This article is part of a series of stories included in The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning, a challenge paper from Carnegie Corporation of New York that explores how professional learning anchored in high-quality curriculum materials allows teachers to experience the instruction their students will receive and change their instructional practices, leading to better student outcomes.
For years, teachers in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, worked to promote a comfortable and caring learning environment for their students. They based their English lessons on books students were able to read and sometimes helped lessons along by leading discussion and volunteering the right answers when the room fell silent. But too many students weren’t reading or writing at grade level, and they weren’t being pushed to make much progress. It was nearly impossible for instruction to meet academic standards, and if students and teachers stayed in their comfort zone, it probably never would.
In 2018–19, just 46 percent of all Lafayette Parish students passed statewide reading tests. District leaders decided to implement the rigorous Louisiana ELA Guidebooks English language arts curriculum, first among a group of the seven lowest-performing schools known as the “Transformation Zone” and later across all 45 schools. And they brought in Teaching Lab to provide curriculum-based professional learning across the 32,000-student district, reaching some 600 classroom teachers, principals, and instructional leaders.
If we only teach to where students are today, they won’t go any further. If we continually leave them where they are comfortable and where we are comfortable with them being, no one is going to move ahead.
Catherine Guillory, elementary ELA and library science specialist at Lafayette Parish School System
Some teachers initially voiced frustration over the high expectations embedded in the ELA Guidebooks curriculum. While some classes and schools were working up to grade level, the average performance of students of color, students with disabilities, and lower-income students lagged far behind that of their peers. For these students, the rigor of the curriculum’s assignments seemed out of reach. Most teachers had received mediocre preparation, little to no exposure to high-quality curriculum, and no curriculum-based learning opportunities. They didn’t know how to support students who weren’t already at grade level in reading certain texts or responding to difficult writing prompts.
“We had this idea that we wanted to protect children from struggle. But not all struggle is bad,” said Catherine Guillory, an elementary ELA and library science specialist at Lafayette Parish School System. “Initially, there was an idea that this is too difficult. But if we only teach to where students are today, they won’t go any further. If we continually leave them where they are comfortable and where we are comfortable with them being, no one is going to move ahead.”
And so teachers started using the new curriculum. But when Teaching Lab coaches first visited the district in fall 2019, they “saw a lot of deviations from the curriculum in an attempt from teachers — well-meaning attempts — to try and make the curriculum more accessible,” said Partnerships Manager Sarah Tierney. In some classrooms, teachers omitted certain questions or tasks that were harder for kids to get to, she said. “There was an injection of a lot of teacher-created, seemingly in-the-moment, low-level questions that were designed to help but ended up only helping students form a baseline rather than deep understanding of the text or task at hand.”
It was a slightly better version of the instruction that had already been occurring. The main improvement was that teachers and students now had access to a high-quality, inquiry-based, rigorous curriculum. They just had to figure out how to use it.
Lafayette Parish had strengths to build on, which informed the approach the district and Teaching Lab pursued. Teachers had caring relationships with students and with one another. They had regular small-group planning sessions with colleagues. They also had data-collection systems that enabled them to track student progress. District and school leaders were on board with a change in standards and instruction. And now, teachers had materials from the ELA Guidebooks and curriculum-based professional learning.
With their coaches, teachers learned to put these tools to work. Agenda-driven planning sessions were refocused on dissecting and rehearsing lessons. In using student performance data, teachers adopted an asset-based approach, looking for students’ strengths rather than deficits as a basis for instruction. For example, after students demonstrated they had mastered pulling evidence from a text, teachers engaged them in an activity from the curriculum that prompted them to connect evidence to a claim. They built on something students could already do and challenged them to apply that skill in a more cognitively demanding way — pushing student work into a more challenging, standards-aligned realm. Then, they reported back on the experience in planning sessions, sharing what worked, what didn’t, and what common strengths and challenges they found. This cycle of inquiry enabled teachers to break big challenges into smaller steps and start to map a course to meeting higher standards.
“For many teachers, this was a new approach to how they’d been experiencing data analysis,” said Tierney. Teachers were able to identify the specific skill that was giving students trouble within a broader learning goal, such as connecting relevant evidence to their claim, uncovering an implicit message or theme within a text, or explaining how a character’s actions impact the story’s plot. “With this approach, teachers began to feel like they could pinpoint a specific rather than general problem and uncover a solution that was somewhat feasible,” she said.
The main improvement was that teachers and students now had access to a high-quality, inquiry-based, rigorous curriculum. They just had to figure out how to use it.
These sessions also gave teachers the opportunity to develop a standard protocol for dissecting and rehearsing lessons during their professional learning meetings. They focused on the “four Ts” for each unit: the key texts, tasks, learning targets, and topics. Teaching Lab also developed a custom version of this protocol with scaffolding for students with disabilities, English language learners, and students not yet at grade level. Teachers then used these tools with their students, giving them access to rigorous, high-quality curriculum.
“Curriculum like Guidebooks is leveling the playing field as far as equity goes,” said Randy Bernard, an academic specialist at Lafayette Parish. “You not only have those groups exposed to the curriculum, but I think when the teachers use the strategies and best practices embedded in it, they better reach all students.”
Over time, teachers gained confidence that the new curriculum would work. They also gained insights into their students’ capacity for critical thought and self-expression by taking a more culturally relevant approach to assignments. Writing prompts,
for example, were revised so that instead of sharing personal experiences from outside of school, students would reflect on a common experience that took place during school, such as a recent reading or class discussion. While essays had previously reflected differences in students’ home lives, those that started with a common prompt spurred students’ interest and confidence in their work, and their writing and self-esteem flourished.
“As we progressed through the year, what we saw was a total shift in terms of what it sounded like in classrooms. Students, all of a sudden, were who you heard talking,” said Tierney. “Kids were running the classroom in the bulk of those classrooms. Not in every one, but if I had to generalize, students were having those conversations with partners and with small groups in a way that we did not see at all in the fall. In some ways, it felt like teachers had begun to let go and trust and believe that kids can actually do this.”
How can we make professional learning work better for teachers and their students?
Discover essential guidance for transforming teaching and student learning by downloading The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning.