By: Kyle Kovach, Senior Specialist on NIET’s East Team
With educational systems across the country facing an uphill battle of accelerating learning post-pandemic, many leaders are championing curriculum, or high-quality instructional materials, as the key factor in reaching students with learning gaps and promoting equity in classrooms. While research has shown the impact that a high-quality curriculum can have on student outcomes, many school systems are minimizing the critical ingredient for achieving these gains – the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom.2 For a high-quality curriculum to have the desired effect, leaders must create a strategic plan for implementation that facilitates and strengthens teacher abilities to effectively "own" the curriculum and grow in their ability to effectively use it within the four walls of their classroom. After all, curriculum itself is a program, and programs don’t teach kids – teachers do.
Just to be clear, when I use the term "teacher ownership," I do not mean that teachers have the complete freedom to adopt, adapt, or discard any-and-all elements of the curriculum. That would be the equivalent of leaving out the eggs in the cake recipe and still expecting to get that bakery-quality outcome. Instead, teachers can own high-quality curriculum when they develop their lens to identify the critical content knowledge and instructional best practices within it.
This capacity is built in school-level systems of support when teachers make a connection between the materials and their why for teaching. In doing so, they can connect what is new to what they already know, see where success is happening around them, and learn from the perspective of other teachers. In my work to support teachers, I see this shift happening in three key ways:
Articulate a Strong Vision with the Shared Why at the Core
For individuals to change their behavior (and implementing a new curriculum requires behavioral change at scale), they must have an emotional connection that creates an initial desire to change. Interview any teacher and they will confirm what we all know – we all became teachers to help kids. This is our common "why" and a powerful rallying cry. Leaders who can articulate the why of curriculum in a way that allows teachers to see how it will help their students greatly improve the chances of effective classroom-level implementation. One way that I have seen leaders communicate this why is by including teacher leaders in the initial training and rollout of a new curriculum. When teacher leaders are included in these conversations, they can then communicate the rationale and strengths of the new curriculum to their fellow teachers. This increases buy-in and understanding of how the curriculum can advance the shared why.
Connect What is New to What Teachers Already Know
When talking with teachers who are struggling with curriculum implementation, they often say that it has taken their professional expertise and experience out of their daily instruction. Leaders who work to create a culture of teacher ownership of curriculum help teachers see themselves and their best practices within the curriculum. One example of this is Dr. DaBetta Smith, a reading coach at Marshall Elementary School in Orangeburg County School District. When working side-by-side with teachers to support their internalization of Wit & Wisdom ELA lessons, she has been able to connect their lesson annotation process to what they had been doing for years with close reading. Dr. Smith shares:
"After introducing the concept of lesson annotation and strategies for doing so, a teacher asked, basically 'why is it important for me to annotate my lesson? Why can’t I just read the lesson plan as it is written and then just prepare to teach it that way?'
I talked through the process with this teacher, hoping to show the connection I see between preparation, the delivery of a lesson, and students meeting the expectation of digging deeper to derive meaning from text. I asked her to think about the close reading strategy she has used in the classroom over the years and how that strategy requires students to take multiple scans of a text while processing what they're learning. We then reflected on the second component of close reading that we teach our students, which is to write their thoughts down as they read. This gives them a deeper connection and understanding of the text. Essentially, the teacher and I concluded that lesson preparation should follow the same best practices we teach our students to use."
By making this connection to what the teacher already knew, Dr. Smith was able to help the teacher see value in lesson annotation while also respecting the teacher's knowledge and expertise.
Seek the Early Wins and Allow Teachers to Own Them
The early stages of implementation, as with any behavioral change process, are some of the most critical. Leaders who are looking to foster a culture of teacher ownership of curriculum actively seek out successes in the early stages and empower teachers to share how they achieved these successes. One way that Dover Elementary School, in Orangeburg County School District, did this work was by using group classroom visits with instructional leaders (Learning Walks) to find bright spots where lesson implementation was occurring at a high level, teacher decisions were being made with the integrity of the curriculum in mind, and students were producing high-quality student work on curriculum-related tasks.
We interviewed these teachers and shared their insights in planning-focused Professional Learning Communities via video so they could articulate their processes for the benefit of other teachers and ultimately other students. This allowed teachers to hear from other teachers even though conflicting schedules didn’t allow them to plan together during the day. Each video was accompanied with focus questions that helped teachers narrow in on the strategies that their peers were finding most helpful. Ms. Fair-Coles, a teacher in Dover Elementary, was one of the teachers who shared how she owns the curriculum:
"First, I read the lesson and the recommended text so I understand the lesson because there is a lot of verbiage, if you will, that we need to get to the kids. However, I know that for my students, I won't be able to read the entire script. And to make it meaningful and maximize our instructional time, I want to deliver the lesson with intentionality. For example, questioning is how my students learn so I highlight the pieces that are most beneficial like the partner talks and the shared reading components. I study the curriculum and identify how I can make it most beneficial for them."
For high-quality curriculum to positively impact student achievement, teachers must find themselves and their students within it. Instructional leaders can lead this process by grounding the need for a high-quality curriculum in our shared why, investing in building and validating teachers content knowledge, and setting up school structures for teachers to shine. When this shift occurs, curriculum goes from something being done to teachers to a powerful tool that teachers can leverage to reach every student and accelerate their learning.
,2 Learning First. (2019, January). High-quality curriculum and system improvement. Learning First. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://learningfirst.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Quality-curriculum-and-system-improvement.pdf.