21st Century Schools

Shoulder-to-Shoulder Innovation

An Arizona district won this year's Sylvia Charp Award because of its revolutionary--and truly collaborative--approach to standards-based curriculum development. Here's a look at how it works.

In 2003, Debbie Hedgepeth was looking for a way to address the Vail School District's academic shortfalls after the implementation of Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS), a statewide standards-referenced test of reading, writing, math literacy, and science. The assistant superintendent for curriculum and professional development at the rural school district in southeastern Arizona wanted to upend the way Vail approached standards-based curriculum instruction. Hedgepeth and her colleagues called it "inverting the curriculum."

Rather than basing what was taught and when it was taught on traditional textbooks, which were not aligned to the specific state standards of Arizona, Hedgepeth and her team sat down with teachers throughout the district to "unwrap" the state standards for each grade level and subject. The team established formative assessments and benchmarks for each standard and created a curriculum calendar based on logical sequences of concepts and required levels of mastery, rather than textbook chapter numbers.

Once the common curriculum calendar, benchmarks, and assessments were in place, teachers were encouraged to select resources and materials that fit the standards, inspiring creativity among the faculty that would hopefully lead to an increase in high-level thinking, skill mastery, and student achievement.

Within four years, all of Vail's schools had achieved "Excelling" status, the highest distinction attainable in Arizona. Yet, the implementation and upkeep of this new approach to curriculum was cumbersome and time-consuming. State standards and curriculum information for each grade level and subject were distributed to teachers in large binders, which had to be replaced each time a change was made to the state requirements. Also, though the internet provided a wealth of free digital resources for teachers to use, hunting for those resources was less than efficient--there was no central location where teachers could share their resources and access the materials found by their peers.

In 2007, Hedgepeth asked Matt Federoff, the district's CIO, if there was perhaps a tech-based solution to these problems. Around the same time, Federoff was overseeing Vail's transition to Apple's Leopard operating system and server, which would provide the district with tools it hadn't had before, including iCal calendar software and web 2.0 components.

Hedgepeth and Federoff realized that at the confluence of the curriculum department's problem and the IT department's progression was an ambitious approach to the delivery of standards-based curriculum and digital content. With the new tools available to the district through the Leopard OS and server, they could electronically organize all of the curriculum materials around the core essential standards, allowing a teacher to look up any standard and easily find resources that supported instruction for that objective.

The uncovering of this solution defines the importance of consistent interdepartmental communication throughout a district, says Federoff. "It's so important that school IT departments not operate in isolation," he says. "The critical point is that Debbie had a problem, and I had a solution. If we had never talked, we never would have known. The interactions that lead to these types of solutions can't be forced; they can't be orchestrated. There has to be a standing relationship from the start."

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Teacher Empowerment
The framework of what became known as Vail's Beyond Textbooks initiative is deceptively simple. On the district's server reside iCal-based curriculum calendars corresponding to each grade level and subject taught in the district. Teachers subscribe to the calendars that are applicable to their classrooms, with access to multiple calendars if necessary. These calendars map out the concepts required by Arizona's state standards, assigning a date to when each one should be taught.

Each concept appears on the calendar as a hyperlink. Double-clicking on one of them leads to a wiki page featuring all of the resources available from the curriculum department to assist in teaching the standard, including an "unwrap" document created by the curriculum department. The unwrap document outlines what the students need to learn about the concept, provides questions teachers should be asking, notes the level of rigor at which students should be learning, and provides sample tasks that students can do to demonstrate learning.

The real power of the initiative lies with the teachers who use it. On the wiki page for each standard, teachers are encouraged to post resources, lesson plans, activities, presentations, and more. To build this cache of materials, teachers have access to digital content services that the district subscribes to, such as Discovery Education Streaming and BrainPop, as well as free, web-based content and any other appropriate resources they can find.

"We want to enable our teachers to use their creativity within the realm of a standards-based curriculum," explains Hedgepeth. "With the calendar and the main wiki pages, we have agreement on what we're going to teach, when we're going to teach it, and the level of rigor at which it will be taught. But how one teacher moves his students through the learning process--that's his art of teaching. That is his creative experience."

Teachers are encouraged to post and share their best work, and their names, schools, and districts are posted with each resource they submit. A staff member in the curriculum department vets teacher-submitted lesson plans, activities, and keynote presentations before they go public. Staff members check for congruence to standards, level of rigor, and correct formatting, as well as copyright issues. If a staff member discovers a copyright violation she does not post the resource. Instead she notifies the submitting teacher, giving direction on how to fix the issue, if possible.

Teachers can comment on each other's materials, creating a community of peers to offer support and encouragement as they work toward the common goal of finding the best ways to teach the standards. When there is a change in state standards, the curriculum department can easily redistribute the teacher-submitted digital content to its corresponding wiki pages within the new curriculum.

This element of teacher empowerment is integral to the success of the Beyond Textbooks initiative. "In the shift to standards-based curriculum and the reliance on commercial products in the education marketplace, teachers often feel like they're a cog in the machinery," remarks District Superintendent Calvin Baker. "What's so exciting about Beyond Textbooks is that it allows teachers to not only use their creativity, but to demonstrate their creativity to teachers across their school, across their district, and, now, across their state."

In the first year, Vail teachers submitted more than 500 classroom-tested resources to the Beyond Textbooks wiki; three years and 37 districts later, more than 4,100 materials have been posted to the system. Meanwhile, each of Vail's schools has maintained the "Exceeding" label they gained in 2007.

An Award-Winning Initiative
Arizona's Vail School District is the winner of the 2011 Sylvia Charp Award. The award is presented annually by the International Society for Technology in Education and T.H.E. Journal for innovative, districtwide use of technology.

"There were some amazing districts that applied for the Charp award this year," comments Therese Mageau, T.H.E. Journal's editorial director and one of the judges for the award, "but what ultimately moved Vail to the top of the pack were two things. The first is the totally teacher-driven nature of the initiative. The second is the dissemination model that they use to extend the Beyond Textbooks program beyond their district boundaries. Both ensure that the work Vail has done is not some isolated island of success, but rather that their achievements are replicable in other districts."

From the very beginning, Federoff, Hedgepeth, and Baker recognized that this out-of-the-box initiative would only be successful if there was ownership and buy-in among all teachers and administrators. Recalls Baker, "When Matt and Debbie started to develop the idea, one of the first things we did was bring in 50 teachers and administrators from throughout the district, lay out the vision to them, and let them do the 'sniff test.'" They then asked for input from the group to help clarify the vision, and held a brainstorming session to come up with a name for the initiative--Beyond Textbooks.

"That kickoff was huge," remarks Baker. "Then, when Beyond Textbooks was rolled out--it wasn't Matt's initiative, or Debbie's initiative, or my initiative. It was the initiative of all of those people who were engaged in its development. People had ownership. That's an incredibly powerful word."

While some in the district went to work to implement the technical changes in curriculum delivery, others focused on changing the hearts and minds of its teachers and administrators. The team worked with the principals at each of the schools to ensure they understood and were on board, so they could help carry the vision at every school site.

"We had to move from the mindset that teachers are in the classroom to have an impact on their students," explains Hedgepeth, "and open that up to teachers being in the school to impact all students of that grade level, and then open that up further to teachers being at the school to impact the entire school, or the district, and then beyond. As that attitude and that vision of the circle of impact changes, then the buy-in also increases."

The team also built in a recognition component for teachers who post materials to the wiki. After members of the curriculum department review the materials, they send e-mails to the teachers who submitted them, offering recognition for their work. Each e-mail is copied to the teacher's principal, supervisor, or superintendent as a way to further express appreciation to the teacher for his or her contribution. As Kevin Carney, director of Beyond Textbooks and a former principal at Vail's Rincon Vista Middle School, notes, "In this day and age, when teachers are getting so hammered for what they're perceived as doing wrong, the fact that somebody's noticing something that they're doing right goes a long way toward getting teachers excited to continue contributing."

Nicole Buchheit, a second-year math teacher at Rincon Vista and frequent contributor to Beyond Textbooks, notes that the new model increases the life span and reach of the lesson plans and presentations. "As a teacher, you put hours into creating a lesson that ends up taking 45 minutes of class time," she remarks. "It's been so cool to be able to share this work and to know that other teachers are able to use them as well. You're making an impact beyond your classroom."

With Beyond Textbooks now implemented in 37 Arizona districts and charter schools, Vail has recognized the importance of training its partner schools and achieving the buy-in and ownership that led to Beyond Textbooks' success at Vail. "That piece, that collaborative ownership, is just so key," says Carney. "It's a shoulder-to-shoulder model rather than a top-down model. As we translate this initiative to other districts, those partner districts that are being really thoughtful with that shoulder-to-shoulder model are having a greater level of success."

Beyond Textbooks, Beyond Vail
With Vail's reputation as one of the highest-achieving districts in Arizona, interest in their new method for compiling, organizing, and delivering standards-specific curriculum spread quickly throughout the state. Baker says, "We host a steady stream of visitors seeking to figure out how we're getting our results, so that has given us a platform for presenting and sharing Beyond Textbooks."

Vail first experimented with replicating the model in the fall of 2008 with a small pilot at the neighboring Benson Unified School District. Although the pilot was successful, the Beyond Textbooks team quickly realized that the expansion of the initiative would require more than just giving an outside district access to the curriculum calendars and wikis. "If you've never run, and a marathon runner hands you their training book, you can't just jump in and use the marathon runner's training schedule," remarks Baker. "We found we have to lead people up to that level. You can't try to do everything all at once."

As director of Beyond Textbooks, Carney put together a sequence of professional development and training sessions that slowly lead a district up to the highest level of the initiative's implementation--the level at which teachers begin posting their own materials. But before any training takes place, the Beyond Textbooks team requires that interested districts bring their administrators to the table for a one-hour overview of the program. "If they say it sounds good and they want to move forward, we say, 'Great, we want to do the same exact overview with you and some of your key teacher leaders,'" explains Carney.

If everybody's on board after the second overview, Vail then brings in a team from the outside district, including its key teacher leaders, for a two-day leadership retreat that explores the logistics of implementing Beyond Textbooks based on the system the outside district was previously using. "Those key teacher leaders are the folks that other teachers listen to, " explains Carney. "We really work hard at the leadership retreat to share with them how they can go about getting other teachers involved and on board." From the information discussed during the retreat, a "road map" based on a rubric created by Vail but unique to each outside district's needs is put together.

From there, Vail works with the new partner district's teachers in mandatory professional development sessions throughout the year, focusing on both the logistics of working with the technology and the philosophy behind the initiative. The training sessions start out slowly: Teachers don't learn how to post their own materials to the wiki until the end of their first year using Beyond Textbooks. Vail also hosts a variety of webinars covering smaller topics, such as the formative assessments that are embedded within Beyond Textbooks. Then, once a year, partner districts are invited to a conference during which they can share their challenges and successes in implementing Beyond Textbooks.

To cover the costs of these offerings, as well as the upkeep of the technology itself, Vail has set up a flexible and affordable compensation model. Participating schools pay an annual setup fee, which runs $3,000 the first year, $2,000 the second year, and $1,000 the third year (fees for future years are yet to be determined), plus a wiki subscription fee of $8 per student. They also pay $1,500 for a half-day training session for up to 30 participants.

Vail works with partner districts that can't afford the standard fees to make the system more affordable. According to Baker, Vail also ends up conducting a lot of free training sessions. "Arizona is in horrible shape in terms of school funding," he remarks. "The reality is that not only are we struggling financially, but a lot of school districts across the state are struggling even more. They're our friends and neighbors, and we want to do what we can to help people."

Moreover, the district's transition to Common Core State Standards opens up the possibility of Beyond Textbooks becoming a nationwide initiative--the district receives a steady stream of inquiries about the initiative from schools across the country.

When Hedgepeth and Federoff met to brainstorm new ways to deliver curriculum in 2007, they never expected the result of their efforts could have an impact on teachers, students, and administrators across their state and beyond.

"I'd like to tell you that we were brilliant, that this is what we had intended all along, but we had no idea it would take off like this," laughs Federoff. "We were really trying to solve a specific challenge that we had internally, and it was serendipity that the tool we created was as portable and usable as it is."

Easing Into New Standards
Vail School District (AZ), like many districts, is in the process of shifting over to the Common Core State Standards, with expectations of full implementation, including assessment, by the 2014-2015 school year. Vail's curriculum department will be busy updating its Beyond Textbooks curriculum on the back end by "unwrapping" the new standards, creating new calendars and wiki pages, and redistributing existing teacher resources to their appropriate places within the new standards. "While the process will be traumatic for everybody, I don't think that we'll lose the body of work that our teachers have created," explains Matt Federoff, the district's CIO. "We'll be able to transform it into whatever the new reality is going forward."

Since partner schools in Vail's Beyond Textbooks initiative already rely on Vail's curriculum calendar, unwrap documents, formative assessments, and benchmarks, Vail will drive the shift to the new standards for all of them, easing their workload during the big transition. Because Beyond Textbooks had already set the level of rigor for each standard beyond the level recommended by the Arizona State Standards, the jump to the higher level of rigor required in the Common Core State Standards shouldn't be too jarring to Vail and its partner districts. Notes Howard Carlson, superintendent at the Wickenburg Unified School District, a Beyond Textbooks partner district, "Not only is Beyond Textbooks saving us the time and effort of independently aligning our curriculum to the new standards, the gap that we will need to fill between where we would have been using the Arizona state standards and where we'll need to be using the Common Core has been greatly diminished."

About the Author

Jennifer Demski is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.