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It’s a shift you have to make, to become comfortable with not knowing the answers and that being OK, and really relying heavily on student input. They are the ones driving the car,” says Roselyn Rodriquez, middle school science teacher at Rafael Hernandez Two-Way Bilingual School in Boston. “That can seem a little scary at first, but it’s actually something that I really appreciated from participating in the professional development that we were provided.”
Rodriquez is referring to her participation in her school district’s new pilot program for middle grades science curriculum, Open SciEd. The Boston pilot began with a four-day professional learning foundational program over the summer for two dozen district teachers —an “anchoring experience” of sorts. Teachers in grades six through eight began by watching and discussing videos of lessons that demonstrated the instructional routines in the OpenSciEd instructional model.
Afterward, they met in small groups to learn how these routines are used in specific units. They then put on a learner hat and experienced lessons from those units as their students would. It’s been an effective approach for the district, says Marianne Dunne, senior project coordinator with the Boston Public Schools Science Department. “They do a lot of shifting perspectives.”
Project survey data revealed critical changes in teachers’ beliefs about science teaching. By experiencing curriculum as students, teachers temporarily discarded their scientific knowledge and encountered the questions as their students will. An important mental shift took place as teachers came to trust students at all levels of academic performance to engage with complex and rigorous thinking and content.
Good teaching, supported here with the Open SciED curriculum, is rocket science. Teachers achieve this remarkable feat when they apply sophisticated instructional approaches that require a deep understanding of the subject matter and how students learn. When they do, students learn and grow at a rapid pace. They take on challenging topics and complete in-depth assignments. They persist through uncertainty, grow more curious and confident in their abilities, and master complex skills and content.
As a former school board trustee, I appreciate the importance trustees place on providing all students access to quality teaching and learning experiences. I also understand trustees’ interests in leveraging opportunities consistent with their role and responsibilities to address this priority.
During my nine-year tenure on the school board and after subsequently listening to, learning from, and supporting school board members, a common set of questions and concerns surfaced. How do we guarantee all students learn and achieve at high levels? How do we ensure the relevant and responsive professional learning that teachers seek and deserve? How do we prioritize and allocate limited resources toward student and teacher learning? And how do we build leadership capacity for sustaining improvement efforts?
Over the last few years, I have identified two powerful actions that require the attention and commitment of school board members: 1) Prioritize access to high-quality instructional materials for all grades and classes, and 2) Invest in curriculum-based professional learning as a primary strategy for school improvement.
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High-quality instructional materials
A growing body of evidence points to the fact that higher quality instructional materials in the hands of teachers helps students. And even though most schools and districts provide teachers with some curriculum materials, evidence has shown that most materials do not ask enough of students. High-quality instructional or curriculum materials offer courses and units that are integrated, coherent, and sequenced. They include specific learning goals and lessons aligned to content standards, student-centered approaches to learning, research-based teaching strategies, teacher support materials, embedded formative assessments, and teacher guidance to support implementation.
Absent the availability of such materials, research has shown that teachers spend an estimated seven to 12 hours per week searching for and creating their own instructional resources (free and paid) drawing from a variety of sources, many of them unvetted. Unfortunately, teachers working in schools that have a high proportion of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch are searching for instructional materials online at higher rates. Several studies have shown that the assignments teachers select or create on their own tend to be lower quality, with only 20 percent being on grade level. School board members have a responsibility to consider these statistics as they contribute to the school system’s instructional vision and investment in the curriculum, including textbooks and other student materials.
Several years ago, the philanthropic community invested in EdReports (edreports.org), a website where educators can find independent reviews of close to 90 percent of the full-course instructional materials available in the market for mathematics and English language arts. Recently it has begun reviewing science materials as well. A small number of independent organizations offer quality and impact data for other subjects and materials, including EdSurge.org and EdCuration.com. In addition, the philanthropic community invested in open-source, freely available high-quality instructional materials so that access to such materials would not be a barrier, and to potentially free up dollars for investments in other supports for teachers.
School board members are well aware of the amount of money that their systems invest annually in curriculum, including textbooks and other student materials. They have a responsibility to give teachers and students access only to the highest quality instructional materials. They can seek evidence that planned textbook and instructional material purchases meet the highest standards such as those established by EdReports.
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Strategy for school improvement
While research has demonstrated the impact of high-quality curriculum materials, it has also shown that the support teachers are given to implement them increases the positive outcomes for students. Absent the ongoing support for Boston teachers implementing Open SciED, students may not have made such progress, or the teachers may have become frustrated and given up. Professional learning that focuses on the implementation of high-quality instructional materials is referred to as curriculum-based professional learning and has some distinct qualities from traditional professional development. Such learning places the focus squarely on the curriculum materials. It is rooted in ongoing, active experiences that prompt teachers to change their instructional practices, expand their content knowledge, and challenge their beliefs.
Curriculum-based professional learning looks very different than traditional professional learning. Instead of attending a one-time workshop, teachers engage in small-group sessions that are structured like typical lessons found in their high-quality instructional materials, allowing them to experience the instruction that their students will receive. This experience sets in motion new patterns for teacher collaboration, planning, rehearsing, and problem solving together.
Through these processes, teachers deepen their disciplinary content knowledge and fine-tune their instructional approaches, growing fluent in the curriculum’s rigorous content and sequence of learning. Over time, both inside and outside their classrooms, teachers see firsthand how their day-to-day choices can enrich or cut short learning opportunities for students. These experiences help reshape their beliefs and assumptions about what their students can achieve. Done right, curriculum-based professional learning can close the gap between the experiences we provide for teachers and those we want them to provide for students.
Carnegie Corporation of New York in 2020 released The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning (www.carnegie.org/elements). This publication offers an evidence-based framework for curriculum-based professional learning. The elements offer a core set of research-based actions, approaches, and enabling conditions that effective schools have put in place to reinforce and amplify the power of high-quality curriculum and skillful teaching.
Of the 13 elements, three are referred to as the essentials. They are the enabling conditions where professional learning can thrive. Essential elements include leadership, resources, and coherence, the necessary conditions for curriculum-based professional learning. The actions school board trustees take regarding these essential elements can impact the success or failure of other efforts. Trustees address the leadership element by seeking and contributing to the development of an instructional vision and a comprehensive change management plan to achieve it.
School board members leverage the resource element by using their budgeting and allocation authority to ensure teachers have access to high-quality instructional materials and the time and long-term support to implement them effectively. They seek investment and impact data regarding curriculum and curriculum-based professional learning decisions and actions. Trustees promote the coherence element by participating in instructional vision setting and then ensuring policies and practices align to it. The pandemic demonstrated the importance of the coherence element. Alignment of vision, instruction, assessments, and professional learning is key to school improvement. Trustees can use their authority to adopt policies that detail definitions, expectations, and practices associated with both curriculum and curriculum-based professional learning and signal the importance they place on these two issues.
The Elements calls for a substantive shift in how school board members think about and execute two of their most important responsibilities: ensuring students and teachers have access to high-quality instructional materials and establishing processes that ensure teachers have ongoing support to achieve higher levels of learning and performance. By reshaping current practices with The Elements as a guide, we can help teachers further develop the skills, knowledge, and understanding to set all students up for success.