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Rethinking What and How 45,000 Students Learn

During five and a half years as chief of teaching and learning at the District of Columbia Public Schools, Brian Pick led one of the nation’s most comprehensive—and successful—overhauls of a school district instructional system. Pick introduced new standards, new curriculum materials, new assessments, new teaching strategies, and an innovative school-based professional development system that turned schools into adult learning communities. And the Princeton graduate who started his career in public education as an elementary school teacher through Teach for America built a new infrastructure in the DCPS central office to support the new initiatives. The work has paid substantial dividends. Yesterday, the district released its 2019 PARCC standardized test results and scores were up for every major racial group at every grade level in reading and at nearly every grade in math. It was the fourth consecutive year of PARCC gains in what was a decade ago one of the worst-performing districts in the nation. Pick, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, spoke with FutureEd Director Thomas Toch about the challenging work of revamping curriculum and instruction. 

Toch: You led a long-term effort to improve curriculum and instruction in a school system with 45,000 students and over a hundred schools. Some say schools should be left to sort out curriculum and instruction on their own. What was your strategy? 

Pick: We invested in three major buckets: 1) high-quality curriculum resources combined with formative assessments for every subject at every grade level, 2) a school-based professional-learning model, and 3) partnerships with external organizations to provide real-world student experiences.

One of the most important objectives that guided our curriculum and instruction work at DCPS was to create a floor but not a ceiling for what happens in classrooms. The instructional floor was important in D.C. because there were such inconsistencies in what happened in a first-grade classroom in one part of the city compared to another, in one school compared to another, in one classroom down the hall from another.

Standardization is a way of ensuring that every student is taught to a meaningful standard?

We strived for some degree of shared practice that ensured that every student across the city experienced quality instruction and some common curricular experiences. We call these shared lessons the DCPS Cornerstones. However, equally important, given our sustained focus on recruiting, retaining, developing, and rewarding great teachers, was to unleash greatness by not creating an instructional ceiling.

What is an instructional ceiling?

An instructional ceiling limits the academic excellence that can be displayed by students. It often restricts either the relevance or the rigor of an academic task.

Why would such a centralized system necessarily create an instructional ceiling?

Any system with a managed instruction approach (a scripted curriculum that is closely monitored, for example) can create a ceiling. Randi Weingarten once shared that all teachers deserve access to high quality curricular resources, but that curriculum should not be a straight jacket. Instead, district leaders must allow for what [the education advocate] Kati Haycock calls ‘elegant adaptation.’

How do you do that?

We communicate that the DCPS curricular resources are strong starting points and must be ‘worked’ by teacher teams to ensure that the lessons meet the needs of their students, remain relevant to their students, and are authentic to the teacher. And we ensure teachers have planning time for that work.

How do you know when adaptation is “elegant” or not?

Through the sharing of examples. Our professional development model had teachers bringing student work back after lessons to share student outcomes. During these sessions, teachers share and discuss their adaptations. We also set some guardrails or non-negotiables at the lesson level. Teachers, for example, cannot switch out an on-grade-level novel for something below-grade-level (Number the Stars instead of The Book Thief, for example) or lower the cognitive demand of a unit’s culminating student task.

In surveys, principals and teachers say that they want help on curriculum and instruction, that they don’t have the time or the expertise to build instructional strategies from scratch. It seems far-fetched, to put it mildly, to expect every school to figure out curriculum and instruction on its own.

There are some highly centralized systems that are very successful. Long Beach, California, or Aldine, Texas for example. It’s so centralized that they say, "There's a Long Beach way." There, principals and teachers say, “We kind of all live and breathe it, but we sign up for it and we're okay with it. We have a common language. And the clarity is liberating.”

On the other hand, there are systems like Chicago. It has been going down a decentralization path for some time, but it has invested deeply in the role of the school principal. The system has provided resources to help principals be instructional leaders.  What curriculum am I going to use? What's the best way to teach a first grader who's struggling to learn how to read? They've really built their system up around the principalship.

What are some of the ways Chicago has supported its principals?

To begin with, they focus time and energy on principal recruitment and leadership pipeline programs. Working with key partners such as the Chicago Public Education Fund and local universities, Chicago Public Schools has used a principal-centric approach to scale excellence across its large system of 600+ schools. Finally, they carefully organize their instructional supports at the principal and school level.

Scale is the Holy Grail of school reform. How do we scale instructional improvements without some level of centralization?

The centralization-decentralization discussion is important, but what is most important is that a district clearly articulates a theory for instructional improvement (whether centralized or not), then communicates that theory widely and often to all stakeholders, and then aligns all its resources— people, time, and dollars—to the execution of that theory. If a district chooses a managed-instruction approach, then district leaders must communicate clearly, build structures, and provide resources that support a managed-instruction implementation. On the other hand, if a decentralized approach is used, a different set of structures and supports must be provided. Districts often struggle with a lack of clarity around their theory of instructional improvement, a lack of communication about this theory, and a lack of aligned structures to robustly support the theory.

[Read More: A Policymaker's Playbook for Transforming Teaching]

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