The Power of Partnership in Designing Local High-Quality Curriculum

I have a confession to make: when I was a teacher, I was guilty of “blaming up.” Policies that felt burdensome or ill-informed in practice in my classroom were the fault of faraway folks in the state or federal capital, I was sure. But then I became one of those faraway folks, working first for the U.S. Department of Education and then as a senior advisor for several state agencies. I learned quickly that those in policy positions were full of intentions as good as a teacher’s – but too many good intentions fell into the chasm between classrooms and conference rooms.

One silver lining of the pandemic’s impact on education is found in examples of collaboration between state leaders and local educators in dedicating federal relief funding to common goals. Many of these examples are seen in the EduRecoveryHub launched by the Collaborative for Student Success last month. This week, the platform was updated with even more highlights and a closer look into a few states’ strategies.

I was especially excited to learn about an effort to support local curriculum work in Kentucky. The Bluegrass State has the unique distinction of a system where curriculum adoption happens at the individual school level. That means a district with three elementary schools might be using three different sets of instructional materials. To support districts and schools with these efforts, the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) provides a Model Curriculum Framework with significant guidance and related resources. But state leaders know that a model framework alone may not be enough. They saw an opportunity to invest federal education recovery funding in direct supports for schools looking to adopt local high-quality curricula. 

Last month, KDE announced the selection of 12 districts for a statewide pilot to support the design of these local curricula, with representation from all 8 of the state’s Regional Education Cooperatives. Each of these districts had to identify 2-3 schools and assure the willingness of local teams to actively participate in the 2-year project – including adopting or improving quality instructional materials, collecting relevant data, and transparently reporting curriculum uptake. In return, the state is providing a cohort of collaborators boosted by individual district and school coaching from the respected provider Achievement Network (ANet). 

This, to me, is an ideal role for a state agency to play in leveraging federal funds to support schools. Rather than a top-down approach, KDE is fostering local leadership to drive improvements in access to the materials and professional learning that students and teachers deserve. COVID relief funds allow the state to invest on behalf of districts and schools in a proven provider like ANet. And leaders are thinking proactively about the potential for impact beyond the pilot. That’s why data collection and reporting is part of this project – so that participants can study what’s working for students, share the successes, and hopefully encourage more localities to consider quality materials. KDE can also use these learnings to inform future updates to the Model Curriculum Framework and other statewide offerings.

I know firsthand that it’s easy to play the blame game in education. But when schools, districts, and the state agency work together towards common goals, we see a multiplier effect on impact. That’s what government should be for.

Stay tuned for more on the progress of Kentucky’s pilot; I hope it will offer a model for other states. Want to push for a similar effort where you are? Check out our advocacy tool and drop us a line.

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.