Excellent curriculum is a matter of educational equity. Today in America, white and more affluent students have more educational opportunity than their peers of color or students from low-income backgrounds. Achievement outcomes follow; metrics like performance on national tests and graduation from college are largely split along lines of race and class. Educators and researchers are working hard to find ways to combat this inequity.
Louisiana has created stronger, higher standards—now we need to give students and educators the tools to reach them. Students deserve engaging material that prepares them to think critically and that aligns to the standards they will be measured on. Teachers deserve curriculum that helps them support their students as they work to meet their goals. If teachers and students receive this type of curriculum and materials, students will grow.
In 2012, the Brookings Institute found that strong curriculum has a measurable impact on student learning. The effect may be especially pronounced for certain historically disadvantaged groups. Research has shown that access to rigorous coursework increased achievement for Black and Latino students, and that Black and Latino students enrolled in classes with culturally relevant texts increased their GPA and attendance across the board.
Unfortunately, we have seen the impact of the absence of such curriculum here in New Orleans. After Katrina, New Orleans’ state test scores had been steadily rising—until the state standards became more rigorous in recent years. In areas of the state where teachers shifted to curriculum that aligned with the new standards, performance continued to rise. Here, where most schools did not fully shift to new curriculum, scores have become stagnant.
Last school year, an NSNO analysis found that less than one third of New Orleans elementary schools were using aligned ELA curriculum, and only 20% of New Orleans high schools were using fully aligned math curriculum. When our students are not being taught using curriculum aligned to state standards, it is unsurprising that they are struggling to master those standards.
The Instructional Quality Initiative
The good news is that excellent curriculum exists, so we can work to rectify this situation right now. NSNO has partnered with the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) to help schools address this citywide challenge. This January, we launched the Instructional Quality Initiative (IQI) to ensure that all New Orleans schools have access to top-quality, state-standards-aligned curriculum–as well as the training required to use it effectively.
A strong, aligned curriculum is not just a matter of better textbooks or worksheets. It is about material that engages students on all levels and integrates multiple standards and ideas within a single lesson. It is about creating a classroom that prioritizes equity and highlights the history and culture of the students in the room. It is learning that comes to life.
NSNO and LDOE have committed approximately $4.8 million to this initiative, encompassing support for schools from selection and purchase of curriculum to effective implementation. By 2021, we aim for 75% of New Orleans public schools to achieve full implementation of aligned curriculum across K-12 math, English, social studies, and science classes. As schools continue to adopt and utilize new curriculum, we are confident that student performance will increase.
So how do we get there?
The IQI provides two key supports for schools as they work towards aligned curriculum:
Funding through grants to purchase fully aligned, top-quality (Tier 1) curriculum and materials.
Support and professional development around using the selected curriculum and implementing it without bias.
Since January, the IQI has reached 84% of all open-enrollment schools in the city. We provided grants for schools to purchase certain curriculums identified by LDOE as “Tier 1”–the highest quality materials that are the most aligned to state standards. We then funded the professional development foundations for the educators who would be putting the curriculum into practice, as well as ongoing professional development throughout the school year. We worked with Chief Academic Officers and classroom teachers alike this summer to address implementation at all levels. In addition, we will continue to collaborate with schools over the course of this year by monitoring progress, providing feedback, and facilitating curriculum-specific hubs for instructional leaders citywide.
The foundational professional development opportunity for educators at IQI-funded schools was travel and registration for the Standards Institute, a conference that took place in California last month. One hundred and twenty-five New Orleans educators traveled to San Diego for the Institute, along with the NSNO team, the Recovery School District CEO Kunjan Narechania and her team, and over seventy-five other Louisiana educators. The Standards Institute was an immersive five-day event hosted by UnboundEd, an organization that provides high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum and training. We were proud to be able to support this journey through grants for each of these teachers, coaches, and school leaders. They were the biggest single cohort of educators from any geographic area at the event.
The conference explored the academic components of strong curriculum, but it also covered another critical area of focus for the IQI: equity. We know that race and identity intersect deeply with the work of education, and thus the IQI aims to address this, too. The Standards Institute not only focused on the important content of curriculum, but also on how to deliver it without bias. Too often, unconscious bias causes teachers to lower their expectations of students of color. The Standards Institute helped educators combat this; because we know that all students can rise to the occasion of higher standards if we give them the chance.
What Comes Next?
We are excited about the progress we have seen so far and the work that lies ahead. To date, the IQI has centered on math and ELA curriculum for grades 3-8 and high schools. We will expand from here by funding schools’ adoption of standards-aligned curriculum in science, social studies, and K-2 classes as well.
As the school year begins, we are eager to see how the teachers who attended the Standards Institute—and all teachers involved in the IQI—will bring what they have learned back to their classrooms. This work is about equity, access, and ultimately turning the tide of educational opportunity in our city and our nation. I believe it will not be long until 100% of our schools are using standards-aligned materials, and all students have vibrant, dynamic classroom experiences in turn. Our students and teachers deserve that, and every day, we are getting closer to making it a reality.