Viewpoint: March 2023
To close learning gaps that widened during the pandemic, teachers must have access to a high-quality curriculum and a deep understanding of how to use it. Regular opportunities for collaborative learning with their peers and individual coaching by school and teacher leaders are two strategies that can help with curriculum implementation. Such ongoing support helps teachers to differentiate instruction and meet diverse learning needs.
School leaders play a critical role in this process. In our work with partners across the country, we have focused on five key leadership moves that lead to stronger use of high-quality curriculum by teachers and greater learning gains for students.
- Set a curriculum implementation strategy and monitor progress.
- Cultivate a shared vision for instructional excellence.
- Establish expectations and utilize routines to improve curriculum use.
- Provide curriculum-focused teacher coaching and development.
- Maintain instructional focus in decision-making.
As more districts adopt high-quality instructional materials, school leaders need the most effective ways to help teachers master their use. These five moves facilitate professional learning and classroom-based coaching that support stronger teaching and learning across all classrooms.
Leadership Move #1: Set a curriculum implementation strategy and monitor progress.
Truly understanding curriculum and its connection to standards and assessment is complex work. Districts must provide sufficient time for school leaders and their leadership team members to understand the curriculum and its alignment with other elements of the instructional system, including standards, instruction, assessment, and evaluation and feedback. With the adoption of a new curriculum, the investment leaders make in this early stage—before bringing the new curriculum into schools and classrooms—will pay dividends as other structures and systems are put in place to support implementation.
First, upfront training on the curriculum itself is essential and can ensure that leaders understand the scope and sequence, layout, research base, and decision points within the curriculum. Unfortunately, most districts do not provide much more than one day for this initial training.
Opportunities for collaborative work among district leaders, school leaders, instructional coaches, and teachers must follow this training. Several weeks or even months of leader engagement with the curriculum creates a foundation of knowledge that is critical as the new curriculum is rolled out to teachers. This learning establishes the foundation for leaders to embed the curriculum in school systems and structures and continue to build on this knowledge throughout the year.
Leadership Move #2: Cultivate a shared vision for instructional excellence.
Creating this shared vision is critical for selecting instructional materials. In Tennessee, the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) is partnering with leaders to cultivate their math vision of excellence. Leaders are learning about new state standards in math, engaging in regular learning walks to build their skills in recognizing the standards in action in classrooms, and using this experience to inform their selection of a new math curriculum. The work of cultivating this vision is centered on defining instructional excellence in service of student learning, clearly communicating this vision to all stakeholders, recognizing evidence of the vision coming to life in classrooms, and supporting teachers in using the materials to support student success.
For example, when a new curriculum is introduced to teachers, many may be reluctant to change their teaching and adopt the new materials. Having used other materials and resources for years, teachers may be concerned about completely abandoning familiar materials and often simply choose a few ideas or strategies from the new curriculum to supplement their existing lessons. Having teacher leaders or other school leaders discuss the rationale and strengths of the new materials and how they will help students to reach expectations in state standards is an important strategy for supporting teachers in implementing the new curriculum.
As part of the training for district and school leaders, an important investment is to set aside time to understand the big picture or “arc” of the curriculum and how it connects to adopted standards and current assessments. This investment enhances district and school leaders’ abilities to analyze and address potential gaps among these elements, areas where the curriculum might not reach the level of rigor of the state or local standards, or where additional resources and supports might be needed for students who have unique learning needs.
Leadership Move #3: Establish expectations and utilize routines to improve curriculum use.
Opportunities to work collaboratively with peers to deepen knowledge of the curriculum and its impact on the instructional system should not be a one-time investment but continue in professional learning opportunities throughout the year. NIET works with districts and schools to use teacher-leader roles and weekly meeting structures to ensure curriculum implementation is effective. Collaborative teams engage in focused problem-solving around the use of a high-quality curriculum every week for 60–90 minutes, and school leaders protect that time from competing demands. While principal support is crucial, teams are often more successful when led by trained teacher leaders who are released to support teachers to implement the new curriculum in classrooms and can show evidence of improved student learning.
For example, Goshen Community Schools, a northern Indiana school district with many English learners, adopted a new writing curriculum for grades K–8. Master teachers in each school support their peers and build capacity and buy-in for successful implementation of the curriculum. Their content knowledge across multiple grades and subjects provides essential expertise in supporting teachers to deliver instruction using the curriculum. Master teachers serve on the school leadership team, design and lead collaborative professional learning, and observe and provide feedback on classroom practice for classroom teachers in their building. In Goshen, master teachers typically support about 20 classroom teachers, although this varies based on school context and budgets.
Leadership Move #4: Provide curriculum-focused teacher coaching and development.
Teachers need time before the school year starts to understand changes that the curriculum requires in routines, structures, scheduling, grading, or assessments. With that basic understanding, teachers can focus on how new content aligns to student learning standards and build their understanding of why the curriculum is structured the way it is and how this supports student learning. At this stage of learning, teachers make connections between the content of the curriculum and instructional practices, such as lesson structure and pacing, questioning, activities, and materials that will support deeper student learning. They increase their understanding of what student work should look like at different levels of proficiency.
Teachers, and support for teachers, need to begin with a focus on the content and standards. Use of the materials helps teachers to build fluency and comfort in delivering the curriculum to classes of students. At this stage, teachers begin to think and act more strategically when it comes to tailoring instruction for individual students.
This is not a lockstep or linear process, but the overall framework can help school leaders to prioritize and streamline curriculum implementation efforts to address the needs of individual teachers or groups of teachers.
NIET’s “Teacher Learning Progression on Curriculum” shown below, outlines connections between curriculum and instructional skills at various levels of expertise. Maria Held, Jefferson Parish executive master teacher in Louisiana, explains how it is being used in her school. “We use the Curriculum Progression alongside our Instructional Rubric because we want to move teachers in areas of both practices and their knowledge of curriculum,” she says. “A carefully implemented support plan that addresses a teacher’s stage in curriculum learning will help teachers to understand how instructional practices enable them to support students to master grade-level content at the depth of knowledge needed for academic success.”
With a growing understanding of what needs to be taught and why, teachers build their ability to deliver effective lessons. This increased expertise enables teachers to better differentiate learning, such as providing scaffolds to students who need them to achieve grade-level performance expectations. As teachers increase their knowledge and skill using a new curriculum and the supplemental resources it provides, they are better equipped to differentiate instruction so that every student receives support to learn the material presented.
The five leadership moves create the conditions needed for teachers to progress in their learning and successful implementation of curriculum. For example, in the first column, a school leader’s priorities will align to the what of the curriculum as they coach teachers around the materials that are provided and build their content knowledge and vision for instructional excellence. Moving to the right, coaching and support will focus on how the curriculum is designed to meet student need and achieve grade-level expectations as educators are building their understanding of the why of the chosen curriculum. Just as the teacher learning progression is aimed at using curricular materials to support students with ownership of their learning, the leadership moves support the same goal.
Leadership Move #5: Maintain instructional focus in decision-making.
To truly achieve equitable outcomes for students, adopting a high-quality curriculum cannot be a stand-alone goal. The curriculum must be implemented in conjunction with ongoing, job-embedded learning for teachers to understand how to adapt their teaching to the demands of the curriculum. A strong curriculum provides an opportunity to restructure professional learning to better support the use of high-quality materials alongside effective teaching practices. This restructuring requires teamwork among multiple stakeholders at every level of the system, including district curriculum leaders, principals, coaches, teacher leaders, and teachers. Success in this work also involves communicating to parents the expectations embedded in the curriculum and supporting them to reinforce their child’s learning at home.
School leaders play the lead role in building support among internal and external stakeholders in the need for and the benefits of a high-quality curriculum. Creating school-level leadership teams that include teacher leaders who serve alongside principals broadens the curriculum knowledge of the leadership team as a whole and supports school leaders’ work to align standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment, evaluation, and feedback. While this can look different based on school contexts, it requires 1) time embedded in the school day, 2) structures to guide the work, and 3) instructional leadership capacity to support the kind of sustained, applied learning necessary to impact teacher instruction.
A high-quality curriculum requires a shift toward more student-centered practices across the system. To that end, districts need to standardize and communicate a common understanding of what exemplary student work looks like using the curriculum, and they need to support principals in reflective conversations with district leaders. By centering these conversations around student work and how it aligns to the outcomes expected using a high-quality curriculum, leaders can identify areas for greater alignment, such as in assessments or in the development of school goals.
The use of a high-quality curriculum that is closely aligned to state standards is a powerful foundation for improvements in teaching and learning, and it represents an especially important opportunity for students from low-income families and students of color to have access to challenging, grade-level work. However, there is a significant danger that without necessary support for teachers, more demanding instructional materials will stay on the shelf or be watered down.
Districts need to invest in high-quality, job-embedded professional learning at the school level to support teachers in raising their instructional practice using the new curriculum. Building the instructional capacity of each school leader to lead professional learning and coaching systems in their school requires intentional planning and investment. Doing so enables school leaders to provide all students with access to strong classroom instruction and deep learning, ensuring that a high-quality curriculum makes an impact on student outcomes.
Joshua H. Barnett, PhD, is the CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.