Louisiana Offers Its Homegrown Standards-Based Lessons to Teachers Nationwide

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Disappointed by existing English/language arts curricula that were supposedly aligned to the Common Core State Standards, officials at the Louisiana education department decided to enlist teachers and create a homegrown program—a move that’s less than typical for a state-level overseer.

“There were some [common-core] programs with real strengths for sure, but none that were meeting our bar,” said Rebecca Kockler, the assistant superintendent of academic content at the Louisiana Department of Education. “We felt we had no choice.”

The state eventually partnered with LearnZillion, a website with common-core resources that are also created by teachers, to give the curriculum a user-friendly, web-based platform—and also make it open to the public. About 70 percent of Louisiana school districts are expected to implement the new curriculum in at least some grades, and some say it’s likely the program will be well-used outside the state, too.

And while Louisiana officials don’t necessarily recommend that other states go through the time-consuming and laborious process of developing and piloting their own curricula, some experts say states should begin playing a larger role in aggregating and steering teachers toward coherent, high-quality materials outside the traditional textbook realm.

Publishers have “in many cases, been relentless about an unwillingness to change and a desire for maximizing profits on old materials that are not helping students,” John White, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education, said at a recent panel on curriculum in Washington. “I do think states can be doing more.”

While more than 40 states are now using the common-core standards, New York is the only other state that has created its own comprehensive common-core curriculum and made it freely available online. Unlike Louisiana, though, New York’s materials were developed for the state by outside publishers. The resulting EngageNY curriculum library has proven popular: Its resources have been downloaded more than 45 million times by teachers all over the country.

Louisiana 'Guidebooks 2.0' Curriculum By the Numbers


Time in development: About 4 years

Grade levels served: 3rd-12th

Number of Louisiana teachers who helped write it: 65

Number of districts that piloted the program: 10

Number of lessons per unit: 30-50

Number of units available now:
3rd-8th grades: 4
9th-10th grades: 2
11th-12th grades: 1

Number of units expected by June 2017:
3rd-8th grades: 5
9th-11th grades: 4

“EngageNY was the first datapoint in this recognition that the publishers aren’t really the publishers anymore—that really states and districts can be the publishers,” said Eric Westendorf, the CEO and co-founder of LearnZillion. “They’re realizing, ‘We can publish something that is more powerful than what we would buy off the shelf.’”

The District of Columbia also worked with its teachers to create a common-core program for ELA several years ago, and officials there said they’re working on making that one open to the public as well.

However, Jay Diskey, the executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ pre-K-12 learning group, said states and districts are likely to need outside support on this work, and publishing companies are already personalizing their curricular offerings for individual states and districts. “I don’t think any of these older, bigger companies consider themselves to be textbook companies at all anymore,” he said. “They’ve been doing custom projects for school districts for quite some time.”

From 1.0 to 2.0

Louisiana adopted the common core in 2010 and began implementing it two years later. The department analyzed available ELA programs and, “at that time, we had not found anything through our review process that we would want in all our teachers’ classrooms,” said Kockler.

The state pulled together some basic K-12 ELA frameworks, which included groups of texts, sample tasks, and writing prompts, but weren’t very detailed. “We have a small team, we didn’t have funding for this,” said Kockler. “We knew that was not going to be sufficient, so we began working on building out to the unit level.”

The department then gathered about 30 teachers to help write more fleshed-out units, which were published in April 2014.

These so-called “guidebooks” had much more content, but teachers said they were difficult to use. Those resources “were better than anything I’ve ever seen any state do,” said Emily Howell, an English teacher in the Lincoln Parish school district in Ruston, La. “But they were just tasks. Teachers were still having trouble on a daily basis figuring out what do I do so students can complete these tasks.”

So the department linked up with LearnZillion, which procured $850,000 in funding from groups including the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, and the Hewlett Foundation, to help fully build out the program for grades 3-12 and to put the units in a cloud-based platform. (The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust also helps support development of video capacity for Education Week.)

Guidebooks 2.0 was released in May. As of now, there are between one and four units for each grade level, and each unit includes 30 to 50 individual lessons. The units adhere to Louisiana’s standards, which are based on the common core, but address a variety of subjects. Students study topics from the American Revolution to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Steve Jobs.

“Teachers wanted handouts, they needed instructions, they needed text exemplars, they needed to see what work should look like,” said Howell, who wrote the 9th grade units on "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Odyssey", which were reviewed by the teacher “dream team” at LearnZillion, for the second iteration of the guidebooks. “2.0 has all of that.”

The curriculum was piloted in about 150 classrooms across the state by teachers who weren’t involved in its development.

Lesley Vines, an ELA teacher in the Sabine Parish school district in Many, La., was among the teachers who piloted the program. “I was a little intimidated at first because ... I’ve been teaching for 16 years and always had a basal reader where students read a story and then answered questions,” she said. “This is so different. It’s such a variety of texts. Nonfiction and fiction texts are incorporated into every section.”

Students read a mixture of full novels and text selections. “I think we’re on the right track,” Vines said. “The growth in my students this year was just tremendous.”

Schools aren’t likely to save much money with the new curriculum (compared to using textbooks) since they have to purchase the novels and print out the other materials, said Kockler.

The curriculum is quite prescriptive—the lessons include precise wording for how teachers should give directions and what questions they should ask students. But the developers emphasize that teachers aren’t required to do any of it. “These are suggestions,” said Howell. “These are things to help you. If you look at it that way you don’t have to feel like someone’s telling you what to do.”

‘A Wild West Situation’

While traditional textbooks still represent a huge market, there’s evidence that the ways teachers are using instructional materials is changing.

A recent RAND study found that nearly all ELA teachers in common-core states are using materials they developed or selected themselves in at least some capacity. About one-third of ELA teachers in those states are using the EngageNY materials.

And teachers looking for resources online are most likely going to websites such as Google, Pinterest, and TeachersPayTeachers.com, the study found.

“What we’re seeing in the market is this idea that content isn’t a scarce resource anymore,” said Westendorf of LearnZillion. Even teachers whose schools have adopted a defined curriculum are often supplementing or replacing with materials they find online.

And while the proliferation of content is a positive, some say it also creates a major problem: Teachers are more likely to use individual lesson plans rather than a comprehensive, yearlong curricula that builds on itself. “The internet is empowering teachers, but it’s a Wild West situation,” said Westendorf. “States and districts are saying ... if we don’t get our act together, we’re not going to get great results.”

That was part of the impetus for the Louisiana project—to give teachers something digital, accessible, and teacher-created that they were likely to use in full.

That’s also why more states may start taking cues from Louisiana—not necessarily about creating a curriculum from scratch, but about aggregating and packaging digital materials that work for their own teachers.

“To be honest, I don’t think other states should create their own curriculum if they don’t have to. It takes a lot of time,” said Kockler. “I do think states should take the time to help districts identify quality [materials].”

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States could easily mix and match units—taking some from Louisiana and some from other sources—and pull together a curriculum that’s specific to their state needs, said Westendorf.

The District of Columbia school system is currently seeking funding to get its own curriculum on an open-source platform like the one LearnZillion provides. Currently, the curriculum is in Microsoft Word documents and zip files.

“In ELA, I think you’re going to see a more vibrant sharing of resources,” said Brian Pick, the chief of teaching and learning for the District of Columbia public schools. “I don’t actually think you’re going to see more people building from scratch, because there are increasingly high-quality materials out there. But I do think you’re going to see more assembly of a coherent curriculum strategy.”

Vol. 35, Issue 37, Pages 1, 13

Published in Print: July 1, 2016, as Louisiana Builds Homegrown Standards-Based Curricula
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