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Four Smart Tips for Implementing Curriculum with Fidelity

An image of people with books, math iconography, numbers, and a compass and protractor.

When Rio Grande City Grulla ISD began to plan the rollout of a new math curriculum districtwide, district leaders knew that ensuring implementation fidelity was essential. They knew they’d have to put a lot in to making sure the new program would work. But what they got in return surprised them.

“When I became superintendent, I discussed with our school board that this was a part of the puzzle that I wanted to add to our district because it was time,” said Rio Grande City Grulla ISD Superintendent Adolfo Peña, Jr. “So, we invested a lot in our teachers.”

Despite the complications of the pandemic, the 2021 STAAR test gave Rio Grande City Grulla ISD confidence in the direction they’d taken. While math scores were dropping statewide, the district's students were headed in the other direction. For the performance category Approaches Grade Level, Rio Grande City Grulla ISD students were 23% above the state average in math; for Meets Grade Level, they were 14% above the state average.

“We also had our common assessments that we do every six weeks and weekly assessments, too. Our strategy had us collecting the data and looking to see the progress of it consistently,” said Peña.

Research confirms what teachers and administrators know from practice: Teaching a high-quality curriculum well leads to higher student achievement. In one curriculum implementation study of almost 6,000 schools and over 1,200 teachers across the six states, researchers reported that only 1 in 4 teachers were using the textbook in nearly all their lessons for essential activities, including in-class exercises, practice problems, and homework problems.

They also found that teachers only received 0.8 to 1.4 days, on average, of professional development tailored to the curriculum they were using. Even a curriculum highlighted as being among those with the most support provided a total of only 1.6 days.

In other words, when it comes to implementing curriculum with fidelity, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

A high-quality curriculum alone is not a panacea. It needs to be paired with high-quality instruction. Achieving that high quality of instruction means supporting teachers and giving them the training and tools they need.

These four strategies may help your district implement curriculum with fidelity:

Ensure Teachers Get the Necessary Training and Professional Development

Teachers are your front line. One of the best ways to promote implementation fidelity is to provide effective training. Reams of research data point to successful teacher training being an ongoing process that includes a variety of supports and coaching.

Rio Grande City Grulla ISD kicked off their curriculum implementation with a 16-day summer training for teachers. To set the stage for success, they brought in both middle school and high school teachers so everyone could get a bird’s eye view of how the program built on itself for students, grade after grade.

“We started coaching lead teachers so at that they can become leaders at their campus,” said Rio Grande City Grulla ISD's Hermelinda Ayala-Rios, the director for accountability and assessment. “And we also started coaching a lot of our strategists then.”

Make sure your school has the capacity to provide these things ahead of a successful curriculum implementation. School boards can help by making sure there’s an adequate budget to support these efforts. 

Establish an Implementation Team To Support Your Teachers

It’s important to have a core group who will guide the implementation — train, observe, coach, and co-teach with your teachers. This group can even have a hand in evaluating student outcomes. They need a firm understanding of the program and strategies necessary to support implementation. This increases the likelihood that the curriculum will be implemented with fidelity across your district.

“Our school board has been very supportive, and that has been important,” said Peña. “We invested a lot in our teachers, and without the strategists [helping to implement the curriculum], we wouldn't be as successful as we could be.”

Communicate Your Trust in Your Teachers and Enthusiasm for the Program

Research shows that when trustees and administrators make a program a priority, teachers are more committed to the program and teach it with greater enthusiasm. Finding ways to continually communicate about the program and celebrate successes is a priority.

Ayala-Rios said that for district leadership’s enthusiasm for a new curriculum to cascade down to teaching staff, there first needs to be a foundation of trust. She believes that the assurance the board and administration communicate to teachers is the first step to buy-in.

“They trusted us to empower them,” she said. “We got them out of that shell — easing any fears that they might have had. That made them say, ‘I got this. I know you’ve got my back. I got this.”

Develop a System for Monitoring Implementation

As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed. The best way to check the pulse on implementation of new practices, programs, and curricula is to develop a system to monitor implementation.

In Rio Grande City Grulla ISD, implementation strategists collect weekly data, and assessments are conducted every six weeks. “We have advisory meetings, and we look at our data every six weeks to see how the implementation is going,” said Peña.

An implementation team will need to establish a data collection plan and train data collectors. That includes determining the data sources and measures of success.

There’s a lot a district can do to support for a new curriculum. School leaders need to be vocal in their support and make sure teachers have sufficient training, time, and resources to prepare for and teach the curriculum with fidelity. Administrators can emphasize their support, trust, and enthusiasm, too, by attending teacher trainings.

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