Five years ago, my team and I set out to understand what goes into effective implementation of high-quality instructional materials. We interviewed leaders and teachers from seventy schools that had moved to higher-quality materials in the last three years. We asked about what went well and what was hard. We found a few schools and systems that had implementation journeys that led to strong teacher investment and student success. To understand the differentiating actions, we mapped and compared the actions of teams that had relatively smooth implementations to those that had relatively challenging implementations.
In most of the school systems we interviewed, system and school leaders worked hard to support a selection process and then—if money permitted—they got training for teachers. If school leaders were able, they would join the teacher training.
What we learned from the strong implementation examples suggests that a radical change to this approach is required.
In the strong implementation examples, leaders—at both the school and system levels—oriented to their jobs differently. The biggest differences were what they did after the boxes of new materials arrived. While many leaders we interviewed saw the materials delivery date as the finish line of the selection process, the leaders in the strong implementation examples saw it as the starting line. System leaders dug in to understand the curriculum personally in order to define exactly what conditions schools would need to support use. Principals had a set of every material in their offices and they consulted them regularly—they knew their log-in credentials to access digital versions. At both the system and school levels, leaders thought about all of the other things they asked teachers to do, and they eliminated competing tensions: they used the curriculum-embedded assessments instead of layering on additional tests; they swapped out lesson planning requirements for annotated curriculum lessons; they changed their professional learning community (PLC) protocols to focus on review of upcoming lessons and review of student work. They made the curriculum the trunk of the instructional tree and made sure everything else could hang on its branches.
When leaders engaged deeply in the curriculum, so did teachers. There were fewer abstract conversations about fidelity of implementation and more conversations about which parts of each lesson were most important to learning and how to make sure they got to those questions. Ultimately, this translated to powerful student work. In the strong implementation examples, the leaders and teachers we interviewed consistently said, “The juice is worth the squeeze. It was hard, but we were so impressed with the work students produced.”
Our findings indicate that the role instructional leaders play in implementation is so significant in driving success that—if a choice had to be made—schools would be better off providing training and support for leaders instead of teachers.
There are two challenges that make it hard to put leaders in the driver’s seat of curriculum implementation:
Challenge 1: Leaders are pulled in many directions, and they may not feel getting into the details of specific curricula is expected in their role.
With so many subjects to support, it can feel more scalable to delegate instructional leadership to coaches or use generalizable frameworks based on the premise that great teaching is great teaching; if leaders learn to look for grouping strategies in any context, they will be able to do it in every context.
However, when using general frameworks for teaching, leaders have to bring enough background knowledge to evaluate, “is this lesson meeting the bar of the standard?” With high-quality instructional materials, leaders can read the lesson they are about to observe for five minutes in the hall before observing; they get a very efficient view of what good instruction looks like. High-quality instructional materials can ultimately make supporting the work of planning and coaching much more efficient for leaders.
Challenge 2: There are not enough providers of leader-focused, curriculum-specific support.
Providing support for leaders on how to implement specific curriculum is not yet a go-to offering for local professional-learning providers (e.g., universities, states, professional development consultants, or regional service centers). Even the curriculum developers would say that training for leaders on how to support their curriculum is not their biggest R & D focus.
However, the curriculum itself comes with a lot that leaders can use. The actions we saw that helped leaders support implementation were not as intense as a year of principal coaching. They were sometimes as simple as a few good unit studies in which leaders were able to really understand the structure of the materials and use that understanding to think about the planning and observation that would support strong use.
Bottom line: Leaders are going to spend a significant amount of time on curriculum implementation—either on the back end in response to issues that emerge or on the front end in preparation. If implementation is under-supported, it makes leaders' jobs harder because they have to manage the challenges that inevitably arise. If implementation is supported well, it can make their jobs easier by giving the school community a common bar for student expectations, creating a much clearer purpose and common curriculum for collaborative planning, and simplifying what to look for in observation and feedback.
Many schools and states are well down the path of implementing high-quality instructional materials; many states and school systems are just beginning. As they launch, I hope they can pave a new normal that attends to the role leaders need to play in the effort from the start.
Editor’s note: This was first published in an email newsletter from Emily Freitag in her role as CEO of Instruction Partners.