By Patrick Dobard

Academic performance in New Orleans’ improved consistently for over a decade, but over the last few years, during our transition to higher state standards, the proficiency gap between New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana widened in math and ELA.

During this transition, many districts similar to New Orleans adopted aligned curricula and more effectively implemented the instructional practices required of the more rigorous standards. These districts have outperformed New Orleans.

Acknowledging and addressing the challenges we face is essential to our ability to regain positive annual academic growth. Last month, we gathered with leaders from nearly every public school in the city, OPSB Superintendent Henderson Lewis, State Superintendent John White, and Rebecca Kockler Assistant Superintendent of Academic Content for the state, to kick off the Instructional Quality Initiative.

The Initiative aims to increase the number of schools using instructional materials that are fully-aligned to the state standards. A 2012 Brookings study showed that choosing a better second-grade math curriculum had a bigger effect on student learning than replacing a 50th percentile teacher with a 75th percentile teacher.

A good curriculum is also hard to build. When we ask teachers to develop their own curriculum, we expect that they have content knowledge and pedagogy expertise, brain science expertise, and a background in instructional design. While many educators may have that background, a recent RAND studyreported that of the 96% of teachers that drew upon “materials I developed and/or selected myself” the vast majority reported that they most often found the materials using Google (94%) and Pinterest (87%).

Based on our analysis, the majority of New Orleans’ schools are not using curriculum or instructional models aligned with the new state standards—only half of K-8s employ aligned math curricula, fewer in ELA., and lower yet for high schools. Many of the schools that have adopted aligned curricula still face implementation challenges.  Sustained academic improvement will not be possible without addressing the lack of high-quality materials reaching students’ desks.

Our Approach

We will fund national experts to partner with schools to support teachers. Schools will analyze the state approved vendor PD course catalogue and School Redesign Partner Profiles to identify organizations best positioned to deliver targeted professional development and support. NSNO will provide grants to support the partnerships between schools and approved partners.

We fund additional opportunities for professional development for teachers. In January, we sent 70 teachers and leaders from 35 schools to Los Angeles for a week-long training at UnboundED’s Standards Institute. As Anne Kramer, the Supervisor of Instruction at Hynes Charter School shared, “I have helped my school “unpack” the standards in the past.  However, with this type of immersion into the standards along with equitable instructional practices, I am better equipped to support the demand for educational excellence in our city.” We believe these trainings will accelerate use of high-leverage instructional practices across grade bands and within subject areas. We are planning to send a second cohort to the Standards Institute summer session this July.

We will help build the capacity of Chief Academic Officers and other instructional leaders. Last week we began a series of convenings with the top academic leads from throughout the city to build their capacity to lead teachers and principals to improve instructional quality. In this first session, leaders worked with UnboundED to analyze classroom videos to identify the differences between the standards-aligned lesson as planned and the lesson as delivered in the video. The session also highlighted how unconscious bias can affect instructional practices. Jen Keyte, Collegiate Academies Network Director of Teaching and Learning, shared that it “reconfirmed what I know about race and equity work and how to move to a place where we can actualize that in classrooms.”

In addition to these citywide convenings, leaders will receive ongoing on-site coaching and planning support from national experts.

We will help conduct an annual city-wide instructional assessment. We will work with schools to assess and monitor the effectiveness of the initiative. The assessment will measure the progress our schools are making to both select high quality materials and implement them in every classroom.  By tracking progress over multiple years, we hope to be able to identify citywide trends and provide school-specific feedback to improve curriculum implementation.

OPSB is working to help fund ESSA-eligible schools participation in each of these initiatives. OPSB is planning to apply to the state for School Redesign Round 2 funds to support all ESSA-eligible schools in New Orleans under OPSB. By applying for these services on behalf of all ESSA-eligible schools, OPSB will be able to help facilitate more collaboration and sharing of best practices among schools and provide important school-specific information on instructional quality.

What We Hope to Achieve

Aligning instructional materials and practices to state standards is not the only challenge New Orleans is facing. It is, however, a necessary piece of the larger strategy.

If New Orleans is to once again outpace the state on academic growth, we will need to increase the percent of elementary and high schools using curriculum  fully aligned to rigorous state standards to 75%.

Educators in New Orleans have consistently shown that they can meet and exceed the expectations for what is possible for a chronically low-performing school district. Making the shift to a new curriculum will be an immense challenge, but it is imperative we address this next challenge head on. We must work together to ensure that every day, in every classroom, students are receiving the best instruction possible.

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