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How Systems Can Support High-Quality Curricula

By Frederick Brown

Frederick Brown image
Frederick Brown

In her recent blog post, Learning Forward Executive Director Stephanie Hirsh argued that the impact of high-quality curricula will be fully realized when grade-level, subject-specific professional learning communities place deep study and planning for how to use these instructional materials at the core of their work.

But, as Learning Forward's Standards for Professional Learning make clear, those teams should be part of a more comprehensive, multifaceted approach to educator learning. System leaders and the system itself play a critical role in providing support and context for this important work.

One example of that is how the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina has approached the first adoption of new curricula in a decade. The district, which serves 160,000 students, was part of the Learning Forward Academy Class of 2017. The Academy experience helped inform the district's approach: To ensure equitable access to powerful learning every day, school systems must ensure that teachers engage in ongoing professional learning grounded in the materials they use daily with students.

The curriculum gap

"We had a really slow and strategic curriculum strategy process," says Brian Kingsley, assistant superintendent for academics. It began in the 2015-16 school year, when the district worked with TNTP to use a walk-through tool in 250 classrooms to see how instruction was shifting to align with the state's new learning standards. The district also held focus groups with teachers and students about the instructional materials they were using and what they felt was most valuable in the classroom.

"It was pretty glaring how big of a gap there was between what teachers were using, what they had access to, and what was truly standards-aligned and rigorous," says Kingsley. "Our standards across the country really elevated with the Common Core, but, at the same time, we had a recession. So, unfortunately, curriculum budgets bottomed out just as we were raising expectations for teachers and kids."

As a result, many Wake County teachers were developing their own units independently, with a heavy reliance on Pinterest, Teachers Pay Teachers, and other open educational resources that were not necessarily standards-aligned or comprehensive in nature.

Wake County sent out a request for proposals to identify standards-aligned curricula that also met several other district criteria: cultural responsiveness, compatibility with its existing learning management and student information systems, cost, and alignment with the district's strategic plan, which focused on student-centered, deeper learning practices.

The district then rated all of the potential winners for standards alignment by using the Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool developed by Student Achievement Partners and by reviewing ratings on EdReports, an independent, third-party arbiter.

In the end, Wake County selected two sets of comprehensive open educational resource materials that had received high ratings on EdReports: EL Education's English language arts curriculum for grades 3-8 and the Mathematics Vision Project curriculum for grades 9-12

One of the biggest values of using the two comprehensive sets of open educational resources, says Kingsley, was that it enabled the district to free up dollars that would have been spent on textbooks for professional learning. The district has invested more than $1.5 million in professional learning this year tied to the new curriculum materials.

Going slow to go fast

The district chose to go slow to go fast. In the 2017-18 school year, it implemented the EL Education curriculum with teachers in grades 3 and 6 and the Mathematics Vision Project curriculum in Math 1 only. All teachers in those grades are engaging in four days of in-person professional learning over the course of the year to unpack the curriculum, led by the curriculum developers. The district also created online Google communities for teachers by grade and subject to share ideas.

"That's been instrumental to making them realize that they're not doing this in isolation," says Kingsley. "It also helps with coherence because teachers across all of our schools are now using the same content. I'm excited about what that means from the lens of equity in our school system."

But the district realized skillful curriculum use cannot rest solely with teachers. It also has implications for leadership throughout the system. So Wake County created instructional leadership teams at every school in the district that include the principal and eight to 10 other members of the school staff, such as coaches, special educators, school psychologists or guidance counselors, and at least four teachers. The goal, says Kingsley, "was so we could all learn together what high-quality instruction looks like rather than doing it in silos."

Those teams come together as cohorts across the district six times over the course of the year to also learn about the new curricula and about successful pedagogical practices, based on the district's instructional blueprint. "What they're learning is the reason why we chose this curriculum because it aligns with these instructional shifts and core actions," says Kingsley.

Each instructional leadership team is responsible for developing the professional learning plan for its school site, based on its existing infrastructure, from professional learning teams, to faculty meetings, to daylong retreats.

The last piece of the district's three-legged stool is a district instructional leadership team, comprising all principal supervisors, academic senior directors, assistant superintendents, and the deputy superintendent. "Anybody who is a senior leader in our district who touches instruction is a part of this working group," says Kingsley, "as well as a cohort of five principals to ensure a school-based perspective is front and center."

The district leadership team stays six months ahead of what the school-based leadership teams are experiencing to ensure alignment. "It's been really helpful to advise and inform the school instructional learning team processes and to ensure clear roles and responsibilities on how to implement our vision, hold the bar on quality instruction, and have consistent conversations with principals," he says.

Encouraging results

So far, the results have been encouraging. Baseline data from teachers show:

  • Seven in 10 teachers believe the new curricula to be of high quality.
  • Eight in 10 understand how the new curriculum materials are aligned to the rigor of the standards.
  • Eight in 10 believe the new curricula demonstrate opportunities for students to engage in the "4 Cs" of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. Comments from math teachers, for example, include: "Tend to hear more 'I really like math!' from the kids now"; "Really enjoy listening to students reason together"; and "Deep thinking about mistakes."

At the same time, teachers have expressed a desire for more training around issues like pacing, questioning techniques, and how to continue scaffolding English language learners.

Based on the feedback, the district will implement the English language arts curriculum across grades 3-8 next school year, and the high school math curriculum across the three relevant math courses. And it is conducting an internal evaluation to continue to monitor the impact of the new instructional materials and professional learning on teachers and students.

"I'm excited about where we're headed," says Kingsley. "We still have a lot of learning to do, but we've made some key decisions about what these processes look like in our schools. Our principals and teachers are reaping the benefits of having a consistent message, but they also realize we've raised the game in terms of expectations."

Takeaways

In my view, we need more examples like Wake County that are integrating professional learning with high-quality curriculum materials to create strong systems of support for all educators. Several lessons I take away from this example are:

  • Wake County's educators recognize that an excellent curriculum provides a foundation to quality lessons in all classrooms. At the same time, they understand that implementing new curriculum is challenging. While professional development can support many initiatives, nothing was more important in this case than investing resources for professional learning for the successful implementation of the curriculum.
  • Leaders help to create cultures where educators share the value that a teacher's time is best spent contextualizing effective curriculum and lessons rather than searching for them. When teachers have confidence they are working with high-quality materials, they can apply their professional expertise to ensuring every student has a meaningful learning experience.
  • Leaders have the responsibility to establish a vision and framework for identifying, selecting, and implementing the curricula, and then, through the course of implementation, apply change management principles when introducing new materials and pacing gradual implementation. In fact, this responsibility is outlined in the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders 2015, which state, "Effective educational leaders develop and support intellectually rigorous and coherent systems of curriculum, instruction, and assessment to promote each student's academic success and well-being" (National Policy Board for Educational Administration, p. 12).
  • Teams at multiple levels share collective responsibility for supporting this complex work. Principals and central office administrators distribute leadership and spread learning through school and district instructional leadership teams that include educators from various levels.

I see the Standards for Professional Learning embodied throughout this work: Leadership as leaders advocate for job-embedded professional learning; Outcomes as educators emphasize the importance of equity and rigorous student standards in materials selection; Learning Communities as teachers use a learning cycle to ensure effective implementation, to name just three. In the coming months, Learning Forward will continue to explore the intersection of powerful materials and effective professional learning. I'm eager to hear from you about your examples and questions.

Reference

National Policy Board for Educational Administration. (2015). Professional Standards for Educational Leaders 2015. Reston, VA: Author.

Frederick Brown
Deputy Executive Director, Learning Forward

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