At a time when few people knew what it meant for materials to be “standards-aligned,” the Louisiana Department of Education (DOE) led the way in terms of conducting publicly-shared reviews of major textbooks for alignment to their state standards. Their goal with the new review process was to help districts make smart, informed, local choices about their materials – and it worked. The state went from 20% of districts using aligned materials to more than 75% today. What’s more, the results of this year’s PARCC assessments showed a strong correlation between high achievement and the use of standards-aligned materials. Of the 15 districts that had the highest growth rates (as shown by performance on the PARCC exam), 14 were using an aligned curriculum designated as “tier 1” by Louisiana’s review process.
The review process was only the beginning; from the start, Louisiana was committed to making deeper changes that would not only lead to better curricular materials but also to better use of these materials. Even the highest quality materials are useless if they aren’t implemented effectively.
A key part of this work has been to improve professional development (PD) offerings in the state. The goal of the DOE is for every teacher to have access to high-quality PD delivered by professionals. With the previous train-the-trainer model, scaling was difficult and led to unequal quality. Now the state has researched and vetted three to five professional PD providers for the most used “tier 1” curricula in the state. Providers include organizations like the Cain Center at Louisiana State University which helped create the Eureka Math curriculum. Because the state searched for a variety of providers for each curriculum, it is able to offer districts a range of approaches and philosophies so that district leaders can tailor their PD choices to the size, demographics, and needs of their schools. For instance, a district in a large, urban district may need different support than a small, rural district.
District leaders have a chance to sample PD sessions, before formally selecting them, during their state’s Teacher Leader Summit attended by approximately 5,000 teachers, principals, and district leaders. During the summit, district leaders have the opportunity to partake in a sample PD session alongside teacher leaders. This has the added benefit of helping teacher leaders gain familiarity with the content ahead of when the PD is delivered in a school setting; they then can help support their colleagues during the actual PD delivery. Districts don’t have to choose one of the state’s pre-approved vendors, and some choose not to, but the goal of the state’s PD work is to help make the process of finding high-quality, effective PD easier and more reliable. Since the state began the process of identifying PD vendors, districts have reported an easier time building PD that fits their local needs, and teachers report that training is more aligned to their day to day experience.
With previous PD models, teachers in Louisiana often struggled to find a concrete application in their classroom for what they were learning in their training sessions. They felt more inclined to stick with their old instructional methods because the training did not clearly point to alterations. The new models of PD have tried to address this issue by going deep into content with a lens for practical application. “They’ll know what to do differently on Monday because they’re exploring content in a concrete way, one that is connected to their actual curriculum,” said Rebecca Kockler, Louisiana’s Assistant Superintendent of Academic Content. In addition to the Teacher Leader Summit, the state hosts quarterly collaboration meetings in four locations throughout the state to allow district leaders, principals, and teachers to engage in group planning, receive training, and learn about new tools and resources to bring back to their schools. The morning of these meetings is reserved for district supervisors to allow them to collaborate on key decisions such selecting materials or PD vendors. In the afternoon, principals and teachers join the group to learn about new resources and training.
In addition to the focus on improved PD, the state is also trying to determine the impact of different instructional materials decisions on achievement levels. For example, 90% of the state’s high-growth districts are using tier 1 materials (the most consistent factor across all the high-growth districts) and the state is trying to understand the impact the curriculum had on each school’s growth in relation to other school improvement techniques. State leaders are visiting high-growth districts to dig deeper into the reasons for improvement and to see what methods are worthy of greater attention and potential scaling across other districts. In looking at these districts, they ask questions such as:
- What is unique about the way these districts are using their instructional materials? (Since some districts using tier 1 materials did not achieve the same results.)
- What PD, PD provider, and style of PD did this district use?
- How is a district using coaches to support educators in using their materials?
- Is there flexibility in the way teachers use the materials or is it fairly scripted?
- Is there outside content training or expertise that supports the use of the curriculum?
As states and districts think more strategically about the role instructional materials play in student achievement, it isn’t enough simply to place improved materials in schools. While securing aligned materials is a critical starting point, it is just that: a starting point. Continual reflection on how the materials are being used and continual support for teachers to help them make the most of their materials will be important in helping education leaders identify–and then replicate–what works.