Jen Arberg, a district curriculum leader in Guilford County Public Schools, has led the implementation of a new math curriculum in 69 elementary schools and Open Up Resources 6–8 Math in 23 middle schools. In this blog post, she shares all of the growth points they have experienced during year one.
In my last post, I shared all of the amazing things we’re celebrating in Guilford County after implementing new curricula district wide – and trust me, we’re celebrating. But I’d be doing a huge disservice if I didn’t say where we struggled, too.
Although implementing district-wide curricula has brought a lot of success, there were still challenges. I hope you can learn from our struggles, and begin planning to address them head-on before they bubble up in your district.
Change Is Hard
I started the last blog with the statement, “Change is hard.” That was truly the lesson we learned over and over again during the implementation process. Even once we were seeing results and benefits from new curricula, sticking with the changes we’d made remained difficult. They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit – I’m convinced it takes closer to 176 days to form new teaching habits and embrace them.
Teachers Love Their Old “Stuff”
Without district-wide curricula in the years prior, our teachers had, like so many others, become fabulous resource scavengers. They spent hours of their time finding things on Pinterest, Teachers Pay Teachers, and other resource sites and had grown very attached to those lessons and activities. No one likes to give up things they love for something new, and many of our teachers found it especially difficult, especially when they had previously experienced pockets of success. We had to keep reminding them how important it was to implement the curriculum with fidelity in order to really get the full impact of a coherent, aligned curriculum that uses consistent models and language from kindergarten through 8th grade. It wasn’t as simple as out with the old, in with the new.
Trust Takes Time
I said the words “trust the process” so many times that first year that I sounded like a parrot, but we knew it was important for all of our teachers to really trust the curriculum. Many of our successful teachers had been getting large end-of-year bonuses for high growth results, so it took a tremendous leap of faith for them to trust that this curriculum would continue to provide those results or better when they wouldn’t see the proof for a year. Trusting the process requires teachers to believe in you as a leader.
Reminder: Change Is Hard
Just in case you already forgot. Change wasn’t just hard for us as leaders and teachers, it was hard for our students and parents also. We adopted curricula (Open Up Resources 6–8 Math and Eureka Math) that were completely different from anything our students had experienced before. We were asking students to move from what had been a primarily direct-instruction based math class to a problem-based approach that focused on them doing the heavy lifting. Our parents were used to math being taught the way it was when they were in school and now we were taking a completely different approach. There were growing pains all around that we had to address. (More on that in my next post when I talk about what we learned!)
Monitoring for Fidelity Takes Time
We implemented curricula in 69 elementary schools and 23 middle schools with a very small district staff. While some schools were extremely receptive and started implementing with fidelity from day 1, there were plenty of others who needed a lot more support, guidance, and monitoring to ensure that they were really “trusting the process.” I simply couldn’t be everywhere I needed to be all of the time. We had to focus our time on supporting admin and coaches in the building, and trust that they were supporting the teachers. When members of my team and I do visit classrooms (which is never as often as we would like, but we aim for once a week), we always make sure to have admin team members with us during classroom visits so we are building capacity at the school level.
This Isn’t How Our Teachers Learned
I talked a bit about how hard the new teaching approach was for our parents and students. It was difficult for our teachers, too! The curricula we adopted take very different approaches from the way our teachers learned when they were in school; as a result, they had a steep learning curve as well. Lesson materials were often things our teachers had never experienced, and so teachers really had to spend a lot of time preparing for and thinking about them. If teachers have only learned math using shortcuts and algorithms, they often do not have the conceptual understanding needed to explain the reasoning behind the math to their students. The good news was that they had more time for this as they weren’t on resource expeditions anymore, and that the curricula selected provide these explanations to teachers. A veteran teacher recently told me that reading the teacher materials for Open Up was like receiving high quality professional development, and that it was some of the best math PD she had ever received. So although the learning curve can be steep regarding the content, they have the materials they need to help them be successful.
Did I Mention Change Is Hard?
It probably seems that I am beating the “change is hard” horse a bit too much, but it really is worth mentioning again. So many of the challenges we faced weren’t about the curricula or implementation at all, but instead, just about the fact that it was a change, and change is always difficult. We stayed the course and have felt this get a little better each day.
The great news is, each of these challenges also pushed us to grow as a district and as professionals. We learned so many lessons during our journey of curriculum implementation…I look forward to sharing those in Part 3 of this series!