Shanker Blog: Comprehensive Reading Curricula and Teacher Expertise: We Don’t Have to Choose (Guest Post by Kate Solow)
Our guest author is Kata Solow, Executive Director of the Goyen Foundation where she led its multi-year transformation process and created the Goyen Literacy Fellowship to recognize exceptional reading teachers. She is a former classroom educator, school administrator and field organizer.
Call it the Curriculum Champions vs. the Teacher Defenders.
Over the last four years, forty-six states have passed laws about reading instruction. While much of the mainstream coverage of these laws has focused on phonics, the actual legislation is much broader in scope.
As states have gotten more involved in reading instruction—even mandating certain reading curricula in some places—I’ve started to see a new battlefront open in the so-called “Reading Wars.” It's all about curriculum.
On the one side, we have the “Curriculum Champions,” who are advocating for comprehensive and consistent reading curricula, like the ones endorsed by the Knowledge Matters Campaign. These Champions argue (correctly!) that content knowledge is essential for reading comprehension and critical thinking, and that like foundational skills, knowledge should be taught in a structured, systematic way.
On the other side, we have the “Teacher Defenders,” who have reacted to this push by insisting that teacher expertise and skill are more important elements in a successful classroom than any curriculum. (As a longtime classroom teacher and administrator, I think they’re right too). These Defenders reject the Champions’ call for comprehensive, required curricula, deriding it as “scripted,” “unresponsive,” or “curriculum-in-a-box,” while painting the other side as “teacher-bashing outsiders.”
The Champions in turn label these Defenders as “head-in-the-sand Units of Study enthusiasts,” who are more motivated by “vibes” than “actual science.”
In other words: it feels like we’re in the middle of a battle between curriculum and teacher expertise - and we’re told that only one side can emerge victorious!
At the Goyen Foundation, we don’t believe in zero sum. We are laser-focused on how to bring research-based instruction into the classroom. To me, this means elevating the voices and craft of teachers, learning from their experience and expertise, and moving beyond these tired dichotomies.
In this piece, I’m going to try to dismantle this problematic and counterproductive dichotomy between teacher expertise and curriculum and highlight some specific ways that “Curriculum Champions” can speak and do better as they roll out new curricula in their home districts.
Right now, the Curriculum Champions are winning politically. But if they’re going to succeed in the classroom, they need to win over teachers on the ground. This piece is about how to do that.
How We Talk About Curriculum Matters. Who Talks About Curriculum Matters.
I recently read an article in Chalkbeat by two New York City District Superintendents, whose districts have adopted different, comprehensive reading curricula. In the piece, the authors describe how these new curricula have transformed their district classrooms into joyful, knowledge-full communities of learners. They paint a vivid picture of second graders learning about bats. The students have a robust and detailed discussion, use complex vocabulary, and write a response to what they read and discussed. Sounds like a great ELA block, right?
But here’s the thing: the article erases the teacher in that second grade classroom. The curriculum gets all of the credit for the students’ improved engagement, increasing confidence, and growing literacy. And the teacher is nowhere to be found.
So why does this matter? Why am I picking on this article that was written to promote the kind of curriculum that I support and praise all of the time?
It matters because if I’m a teacher being told to implement one of the curricula mentioned in this piece, I walk away thinking that these Curriculum Champions have no respect for my expertise and experience. They believe I am just a robot designed to output whatever curriculum they program into my brain. Beyond that, I walk away with zero concrete ideas for scaffolding this new curriculum and making it come alive for my students. No wonder I’m going to join the Teacher Champion movement.
So how could this article have been written differently?
Simple. The teacher in that classroom should have written this article.
The teacher could write about how they got to a place where their second graders can spend an entire ELA block enthusiastically and productively reading, discussing, and writing about bats. They could write about the scaffolds they created to prepare their students to succeed on that writing task. They could also write about their challenges with implementation, how they are overcoming them, and how they’re still trying to figure out how to make the curriculum’s vocabulary routine work for their particular group of students.
I want to emphasize that I consider myself an ally of the authors of this piece. We want the same things. I am confident that the authors don’t want to diminish and erase teachers. They probably wrote the article to get other New York City district leaders excited about adopting these curricula. But while speaking to that audience, they lost sight of the fact that curriculum implementation only works if teachers are on board. And without teachers, Curriculum Champions are fighting for a lost cause.
Teacher-Led, Practical, and Responsive Implementation
So that’s how we should talk about new curricula. But what about actually implementing it?
Your implementation will fail if teachers are not included in curriculum related decisions. So: how do you meaningfully include them? It’s going to require time, money, patience, and lots of respectful and responsive conversation, but here are four ideas for districts, schools leaders, and curriculum companies to help support the process. This is not an implementation plan -- but hopefully it’s a way of thinking that will help you as you make one.
Professional Development (PD) that is led by actual teachers.
Whenever possible, actual teachers who are actively using the curriculum in their classroom should lead PD sessions. Wit and Wisdom runs a small fellowship program, where full-time classroom teachers (fellows) travel across the country to introduce other teachers to the curriculum and discuss their own implementation experience on a classroom level. This is a good model. We need more of this. Districts should demand more of this. Teachers listen to teachers.
PD that is practical and demonstrable, not just theoretical.
In other words, teachers should be able to walk away from every PD session with something they can start using in their classrooms tomorrow. Here, I’m inspired by the work of the Core Task Project, a professional development approach created in Reno, Nevada, where district leaders convened groups of teachers to learn about a topic, plan a lesson around it together, try it out in their classrooms, and reconvene to discuss how it went and what they learned. Maybe I’m biased because Aaron Grossman, the creator of the CTP, is one of our foundation’s literacy fellows, but I believe that most PD should function like this.
Community and connections inside and outside of schools and districts.
Believe it or not, my single favorite thing on Facebook is one group: UFLI Foundations Community: Building Strong Readers. This group (nearly 200k members strong and growing) was created by the writers of UFLI, a foundational skills curriculum, so that curriculum users could ask each other questions, provide ideas and suggestions, and share success stories. The curriculum authors are extremely responsive to teacher questions, but they also leave space for teachers to respond and connect and, yes, even commiserate. Teachers need virtual and in-person spaces like this one to learn from one another and simply connect.
- Permission to deviate.
This is a big one. People talk a lot about “fidelity” - I’ve talked a lot about fidelity! - but effective implementation will actively encourage teachers to make their curriculum their own. This does not mean telling teachers to do whatever they want. It does mean giving teachers a clear sense of what can be changed—and what cannot be changed—within the curriculum.
Almost all of our literacy fellows use a comprehensive reading curriculum that they love. And almost all of them have created ways to make the curriculum work better for their students. Some are bringing the Frayer Model into their vocabulary routine; others are using Juicy Sentences to supplement writing instruction; others are devising their own strategy of “annotating for fluency." As a side note: I wish curriculum companies would proactively welcome and encourage these kinds of modifications and additions, instead of attempting to make “teacher-proof” products that are expected to be implemented with rigorous fidelity.
Curriculum Implementation as Community Organizing
Let’s return to the battlefront for a moment. From the outside, it might appear like the Curriculum Champions are winning. Their (and my) preferred reading curricula are showing up regularly on states’ required or recommended curriculum lists. Districts across the country are discovering the wonderful work of the Knowledge Matters Campaign for the first time and are diving in.
But how can Curriculum Champions prevent this current moment from becoming just another footnote on the official Reading Wars Timeline? (Historians would call it: “Knowledge Mattered for Three to Five Years.” But I digress.)
Curriculum Champions need to embrace curriculum implementation as a community organizing project.
It’s not that this is the best way; it’s actually the only way. Like any profound cultural change, curriculum implementation can’t be bestowed from on high. Winning the political battle is not enough. Success will be built together, with teachers and school leaders working hand in hand. Let’s get started.
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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.