District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) has been widely heralded in recent years as one of the nation’s fastest-improving urban public school districts. Most coverage has focused on the district’s strong and stable leadership and its sustained focus on educator effectiveness. But headlines fail to capture a significant innovation: DCPS hypothesized that instruction would improve if teacher leaders reviewed, co-created, and piloted rigorous, high-quality curricula—and if professional learning and coaching in schools focused on supporting educators in using and adapting those materials to meet students’ needs.
A growing and compelling research base suggests that high-quality instructional materials can yield improvements in student learning outcomes equal to or greater than many interventions that are often more costly. But one key lesson from DCPS is that the adoption of curricula alone is insufficient to ensure that teachers are fully equipped to deliver high-quality instruction that meets individual student learning needs.
Advancing instruction is a living process that requires constant engagement as educators work together to refine their practice to help their students learn. A high-quality curriculum can give educators within a school and across a school system a common foundation to organize the work they’re undertaking at the classroom level and collaborate to develop together.
In the case of DCPS, this principle is evident in Cornerstones —engaging and rigorous curricular materials that were created and reviewed by DCPS teachers. School-based teacher leaders provide teachers with frequent coaching on using the materials. According to Brian Pick, Chief of Teaching and Learning in DCPS, Cornerstones “are about bringing equity to the district—a shared experience creating a floor, but not a ceiling, around the teaching and learning that happens in our classrooms.”
All teachers, and particularly those early in their career, deserve access to well-organized, high-quality resources they can adapt to the daily needs of their class. But as demonstrated in a recent study by RAND, many teachers spend significant amounts of time searching for resources online or creating their own instructional materials. As Robyn Howton, an English teacher at Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Delaware, puts it: “The craft of teaching is not in creating the material—it is in delivering the material at the right time and in the right way to open a pathway to knowledge for a student.” Teachers need better information about what’s available and how to select what is best for their students.
The good news is that in places like Louisiana, educators are working together to create a shared understanding of what high-quality materials look like by reviewing and selecting curricular materials and publishing those reviews for others to use. Equally encouraging are efforts like those in DCPS to design professional learning systems that provide educators with opportunities to pilot and reflect on lesson design and examine instructional practices and student work specific to their content area. By integrating high-quality materials, teacher collaboration and reflection on lesson planning, and ongoing feedback from expert coaches, DCPS has a promising model for improving instruction and student learning.
Supporting instructional improvement efforts at the school level is even more critical when we consider the diverse range of student needs in most classrooms. Fortunately, the increasing availability of open education resources and the ability to adapt digital resources is making differentiation easier, but it remains a huge challenge. Curriculum developers such as Open Up Resources and UnboundEd are looking to expand the availability of customizable resources for very specific learner needs, and other developers are following suit. When teachers continuously examine their practice and can access and adapt instructional resources to meet individual student learning needs, it feeds a coherent cycle of instructional improvement.
By understanding that every classroom—and every school—is unique, while also expanding access to adaptable resources and aligned instructional improvement practices, education decision makers and funders can help create a public education system where progress like that seen in DCPS is the norm, not the exception.