used their Instructional Practices Guide when their coaches did virtual walkthroughs. We dialogued a lot with them about what we saw and our administrator who led a particular PLC would follow up with a coaching conversation designed specifically for individual teachers. So we were all learning together and leaning on Instruction Partners to help us build capacity where we needed it and basically just to be our shoulder partner in the work.

Q: What shifts in mindset were necessary for a successful implementation?

Changing teachers’ mindset was tough! I really don’t like the words “this is what we’ve always done” because if you do what you’ve always done, you’re going to get what you’ve always gotten. Teachers and leaders needed to understand that we’re not just pulling something out of the air here. There’s a research base and there’s a process for bringing students up to the level of rigor in our curriculum. Teachers always want to do what’s best for kids, but they have to change their mindset to believe that what’s best for all kids is truly complex, grade-level texts and kids engaging in the hard work of responding to and discussing those texts, not having the answers spoon-fed to them. 

Q: How is this curriculum work driving greater equity in your district?

We have inclusion teachers who work with students, and the EL curriculum has strategies for differentiation that we maximize. We’re not watering anything down for our special needs population. The beautiful thing about this work is you can walk into any classroom and most of the time you have no clue which students are receiving special services. Sometimes the kid raising his hand and asking more questions than anybody in the room has an IEP, but you can’t tell because they truly are fully included and empowered by this type of instruction.

What’s really driving equity is that this curriculum and instruction is rigorous for all students. My own son was in sixth grade when we started with the EL Education curriculum. I remember him coming home and saying, “Wow, this is tough. I don’t know if I can do this.” But the unit they were doing was about perseverance and people like Steve Jobs who have had to do really hard things, so he was able to tie it into what he was currently going through in his life. Now he’s getting ready to be a freshman in high school and he’s really ready for that level of reading. In fact, some of the things he’s doing now—writing and responding, having a dialogue with his peers—reminds me of what I was doing as an English major in college! He’s really prepared for that, and it’s because our school system made this shift.

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 think one of the hardest things is onboarding new teachers. One teacher might be on year three of the curriculum and really rocking and rolling, but then all of a sudden you have a teacher on that team who is in year one. We’ve learned to be much more intentional about how we bring those teachers up to speed without overwhelming them—and also not holding back the teachers who have already got it.

Now we differentiate our teacher groups and match them to different presenters and supports so that everyone gets what they need. We invite coaches from the curriculum providers and those from Instruction Partners to work more intensively with our new teachers, unpacking the lessons, and figuring out the instructional moves.  It’s a little like studying the owner’s manual of a new car so you understand which buttons to push and where all the parts are. We don’t need to do that again with teachers who’ve been teaching the curriculum already, but it makes a world of difference for our new teachers.

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

One of the things that’s been crucial to our success is that we make sure that everybody who has contact with the kids—teachers, teachers’ assistants, principals, inclusion teachers—they’re all at the table and everybody knows what their role is in the process. All of these people are involved in regular PLCs that meet every week, and on other days they’re still working together as a team to unpack lessons and look at their data and bring student work to the table. Some days we look forward to what we’re going to do and other days we look back at what we have done. That reflective planning has really strengthened our teachers’ ownership of the work and their overall confidence. 

Before we had this curriculum it was almost like teachers were scared of each other. They didn’t want to talk about what they were doing, and they didn’t want others to know what they didn’t know. But we’ve witnessed a whole transformation of that culture to where teachers are getting better together and looking forward to walkthroughs and helping each other spot trends in their data. That collaboration and deliberate practice of the teacher moves that help all kids read well is a total game changer for our district.

The Urgent Need to Scale Research-Based Reading Instruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teacher Preparation’s Big Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herein lies the big opportunity for teacher preparation programs. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we look back on 2020, it’s hard to deny the chaos and uncertainty around our work that this global pandemic has foisted on educators. Together with an awakening about racial injustice, the pandemic has inspired necessary conversations about educational equity and access – with no easy answers.

For curriculum leaders and academic officers, we have had to face penetrating doubt about the contributions we have made to the academic progress of every student under our care.  Despite our best efforts, there has been significant learning loss (and we weren’t doing all that great even before the pandemic.) Our systems and classrooms need an overhaul.

Most urgently, we must improve how we teach students to read. If you can’t read, you won’t succeed. Period. Reading is essential to success —in school and in life.

Well before the pandemic, research clearly indicated that student success in reading and growth in school was closely linked to the quality of the instructional materials used to teach them and the amount of background knowledge their curriculum exposed them to. It turns out that what​ we teach matters an awful lot.

Despite this knowledge, only 7% of elementary schools across the country are using high quality curricula in their classrooms, according to a 2019 RAND study. Why is this so?!!

The challenge many district leaders perceive is that, before they move forward with curriculum, they need to first build buy-in, optimize their organizational systems, and dismantle current structures that promote the status quo. But how do you do this?! 

In both of our cases, our journey started with asking ourselves if we were satisfied with our current level of performance. We looked at our data and said this was not good enough – we can do better. By reading the research, we realized we were not teaching reading correctly. No wonder we were getting underwhelming results! After years of stagnant proficiency, because we were only teaching reading strategies, not building knowledge and comprehension, it became abundantly clear we had to make a change.

Engaging teachers in this exercise of self-examination was key to building support for change. Conversations with your teachers will reveal a lot. If you sit down with them and enlist their feedback on how to strengthen the curriculum (or program, if you are not following a specific curriculum), you will likely learn that they have a great sense of what’s missing and what would work. We listened to teachers, and they helped shape both our actions and our messages as we moved forward.

Our teachers told us they were spending too much time creating and curating materials. We saw that high-quality, comprehensive curriculum – based on research, and without a DIY burden for teachers – represented an opportunity to put more of what they love about teaching back into the profession. They gain time to connect deeply with students ​and​ the content, creating a more authentic and engaging classroom experience for both. Our teams quickly came to understand that high quality materials are not about replacing teacher creativity and expertise, but rather about empowering teachers to use their previous time in better ways.

Teachers in classrooms everywhere list time as the resource they need most. They spend endless hours searching various sources for lessons and content that engage students and ​hopefully​ works; in fact, the average teacher spends 12 hours per week! What our teachers came to see was that adopting a high-quality curriculum eliminates the endless endeavor of scratch planning for instruction and locating engaging content. Consequently, the time they would have spent doing that could be devoted to building relationships and knowledge of their students, using PLCs for deep analysis of student work, thinking deeply about meaningful texts and problems, and important self-care to keep them engaged and ready when the bell rings.

As academic leaders, we marvel at the teachers who arrive at dawn and work until the street lights come on, but applauding them for this work ethic may only be leading them to increased burnout and status quo results in their classrooms. Messaging our efforts around adopting a high-quality curriculum in a way that truly shows how this work supports teachers every bit as much as the students is a key first step to building buy-in. 

Piloting curriculum under consideration is a great idea. Putting the materials in the hands of teachers was a game-changer for us, because it helped them see how much support was provided and also how some of the things we knew were wrong with our previous curriculum had been dealt with. Plus, the fact that the kids were so immediately engaged in the content was a big selling point. In the end, we didn’t have to worry about how we messaged the change because the results spoke for themselves. 

The pandemic has left a chasm in public education, but it can also provide the opportunity for a true renaissance in classrooms across the nation – a rebirth centered around empowering teachers and students by giving them the materials they need to be successful.

We hope you will join us in a “reading revolution” brought about by a high-quality curriculum!

Making the Case for a Break With Reading Workshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disaggregate your data to see essential gaps.

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

She followed up in Twitter with the perfect case study:

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

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

In our experience, you can trust the process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Literacy Matters, Aldine ISD is Blazing Trails

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

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

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

Hosting its own literacy conference

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

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

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

Please join the Literacy Matters event on January 30th.  

Making literacy a key pillar of its anti-racism plan

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

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

Successful implementation in a pandemic year

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

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

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

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

How do you bring the Science of Reading into practice?

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

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

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

·        The importance of daily, systematic phonics instruction

·        The need to expose all students to grade level texts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcoming Nine New Members to Our ‘Squad’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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