Strong Materials in the Hands of Great Teachers

By Davidson, Barbara; Pimentel, Susan | The Learning Professional, December 2018 | Go to article overview

Strong Materials in the Hands of Great Teachers


Davidson, Barbara, Pimentel, Susan, The Learning Professional


K-12 education has witnessed a sea change in attitudes about curriculum as a serious reform strategy. The movement gained traction in the wake of the Common Core State Standards, when newly created curriculum products emerged.

Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, called curriculum "the last, best, juiciest piece of low-hanging fruit left in our efforts to improve student outcomes" (Pondiscio, 2015).

While there are an increasing number of high-quality, content-rich curriculum products available, as well as venues to assist schools and districts in evaluating them, selecting a highquality curriculum is only the first step. How teachers make the curriculum their own in the classroom is every bit as critical.

The Knowledge Matters Campaign is a coalition of education leaders encouraging schools to focus on developing students' foundation of content knowledge. Earlier this year, Knowledge Matters members visited seven elementary schools that embrace high-quality, content-rich English language arts curricula.

The schools use a variety of instructional approaches and represent different geographic locations, demographic diversity, and governance structures. Their common feature is a commitment to knowledge-rich schooling and belief in comprehensive, high-quality curriculum, implemented schoolwide, as a means of achieving it.

As we toured these seven elementary schools, we sought to discover what kinds of professional learning teachers found most helpful in transitioning to a new curriculum. Four primary lessons for administrators and teachers emerged about what it takes to implement a highquality, content-rich curriculum well.

LESSONS FOR ADMINISTRATORS

Embrace a "we're-in-this-together" school leadership stance.

Teachers and coaches stressed the vital role of school leaders in driving robust implementation. Most important to staff was the passion that leaders conveyed about the learning the school was undertaking.

Teachers at Monticello-Brown Summit Elementary School in Greensboro, North Carolina, remember the tears of gratitude shed in a staff meeting when the principal, Christopher Scott, pulled everyone together at the start of the school year to prepare them to implement the new American Reading Company English language arts curriculum, ARC Core, in their classrooms.

Addressing teachers' anxiety about the change, Scott made it clear they would be in it together and that continuous improvement mattered, not perfection. By lowering the cost of making mistakes and providing safe spaces for teachers to experiment, Scott and his team created an environment in which teachers relaxed and expressed openness to learning new ways of instruction.

Principals in the schools we visited were constantly in and out of classrooms, as much to learn and grow themselves as to observe how teachers were doing. Teachers expressed their deep appreciation for the presence in their classroom of leader learners, rather than leader evaluators.

Adrian Monge, principal of Detroit Achievement Academy in Detroit, Michigan, said it was important that she "norm perseverance and taking risks" by doing the planning and teaching alongside her teachers. The school had recently transitioned to a new, more structured version of the EL Education K-5 Language Arts curriculum. "It sends an essential message to the faculty that I chose to spend my time learning the curriculum, too," Monge said.

Tend to the hearts and minds of teachers by sharing the philosophy and research behind the new curriculum.

Teaching to the rigor in the Common Core State Standards involves significant instructional shifts. There is a not-to-be-ignored hearts and minds aspect to setting aside old ways of instruction so that faculty can move forward together to make real progress for their students.

In the case of English language arts, which was our focus during the school tour, the instructional shifts include regular practice with complex texts and their academic language; reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts; and building knowledge through content-rich curriculum. …

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