Making It Count: Teaching High-Quality Curriculum

June 9, 2020

Making It Count: Teaching High-Quality Curriculum

By: Dr. David Steiner, Executive Director, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy

A student's academic achievements have a thousand causes: nurture, nature, society, zip code, luck - and that's before she even enters school. But the highly effective teaching of excellent material – over successive years of education – can mitigate much that fate has otherwise predestined.

The under-teaching of our most underprivileged students – so often those of color – has done the reverse. Our least prepared, youngest teachers try to curate their own materials, materials that they believe are "appropriate" to their less-affluent students, to the point where these children rarely encounter grade-level texts or math problems. Such well-meaning pedagogical practices viciously multiply the preexisting disadvantages of students. Those who start behind, stay behind.

As is too often the case, we want to solve this systemic problem by finding the silver bullet. A decade ago, I secured funding from the federal government to create what became EngageNY, the first high-quality, free, online curriculum in math and ELA. It was only a first step. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of teachers gained access to these materials, and soon a plethora of other high-quality choices. But now we know that access is vastly different from sustained use – owning better running shoes does not make us competitive on the track. Given, on average, barely more than a single day of professional support to learn about the new materials; knowing that their students will face assessments that lack any integration with their curriculum; and subject to principal evaluations that don't assess curriculum use, teachers across America are barely using these new shiny objects – old habits win out.

No matter how often the education policy world keeps repeating how important it could be and would be for teachers to commit to the sustained use of our best curricula, the only way it is going to actually occur is by long-term attention to the how: the hard work of identifying the practices and processes by which this national transition can finally be made.

This is why the release today of the report High-Quality Curriculum Implementation – Connecting What to Teach with How to Teach it from NIET (the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching) is such an important and timely event. The key is in the subtitle, which explicitly links effective teaching and high-quality instructional materials. This is the first major report that takes on this critical nexus, and puts it – rightly – at the center point. This report gets its hands dirty; it focuses on the nitty-gritty of leadership, time, training, messaging, division of labor, peer coaching, teacher observations, data and district practices, using real-world examples from practitioners to render the guidance vivid and believable.

Above all, NIET's report doesn't pretend that the process is easy or quick. After all, 63% of America's K-12 teachers have been teaching for ten years or more; the goal remains to change deep-seated professional habits. As this report emphasizes:

A new curriculum is a critical tool in advancing that goal, but adopting a new curriculum does not happen in a vacuum. A range of other initiatives continue in each school, and practices, materials, and activities associated with the old curriculum often persist (p.26).

Reversing the persistence of old habits will take sustained commitment and a very new set of approaches to accepted school practice. At times, the report acknowledges, rightly, that we don't yet have the tools we need to make the required changes. Take the following sage advice:

Districts need to think about what tools or processes they have in place to describe and measure curriculum implementation in classrooms; how these tools are used across different staff roles and content areas; and whether they are sufficient to help to build systems, share goals, and monitor curriculum implementation over time (p.15).

The truth is that the vast majority of districts have neither these tools nor appropriate processes. Both are crucial if assessing the level of implementation is to be more than guesswork. Elsewhere in the report, the recommendations reinforce strong common sense:

Professional learning should marry the “what” and the “how” by utilizing the developmental language of a common instructional rubric in the context of specific lessons or components of the curriculum (p,18).

Once again, this advice is needed: We know that billions of dollars are spent – and largely wasted – every year on professional development for teachers that is curriculum-agnostic, i.e., aimed at generic, disembodied teaching skills without reference to any specific curriculum. A huge industry is invested in these workshops and trainings. Here again, breaking the model will require effort.

Finally, the report – rightly, once again – isn't shy in calling out what will be required in the field, yet particularly tricky in this era of fiscal stringency. In the case of low-performing schools, teachers will need "one-on-one coaching" (p.23); a meaningful awakening (through reviewing the research and experiencing the change) to the potential of high-quality curriculum; and substantial support as they achieve an "exemplary level" of instructional practice (p.24). Above all, the full transition will require that most precious of educational resources: time, including not only the curriculum-specific professional learning, but for such key building blocks as "weekly, collaborative professional learning team meetings and school leadership team meetings."

There is little that is glamorous here - no startling headlines or dramatic data. Rather, this report marks the moment when high-quality curriculum implementation gets real. The difference between hand-waving at the potential that lies embedded in such materials, and the teachers who change lives by using them well, is found only in the hard work of getting the details right. Finally, we have a real roadmap. It won't be a short journey, but there is now no excuse for delay.

Dr. David Steiner is a professor of education at Johns Hopkins University and executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. He is a member of the Maryland State Board of Education.