In it for the long haul: Our district’s experience implementing a high-quality curriculum

Getty Images/bowdenimages

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

“If you’re going to try to build knowledge, you better be in it for the long haul.”

—Daniel Willingham, NAEP Panel Discussion 2018

Daniel Willingham’s comment from a NAEP 2018 panel discussion on “What Can Be Done to Improve Reading Achievement” has recently become our coaching mantra. It embodies not only the student experience of learning but can provide a helpful mindset for educators at all levels when implementing a high-quality curriculum.

During the 2017–18 school year, our district adopted a comprehensive, K–8 knowledge-building English language arts (ELA) curriculum, Wit & Wisdom (Great Minds) along with a structured phonics program to address foundational skills (currently not part of Wit & Wisdom). Prior to this adoption, we did not have a shared curriculum. In our experience, implementing a high-quality, knowledge-building curriculum takes knowledge, support, understanding, and perseverance. Although challenging, it has been one of the best decisions our district has made. We have identified four key lessons learned through our journey of adopting and implementing a high-quality curriculum.

Build your own knowledge base

To build our knowledge of high-quality curriculum, we utilized elements of Student Achievement Partners’ Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool (IMET). It’s a fantastic professional learning opportunity to better understand the standards and what makes a high-quality curriculum. We continue to use the IMET to help us understand the curriculum, its relationship to the standards and what we need to know about the strengths and opportunities for growth that exist in the curriculum. EdReports.org and Louisiana Believes have also provided us with authentic educator insight into high-quality curriculum.

We spend a lot of time immersed in literacy research. Every new article, webinar, or book adds a new layer of understanding to support literacy work in the district.

We are building a network of learners within our district committed to utilizing literacy research to understand our new curriculum and inform instructional practices.

Providing support to teachers

Our high-quality curriculum requires a shift in teaching practices. We are learning that more work should be done in advance of instruction to give teachers the opportunity to provide real-time feedback as students take on more of the cognitive load.

We are working towards providing job-embedded professional learning to allow teachers time to study the curriculum, plan and manage daily lessons, think about the needs of diverse learners, and develop an understanding of how to recognize student learning beyond a comprehension assessment.

We provide this professional learning through Wit & Wisdom-specific professional development, collaborative team time with coaches, individual coaching support in the classroom, and targeted grade-level or building-level shared professional learning experiences, e.g. how to run a Socratic Seminar, analyzing writing samples, or exploring fluency. We feel very fortunate to have a district that values instructional coaching and professional learning. No matter the situation, a thoughtful and flexible, multi-year professional learning plan is essential.

Acknowledging the emotional side of teaching

Instruction is personal. We became teachers because we care; we want to make a difference, and we want to grow children emotionally and intellectually.

It’s been challenging for many teachers to adjust to a district expectation of a shared curriculum. For some, the adoption of the curriculum has felt like what they were previously doing was wrong. Others felt their creativity stifled. Many have commented on the vulnerability of teaching and learning the curriculum at the same time.

Navigating the emotions of the shift in expectations is one of the most challenging aspects of our implementation. There is no road map to teacher emotions. Our best advice is to listen, learn, and be compassionate.

Perseverance

We view implementation as a journey, not a destination. A huge part of that journey involves honest reflective dialogue as a way to foster growth. Teacher workload is a real concern and cannot be ignored. We celebrate small victories that we notice in the classroom. We often find ourselves acting as cheerleaders, encouraging teachers to persevere.

Teaching any high-quality curriculum is humbling. Many of our veteran teachers expressed feeling like brand new teachers. As teachers persevere through implementation, they are able to more clearly see how a high-quality curriculum benefits all students. They are seeing students who are passionate about the knowledge they are building through the curriculum. Students are exceeding teacher expectations and this keeps teachers moving forward.

***

Our students need educators who are willing to engage in the work of building knowledge. Our teachers need high-quality curriculum to support that work. While our journey has not been easy, we would do it all over again. This is what our teachers and students deserve.

Amy Holbrook, Becky Parker, and Mandy Polen are instructional coaches at Mad River Local Schools in Riverside, Ohio. They are part of a curriculum coaching team committed to using educational research to shape curriculum decision-making.

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