Quality Curriculum Is Not Enough: Committed Educator Supports Are Key

Adopting high quality instructional materials is just the beginning: Deliberate and continued professional learning enhances implementation success

Photo Caption: Students in Ms. Trish Meixell’s 8th Grade Algebra class at Springer Middle School work on problems collaboratively at white boards. (Knowledge Matters Campaign)

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This is the third and final piece from the Knowledge Matters Campaign tour of school districts in Delaware that have adopted high-quality mathematics curricula. At Brandywine School District in Wilmington, Delaware, middle schools are four years into their adoption of Illustrative Mathematics. In this piece, Michelle Hawley, Brandywine School District’s supervisor of mathematics, science and gifted education services, explains why ongoing professional learning is the key to successful implementation of high-quality instructional materials. Follow the rest of our series and previous curriculum case studies here.

In 2018, our school district conducted a serious reflection of our classroom and assessment data. We knew our students weren’t as successful in mathematics as they needed to be. Our performance data showed that, while our students performed similarly to the state, less than half of middle school students were demonstrating proficiency on the state mathematics assessment. The lack of quality discourse and cognitive engagement in our math classrooms was especially disheartening.

We used EdReports as an initial screener for materials, but knowing we wanted something that really encouraged student ownership of the Standards for Mathematical Practice prompted our own review for student-centeredness and inclusive student supports. Upon deeper review of the aligned curriculum materials, we decided that Illustrative Mathematics was the best choice for our needs, because the materials inherently included designs for an inclusive, challenging classroom environment where all students would be expected — and able — to engage in thoughtful discussions around thinking and problem solving.

Behavioral data from this dramatic shift in curriculum so far have been revealing. Classes utilizing this student-centered approach to mathematics saw a decrease in student behavior referrals. Qualitative surveys confirm that our students appreciate learning math in connected ways. Based on the leading indicators we are seeing, we expect in the coming years our assessment data will also reflect the success of our implementation. 

But, just bringing in a new set of high-quality instructional materials is not a silver bullet to boost student performance. Without comprehensive training and a continued system of support for educators on implementation, the curriculum itself is unlikely to be effective. This was not an easy journey. Many of our math teachers readily admit they had reservations in the beginning, particularly when thinking about their struggling students. 

With everything on teachers’ plates, it is easy to do what is familiar and comfortable. That’s exactly why we decided to invest substantial effort into building a shared vision and providing real-time support for teachers. Knowing that there would be high levels of support paired with high expectations, educators became less skeptical.

Teachers needed this support to develop a strong understanding of the material design, which in turn empowered them to make intentional decisions that maintained the integrity of the materials and focused on supporting students through productive struggle, rather than removing it.

All of the administrators — both in the school building and at the district level — committed personally to ensuring the new curriculum was a success. Principals even made it a point to remove any old learning materials in the building, sending a strong message of dedication to the new curriculum. We invested in intensive summer training, ongoing professional learning, an innovative coaching partnership with the University of Delaware, and unequivocal leadership support. Any time concerns arose, we collaborated with teachers on solutions rather than moving back into our comfort zones. 

I’ll be clear: making this kind of investment in professional learning wasn’t easy. 

“When I first heard we were pulling teachers for training, I was like, ‘You are killing me’ because it’s so hard to find subs,” said Dr. Tracy Woodson, principal of Springer Middle School. But, in the end, it was the smart thing to do because the ongoing training was key to getting our math instruction right. This is a long-term approach to teaching mathematics that everyone is invested in. I’m seeing kids excited about math—you wouldn’t have heard that from me three or four years ago.” 

Intensive summer training gave educators time to dive into the materials and understand the embedded content, structure and evidence-based routines. Professional learning focused on developing a deep understanding of the curriculum; considering the intentional coherence of units, lessons and activities; and understanding the authors’ intent for each activity. 

All of our mathematics teachers and administrators took part in this training, including our general and special education teachers. Noteworthy is that we coordinated our professional development efforts with other districts, something our teachers really appreciated. 

“Having administrators at the training was huge,” shared Janette Madison from Springer Middle School. “And working with folks in other districts who were also doing IM meant we could connect and clear up any of our confusion. We made anchor charts together and it was helpful to hear from folks who had already taught it.”

This summer PD time investment was critical. We saw changes early on, which reinforced a vision of what was possible if we executed with integrity. One of the first changes we noticed was the increase in student vocabulary use — particularly in our students with disabilities. Students weren’t at their desks working silently on problems. Instead, they were standing at whiteboards placed throughout the classroom, working in small groups with their peers, actively engaging and discussing how to solve problems. Students were no longer passive in their math classes, they were becoming empowered mathematicians. 

We asked our teams to follow the curriculum as written. This caused a massive shift in the climate of our professional learning communities. I have found that the culture of the students never exceeds the culture of the teachers. So we adopted similar problem-solving and discourse practices in our PLCs. Our teachers had to get comfortable talking, not having all the right answers all the time. Soon enough, teams were collaborating in ways they never could before, thanks to a shared vision and expectations. 

High-quality instructional materials alone will never be a silver bullet; but they can be a powerful place for starting a revolution. Any worthy curriculum adoption requires a commitment to continuous improvement and ongoing professional learning support. I can’t emphasize enough how critically important it is to invest in professional learning that is coordinated across roles and even across districts. We are now four years into the process of implementing this curriculum and we still see the tremendous value of having job-embedded coaching and meeting teachers where they are in their curriculum-based professional learning. As the years continue, our journey deepens. Active educator collaboration and the growing student engagement are just some of the daily reminders that this challenging adoption process has been incredibly worthwhile for teachers and students alike.  

Michelle Hawley is supervisor of mathematics, science, and gifted education services for Brandywine School District in Wilmington, Delaware.

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