Providing all students access to quality teaching and learning experiences is a goal of all school leaders. And yet the world changed in March 2020, and principals’ attention and priorities shifted overnight. Issues of safety and well-being for both students and staff rightfully became their focus. Enabling teachers and students to connect virtually was a priority as well. Principals demonstrated incredible adaptability and skillfulness in responding to the needs of their students, families, educators, and support staff. As school leaders begin the 2022–23 school year, they will continue to face the sobering reality of learning gaps for many of their students. Many will focus on how to support their educators to accelerate learning for all.
Throughout our combined careers in education as secondary teachers and curriculum coordinators and as a professional organization leader (Stephanie) and grantmaker (James), we have stayed in touch with principals and remained up to date on their concerns. Some of the most compelling questions they have raised with us include: How can educators ensure that all students are asked to do grade-level appropriate work when so many arrive for middle and high school lacking some foundational knowledge and skills? How can school leaders provide the relevant and responsive professional learning that middle and high school teachers seek and deserve? How can districts manage and allocate limited resources available for professional learning? And how can school leaders identify and build leadership capacity among teachers for sustaining improvement efforts?
These questions and others led to the release in November 2020 of The Elements: Transforming Teaching Through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning, a report by Carnegie Corporation of New York. The report offers 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. The Elements report encompasses actions big and small, from purposefully selecting a strong curriculum to planning efficient teacher meetings wholly focused on instruction. Many of the school systems and schools that had chosen this course of action and informed the report prior to the pandemic found huge payoffs for students, families, and educators during the pandemic. The recommendations we offer here are informed by this report.
We have become even more convinced that the two most important steps principals can take toward addressing concerns about learning gaps and acceleration are:
- Giving all teachers access to high-quality instructional materials.
- Making curriculum-based professional learning a primary strategy for school improvement.
Addressing Learning Gaps and Accelerating Learning
Giving all teachers access to high-quality instructional materials. As most principals are aware, a growing body of evidence points to the fact that higher-quality instructional materials in the hands of teachers matters for secondary students. Even though most schools and districts provide some form of curriculum, most do not meet the generally accepted definition of high-quality curriculum materials. High-quality instructional or curriculum materials offer units and courses 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. Most important to secondary teachers is that high-quality instructional materials provide essential guidance for scaffolding learning so students can do grade-level work, which is a key aspect of accelerating learning to address learning gaps caused by the pandemic.
Absent the availability of such instructional materials and curriculum, research has shown that teachers spend an estimated 7–12 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 tend to be lower quality, with only 20% being on grade level. The impact of lowering expectations can accumulate for years, leaving middle and high school teachers playing catch up with many of their students.
Fortunately, several years ago the philanthropic community recognized this problem and invested in the establishment of EdReports (edreports.org), where principals and teachers can find independent reviews of close to 90% of the full-course instructional materials available for mathematics and English language arts. More recently, EdReports has begun a review of middle school science materials. Other organizations offer reviews/information for supplementary materials and tech tools (see EdSurge.org and EdCuration.com). School leaders can become familiar with these resources and recommend them to their teachers.
Making curriculum-based professional learning the primary strategy for school improvement. While research has demonstrated that materials matter, it has also shown that the support teachers are given to implement them matters just as much. Absent ongoing support for using more comprehensive curriculum materials, teachers may give up and revert to ineffective practices and student progress may suffer. Professional learning that focuses on the implementation of high-quality instructional materials is referred to as curriculum-based professional learning. 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. It is in direct contrast to traditional teacher training, which typically relays a static mass of information that teachers selectively apply to existing practice.
Curriculum-based professional learning looks very different than traditional professional learning. Instead of 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. This vision of professional learning uses curriculum as both a lever and a guide, helping link teachers’ actions and ideas to new standards in a concrete, focused way. Done right, it can close the gap between the experiences we provide for teachers and those we want them to provide for students. Most importantly, it gives secondary teachers what they want most from professional learning—relevance to their everyday work with their students.
Focusing on the Essential Elements
Within the Elements framework are the “essentials.” These are the enabling conditions that school leaders establish to ensure that curriculum-based professional learning can thrive. Essential elements include leadership, resources, and coherence—the necessary conditions for curriculum-based professional learning. The actions principals take with regard to the essential elements can impact the success or failure of other efforts.
Secondary school leaders address the leadership element by facilitating the development of an instructional vision that involves collaborative and representative processes and is accompanied by a comprehensive plan to achieve it. Principals build the capacity of formal and informal teacher leaders to support curriculum improvement.
While resources are often scarce, secondary school leaders use their budgeting and allocation authority to ensure teachers have access to and use high-quality instructional materials, as well as making sure instructors have the time and long-term support to implement them effectively. They prioritize curriculum study and implementation as the focus for professional learning communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic gave leaders the opportunity to re-examine the significance of coherence in establishing a vision for instruction and a plan to achieve it. Secondary school leaders act as gatekeepers for activities and opportunities that can distract from a school’s priorities. As a result, they must maintain a laser-like focus on the practices that promote (and eliminate those that inhibit) coherent systems of support for curriculum implementation.
Consider the following specific actions that you, as a secondary principal, may take:
- Conduct a review of the curriculum materials available to teachers and students. Evaluate findings and determine next steps.
- Build the capacity of formal and informal leaders including subject matter and department chairs and teacher leaders to plan and support curriculum-based professional learning.
- Engage your leadership team in discussions regarding the allocation of resources—time, people, and dollars—necessary for multiyear implementation of high-quality instructional materials.
- Engage your leadership team and consider outside technical assistance providers as partners in adopting and supporting practices that promote instructional coherence.
If these ideas resonate, we invite you to convene your leadership team to study the full report and examine where your school stands in relation to the recommendations in it. The Elements report calls for a substantive shift in how secondary principals 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.
This powerful approach to school improvement knits together two influential aspects of a student’s education: teachers’ skillfulness and the quality of the instructional materials they use. 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.
Stephanie Hirsh is the former executive director of Learning Forward. James B. Short is a program director at Carnegie Corporation of New York. This article is drawn with permission from two publications by the authors: The Elements: Transforming Teaching Through Classroom-Based Professional Learning and Transforming Teaching Through Classroom-Based Professional Learning: The Elements (which is set to publish in 2023).
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