Curriculum Q&A

Buying Curriculum Isn’t Enough to Change Teaching and Learning. Here’s What It Takes

By Sarah Schwartz — December 16, 2022 6 min read
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Buying a new curriculum seems, on its face, like a one-time purchase for a school district.

That’s one of the reasons why district leaders have allocated federal COVID relief funds to buying materials. Policymakers have warned schools from using the time-limited money to invest in recurring costs, like personnel.

But some district leaders who have used ESSER funds to buy curriculum warn that it’s dangerous to think about it as a one-and-done purchase.

“You need this implementation support constantly,” said Brent Conway, the assistant superintendent for the Pentucket Regional School District in West Newbury, Mass.

Before the pandemic, the Pentucket district, which serves about 2,200 students, had started to shift its early literacy instruction, moving toward an approach aligned with what’s come to be known as the “science of reading”—teaching that is informed by the research base behind how young children learn to read.

What Is the 'Science of Reading'?

In a science of reading framework, teachers start by teaching beginning readers the foundations of language in a structured progression—like how individual letters represent sounds and how those sounds combine to make words. ...


At the same time, teachers are helping students build their vocabulary and their knowledge about the world through read-alouds and conversations. Eventually, teachers help students weave these skills together like strands in a rope, allowing them to read more and more complex texts.


Most teachers in the United States weren’t trained in this framework. Instead, the majority say that they practice balanced literacy, a less structured approach that relies heavily on teacher choice and professional judgment. While the majority of students in balanced literacy classrooms receive some phonics instruction, it may not be taught in the explicit, systematic way that researchers have found to be most effective for developing foundational reading skills.


Students are generally “reading” short books of their choice very early on, even if they can’t sound out all the words. Teachers encourage kids to use multiple sources of information—including pictures and context clues—to guess at what the text might say.

But bringing in a new curriculum was only one step in this process, said Jennifer Hogan, the district’s ELA curriculum lead. “We are still seeing a lot of these lingering practices that are reflective of what people were doing when there was a balanced literacy model—that we’re still working to undo,” Hogan said.

The district used ESSER funds to support these curriculum changes, by purchasing additional resources, creating Hogan’s full-time position, and funding additional support staff for students struggling in reading.

Now, leadership is figuring out how to maintain these support systems in anticipation of the 2024 fiscal cliff when ESSER funding ends. Education Week spoke with Conway and Hogan about these decisions, and why instructional change requires more than a one-time curriculum purchase.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has Pentucket used ESSER funding to support curriculum implementation?

Hogan: Last year was our first year of implementation with [our new ELA program] Wit and Wisdom K-6. It was also the creation, using ESSER funding, of my position, as well as the literacy interventionists that we have across the schools.

Now, we’re still focusing on that system side. … It’s not enough to just get the curriculum and give it to people. And for a district that actually didn’t do that, but actually did set up the systems and puts a lot of time into those structures, we are still seeing a lot of these lingering practices that are reflective of what people were doing when there was a balanced literacy model—that we’re still working to undo.

That comes from having the personnel like myself, in the classrooms, providing coaching, being able to navigate and do responsive professional development with teachers.

Are there any examples of those that you could share? And ways that you work with teachers to introduce new practices?

Hogan: One of the things we’ve been seeing, especially this year in special education, is we’re seeing goals written on [individualized education plans] that aren’t connected to structured literacy. We’re seeing a lot of—for lack of a better word—randomness.

The special education IEP goals aren’t connected to the core curriculum or the services that the students might be getting. And that’s not for a lack of trying. That’s what people always did, they always wrote a goal around, “Students will know the first 100 sight words.” But that’s not what our instruction actually is. And that’s not what the research says that students should be working on.

We see a lot of teachers wanting to use decodable text and do some really great things in small groups, but when they actually get there, they’re not really sure what to do with the decodable text. It becomes more like a guided reading lesson.

Conway: People want to do well. [But] it’s all that undoing. That really speaks to the systems side.

The ESSER funds are great. You see states pouring it into LETRS training for people, or in Massachusetts, pouring it into the purchase of high-quality instructional materials. Either one is great. But if you go train every teacher in the state with LETRS and send them back to schools that don’t have coaches prepared to help them, that don’t have the instructional materials, that haven’t changed their assessment systems, don’t have schedules, and have a principal saying, “Well, what letter level are they on?” all that LETRS training is for naught; it’s wasted money.

We love that Massachusetts has poured money into helping districts replace their balanced literacy materials and workshop materials with high-quality instructional materials. We’ve used some of our own ESSER funds to do that. And we’ve used some of the ESSER funds for positions like Jen. All of that is fantastic. But it’s not a two- or three-year solution. These are permanent changes.

What’s the plan for keeping these changes going forward? How can you keep funding this work?

Conway: As a school district, we are going to need what will be called a budgetary override. The towns are going to have to pay more in taxes. Is it to cover the fiscal fall of the ESSER funds? Somewhat. Some of it is inflation-related. It’s all hitting at once, right?

We spent upwards of a million dollars on high-quality instructional materials. Not just literacy. We also did it for high school science and social studies classes, updating textbooks that had not been updated in 25 years. Some of those can be treated a little bit more like a one-time thing. And some of the social studies texts can be addressed 10 years from now, and that can get staggered out.

As far as personnel, we created these coach positions, to help give the teachers the support they needed. And we did add some mental health support as well, which we figure may or may not be needed moving ahead. We’ve used some for some literacy tutors, which again, may or may not be needed as we move ahead.

The majority of our budget comes from our local municipalities; it does not come from the state. What [the local municipalities] would anticipate giving us is a 2.5 to 3 percent increase from their local taxes. That doesn’t even cover the inflation and built-in contractual raises. Never mind now trying to roll in and build in the coverage of the additional positions. So we need to work with our towns to say, “Will you be willing to pay more?” And the voters need to approve that.

That’s the position we’re in at this point. And I’m sure we’re not alone. And the bottom line is, these changes in literacy instruction were a lot of things we needed to do. But they’re not one-time fixes. All of these things we needed to do are more of a permanent, systemic, structural change that needed to happen.

Nationally, are districts trying to do this right now—plan financially to keep the support systems in place for these kinds of instructional shifts?

Conway: I’m not sure they fully understand that it is not just buying a curriculum. You need this implementation support constantly. Three and four years from now, five years from now, they’re going to need that support to revisit, “How am I doing this? How am I implementing this?”

Helping teachers learn how to plan and use materials differently, how to plan to use a decodable text: That is not a PD session. That is ongoing coaching and job-embedded support. Whether they were funded or not through ESSER funds, it’s the concept that that is the work you need to do moving ahead. And I don’t know that every district is prepared for that.

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