Posted December 18, 2019
By Dean Ballard, Director of Mathematics, CORE
Implementing a new curriculum is a daunting task. Often the organization, layout, and even the instructional approach can be drastically different than the previously used curriculum. Change takes time, especially if that change includes learning new instructional approaches. Therefore, the first year or two of implementing a new curriculum may be focused on changing instructional practices and deepening the knowledge base of teachers and instructional leaders. Taguma and Barrera (2019) cite teacher commitment, beliefs, and content and pedagogical understanding of the new curriculum as key factors that either facilitate or impede successful curriculum implementation. For example, if teachers do not know some of the new pedagogy that is embedded within the new curriculum, they will need more professional learning and support.
Over the last twenty-five years CORE has worked with many school districts implementing new math and ELA curricula. The first year or two of implementation is consistently fraught with several issues:
As a result of these challenges teachers may feel inadequate and may feel anxiety about falling behind curriculum pacing and worry about covering everything that is needed. This leads to teachers making uninformed decisions on what to skip. Teachers often end up skipping important elements from daily lessons as well as not getting to whatever is in the last quarter of the curriculum. Conversely, teachers also may modify the curriculum to fit their pedagogical approach and understanding of the material and rush through important concepts in the name of covering the curriculum.
Teachers need time and support to implement a new curriculum. To address many of these challenges, teachers need sustained, relevant, job-embedded professional learning and collaboration time. Teachers also need help with lesson and unit pacing to get through each day and through the year with a planful and strategic approach to first year implementation. This means providing teachers guidance in identifying the critical components to teach in each unit and each lesson and what can be skipped. Teachers need to know the highest priorities for what to teach. Think of it this way, if one had to cut out at least 25% of the curriculum, it is important to assist teachers to identify what would be the least harmful to omit. Insisting that everything must be taught as designed from the beginning to the end is a head-in-the-sand approach. It’s not going to happen in most cases and the results are either frazzled teachers or a pick and choose approach that misses critical components. In one district we work with after the first two months of implementation, the math instructional leader went through the whole year’s curriculum and planned which lessons could be cut and which units could be minimalized over the first year. This action was taken out of necessity. After the first two months, teachers were already so far behind that it was a matter of either taking control and guiding the ship or going down with the ship. Thank goodness this leader saw and responded to the need to provide guidance.
Additionally, when a different pedagogical approach than that which teachers are familiar with is included with a new curriculum, teachers need help learning and building their muscles with this approach. This also takes more support and time. For example, a teacher who has little to no experience promoting, managing, and using student discourse as it is built into the math curriculum cannot be expected to incorporate it fully from day one. This teacher needs help in scaffolding support for students to enable them to participate in the discourse structures.
Teachers need a first-year implementation survival guide when implementing a new curriculum. Teachers need help in identifying the non-negotiables of a new curriculum and a ramp for scaffolding implementation to eventually reach these non-negotiables. Otherwise, teachers are left floundering, desperate, and dependent on their own ideas to survive the year. Ideally, this guide would come from the publisher of the curriculum. However, in most cases, publishers only provide pacing guides and directions for a full implementation that usually requires proper pacing and strong program knowledge from day one. This assumes teachers and students begin the year already familiar with the content, approach, and routines of the lessons. In other words, everyone is told to jump in the deep end of the pool pretending they already know how to swim. A much better approach is to provide teachers guidance on how to succeed in their first year of implementation and how to improve this implementation over time.
Taguma, M. & Barrera, M.F. (2019) “Draft Change Management: Facilitating and Hindering Factors of Curriculum Implementation” OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030: Curriculum Analysis at https://www.oecd.org/education/2030-project/contact/Change_management_for_curriculum_implementation_Facilitating_and_hindering_factors_of_curriculum_implementation.pdf, 10