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Curriculum, Defaults, and Equity

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By Eric Westendorf, CEO and co-founder of LearnZillion.

In the fall of 2015, Kaya Henderson, then the Chancellor of DC Public Schools, pointed out a problem to her leadership team. She told the team, "I can go from classroom to classroom, from one first grade class to another first grade class, or one biology class to another biology class, and I see vastly different engagement from students. Depending on the school, they're being asked to do different tasks."

Chancellor Henderson was naming an equity problem. The variation across schools wasn't random. The students in the poorest neighborhoods were often getting the least challenging tasks. This problem isn't isolated to D.C., it's an issue happening in classrooms in nearly every town, state, and even in other countries.

Can this equity gap be addressed?

Flipping the Script in Louisiana

When the state adopted new, more rigorous standards, the question of equity concerned Rebecca Kockler, the Assistant Superintendent of Academic Content for the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE). How would they support teachers in every parish--rich and poor--to raise their game?  

Kockler turned first to human capital. "Our instinct was to start with training and then help teachers create tools," explains Kockler.

But teacher-leaders in the state encouraged Kockler and her team to flip their strategy. Instead of leading with teacher training and bringing in new tools after the fact, teacher-leaders suggested that starting with curriculum would better guide their efforts to empower high-quality classroom experiences and create professional development opportunities.

Kockler added, "By changing the curriculum, you could, in a very short period of time, dramatically change the kind of daily experiences students were having."

Within a year and a half, LDOE started to see differences in their end-of-year results. They consistently saw that their top growing districts and schools were using the highest-quality curriculum.

An October 2016 study from the RAND Corporation found that Louisiana teachers are teaching and thinking about their work in ways that are more aligned with the new standards than teachers in states with similar standards. For example, teachers in Louisiana are significantly more likely to ask students to use evidence from a text and their students spend more time reading texts that are at grade-level.

The Power of Defaults

In a recent study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, researchers gave students free hot chocolate, but with a twist.  For some, the hot chocolate came with whipped cream. Students had to decline the whipped cream if they wanted plain hot cocoa. For others, the hot cocoa came whipped cream-free. Students had to opt-in to get the cream. The researchers found that the students made strikingly different choices. When whipped cream was included, almost everyone accepted the richer option. When it wasn't, less than 10% topped their cocoa with whipped cream.

This is what behavioral economists call the default effect. Cass Sunstein, author of the books "Nudge" and "Choosing Not to Choose" explains that defaults can dramatically affect the choices people make. Every active choice comes at a cost; it requires active decision making. Defaults steer people's behavior by putting in place an initial decision. Students chose the whipped cream when the decision was already in place because it was easier to keep the default than engage in a decision-making process.

This is why Kockler's decision to focus on curriculum makes sense. By focusing on curriculum, she put in place a thoughtful default. "Helping teachers find the highest-quality default really mattered to us and it really mattered to our districts and our teachers."

The Power of Curriculum

In 2016, two researchers from Northwestern ran an experiment. Middle school math teachers were randomly given access to lessons designed to develop students' deep understanding. They discovered that the teachers who used the lessons saw significant gains in student learning on standardized test scores when compared to peers in classes where the high-quality lessons were not used.

Why was that the case? The researchers concluded that three factors were at play:

Quality of material: When the lesson plan was high-quality, it was more likely that the quality of instruction was higher. There was transfer between the quality of the lesson plan and the quality of the experience.

Easy access to high-quality material: Making high-quality material readily available to the teacher increased the likelihood of students learning more.

Teacher time: Teachers had more time to engage in other tasks, like meeting with students one-on-one and in small groups, looking over student work, and planning for differentiation.

And interestingly, greater gains happened in the classrooms with the weakest teachers. Wrote the authors: "Benefits were much larger for weaker teachers, suggesting that weaker teachers compensated for skill deficiencies by substituting the lessons for their own efforts."

Cornerstone Tasks

Back in Washington, D.C., Henderson's leadership team took a unique approach to addressing the equity gap. Under the leadership of Chief of Teaching and Learning Brian Pick, the district embarked on what it called a Cornerstones strategy.

Cornerstones are memorable, high-quality learning experiences. Like the lessons in the Northwestern study, Cornerstones provide teachers with high-quality lessons that go deep into a topic. "The Cornerstones answered the question: what is a high-quality biology lesson? What does a high-quality seventh-grade math lesson look like? What is the content, the student engagement, and the product that is produced?" explained Pick. Cornerstones created a common vocabulary for what high-quality learning experiences looked like across the district. As Pick explains, the Cornerstones create a floor for high-quality experience, without creating a ceiling.

DC Public Schools created the Cornerstones with their teachers. Teachers helped create, curate, share, and champion the tasks.

The Cornerstone approach, just like the work in Louisiana, speaks to the power of curriculum; the power of setting defaults for the tasks teachers use with students in the classroom. These defaults become particularly important when it comes to closing the equity gap. Without them, too often students in poorer neighborhoods get asked to complete certain tasks, while students in wealthier neighborhoods are challenged to reach toward others.

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