Leveraging Larger Curriculum Dividends

Each year, U.S. school districts spend millions of dollars on instructional materials, believing that quality curriculum is a critical school-improvement lever and thus a smart investment. But a new study by the Harvard University Center for Education Policy Research of middle school math textbooks used in 6,000 schools across six states found that curriculum choices alone made little difference in student outcomes.

If the Harvard study is right in suggesting that curriculum by itself won’t move the achievement needle, what will? Our research at Education Resource Strategies points to three things that schools need to do to make the most of their curriculum investments:

  • Expert-led teacher collaboration on instructional strategies
  • Frequent, improvement-oriented feedback for teachers
  • Tailoring of instructional time and classroom groupings to individual student needs

The first of these strategies involves organizing teachers into teams that teach the same academic subject and grade level and having them work together at least 90 minutes a week to improve instruction. These teams should be led by experts who are well trained in facilitating adult learning and deeply versed in subject matter. They must work closely with their teacher teams to explain the instructional shifts required of the curriculum, plan lessons around it, and adjust instruction based on skillful assessment of what students are learning.

This model of collaboration is different from those focused on learning new concepts or school-improvement planning rather than the daily work of teaching. The approach eliminates reliance on a single administrator for expert support, increases the odds that team leaders have strong content knowledge, distributes responsibilities for planning professional development, and gives teacher teams greater flexibility to adjust their classroom instruction in real time.

California’s Sanger Unified School District uses this collaborative team approach model and has achieved student-proficiency rates two to three times higher than those of peer districts. To facilitate the team-based teacher learning, the district restructured the school schedule to allow for early student release once a week. While teachers are in their 90-minute sessions , students at every school in the district participate in free afterschool academic and enrichment programs.

[Read More: For Teachers, The Most Powerful Question]

The second key strategy for accelerating learning involves providing teachers with frequent feedback designed to connect what they learn in teams to their day-to-day instruction. The goal is to provide timely coaching. This strategy requires assigning instructional experts to a caseload of teachers for at least bi-weekly cycles of observation and coaching. These instructional experts can be teacher leaders who have deep knowledge and dedicated time assigned to work with teachers or they can be designated coach positions.

The District of Columbia Public Schools has implemented this model as part of a comprehensive redesign of its teaching force that has helped make it one of the fastest-improving public school districts in the country.

[Read More: How D.C. Schools are Revolutionizing Teaching]

But students start each school year at different academic levels and master new content at difference paces. That requires more differentiation in instruction than school districts have done traditionally, helping students with diverse learning needs master rigorous, grade-level content while meeting them where they are in the curriculum. They might extend the school day to create time for extra support or vary the size of instructional grouping throughout the day.

In schools that do this well, teachers use interim assessments to adjust instruction, providing small group learning or extra time to students with similar needs. They use time together in teacher teams with protocols for reviewing progress to make these modifications.

Getting great curriculum into the hands of teachers is important. But it won’t yield hoped-for results unless schools have clarity about what has to happen every school day to use curriculum well.

Karen Hawley Miles is CEO and president of Education Resource Strategies. Genevieve Quist Green is ERS’s director of school design.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.