2021/05/11

In the third webinar of our series Adopting Materials Through an Equity-Focused Lens we focus on the importance of establishing and incorporating local priorities into the materials selection process. We ask districts to consider the following: Why is it important to ensure that materials speak to the needs of your community beyond standards-alignment? What does your data tell you about the students that are being served by your district and those that are not? How can your data help determine the priorities for your adoption? 

We welcomed Dr. Paula Dillon, assistant superintendent from Barrington Public Schools in Rhode Island, and Francisco Villegas, vice president of school transformation for the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, to discuss the importance of knowing your students and community and how this knowledge can influence districts to select materials that better serve students who have previously been marginalized. 

Why Local Priorities Matter

Francisco Villegas and Paula Dillon serve districts that on the surface could not be more different. Located on opposite sides of the country, one has 600,000 students, the other 3,500. However, both leaders are committed to selecting and implementing high-quality instructional materials. And both offered insights into how to develop local priorities and the difference incorporating these priorities can make for ensuring equitable learning experiences for all students.

Los Angeles Unified School District: A Focus on English Language Learners and Conceptual Mathematics

In his role with the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, Francisco serves 19 schools in three communities. Eighty-one percent of the students in these districts are LatinX, nine percent are African American, and 24 percent are English language learners. Francisco highlighted that local concerns were central to the math adoption for these schools and establishing those priorities was directly connected to the instructional vision. He said:

We knew that our materials had to do more than just be aligned to the standards. Three questions that were critical in defining our vision in terms of high quality math teaching and learning were how might we design the student experience in mathematics that 

1) amplifies the genius and assets of all students

2) makes math a problem solving journey rather than a binary sorting mechanism

between ‘math people’ and ‘non-math’ people, and

3) guides all students to discover the beauty, power, and joy of mathematics.

Francisco pointed out that from this vision, the adoption committee was able to identify concrete and specific priorities for what they were looking for in materials. For example, the schools wanted materials that offered lesson plans in order to support the shifts in instruction that needed to take place in response to new standards. Math instructional and language routines were also critical so all students could access the content. He said:

What we’ve learned is that students communicating their mathematical ideas in writing was a challenge so we felt like literacy in the mathematics classroom was a necessity. The math language routines were perfect for bringing that in so math teachers could connect to the literacy development they were supporting.

Ultimately, Francisco sees understanding local context and establishing local priorities as integral to creating equitable learning spaces and communities and in harnessing the true power of mathematics. He said: 

We’re really rethinking the purpose of mathematics as content to help our students feel connected to the learning that they are doing and a way for them to feel empowered to understand and critique the world they live in. Local context and local priorities become really important in shaping where we’re going with the curriculum because we feel materials are a huge lever for equity.  First, starting with just ensuring students get access to grade-level work every day. Then ensuring they are getting access to great instruction and finally making sure the work they are engaging with feels relevant and empowering.” 

Barrington Public Schools: A Focus on Cultural Competencies 

For Dr. Paula Dillon’s community, the journey to new mathematics and ELA instructional materials also began with a mission and vision for students. Paula’s district wanted curricula that would allow deeper access to the learning standards and shape students beyond facts and rote memorization. For example, Barrington’s vision of a learner is one that excels in citizenship, character, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. 

Paula explained: As a team, we got together and outlined the competencies we wanted our students to have at graduation. We asked ourselves how can the curriculum help build those skills and competencies? We were especially interested in ensuring our students could problem solve in a way that allowed them to make their futures and the futures of those around them better.”

For Barrington, building specific competencies led them to materials that were aligned to the Common Core Standards and offered opportunities for experiential and culturally relevant learning. Guided by these local priorities, educators sought out curriculum that guaranteed those opportunities in each grade and had an interdisciplinary approach particularly between ELA and social studies. Paula pointed out: It was important to us to not have our students siloed so they could make connections.” 

Barrington turned to the New York University Steinhart rubric to aid them in evaluating materials for cultural responsiveness in the programs they were considering. 

Focusing on Local Needs is Critical

The conversation with Francisco and Paula highlighted the power of incorporating local priorities into your adoption process. At every step of the selection process, local priorities will play a role from helping to winnow choices from dozens of options to investigating materials under consideration along with making a final decision and building buy-in and investment from your community.  

As Francisco noted in his parting thoughts: Our job as leaders is to create the conditions for our teachers and students to thrive. We're here for a short time and want to have the biggest impact we possibly can. Curriculum has served as a vehicle in terms of what students learn and the experiences they have in classrooms. If we are intentional about selecting materials in support of a vision and the shifts of instruction, we can play a huge role in creating equity in learning.” 

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