Flipping the script on teacher “buy-in”: Authentic educator engagement with curriculum

What will it take to make real progress in expanding the use of high-quality curriculum across the country? As a former classroom teacher and career-long advocate of elevating teacher voice, I think the answer is obvious: engaging teachers. So when it comes to keeping teachers at the center of the conversation, I’m practicing “do as I say.”

I have the privilege of working with the first-ever cohort of Curriculum Catalyst Fellows – nationally recognized teacher leaders who have raised their hands to help advance strong policies and practices around instructional materials in their districts and states. Here, three of these outstanding educators – Laura Chang, Morgan Rankin, and Cicely Woodard – share their reflections on how and why teachers should drive curriculum work.

Q: Can you share about your experience with the selection and implementation of high-quality curriculum in your district? 

Laura: I’m blessed to work in a district where the selection and implementation of curriculum, something we refer to as the Course Design Review (CDR) process, is set on a 7-year cycle. Teams are formed, led by the curriculum director and instructional coaches, where teachers collaborate to select and adopt appropriate instructional materials for all content areas. The district has developed this plan to ensure equitable access to high-quality core instruction and that the materials align with state standards and research-based best practices.

There are four phases in the process. In the first two phases, teams identify parameters and goals and analyze the existing course design. In the third phase, teachers review and select instructional materials. Phase 4 is the longest phase, in which teams implement the course and assess its effectiveness. Seven years later, the cycle begins again.

Although the curriculum director and instructional coaches lead the teams, the teachers drive the process. Their recommendations may lead to an affirmation of the continued use of current instructional materials, revision of current instructional materials, or recommendation of new instructional materials for adoption.

Morgan: In Tennessee, we recently completed a math textbook adoption. The process started at the state level in 2021-2022 and then at the local level for 2022-2023, and we are now implementing it for the first time in the 2023-2024 school year.

Our district forms a textbook adoption committee with representatives from each school. Before making final recommendations, the district gave educators the option to review the final selections and provide our individual recommendations using a rubric. We are given release time to do so, which helped ensure strong participation. As a non-committee member, I really appreciated the opportunity to participate. Our school representatives gathered our rubrics and brought that information with them to the final recommendation process. 

Cicely: As a newer teacher in my current district, I was not part of the selection of our current high-quality curriculum, but I have been part of implementing it in my own classroom. I do this by sharing implementation strategies with other teachers and serving on a committee of teachers who worked to develop aligned sequencing and planning documents as well as common assessments. I have welcomed teachers from across the district to observe teaching and learning in my classroom and have facilitated curriculum-based professional learning for teachers at the district level.

What are some of the barriers that prevent you and/or your fellow teachers from using your selected curriculum? 

Cicely: I think the biggest barrier is that depending on the class, the curriculum is not always completely aligned to every state standard in the course. For example, many teachers in my district appreciate our materials for Algebra I, where the curriculum is aligned to most of the standards and we only need to supplement with a few. Teachers of Algebra II, on the other hand, often say that our materials are not aligned to the standards that they need to teach. Teachers need the time and opportunity to collaborate to determine what in the curriculum material is aligned and how we need to supplement to meet the standards.

Morgan: The biggest barrier is the time needed to truly get to know all the components of new resources and consider how to use them in your own classroom with your students. One day of training with the textbook company at the beginning of the school year barely dipped our toes into the water. Exploring these new resources at the beginning of the year brings some challenges. We didn’t have access to our class rosters yet, so we weren’t able to see all of the online components, and we didn’t have our whole kits in front of us that day. 

I am a team of one, so I worked through many questions about the resources with my math coach in bi-weekly meetings or through email. The most effective time was when our coach provided professional release days for us to meet with grade-level counterparts from across the district. These days were profoundly impactful. We all had different takes on parts of the resource and how we were using them, we discussed solutions, and we created and shared resources. So much of this time was spent personalizing the curriculum to streamline it for instruction and assessment. It changed how effective I could be with this new curriculum.  

Laura: When teachers can bring their experience, expertise, and the strong recommendation of their grade-level colleagues to participate in this important work, few are hesitant to embrace the adoption of a new curriculum. For example, our high school Advanced Math sequence recently selected a new curriculum. Every teacher of Advanced Algebra 1 and Advanced Geometry was part of the decision-making process, so those teachers were fully invested in adopting the materials. The teams already have common planning time, a dynamic Professional Learning Community, support from their secondary math instructional coach, and professional development designed to ensure that they have the materials, training, and support needed to be equipped for success. 

What does curriculum efficacy mean to you as a teacher leader – how do you determine whether instructional materials are working well for your students?

Cicely: To me, curriculum efficacy means that my first stop when planning lessons for my students is the curriculum. I go there to determine lessons that are aligned to standards and to find assessment items. I look in the curriculum first for ways to engage students in thinking about content. If I find that the materials are not aligned to standards that I need to teach, then I look elsewhere. I know that the curriculum is working when I can observe students tackling content, thinking through mathematics, and talking about their learning. 

I also regularly ask for feedback. After every unit assessment, my students complete reflection forms on their own learning as it relates to the standards. They annotate how they showed their learning on each assessment item, and they answer questions giving me feedback on specific strategies and parts of the curriculum. We also have district-wide common formative and benchmark assessments. We use these to measure learning. We talk about results in our professional learning teams. We share strategies that worked and those that didn’t. 

Morgan: My first consideration is how well the instructional materials fit my standards – and this can take time and repeated work with the resources. For example, this year the textbook provided very little for teaching how to measure to a quarter-inch, but it did include a lesson on organizing measurements to a quarter-inch in line plots. Thankfully, a colleague was a week ahead of me in pacing and gave me a heads up, so I knew to pull from another resource to pre-teach this concept so that the line plot lessons were not derailed by learning how to read a ruler! 

My second consideration is how much my students enjoy math while we are working with the tools. If they groan when I tell them to get their workbooks out, then we have a problem. I know that my teaching style and student relationships play a big part in how I can get my students to engage with the materials, but on the whole, if my students hate it, I have to work twice as hard to make it effective. 

Another measure of effectiveness is the Common Formative Assessments (CFAs) for math, science, and ELA created by our instructional coaches. We do quarterly checkpoints from grades 2 and up that assess the standards from each pacing guide. We use student data collected at the district level for our own reflection, and our math coach also reviews it with us as soon as possible after the test so that we can use it to inform instruction. We complete these assessments on an online platform that is really effective in organizing the results so that it is meaningful quickly. 

Laura: Our district teams, composed of teachers and administrators, analyze student data throughout the year. Although it is difficult to match student outcomes with high-stakes state testing, this is one measure we use to determine curriculum effectiveness. 

In Michigan, a state initiative called FAME: Formative Assessment for Michigan Educators introduces teachers to formative assessment guided by research. Our district is focused on training instructional coaches and teacher leaders to lead FAME teams, with the support of the state. And although summative and formative assessments are an important part of the efficacy equation, student engagement is also critical. 

At the elementary level, I know that materials are effective when student engagement increases. When students are actively engaged in learning, collaborating and problem-solving with their classmates, persevering through challenging tasks, and connecting the content to other subject areas, I know that the instructional materials are working well.  

How can we rethink the concept of teacher “buy-in” and promote meaningful engagement throughout HQIM adoption and implementation?

Laura: “Teacher buy-in” is one of those phrases that makes my skin crawl a bit. Teacher buy-in feels like a trick…as if we must coerce teachers to jump on board or get left behind. Yes, it is important that teachers are compliant and adopt a new curriculum in their classroom with integrity.  However, a much more important goal is for a teacher to take ownership of the research-based practices and standards alignment that will improve teaching and student learning that a new curriculum may provide. 

The only way to ensure that teachers are fully invested and committed to the process is to invite them to be an integral part of the entire process. Teachers must have a seat at the table when decisions are being made about their instructional materials and student learning. Teachers are the experts who must be entrusted with making these key decisions. I’m thankful that I’m part of a district that elevates teacher voice, promotes teacher leadership, and trusts teachers to lead the selection and implementation of high-quality curriculum.

Cicely: This semester, I have participated in our district’s Curriculum Academy. We spent six different sessions after school to develop sequence documents and common assessments, and to determine how our curriculum aligns to state standards. We considered where and how we needed to supplement. We made some big decisions about the order of teaching units to most appropriately align to priority and essential standards. I left those sessions with new teaching strategies that I learned from teachers at other schools. The Curriculum Academy provided a regularly scheduled time for me to collaborate with those teachers. We learned from each other. 

After each session, I felt more and more empowered. Our director of mathematics facilitated the sessions, but she allowed us, the teachers, to make decisions. She answered our questions. She pushed us to think by asking us questions. She planned and organized what we would work on during each session, but she allowed us to do the work and to make decisions that would work best for students. She did not have to convince us to buy-in to implementation, because we were so involved in the decision making process.

Morgan: Teachers LOVE to know that what they are doing (or expected to do next year) will help their students, but most experienced teachers know the actual hours of work that go into making a new resource useful in an actual classroom setting. The phrase “teacher buy-in” always has implied a horse and carrot situation to me, but the reality is that teachers may be resistant to using programs because they know that, without the time and support to truly implement things properly – including the room to fail, reflect, regroup, and try again –  this will be a big lift. Involving teachers in the process, giving space for our voices and experiences, and then actually acting based on what we share, is crucial. And this means more than just one teacher representative on a committee but multiple teachers, which is something my district does very well. I was swimming in teacher manuals and online resources, trying to do my lesson planning on my own, until I had a chance to work with my team across the district. Teachers aren’t afraid of the work of implementing a new resource, but we want to be a part of the conversation and to know that we are supported in implementing these materials and that our feedback as we work our way through it matters. 

My thanks to Cicely, Morgan, and Laura for sharing their insights and for their leadership in this important work. Stay tuned for more on the Fellowship and the impact these teachers are making!

Jocelyn Pickford is an education policy and communications specialist focusing on understanding and promoting practitioner-informed public policy across the private, public and non-profit sectors as a Senior Affiliate with HCM Strategists. She began her career in education as a high school English teacher in a regular and special education inclusion classroom and is now a public school parent and recent member of her local district school board. Previously, Jocelyn led the design, launch and implementation of the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education to integrate teachers into the national education policy dialogue. Jocelyn’s passion for her work was seeded during her own public school education and took root during her classroom teaching experience in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she led action research and presented instructional materials to a variety of audiences. Jocelyn earned her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College (CT), working as a professional writer and editor prior to becoming a teacher, and obtained her master’s in secondary education from the George Washington University. Jocelyn lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two children.