By Barbara Davidson and Susan Pimentel

The Knowledge Matters Campaign is a coalition of education leaders encouraging schools to focus on developing students’ foundation of content knowledge. Earlier this year, Knowledge Matters members visited seven elementary schools that share a commitment to knowledge-rich schooling and belief in comprehensive, high-quality curriculum, implemented schoolwide, as a means of achieving it. As we toured these seven elementary schools, we sought to discover what kinds of professional learning teachers found most helpful in transitioning to a new curriculum. Four primary lessons for administrators and teachers emerged about what it takes to implement a high-quality, content-rich curriculum well.

1. Embrace a “we’re-in-this-together” school leadership stance.

Teachers and coaches stressed the vital role of school leaders in driving robust implementation. Most important to staff was the passion that leaders conveyed about the learning the school was undertaking.

Teachers at Monticello-Brown Summit Elementary School in Greensboro, North Carolina, remember the tears of gratitude shed in a staff meeting when the principal, Christopher Scott, pulled everyone together at the start of the school year to prepare them to implement the new American Reading Company English language arts curriculum, ARC Core, in their classrooms.

Addressing teachers’ anxiety about the change, Scott made it clear they would be in it together and that continuous improvement mattered, not perfection. By lowering the cost of making mistakes and providing safe spaces for teachers to experiment, Scott and his team created an environment in which teachers relaxed and expressed openness to learning new ways of instruction.

Principals in the schools we visited were constantly in and out of classrooms, as much to learn and grow themselves as to observe how teachers were doing. Teachers expressed their deep appreciation for the presence in their classroom of leader learners, rather than leader evaluators.

Adrian Monge, principal of Detroit Achievement Academy in Detroit, Michigan, said it was important that she “norm perseverance and taking risks” by doing the planning and teaching alongside her teachers. The school had recently transitioned to a new, more structured version of the EL Education K-5 Language Arts curriculum. “It sends an essential message to the faculty that I chose to spend my time learning the curriculum, too,” Monge said.

2. Tend to the hearts and minds of teachers by sharing the philosophy and research behind the new curriculum.

Teaching to the rigor in the Common Core State Standards involves significant instructional shifts. There is a not-to-be-ignored hearts and minds aspect to setting aside old ways of instruction so that faculty can move forward together to make real progress for their students.

In the case of English language arts, which was our focus during the school tour, the instructional shifts include regular practice with complex texts and their academic language; reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts; and building knowledge through content-rich curriculum. The teachers and coaches with whom we spoke considered it monumentally important to ground teachers in the research behind these shifts and study the new curriculum to see how the shifts show up.

The experience of building authentic faculty buy-in and enthusiasm, based on a shared understanding of the philosophical underpinnings and research base for the curriculum, contrasts sharply with how new curriculum is typically rolled out.

Most new curriculum professional learning tends to focus on orienting teachers to the products, perhaps highlighting some of the design features. Quite often, teachers don’t even have materials in front of them. But as Shannon Vaka, instructional coach at Monticello-Brown Summit Elementary, said, “That’s not how teachers learn.”

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3. Make professional learning curriculum- specific.

What characterizes the professional learning opportunities described to us by teachers and coaches in the schools we visited is that they’re messy. By this, we mean they’re experiential. The process is similar to the Japanese concept of lesson study.

Shannon Vaka characterizes it this way: “With Kelly (ARC coach), we never did sit-and-get. If we were going to roll it out in 3rd grade, she’d say, ‘Let’s start there.’ She’d take the framework and walk through the lesson with us. She’d demonstrate a lesson, and we’d talk about it together. Or we’d all sit around and plan a lesson together and then draw straws and someone would have to teach the lesson.”

What’s most compelling — and we would argue very different — about this kind of professional learning is that it’s collaborative and often co-led by teachers or early adopters of the curriculum. Grade-level and cross grade-level teams are rolling up their
sleeves and working together, engaging in the content of what they’re teaching in the classroom and figuring out the best way to deliver it, leaning heavily on the curriculum.

Amanda Barger, a 4th-grade teacher at Saville Elementary School in Riverside, Ohio, talked about the impact on her practice: “We didn’t have a systematic way of teaching K-4 and were seeing lots of holes. … One of the things I love about this is that I don’t have to keep looking for different things to work on specific skills.”

4. Invest in your teachers through yearlong professional learning systems.

In the schools we visited, gone were the one- or two-day, right-before-school curriculum dives that are hardly worth the time. In their place was significant time for ongoing, sustained professional learning. For example: Teachers at Kinder Elementary in Kinder, Louisiana, who are using the new state-developed Louisiana ELA Guidebooks 2.0, said they plan lessons together with their grade level team every day.

Coverage is provided at Detroit Achievement Academy for teachers to use recess and lunchtimes for planning, and students are released early every Friday for teacher collaboration time.

Staff from the Bryant School of Arts & Innovation in Riverside, California, participate in a districtwide teacher collaboration time every Wednesday afternoon when students are released early.

In addition to site-based professional learning opportunities, the Great Hearts network of classical charter schools, which includes Maryvale Preparatory Academy in Phoenix, Arizona, asks faculty to read books (“anything from Plato to Pinocchio”)
and offers year-round institutes that deepen the teams’ understanding of a range of curriculum and content-specific topics.

During the coming school year, all schools in Guilford County, North Carolina, will get 10 to 12 coaching days to work on curriculum implementation.

Teachers in Mad River Local Schools in Dayton, Ohio, implementing the Wit & Wisdom humanities curriculum, get a full day to work together in teams to prepare for each new module in the curriculum.

Of course, the elephant in the room of successful implementation is the need for resources required for this kind of professional learning. But there is a payoff for such an investment: Researchers report that teachers who participated in sustained, discipline- specific professional learning that dealt concretely with what they were teaching in the classroom — professional learning that averaged 49 hours across nine separate studies — saw student achievement increases of about 21 percentile points.

About the authors
Image for aesthetic effect only - 05 28-blog-post-authorsBarbara Davidson (bdavidson@ is executive director of the Knowledge Matters Campaign and president of StandardsWork.

Susan Pimentel ( is a co-founder of StandardsWork and Student Achievement Partners and was the lead author of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy.


The above post is an excerpt from Strong Materials in the Hands of Great Teachers, originally published in the December, 2018 issue of The Learning Professional.

To learn more about aligning college- and career-ready standards, curriculum, instructional materials, and effective professional learning, consider Learning Forward’s Summer Institutes, offering four days of deep learning brought to you in partnership with Student Achievement Partners.