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Where's the Playbook? Common Curriculum and High School Turnaround

Sun, April 7, 8:00 to 9:30am, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Floor: 800 Level, Room 801A


High school turnaround places unique demands on districts, schools, and classrooms. The challenges of complex content, variable student background, the structure and size of high schools, and high stakes accountability greatly complicate the work of improvement (Halverson & Clifford, 2013).

One strategy to cope with these challenges is to implement a rigorous, common curriculum. Beyond supporting instruction, a common curriculum represents one piece of an infrastructure that enables system-wide continuous improvement.

Yet, as we show in this analysis, the implementation of a rigorous curriculum requires the reorganization of roles, routines, and professional learning opportunities at multiple levels. In this sense, curriculum implementation is a system-level challenge requiring a multi-faceted social and organizational “infrastructure.” In this paper, we examine the possibilities and complexities of a common math curriculum in a district-led turnaround subsystem, the Achievement Zone. We pose two questions:

• What problems of practice does the introduction of a common curriculum generate at the classroom, school, and district level in a high school turnaround context?
• What does it take to create an interdependent, multi-level system in which these problems are managed collectively across the system and over time?

Perspectives/Theoretical Framework:
We employ the notion of “educational infrastructure” to draw attention to the multi-faceted social, organizational, and professional dimensions of improvement that stand in contrast to typical piecemeal approaches (Cohen, et. al., 2014). Applying this frame to the Achievement Zone affords a systems-level perspective on the challenges of improving instruction in high schools within a turnaround context. We complement infrastructure with a model of continuous improvement (Peurach & Glazer, 2012) that highlights the evolution of the Achievement Zone over time, and its capacity to learn from policy implementation and results.

Data and Methods:
This paper is part of a larger, three-year study into a turnaround sub-system operating within an urban district. The study employs a mixed methods approach including interviews of teachers, leaders, and district support staff; observations of school leadership teams and professional learning communities; and surveys of leaders and teachers. The current analysis draws from Year 1 data which include 30 interviews and observations of teachers, principals, and district officials. We coded and analyzed interview data at levels of the classroom, school, and district, and drafted analytic memos to refine our analysis.

Results indicate that while the introduction of a common curriculum is a critical piece of an educational infrastructure, it also surfaces infrastructure gaps at multiple levels of the system. For example, teachers’ struggles with selecting math tasks exposed the lack of professional learning opportunities within schools, weaknesses in instructional leadership, and a lack of coordination between district units. However, evidence suggests that these struggles are potentially the impetus for organizational learning and adaptation at the district level.

This paper combines the concepts of educational infrastructure and continuous improvement with a rich data set to enhance understanding of how urban districts can leverage the experience of schools and classrooms to incrementally develop a multi-leveled, systemic approach to improvement.


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