The Learning Accelerator Blog/Focusing on Academic Rigor in the Face of Disruption

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Focusing on Academic Rigor in the Face of Disruption

by Kristi Ransick on December 14 2020

One school’s experience using instructional materials to advance personalized, mastery-based learning

By: Kristi Ransick

Student, wearing headphones, writes in notebook, sitting at desk in front of laptop

In the midst of the uncertainty and change that has unfolded in school systems in 2020, one topic that isn’t getting enough attention is the role that high-quality curriculum materials could play in mitigating the widening achievement gap due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has brought the conversation about how to teach virtually front and center, for good reason. However, we need to talk about both how and what students are learning. High-quality instructional materials can help keep the focus on academic rigor in the face of disruption.

Like many school system leaders, Dixie Bacallao, Chief Academic Officer of Phoenix Charter Academy Network in Massachusetts, sought ways to support her teachers and school leaders as schools opened virtually this fall. Bacalloa knew how challenging teaching was in the spring, and she was determined to ease the burden on teachers while also increasing the rigor of instruction. Bacallao and the Instructional Taskforce team at Phoenix considered how the use of both high-quality instructional materials and a common set of materials would complement Phoenix’s personalized, mastery-oriented approach.

This academic year (2020-2021), students at Phoenix, like many across the country, are either implementing remote learning for a significant portion of the year, or oscillating between remote and in-person learning due to changes in local conditions which leads to to additional learning disruptions for students. A high quality curriculum can provide instructional coherence and predictability for both teachers and students and help to ensure that students receive access to grade-level content, while prioritizing the needs of vulnerable students. For teachers, it provides the foundation of a strong “curriculum spine” and puts their focus on differentiating, individualizing, and personalizing the learning for their students.

Here are a few ways to get started with high-quality instructional materials:

  • Check if you’re already using high-quality instructional materials. Use EdReports to ensure that the content in any instructional material meets high standards.
  • Will it work in remote or hybrid models? Check to see if your publisher has done some of the work for you. Many publishers have made adaptations to enable remote delivery of their curriculum. Check the lists on the Collaborative for Student Success’ website and on EdReports Enhanced Reports with Key Technology Information.
  • Focus on high-priority instructional content. Use Student Achievement Partner’s Priority Instructional Content for K-12 Math and ELA for the 2020-2021 school year to ensure a focus on the instructional content priorities that keep equity at the center. Achievement Network’s Four Dimensions of Instructional Materials That Put Students First identifies several factors to consider when planning, including access to grade level content.
  • It’s not too late – you can make the switch mid-year. While making a switch mid-year introduces a change for teachers and students, in the long-run, it might simplify planning for teachers and give students familiarity that helps them stay on grade level.
  • Support teachers to become adapters instead of creators of content. Using a common curriculum can focus teachers’ instructional planning time on adapting lessons for remote learning and individualizing for students. It can also help school leaders prioritize professional learning time.
  • Look for materials that support culturally responsive classrooms. Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) is more than ensuring instructional materials relate lesson content to students’ cultural, linguistic, and life experiences. Materials can play a role as teachers build their students’ skills and capacity for rigorous grade level work. Zaretta Hammond talks about CRT in this interview with EdWeek.
  • Consider Open Educational Resources (OER). There are a growing number of high-quality open education curricular materials in math, ELA, and science. As budgets tighten, OER content is one way to provide access to a high-quality curriculum.

The challenges and changes that 2020 has brought to schools has highlighted the importance of both personalized and individualized instruction and of articulating what mastery of content looks and sounds like. High-quality instructional materials are a highly impactful lever for schools to use. As Phoenix reviews and evaluates their high-quality curriculum options and cross-walks instructional materials with their competencies, they are getting closer to realizing the personalized, rigorous vision for learning, a vision that all schools can achieve regardless of setting.

About the Author

Kristi Ransick is an independent consultant and experienced educator. With more than 20 years experience in professional learning and instructional design, Kristi has worked with a wide range of organizations implementing innovative learning.