Selecting a Great Curriculum is the First Step; Implementing it Well is a Bigger Challenge
By Linda Diamond and Michelle Rodriguez
Numerous recent reports cite the difference in student learning that an effective curriculum can make. These reports include Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Studies, StandardsWork, Curriculum Research: What We Know and Where We Need to Go; Ashley Berner’s report in Thomas Fordham Institute’s Flypaper, August 2018; and Brookings report by Morgan Polikoff, June 2018. After 25 years of working with school districts to help them select and implement high-quality curriculum, we agree. However, only a couple reports, the Economic Studies Brookings Report by Morgan Polikoff and Ashley Berner’s report, address a critical difficulty—ensuring teachers have sufficient content and curriculum knowledge to use and implement a standards-based curriculum with fidelity.
Today, we are fortunate to have access to better curriculum materials, and we are fortunate that organizations like EdReports.org are vetting curriculum. Nonetheless, the heavy lifting comes in the preparation, training, and ongoing support during the first years of implementation of a new curriculum. Having excellent instructional materials may even make full implementation more difficult. This is because some administrators have the illusion that all a teacher has to do is follow the teacher manual, or that a few days of program training is sufficient. Would anyone fly on an airplane with a pilot who has only had 30-40 hours of training? Education keeps looking for the silver bullet and now that bullet seems to be curriculum. Thank goodness, district leaders, state policy makers and foundations realize that a solid curriculum, not written by teachers as discrete units nor grabbed off the internet, is vital. But do they understand what it takes to fully implement those curricula? School districts still ask for one-day or two-day workshops, and many still provide limited follow up support for teachers and principals. Others say their own coaches will help teachers, but who will ensure those coaches develop the content knowledge and curriculum expertise needed to be able to guide and support teachers? What support is provided to principals so that they have the knowledge needed to effectively lead implementation? Are we investing in ongoing professional learning and support to equip educators with the content and curriculum knowledge necessary to sustain implementation?
We have seen only a few education leaders who understand what it takes to implement a curriculum fully. Kenny Davis, principal at Washington Elementary School in Lamar, Colorado is one such leader. He made sure the school invested for three years in pedagogical training in reading along with ongoing teacher support to implement their new standards-based English Language Arts curriculum. The result was a school that moved from only 48% of their students at benchmark to 84% at benchmark. With ongoing support from an expert working with classroom teachers, the principal, and the literacy coach to build deep content knowledge and hands-on practice with the new curriculum, teachers gained the skill and confidence to use their chosen curriculum, fill gaps, and implement successfully.
Santa Ana Unified District and Pajaro Valley Unified School District in California have benefited from a visionary district leader who recognized what it took to fully implement a standards-based foundational reading skills curriculum. While Dr. Michelle Rodriguez was Assistant Superintendent in Santa Ana, she developed a support system of district specialists and external experts to enable principals and teachers at the most at-risk schools to learn deep reading pedagogy and to fully implement their curriculum. Dr. Rodriguez provided funds for one expert to work directly with the principals and another expert to work in the classroom with the teachers to provide lesson study, modeling, and coaching. This plan continued for three years and resulted in significant improvement. Now, as Superintendent of Pajaro Valley in California, Dr. Rodriguez is replicating the model. External experts are spending over 40 days within the district to build internal capacity and ensure that the principal, coaches, and teachers can effectively implement their foundational skills curriculum and acquire a deep understanding of reading pedagogy. This is what it takes.
Similarly, Kelly Dextraze, Associate Superintendent and soon-to-be Superintendent of Lincoln Unified School District in California, invested an average of 60 days per year over the last four years to support principals and teachers to understand literacy content and to implement a standards-based English Language Arts curriculum. Last year, the district added over 100 days of math content training and support to implement their standards-based math curriculum.
I am thrilled that after so many years of bashing textbooks and urging teachers to write their own lessons, policy makers and researchers are encouraging the selection and use of well-crafted, rigorous curriculum. But, I have seen this show before. During the days of Reading First, schools were expected to select and use specific adopted materials, and some states, those providing deep content knowledge and ongoing support, saw strong improvement. However, many schools, particularly those that never reached full implementation, returned to business as usual. Even now when districts have adopted vetted standards-aligned curricula, some teachers use their materials sporadically. Let’s not repeat the same mistakes. We hope this time, district leaders, school boards, foundations and state policy makers realize that simply selecting strong curriculum without also adequately funding more than just a few days of educator training and support will not produce the desired result and will only end in educators abandoning curriculum that along with deep content knowledge could have had the power to make a difference.
About the Authors
Linda Diamond, author of Teaching Reading Sourcebook and Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures, is the founder and past-President of CORE, Inc., a professional learning organization dedicated to improving achievement for America’s most challenged schools. Previously, Ms. Diamond was an education policy analyst, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, principal, and teacher. Reach Linda at (650) 233-3749 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Michelle Rodriguez, Superintendent of Pajaro Valley Unified School District in California, has implemented a variety of innovative programs to increase student learning and engagement. As former Assistant Superintendent in Santa Ana Unified School District and now Superintendent of Pajaro, Dr. Rodriguez has dedicated her career to achieving equity for vulnerable student populations.