Research and Reflections

I’m Passionate About Curriculum Because I’m Passionate About Pedagogy

The piece above was originally published in Principal Leadership, the journal of the National Association of Secondary School Principals and on the Curriculum Matters blog. It was republished here with the permission of the author.

In Daviess County Public Schools, we think about curriculum as the combination of your standards, your resources, and your pedagogy. I know that’s not everyone’s definition… some folks hear curriculum and think “content” while others still seem to confuse curriculum with standards. One of the major problems in public education is that we aren’t always clearly defining what we are talking about – and curriculum is truly a case in point.

I’d like to challenge us to redefine curriculum, as part of a national conversation. It’s time to put the “instruction” back in “curriculum & instruction.”

Let’s stop having separate conversations about what we teach and how we teach it, and respect the power of curriculum to connect and elevate teaching and learning – especially when we get implementation right.

Where do schools sometimes stumble today? Well, you can impair your curriculum & instruction efforts when you believe teachers can find their own resources: they’ll spend so much precious time digging up resources that pedagogy loses focus. Studies show that teachers spend 7 hours a week scouring the internet for materials. That’s basically a school day! When do they get to focus on pedagogy, and on individual students, and the cues from student work?

You can wreck a fantastic curriculum by using it the wrong way. For example, if you take rich lessons designed for students to deeply grapple with texts, and translate those lessons into worksheet packets, you’ll substitute skill and drill for students where discourse, writing, and thinking were intended. I’ve seen these mistakes made firsthand.

Getting curriculum selection right is only part of the battle; below, I’m sharing a piece that I wrote for NASSP magazine, because it captures my advice on curriculum evaluation. Yet I know that the most important parts of that piece, and this work, are the implementation details. I hope our PLN will focus there.

A conversation around curriculum seems especially timely, with growing national concerns about issues with research-aligned literacy practice, and with new potential offered by the truly quality materials that characterize the ‘curriculum renaissance.’

I hope that educators in my district and in districts across the country will join our PLN (or consider co-piloting this work!), so we can connect across districts about ways to make our teachers and students more successful.

Jana Beth Francis


Navigating Curriculum Selection to Maximize Improvement

Any time a school or district embarks on the selection and use of a new curriculum, leaders should take the opportunity to move the instructional excellence needle forward. In Daviess County Public Schools in Kentucky, we think about curriculum as the combination of your standards, your resources, and your pedagogy. In the past, our curriculum adoptions would focus heavily on the resources. For instance, in English language arts we would ask: Did teachers like the story selections? Did the curriculum provide both a digital and print option?

But while resources are critical, you must focus on standards and pedagogy to ensure you improve instructional excellence.

When you have a curriculum clearly linked to your educational standards, all students have an opportunity to reach academic success. Years ago, curriculum adoption teams in the district would check for standards alignment. However, there was no real protocol for doing that, and often the “flashy” resources won out. Today, with independent reviews available (check out www.edreports.org), educators have a way to verify whether a curriculum connects to college- and career-ready standards.

If a school or district allows teachers to make individual resource selections, there may not be a check on standards. Teachers often spend all their time looking for resources and activities. Any remaining time they have can be so limited that important conversations about pedagogy can get pushed to the side.

Without a universal curriculum across a school or district, leaders struggle to move the needle of instructional excellence forward. So, how do you go about selecting and using a new curriculum? If done correctly, each step of the selection process will serve as a driver of transformational change, resulting in improved student outcomes.

Do Your Homework

In order get buy-in from all stakeholders on a new curriculum, principals and system leaders need focused goals. In the spring of 2016, my district team started researching various English language arts curricula. We had two main goals when looking for a new curriculum, and we worked to make sure all members of the team could articulate the importance of these goals.

First, any curriculum selected had to have complex text—high readability along with challenging and engaging content—with equal weight given to nonfiction and fiction. Our professional learning the previous year had focused on key instructional shifts in English language arts—complex text, student work grounded in evidence from the text, and a build of knowledge.

School after school had followed up with our district literacy coach for more training on how to determine whether a text was complex. During our learning walks, where the school leadership team and district leadership team observe teaching and learning, principals would leave a classroom commenting on the complexity of the text. This focus on complexity in our professional learning was no longer just theoretical.

The second goal was to find a curriculum that built student knowledge. Unlike text complexity, the notion of building student knowledge was harder for some educators to grasp. For years, the focus on reading was simply building comprehension skills. The idea that students should be building knowledge while mastering the complex task of reading wasn’t emphasized.

In Daviess County, two curricula surfaced as potentials based on our goals—EL Education’s language arts curriculum (https://curriculum.eleducation.org) and Wit & Wisdom, developed by Great Minds (https://greatminds.org/english). Both curricula scored high on EdReports.org in the area of text complexity as well as building student knowledge.

Creating a Transparent Adoption Cycle

Daviess County Public Schools has a tradition of piloting innovations. With this round of curriculum adoption, we encouraged one or two teachers to field-test a unit during October and November. The district purchased or pulled together enough copies of the primary texts for both of our leading curricula so the pilot teachers would have the resources needed. I saw this as a no-lose option because in the end I was just putting multiple copies of high-quality books in our schools.

The district literacy coach and the building instructional coach increased their level of support. Collaborative planning was key. The curricula used protocols that were new to some teachers. Collaborative planning provided an opportunity to understand how lessons fit together. The district provided teacher release time to allow for deep dives into the curriculum, with a focus on student work. The district literacy coach and building instructional coach modeled or team-taught lessons with the pilot teachers. Having more than one adult in the room during lessons provided insight during review of the new curriculum.

During the pilot, the district also provided release time for all language arts teachers in the building to visit the pilot classrooms and hear from the pilot teachers. These meetings were led by the district literacy coach. As a school or system leader, it is sometimes best to let your teacher leaders spearhead this type of conversation. We needed a high level of honesty, and we got it. One language arts teacher expressed concern about actually getting support for implementing the program. Another teacher was honest about the challenges she felt some students would have reading the text. With the leader trusting the coach, teachers opened up.

After the pilot of both programs, the whole team met with the principal and system leaders to discuss which one was the best match. For Daviess County, we selected Wit & Wisdom.

But the piloting didn’t stop with the selection. The principals and system leaders had all language arts teachers teach one unit in April and May. Everyone got to “try on” the new curriculum before fully implementing it the following year.

Planning for Good Implementation

To continue to drive transformational change, curriculum adoption doesn’t stop with the selection of a new curriculum. We want our students to be cognitively engaged, willing and able to take on the learning tasks before them. Our curriculum choice provides for that cognitive engagement when it is implemented well. To help principals lead good implementation, I help them focus on the critical things they will be looking for when visiting classrooms and the essential things they want to hear teachers discuss about the new curriculum.

To do this, I first sit down with my district team and review our goals. What should our language arts classrooms look and sound like when the new curriculum is implemented? We read through the resources and determine the big takeaways. Having had the pilots really pays off at this stage because we have all spent time in the classrooms with principals, and we truly understand the curriculum and how it connects to our district goals.

Next, I focus on professional learning. The goal of the district teaching and learning team is to help teachers learn together in order to solve problems. Often, this means connecting one school with another so the professional conversations between teachers are more powerful. Sometimes it involves looking at innovations in scheduling to create more time for teacher collaboration.

Course Corrections

In the end, the focus on the “why” helps to drive transformational change. When something doesn’t go well, we go back to the why behind the need for a new curriculum, and we focus on student learning before making any changes. The intentional focus on professional conversations throughout the adoption process pays off. As a team, we are then able to discuss possible changes without losing sight of our goal of improved student outcomes. The transparency throughout the adoption process serves us well as we discuss problems that arise and potential solutions. In a sense, we all have the same background knowledge when we have to make a course correction

Curriculum Notes

If you’d like to speak with me about the specific curricula used in my district, they are:

K–5 ELA: We have an even split in the elementary schools between  Wit & Wisdom and EL Education K–5 Language Arts in grades K–5 (both are all-green on EdReports and Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes)

Middle School ELA:  We just started using Wit & Wisdom this school year (all-green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes).

High School ELA: I’m welcome to any ideas on curricula at the high school.  We are focusing on the “why” curriculum is so important.

K–12 Math: We’re using Eureka Math in grades K–5 (all green on EdReports in grades K–5, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes in K–12) and piloting Open Up Resources 6–8 Math (all-green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes).  The high schools are piloting new resources and looking to start making a transition to new curricula course by course.

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About the Author: Jana Beth Francis is the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for Daviess County Public Schools in Owensboro, KY.