Curriculum Series, Part 2C: The Third Assumption
It’s time to discuss the final assumption that holds many schools and districts back from implementing high-quality curriculum: the belief that challenging, on-grade-level reading curricula are too difficult for many of our scholars, particularly those who are reading below grade level.
I have come across this assumption many times, particularly when teachers look at the texts and tasks for a new curriculum the first time. They may think of particular students who have struggled, and feel that the curriculum is "above" the level at which their scholars are able to achieve. I have even heard teachers say, "This is a good curriculum for schools where all the kids are on grade level, but not for my students." This was said out of a desire for students not to struggle, rather than malice ... but as we'll discuss, trying to keep scholars from difficult challenges doesn't help them.
This sentiment isn't restricted to certain locales, so I asked Robin McClellan, Supervisor of Elementary Education at the Sullivan County Department of Education, to help me out with this installment. I’ve seen what high-quality materials meant in my tiny district last year (first graders were above 90th percentile for growth on NWEA MAP, woohoo!), but wanted to hear from a larger district about this issue. Robin’s words are in italics throughout the post.
(Before I jump in, though, let me share that Robin and I met on Twitter. If you want to meet cool people interested in the science of reading, and join a lively conversation every Wednesday from 8:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. EST, follow @elachat_US or jump in with #ELAchat!)
Now, here’s Robin:
As attention builds around the national reading crisis (not new but our moral imperative to fix), districts must provide teachers with high quality instructional materials (HQIM) as the foundation to their literacy practices. Our district is demonstrating quantitatively and qualitatively that strong materials are one half of the equation for progress; the other half being spiraled support and a collaborative culture, leading to teacher efficacy.
Yet, critics assert that often HQIM are “developmentally inappropriate” or are too difficult for students already demonstrating gaps. I say...not so. Our teachers agree.
In November, I observed a group of fourth grade students making connections between King Arthur’s insistence on the use of a round table (equality) to the civil rights movement as depicted in Brown Girl Dreaming (inequality).
This is an example of the kind of thinking scholars can do when challenged. Robin found that all children in the classroom were able to make those connections, regardless of reading ability or background--in fact, it was impossible for observers to tell who might be reading below grade level.
As discussed earlier in this series, however, large numbers of students throughout the U.S. are regularly being assigned below-grade-level work (TNTP, 2018). There is a belief that children should be reading at their “independent” or “instructional” levels, and that frustration will result in destroying the love of reading.
This common practice, while intuitive, is based on a 1946 textbook, which itself used flimsy evidence! (Shanahan, 2011). More recent research suggests children actually learn more when reading harder texts … as long as scaffolds are in place (Brown, Mohr, Wilcox & Barrett, 2017). High-quality materials both provide complex, grade-level texts and give teachers ideas for how to support students in using these materials.
The result? Here’s Robin again:
In our district, the numbers match the qualitative picture. In 2018-2019, at EVERY grade level, our elementary schools saw a decrease in the percentage of students scoring “at risk” for not meeting grade level standards (as measured by AIMSWEB) throughout the course of the year. In the early grades, as a district,
This quality instruction for all children has the added impact of helping us to truly identify those students who really need additional interventions. When children receive instruction that is not evidence-based, it’s difficult to know the root causes when children struggle. Having confidence in our instruction means that we are less likely to over-identify children for additional support, saving resources and time … and simply making the school experience more equitable.
And that is what all children deserve.
Or to put it another way:
This translates to a very direct and compelling message that HQIM narrow achievement gaps. As teachers dive into the specific needs of students and use data to fill in skill gaps as they surface, it is the perfect storm to build proficient readers.
Note: This is the third in a series on the practical side of implementing high-quality curricula.
Part 1: The Power of a Quality Curriculum
Part 2A: Assumptions
Part 2B: Another Assumption
Part 2C: One More Assumption
Part 3: Choosing a Quality Curriculum
Part 4: Implementing a Quality Curriculum (Coach/Admin Edition)
Part 5: Implementing a Quality Curriculum (Teacher Edition)
Click the categories below for entries on specific topics.
Catlin Goodrow, M.A.T