Gizowski: Adopting a New Curriculum? Here’s What Districts — and Teachers — Can Do to Make It Work for Their Students

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As a staff and curriculum development coordinator for 16 public school districts in upstate New York, I’m excited to see curriculum finally getting the attention it deserves.

In recent years, New York has heavily invested in curriculum development to ensure that classroom materials live up to the college- and career-ready standards our state has adopted. Independent reviewers such as EdReports.org are making the textbook and curriculum industry more transparent. Researchers are also paying more attention to curriculum and trying to assess its impact on student achievement.

Amid these important trends, I’ve seen many of the districts I work with become more thoughtful about curricular choices and their implementation in the classroom. That’s important, because adopting a strong curriculum is a great first step toward student success. But it’s only the beginning. You can’t just turn the pages of a textbook and expect students to learn.

Teachers as students

Before introducing a curriculum to students, teachers have to study it and engage in professional development to ensure they understand the concepts they are teaching. As someone who supports teachers with math instruction, I’ve seen what happens in a classroom when educators don’t really understand the mathematical models they’re teaching. And I’ve seen those same teachers turn things around in their classroom by developing those understandings and getting the support all teachers need.

When districts adopt new curricula, school and system leaders must give teachers opportunities to collaborate with other teachers in their grades, to share ideas and support one another. Peer observations, particularly those that are nonevaluative — for learning purposes only — can be especially helpful when adopting a new curriculum. In my region, districts are so small that only one person may be teaching a single grade, so we sometimes share experiences and ideas across districts.

In addition, when adopting a new curriculum, it’s a good idea for district leaders to find a district nearby that’s already using the resource and check it out. For example, more than half the schools I work with use EngageNY/Eureka Math, so they are working together to share training and professional learning experiences, which can lower costs and expand opportunities. In addition, teachers save planning time when they can share their resources.

For district leaders, it’s a good idea to identify high-achieving districts in their regions, look closely at what they’re doing, and try to learn from them. In our community, for example, we have used laboratory classrooms — teachers trained in a new curriculum opened their doors to educators from around the region to come and observe a lesson, and they answered questions after those educators had a chance to see the curriculum in action.

Whether you’re working across districts and schools or in a single building, it’s also critical that professional development related to new curricula happen across grade bands, so that Grade 3 teachers, for example, talk with Grade 4 teachers about the lessons in their part of the curriculum. How else can teachers best prepare students for that next grade? This vertical planning supports coherence around shared practices, models, and vocabulary.

The art of pacing

One of the most common challenges for teachers in their first year with a new curriculum — and something that should be addressed no matter how schools and districts deliver professional development — is getting the pacing right. While I wish all kids had more time on task in math, many schools offer the subject for only about 40 minutes a day, while others may offer 90 minutes. This wide range in available time can support or inhibit teachers’ ability to provide targeted intervention when needed. They also can feel an internal pressure to just get through the material.

So, teachers can’t just open a textbook or teacher workbook and go through a curriculum automatically. They have to be thoughtful about what to emphasize and how to tailor the resource to their students’ needs and schedule. Pacing gets better year after year with any curriculum, but teachers have to be intentional about the improvements they make. At the end of the year, they should use assessment data to inform their choices about what needs more time and where they can ease up instructionally.

Parents and standards matter too

A word of caution to administrators and educators when adopting a new curriculum: Don’t forget parents. Some changes our districts have made over the years have been big leaps for teachers as well as moms, dads, and guardians. In math, for example, new standards emphasize deeper conceptual understanding over the rote memorization advocated in the past. As a result, the math homework that students bring home often looks different from the assignments adults remember having as kids. Some of our most successful school districts have held math nights for parents, complete with lessons that mirror those that kids receive in school. By showing the math up close and explaining why we’re making the shifts in instruction that we’re making, most parents become more receptive to change.

While adopting a new and improved curriculum can lead to exciting changes in schools, it’s important to always keep educational standards in mind, regardless of what curriculum you’re using. Standards spell out the knowledge and skills we expect students to gain. A curriculum is simply a plan for achieving that goal.

For teachers, specifically, I have one big suggestion: If you are embarking on a curriculum change, remember that any curriculum is just a plan to achieve a goal. Never use a curriculum as if it were a script. Use your own knowledge, experience, creativity, and skills as a teacher to bring any curriculum alive in your classroom and ensure that your students are engaged learners.

That would be a job well done.

Dianne Gizowski has worked as a coordinator of staff and curriculum development coordinator at Delaware-Chenango-Madison-Otsego Board of Cooperative Educational Services in central New York for 13 years. She previously taught middle school math and worked as a school-based substance abuse prevention counselor.

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