Left to right: LearnZillion CEO and Co-Founder Eric Westendorf; Assistant Superintendent of Academic Content for the Louisiana Department of Education Rebecca Kockler.
This is the latest installment in a series of interviews we’re calling The Future of Curriculum. LearnZillion CEO Eric Westendorf is sitting down with education thought leaders from across the country to discuss how technology will continue to shape education.
In this episode, he chats with Rebecca Kockler, Assistant Superintendent of Academic Content for the Louisiana Department of Education. In this role, Kockler has focused on creating a comprehensive academic support model that’s focused on helping teachers, principals, and districts get the resources and support they need to integrate curriculum with assessment and with teacher evaluation. Louisiana is the fastest-improving state in the country in ACT and AP exam scores.
Why build curriculum at the state level?
In Louisiana, we started taking on curricular work about four years ago, when we were making the transition to higher standards.
Early on, I didn’t necessarily think curriculum was the role of the state, or the type of work that we were going to necessarily take on. That changed very quickly, and it really started from a group of 100 teachers.
We call them our Teacher Leader Advisors. We brought this incredible group of teachers together right away when we were making the transition [to the new state standards]. We wanted them to help guide the work that we were doing. First they said, “We need better tools in our hands and we don’t know where to find them.” Second, “You just need to get in front of a lot of us and bring us together a lot and train us.”
We decided that if we were going to make change, we had to go after the curriculum work as aggressively as we were going after assessments. We needed to figure out what was out there and how people navigated it.
Everyone was putting stickers on their program, saying they were aligned to the new standards. There were tons of online resources and people just didn’t know what was quality and what wasn’t.
We started by just reviewing full curricular programs for math and English and posting those reviews publicly on our website.
We took a pretty hard line. We knew that putting quality in front of kids and giving it to teachers was what was going to help them all learn fastest, so we were very rigorous about the degree to which we’d say something was actually fully aligned to our new standards. We found very, very few programs that were aligned.
After we reviewed programs, we helped districts make sense of what quality was and why it mattered. That was when we realized that the market just wasn’t changing fast enough and we had to create materials where there were holes in the system. That’s when we went down the path of actually trying to create our ELA program, which was, when we were looking at the time, the biggest hole in the market.
The power curriculum holds
I think early on, we did this as a way to give teachers resources that they needed. I think we also very quickly learned that curriculum was a tool to get really good books and really good math tasks in front of a lot of kids every single day, especially as we were trying to train a lot of new teachers on our new standards.
At the end of the day, the curriculum teachers were using most often guided the books that they put in students’ hands.
By changing the curriculum alone, you could, in a very short period of time, dramatically change the kind of daily experiences students were having.
I think we realized very quickly that curriculum was a powerful lever for that.
Helping teachers find the highest-quality default as they learned the new standards and figured out how to make adjustments really mattered to us and it really mattered to our districts and our teachers.
Flipping the order of operations by starting with curriculum
We did some very early training on the shifts in our new standards and how the new standards worked. They were really different than our previous Louisiana standards.
Teachers just kept saying, “We don’t know what this looks like. We get the idea of coherence, sort of theoretically. We get the idea of depth. We get the idea of reading books that matter, but day to day, what does that mean?” There was a real concreteness that teachers felt like they were missing.
Training on the shifts or on math content alone wasn’t helping them grab a hold of exactly what to do tomorrow.
That meant very little was actually getting translating back to the classroom consistently in what we saw and what we heard from teachers.
We found that by actually starting with curriculum as the entry point, then hanging all of your content-based training or standards training on that curriculum, teachers had a much easier time getting more concrete about [the pedagogy].
Our instinct was to start with training and then help teachers create tools. Thanks to our teachers, we actually went the reverse route, and have seen so much success and so much faster growth, both in what our teachers understand about the standards and also in a lot of places with our students as a result of flipping that order of operations.
First, the power of curriculum to change practice
I think I was just surprised at how quickly we started to see curriculum having an impact in our classrooms and with our teachers.
Within a year and a half, when we started looking at our end-of-year results, we saw that our top growing districts and schools were using the highest-quality curriculum. It was the most common thing across our top-growth schools and districts.
RAND interviewed a number of teachers across five states to learn about the degree to which teachers actually understood the new standards that they were teaching.
On a number of indicators, Louisiana teachers were 30-plus points higher than any other state in the survey. Again, we were coming from a place where our standards were dramatically different.
I credit a lot of that growth to curriculum.
[The curriculum] made the standards concrete. It showed teachers what the standards looked like. I genuinely didn’t even expect that pace of growth and improvement.
Second, the importance of teachers in the process
We brought a group of teachers together because we just felt like none of us at the state would actually have to teach the new standards, so we wanted to hear from them.
I just can’t even believe how critical their voice was and continues to be in our work.
They helped us really fine tune our strategy. They helped us build everything we have. They’ve helped us communicate that to other teachers. They’re the ones who lead our trainings and write our newsletters.
They have been absolutely instrumental and the work would not have happened without an incredible group of teachers who led the way. I really just don’t think it would have been as high-quality.
We worked with a lot of other national experts as we created our own curriculum and of course wanted their voice and wanted to make sure the work was extremely rigorous, but actually having teachers practice and use those lessons in their classrooms and give us feedback before we finalized them had a huge influence.
Third, the challenge of creating good curriculum
The last surprise is that it’s really hard. It’s just really hard to create a really good curriculum.
I have some awesome teachers and some great content experts and have worked with some of the best folks. It just takes exceptional focus and thoroughness and it’s just really hard.
Creating a good curriculum requires a lot of expertise and I’ve been surprised at how slow the market has been to adjust and to help fill that need for people.
I see so many teachers and districts feeling like they have to create so much themselves, and given how much expertise it takes, I’m sort of surprised that there’s not more coordination, sharing, and more from the market, frankly, in the curricular world.
What advice would you give to states considering this work?
I hear it from people all the time, “Well, teachers are just complaining about that because they don’t get it,” or “Teachers just don’t want to do this.” They sort of write it off like, “We know what’s best. We just need to tell them to do it and if they’re complaining, it’s just because they don’t get it fully.”
I just think that’s so personally misguided. One, if they don’t get it, there’s a reason for that. Our teachers are smart people. They care about their kids and they want to do right by their kids. If they don’t get it or they’re not doing it, it’s not because they are just deliberately not trying to do right by their kids. There’s some reason.
I think the more we got out and just genuinely listened to teachers and built relationships with people who then felt like they could be really honest with us, the more we realized there’s real meat and substance there.
We heard things like, “The new curriculum is great, but it’s so cumbersome to use. I spend more time just trying to understand how the lessons work than I did just creating my own stuff in the past.” Okay, that’s really good for us to know. We can do something about that.
That’s why we worked with LearnZillion to create a platform where the teacher guidance was much simpler and cleaner to use.
The more you listen to teachers, the more you realize there’s real stuff holding them back from doing their jobs well, which is what they most want to do.
I just think it’s helped us create tools and resources that are so much more genuine and real. Bringing our teachers in not only helped improve the quality of content, but also helped those teachers really feel ownership over that work.
I would also say that it doesn’t have to be difficult. I think folks will often say, “Oh, we can’t bring teachers together because we don’t have enough money,” or they create these really formal committees. I just don’t think it has to be that formal. We try to get out into school during the fall and winter at least every other week. We try to talk to teachers and hold focus groups every time we’re in schools, and talk frankly with principals and students as well.
We built this network of 100 experts from across our state that we developed really close relationships with. We can bring them in for formal conversations, and we can also just call them and say, “We’re really struggling with this. What do you think?” They’ll give us their honest answer and help test it out or talk to other teachers in their community about it.
I think you have to genuinely listen. And you actually have to change things if you’re going to listen. You can’t just listen and then do whatever you want.
What does the future of curriculum look like?
High-quality, coherent open educational resources (OER) are a really powerful part of the system. I think we’ve always thought of OER as item banks where you search for lessons, like on Pinterest. I think the idea that you can have a really high-quality, coherent curriculum that helps show the arc of learning over a year is a powerful one and I’m not sure folks always thought could happen.
Huge thanks, frankly, to the folks in New York who led the charge in thinking that that was possible [with EngageNY]. I think the reason that’s been so powerful is because you get all of these other people in the system who are able to use curriculum as a lever.
For example, in our system, our higher ed and teacher preparation programs want to use those curricular tools as a basis for their training. That’s really powerful if a teacher comes out of a prep program having looked at the same math program they’re going to go and teach when they go into their classroom.
We also see an ability to work with a more diverse set of professional development groups because that curriculum is open. Different providers can help us serve the diverse needs of our districts, instead of us only having one choice because the people who own the curriculum only provide one type of PD.
One real challenge I see right now in this system is how to support students with really diverse learning needs. The new state standards were, for us in Louisiana, significantly more rigorous than our previous standards. When I see a curriculum not working well for a teacher or a group of students, it’s often because the teacher feels like their students just aren’t ready for it and so they sort of abandon it and don’t know what to do.
I also don’t think a lot of the remediation tools have caught up with the kinds of learning that the standards demand for students. I think we need to create resources that fit in and connect to the curricular tools to help teachers better meet the needs of struggling students.
Again, the great thing with OER curriculum is that a lot of interesting vendors with different and unique expertise can come in and create materials that bridge into that. That’s really powerful, but I think we have to be deliberate about connecting those resources for teachers or it’ll just continue to feel like this massive marketplace of stuff that they don’t know how to sift through and use. You lose what matters.
Teachers will fight for things that they believe in and they often do. Their voice is incredibly powerful with parents, with students, and with legislators. Teachers have one of the most powerful voices in our system.