How to get more districts on a path to quality, aligned curriculums

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Laura Slover and Bonnie Hain

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on CenterPoint Education Solutions’ blog.

Road map for student success

As Kate Gerson, CEO of UnboundED, recently said: “Adopting an aligned curriculum is the number one way to stop all the confusion and extra labor that is currently placed on teachers…Providing a road map that is comprehensive and coherent is game-changing.”

As former teachers, we agree. Back in our days in the classroom, we spent countless hours trying to create aligned curriculum, often without that road map. This included finding lessons, searching for quality grade level texts, and building assessments to track student learning—time that could have been better spent with students and with other teachers. And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Data show that teachers still spend considerable time trying to find/develop content for their students and to create what is essentially their own curriculum—only now they do it online instead of in the teachers’ lounge.

For example, RAND’s 2017 analysis of the American Teacher Panel found that 96 percent of teachers use Google to find lessons and materials, while nearly 75 percent use Pinterest. What’s more, in schools that have a high proportion of students who receive free and reduced price lunch, RAND’s research found that teachers use Google and Pinterest more frequently than teachers in schools with fewer such students. Where previous generations had limited access to resources and had to create their own materials or adapt resources from colleagues, resources abound these days. Unfortunately, when individual teachers are providing full-time instruction and building a full curriculum, it can be difficult to maintain quality and alignment to standards, ensure requisite background knowledge is built, and make sure that certain rigorous expectations are being met for all students.

So, why are teachers still doing this? One likely reason is that many districts still don’t have a coherent, cohesive curriculum years after adopting rigorous college- and career-ready standards (see recent reports from the Center for American Progress, RAND, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute). This is a head scratcher since a number of high-quality curricula now exist. Nationally recognized, content-rich curricula—such as those developed by organizations like Great Minds, EL Education, Core Knowledge, the Charles A. Dana Center, Illustrative Mathematics, and Zearn—offer quality approaches aligned to college- and career-ready learning expectations.

In a recent blog post, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli noted that it’s never been easier to pick a high-quality curriculum—thanks to the increasing availability of strong options, particularly in English language arts/literacy and mathematics, and objective reviews of the marketplace by organizations like EdReports. Given that, he asked, why aren’t more districts adopting an existing aligned, high-quality curriculum?

Adopting a new curriculum is not always practical

Curricula that are highly rated by experts like those at EdReports set the gold standard. If a district can start from scratch with new curriculum and instructional materials, it is often best to adopt one of these vetted programs and then focus on building strong implementation plans, including full engagement of teachers, to set teachers and students up for success. (See great advice on this topic from EdReports’ Lauren Weisskirk here.)

And yet in our work with districts, we see that it is not always practical to start from scratch. For some districts, it makes sense for leaders to combine their own existing materials with available high-quality resources (and to seek, where needed, outside expertise to support that work).

One district we’ve worked with determined that its approach, given its budget and policies for teacher engagement in curriculum resource determination, was to build from the curricular resources they had already purchased. With support from content experts on our team, the district is working to build frameworks and supports to ensure the final curriculum teachers implement meets both the criteria for quality, rigor, and alignment that undergird highly-rated curricula (like those lauded by EdReports) and local systemic needs (e.g. the need for teachers to be actively engaged in curricular decision-making).

Starting with detailed criteria for high-quality curriculum, this district evaluated its existing curriculum and materials, determined what met the bar for quality, and then identified where they needed to augment with new units, resources, or lessons. Where possible, the district’s curriculum writing teams incorporated curricular resources from existing, well-regarded, openly available curricula to build the highest quality instructional sequencing possible. When necessary, they stopped using old textbooks or student materials that didn’t meet the quality test. With outside content experts helping them to ensure the curriculum teams met the quality criteria, they were able to significantly enhance the quality of their curriculum while adhering to their budget and local context.

Sometimes curriculum really needs to be local

Leaders in another district on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a region whose history and economy are intertwined with its unique geography, wanted to build a course of study covering local history (as required by their state standards). They decided to focus on how the agricultural and aquacultural communities in the state are related to its history, blending social studies and English language arts/literacy content. This a topic worth teaching and studying in these communities, but the district had to develop the curricular unit on its own—no national developer has developed that as a topic of study given its micro-niche.

While these are different approaches for sure, they have in common an important element: Districts are making these decisions centrally and providing quality resources for all teachers to use. Consistent, high quality curricular resources across a district’s classrooms is a critical means to bring equitable outcomes for all students. These decisions should also ideally be informed by a district’s most highly qualified content experts (and/or external content experts) and with extensive teacher engagement.

It’s important to note too, that while there must always be room for flexibility and choice within a curriculum—e.g. one teacher may engage students in a small group discussion prior to writing a response to a text and another may engage them in a think-pair-share prior to writing in response to that text—in neither case do teachers need to get on the internet daily to create or borrow all of their own curricular resources. Nor should they, as this is “burning daylight” (to quote another observation from Kate Gerson) when there are already so many good options.

We hope that increasing numbers of districts will adopt existing highly-rated curriculum. For those that choose to go it on their own, we recommend the use of proven processes to support their work. (For example, see EdReports’ evaluation criteria, Achieve’s EQuIP rubric, the Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool, and other resources developed by Student Achievement Partners.) In time, we hope that through those processes, additional high-quality curricula will be developed—and reviewed by experts—so the pool of high-quality resources to support educators and students continues to grow. The end goal: Individual teachers don’t have to burn daylight building curriculum, but rather, can spend time where it counts most—with students.

Laura Slover is CEO and Bonnie Hain is chief academic officer, both at CenterPoint Education Solutions.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.