Across the country, educators are preparing for multiple scenarios that will guide the opening of schools. Some students will learn remotely, some will attend schools a couple days a week and study at home the other days, and some will be in school full time while a portion of their friends learn alongside them from home. Ensuring high-quality instruction for all children, regardless of the decision about where they will learn, is a responsibility of states and school systems. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), as well as countless other organizations and researchers, identified the consistent use of high-quality instructional materials as key to equity and impact in the new school year.
Most teachers became remote instructors overnight, and for many school systems, asking teachers to use a new curriculum on top of that would be extreme.
For districts with a standardized curriculum, keeping students on pace together — no matter their learning setting — is important. For school systems without a district-wide curriculum, it’s a more complicated problem, usually involving considerable time and often necessitating the naming of a committee to study and narrow the available options, as well as teachers “testing” lessons from the possibilities. Once a curriculum is selected, teachers are given time and support to transition to the new materials. Under current circumstances, this approach is not an option. Most teachers became remote instructors overnight, and for many school systems, asking teachers to use a new curriculum on top of that would be extreme.
Richmond Public Schools (RPS) serves more than 24,000 students in Virginia, with more than 40 percent of those students economically disadvantaged. Fewer than 80 percent of students demonstrated proficiency on the most recent state literacy test and that percentage drops to 35 percent for English language learners. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, RPS had initiated a search for a new literacy curriculum, but new conditions propelled it to take another look at the marketplace. In the midst of the pandemic, RPS issued a new request for proposals for literacy instructional materials and teacher support for implementation, ultimately selecting EL Education, a Carnegie Corporation of New York grantee.
“Through our curriculum adoption process, we learned how EL Education, as an organization, is an amazing partner in working with districts,” says Autumn Nabors, RPS’s director of curriculum and instruction. “We chose its Language Arts Curriculum because it embeds complex texts written on or above grade level to build comprehension, develop conceptual knowledge, and build academic vocabulary. We were also attracted to the supports built into the curriculum for students with disabilities as well as English language learners. Finally, and most importantly, we want our students to feel empowered in order to work toward social justice. We were confident through the adoption process, during such unsettling times with COVID, that they would provide the partnership with virtual training and curriculum support that we need.”
According to Jim Short, program director of the Leadership and Teaching to Advance Learning portfolio for Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Education program, “It is not easy to change traditional approaches to textbook and curriculum selection. And thinking about how to help teachers successfully implement a new curriculum during a pandemic adds to the challenge. However, the benefits of providing educators with high-quality instructional materials and the professional learning to support successful execution makes it worth the risk. EL Education understood the stakes and enhanced its curriculum-based professional learning to support scenarios of in-class and remote instruction for the 2020–21 school year. We have confidence in EL Education as a tremendous partner and are proud to support the work that these two great organizations are accomplishing together.”
In an independent evaluation, Mathematica found that EL Education middle school students perform better in reading and math than their counterparts in other public schools. Christina Lesh, regional director of EL Education and lead on the Richmond partnership, notes that this success is due in part to an “approach to partnership development that puts the assets of the district at the center with intention around equity and inclusion. Richmond Public Schools and EL Education are mutually invested in outcomes for students.”
Due to its high ranking on Ed Reports and in independent evaluations, EL Education’s curriculum and professional learning services are in high demand. Prior to COVID-19, EL Education launched week-long orientation sessions during the summer and continued them throughout the school year. Launching virtually was not something the EL Education team ever anticipated undertaking, but Richmond Public Schools, as well as several other new partner school systems, required it.
In every bit of virtual professional learning we designed, we asked ourselves, with everything else that teachers and leaders are managing right now, what do they absolutely need to know and what’s the best, most efficient way to communicate it?
Kari Horn Lehman, EL Education
“Not only did the process and content need to be translated to a virtual learning environment, but there were the complexities of scheduling and delivering professional learning to thousands of people who would be in their own homes, pulling double and triple duty as teachers, learners, parents, and caregivers,” says Kari Horn Lehman, EL Education’s associate director of curriculum partnerships. “We knew we had to think about the people first and the content second. In every bit of virtual professional learning we designed, we asked ourselves, with everything else that teachers and leaders are managing right now, what do they absolutely need to know and what’s the best, most efficient way to communicate it? And how long can we reasonably expect people to be on their computers at one time?”
The team began by revisiting the keys to an effective launch and then considered how it could address those through remote learning. Building buy-in, confidence, and desire to change were foundational. Equally essential was teacher understanding of how to use the curriculum and make the right instructional moves. Trusting relationships contribute to openness, interest, and commitment but building a relationship from a distance is challenging. The team doubled down on learning about the Richmond community and its history, as well as the teachers and their likes and dislikes.
“The professional learning provided by EL was engaging and modeled how to design learning virtually,” says Nabors. “The opening session with Rodney Robinson set the tone for how literacy and social justice are connected and need to remain our focus in teaching our students. The structure of short fundamentals followed by break-out sessions allowed teachers multiple dives into the learning to create deeper understanding. Finally, the inspirational closing with words from students and teachers who have used the EL curriculum gave our staff the inspiration to continue the challenging and important work in implementing this curriculum.”
Staying committed to its three key adult learning principles — active learning, collaborative learning, and self-directed learning — kept the EL Education team focused and successful. Beyond opening and closing sessions, all professional learning involved small cohorts of teachers serving the same grade level, using the same materials, and engaging in collaborative learning. In the first module, teachers were introduced to the new philosophy, routines, and materials that needed to become part of their daily instruction. In addition, they received guidance for adapting the curriculum in a virtual or hybrid setting.
“By providing the content in a variety of ways, we honor our commitment to self-directed learning and empower teachers to lean into the approach that best meets their individual learning needs,” says Lehman. “For example, some teachers might prefer to learn via the self-paced online professional learning courses, whereas others thrive in the live, interactive workshop sessions, and still others prefer the quick pace and direct instruction of an ‘essential’ session. We include all of these in our curriculum launches to meet the needs of our diverse group of adult learners.”
Throughout the professional learning, teachers are active learners, mirroring student learning. All participants experience the Read Think Talk Write protocol that they will use with their students.
While EL Education uses an educative curriculum, meaning it offers comprehensive guidance for teachers and resources for students, it is not easily implemented. For many teachers it’s very different than what they are accustomed to, so it’s critical that teachers feel prepared to use the instructional materials from day one.
Positive comments from summer participants give EL Education and RPS reasons to feel hopeful for the start of the new school year:
“This new curriculum will provide rich equity for all students to be successful in their learning and contribute to the world.”
“THANK YOU for the time to work and collaborate with colleagues at our schools!”
“Today was probably one of the best trainings I've been in. . . . The information was exemplified well, it was slowly deciphered, and it will be retained! I thought Zoom PDs would be the WORST because of the distance, but I think being at home, relaxed in my element, helps me focus on the trainings.”
Overall, participant feedback on anonymous surveys delivered at the conclusion of each session reported a 97 percent positive rating on the quality of the content and facilitation, and a 99 percent positive rating on application of the learning to one’s work. “We will truly know the impact of the professional learning once our teachers have an opportunity to use the curriculum with students,” says Nabor. “We can then gauge how the professional learning prepared them for teaching the EL curriculum and, ultimately, how this impacts student learning.” Both EL Education and RPS are committed to working together to achieve this impact.
Download EL Education’s freely available Language Arts Curriculum:
Stephanie Hirsh, former executive director of Learning Forward, is an author and consultant specializing in professional learning, leadership development, and organization improvement.