In Tennessee’s Jackson-Madison County School System, we have been on a journey of improved outcomes in literacy and math, with equity gains seen inside of a year. It’s a story of supporting our teachers with better curriculum. Last year, we were one of the fastest-growing districts in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System outcomes, after just one year using new materials.

As a school board member and a parent of four students in the system, this journey has been eye-opening. I’ve been frequently surprised by what I learned about the curriculum in our schools. My mother was a teacher who talked about curriculum issues at the dinner table, so I took it for granted that our teachers had the materials they needed, especially in math and English. In fact, I learned that our teachers went years without updated materials. Our students showed growth immediately after we solved that problem.

I’ve been further shocked to discover that these issues are common in districts across the country. What I learned in Jackson-Madison County is essential information for school board members, yet it doesn’t seem to be on most folks’ radars.

To help close that awareness gap, I am pleased to share our story, as well as the key learnings that can help other districts.

Solving our curriculum problem propelled our outcomes

I assumed that the Jackson-Madison County School System would have purchased new curriculum after Tennessee adopted the Common Core in 2010 (which later became the broadly similar Tennessee Academic Standards). Imagine my surprise when I learned that as of 2017, our curricula still did not align with our state standards—even though we had adopted new programs in 2011-13.

The issue was easy to confirm in reviews of our curricula. For example, we had been using a reading program deemed non-aligned to standards in educator reviews conducted by a highly regarded review site. Our math program also scored poorly in alignment reviews.

Our teachers knew that their materials were inadequate. The best evidence was that they weren’t using them consistently, and they were supplementing heavily. Looking back, I realize that I could see this firsthand, as a classroom volunteer. Judging from the many lessons that I saw which did not utilize the reading materials, our teachers were doing significant work to create their own materials.

One teacher spent $2,000 on Teachers Pay Teachers for materials in recent years in order to have decent lesson materials. That breaks my heart. It also shows that our instruction was inconsistent across the system, with teachers using lesson materials of varying quality by finding them on the internet.

Our superintendent, Eric Jones, is an experienced turnaround specialist, and he recruited a chief academic officer to the district, Jared Myracle. Myracle is passionate and savvy about curriculum. He and his team led a thoughtful curriculum review process, which started by engaging our building leaders in a needs assessment. It brought us four new curricula for 2017-18, across K-12 E language art and math.

Improved outcomes were visible immediately

In our state assessments last year, we went from seven out of 20 (35 percent) of our schools performing “on target” in literacy growth to 17 out of 22 (77 percent) performing on target, and saw a surge in the number of English language arts classrooms that met or exceeded their expected growth target: from 38 percent of in grades 3-12 to 70 percent. Jackson-Madison County tripled the number of grade/subject areas that performed on/ahead of growth targets (14 percent to 45 percent).

The other outcomes are just as exciting. Students are more engaged, and more invested in classroom work. As a parent, I can see it in my own kids. Other parents talk about how kindergarteners come home talking about the difference between deciduous trees and evergreen trees, thanks to an early grades ELA curriculum, Core Knowledge, that’s designed to get kids learning science and history as part of reading instruction. This is engaging our kids – and also aligning our work with key reading research on how such knowledge fosters reading comprehension.

Our third graders created their own successful fundraiser to build a free local library for underprivileged residents. They were inspired by course work in our other elementary curriculum, which is designed to get kids reading and writing about social justice issues. Thoughtfully designed curriculum is helping us to build good citizens and good readers in parallel.

The curriculum work has fostered critical collaboration between building leaders, teachers, and district leaders. It has set a bar for what we want to see instructionally, and our teams are now aligned around what good looks like, from classrooms all the way to our district office. The level of teaching across our classrooms is now better and more consistent.

We hear teachers describing our students as more prepared for high school work in literature thanks to our investments. Most teachers embraced the new materials right away, though some were hesitant about change, having spent so long being given freedom to create their own materials. One teacher wondered whether being required to use a curriculum would “mess up my art as a teacher.” It was the quality of the materials that brought him around. One year later, he says, “These resources have enhanced my art as a teacher.”

These stories have national resonance

Myracle has helped me to realize that Jackson-Madison County’s prior curriculum shortcomings exemplify a significant, pervasive national issue:

  • Reports show us that 24 of the 26 largest school districts in the country use at least one curriculum that fails alignment reviews. School board members describe results of curriculum audits in their districts as “chilling.”
  • Teachers will fill the holes in district curriculum. Studies show that 99 percent of elementary teachers feel they need to find their own curricular materials, and the average teacher spends seven hours a week searching for lesson materials.

It’s dismaying that so many of our teachers were not given the tools they needed to teach math and English successfully prior to last school year. I believe this issue is flying under the radar. If Jones and Myracle had not told our school board that we had weak, poorly aligned curriculum, we would have been unaware of the issue in our own schools.

What is the culprit? A curriculum market full of poor options is often cited: A quick skim of EdReports shows more poorly reviewed curricula than good ones. Yet there is a glimmer of good news: Education leaders speak of a recent “curriculum renaissance,” which has yielded better options.

Take note of the cost-efficiencies

Our district experience mirrors studies that show that curriculum is both high-impact and cost-efficient as a means of improving outcomes. The cost efficiencies should be especially noted by school boards and superintendents.

As the saying goes, “A bad curriculum costs no more than a good one.” So, it’s simply good governance to ensure that you are picking an excellent option. Further, a Brookings Institution study showed that selecting a strong second grade math curriculum had a higher impact than replacing a 50th percentile teacher with a 75th percentile teacher.

Additional studies are compelling; from a cost-benefit perspective, researchers say that improving curriculum “blows most interventions that we think of, like reducing class size or increasing teacher quality, out of the water.”

Most districts cannot hire more experienced teachers and struggle to pursue other costly interventions to raise outcomes. Yet we can all improve the materials in teachers’ hands. The Chiefs for Change, a network of leading superintendents, describes curriculum as a school improvement opportunity “hiding in plain sight” in a recent report.

I encourage school boards to have important conversations with their superintendents. Start by a) identifying areas where the district is flying without a curriculum, prioritizing math and English, where the ‘curriculum renaissance’ means many good options are now available; and b) reviewing the curriculum that your district is using on EdReports. If your curricula don’t earn “all-green” ratings, there is probably an improvement opportunity in your midst.

If curriculum is the low-hanging fruit in closing equity gaps, let us harvest that opportunity.

Shannon Stewart (sdstewart@jmcss.org) is a school board member and parent of four students in the Jackson-Madison County School System in Jackson, Tennessee.

Around NSBA

a girl in a car with a mask on holding a teddy bear who also has a mask on

Aetna and Lyft to Give Schools Access to Essential Rides for Families

In collaboration with the National School Boards Association and Lyft, Aetna will give $100,000 in essential rides for families in school districts around the country to help families this school year.