On October 27, 2016, Institute Director David Steiner spoke with Dr. Nikolai Vitti, Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools, about his district’s adoption of some of the country’s highest-ranked curricula and the consequences for teaching and learning. Below are excerpts from their exchange.
Steiner: Dr. Vitti, please introduce our readers to your district.
Vitti: Duval County is one of the larger districts in Florida and in the country. We serve 130,000 students in 160 traditional schools and more than 30 charter schools. Our demographics are roughly 45% African American, 35% white, a growing Hispanic population at about 10%, and then multi-racial, Asian, Native American, make the rest of our district. We are a majority-minority district, and more than 50% of our students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
Steiner: In 2015, with the support of your school board, you decided to shift from your conventional curriculum to EngageNY. Share with me your thinking around your recommendation to the board, the board’s decision, and why you wanted to make that important change.
Vitti: 2014-15 was Florida’s first year with full implementation of the new Florida Standards and their accompanying assessments. That year was our first attempt to examine whether what was happening in the classroom prepared students for the standards. It became evident that our existing curriculum was falling short. Through a process of analysis we concluded that the only way to ensure that teachers – whether in Title-I or non-Title I schools – were instructing at the expected level, we had to select curricula that were highly aligned to the standards.
Like many districts, we had always followed the traditional adoption process of inviting traditional vendors in to meet with small group of district personnel and a couple of teachers to review curricula and ultimately to pick a traditional option.
Because of our partnership with TNTP, however, we began to think more out-of-the-box. We were exposed to new and different curricula that had been developed in direct alignment with the standards and by the individuals who had helped create the standards.
We started to use EQUIP [a standards initiative from Achieve] with our teachers and principals to analyze our current (2014-15) curriculum, which was inadequate. We saw that it was inadequate just by watching the instruction and matching it to the standards. At first, our teachers and principals didn’t necessarily see what we were seeing. The EQUIP protocol allowed for the realization that there were huge gaps between our current curriculum and what the standards expected. We also used the EQUIP tool throughout the adoption process to analyze the traditional materials and also the EngageNY materials. We engaged hundreds of teachers on both the reading and math side, and it was clear, based on their own analysis, that the EngageNY material was superior. That gave us some credibility, buy-in, and support to move in a radically different way regarding the materials that we would use.
Steiner: That’s incredibly helpful. There is also a clear financial gain, I think, for districts that go in this direction. This is open source material. There are costs in terms of printing off the web, but I presume there were fiscal advantages as well.
Vitti: There were. We did discuss that with our teachers and administrators and district staff. It was certainly a significant factor when engaging the board, to see the millions of dollars that would be saved by using the open source product as compared to the traditional vendor product. We did make a decision to print the materials rather than just utilizing the online version. During the adoption process, we had the opportunity to talk to districts that were simply using the online version. One of their recommendations to help overcome the dramatic shift from the traditional curriculum was to offer the printed materials to alleviate some of the transition challenges.
Steiner: How did you go about enabling your teachers to use this new material to its maximum effect?
Vitti: Our adoption process ended in Spring 2015, so obviously we had to move quickly with implementation. We were able to negotiate a Memo of Understanding with our teachers union to promote a teacher academy in the summer. We were in partnership with TNTP, which brought in individuals versed in the new curriculum to help us with the academy. I would say that 80% of our teachers from the K-5 level participated.
Throughout the year, we placed reading coaches in all elementary schools and math coaches in about half. They provided the day-to-day support. We also had district coaches who supported schools with the implementation. We did another round of training over Summer 2016 as well. We could, I think, provide still deeper and more sustained training. It’s a matter of scale and the resources to identify the individuals who are comfortable enough to offer that training. Of course, like anything else, teachers themselves become more comfortable and start to problem-solve and own the implementation, so as to become less reliant on the training.
I do believe that the Title I schools and their teachers embraced the shift more easily than our non-Title-I schools. Our lowest-performing middle schools demanded that we use Expeditionary Learning and EurekaMath going into the 2016-17 school year. We had not adopted Expeditionary Learning or Eureka before, but the demand from teachers and principals was high.
In higher-performing schools, there had been a culture of greater autonomy and more teacher flexibility. At times, those teachers felt stifled by a curriculum that was more structured and sequenced, and because we went district-wide with the change, our principals rightfully demanded greater fidelity to the curriculum and to the pacing guide. That led to some tension with those higher-performing teachers, and sometimes more-veteran teachers, regarding that balance between having a solid pacing guide and core curricula, and having autonomy. Every year we become more comfortable with the curriculum. We see more teachers own it. They’ll make modifications but not abandon the richness of the core curriculum.
Steiner: The interesting opportunity here is that your professional development can be focused, across the district, on a set of materials that you have good reason to believe are actually being used. Presumably, you could extend this to the teacher preparation programs that feed into your schools.
Vitti: We’ve had conversations with our local universities about emphasizing the actual standards, so that teachers would come better prepared to understand what needs to be taught, how it’s taught, and the level at which it needs to be taught. This mindset seems foreign to our teachers at first, but our [district-wide] shift and the alignment with standards have made that transition easier. As you teach the curriculum with fidelity, you naturally teach the standards at a higher level and at the expected level. And we all know that the teacher’s effectiveness determines how well that translates to the student.
Steiner: Right. As Commissioner of Education in New York State, one of the things I did was put in a required assessment that was actually a core-knowledge, Common Core assessment for all new teachers. In other words, they had to show us competency in the Common Core. It strikes me that if you know you’re going to be responsible for teaching to those standards, a school of education ought to prepare you to do so. That seems still to be exceptional in the United States.
What effects have you seen on student learning?
Vitti: The students who were at the greatest disadvantage when we shifted standards were middle-school students, because they obviously hadn’t been exposed to the standards as elementary-school students – especially in mathematics. It’s exciting now to see this year’s fourth graders, who were at least lightly exposed to the new standards in primary school, excel the way they’re excelling right now. And even more, this year’s first graders who were exposed to Core Knowledge in kindergarten.
I could explain the difference by telling you about my own family. All of my four children attend our schools in Jacksonville. My youngest was in second grade last year so had been exposed to the Core Knowledge curriculum. What my second grader could talk about at the dinner table every night because of exposure to that curriculum was vastly different than each of my three older children.
I attribute that precisely and directly to the curriculum. Obviously, Core Knowledge’s emphasis on background knowledge changed my son’s level of conversation, the way in which he saw his world, how he could make connections with what was going on throughout society, and just his level of sophistication and knowledge of history and social issues. It was extraordinary to see what was happening throughout our district’s classrooms and even in my own home at the dinner table. Even his understanding of mathematics: very different. When he’s tackling problems that my older children are tackling, he can actually problem-solve even though he hasn’t been directly taught the strategies linked to answering questions formulaically. He can conceptually problem-solve with upper-level mathematics simply because of the curriculum that he was exposed to as a second grader.
Steiner: As a superintendent looking at the next three to five years, where do your big bets need to be as you listen to your parents and your teachers? You’ve made this important shift. You are moving towards more technology and hybrid learning. As someone who is ultimately responsible to the board and the parents, where do you see the next big push or the next big steps that you need to take?
Vitti: We still have to hone our secondary-level curriculum through the adoption process. There is also work to be done in building the capacity of our principals and future principals to problem-solve with teachers and create an environment of transparency. We need to use our data to better identify and talk through what autonomy looks like, how it’s granted, when it’s granted, and to whom.
I would say, big picture, moving forward the big bet will be placed on the retention of our teachers and creating a culture where teachers feel as if their voices are heard and that administrators are supporting them and providing constant, productive feedback. Teachers also want to spend more time working with their peers and building up the capacity of their peers through lead-teacher or master-teacher structures. Finally, I would like to create a stronger teacher pipeline through residency programs, where teachers can come in, work with a master teacher, and have at least six to twelve months to learn the profession and make mistakes without being the teacher of record.
Steiner: Let’s turn finally to some preliminary findings. Tell us about the outcomes you see.
Vitti: We had extraordinary improvement in mathematics in Grades 3, 4, and 5. In Grade 3 we improved six percentage points, whereas the state of Florida improved only three percentage points. In fourth-grade math we improved by three percentage points, whereas the state showed no growth at all. Lastly, we improved by two percentage points in fifth grade, where the state was stagnant. We also were able to move up in proficiency ranking among the “Big Seven:” Miami-Dade, Broward, Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Tampa, St. Pete (Pinellas County), and then Orlando (Orange County). Then us. It’s more of an apples-to-apples comparison as far as demographics and size. We did move up in rank among districts throughout Florida.
The immediate impact from a statistical point of view was seen in math. It is always a little easier to increase student achievement in math than in literacy, because there’s so much that happens in the early years that you have to build off of with reading.
We were the first district in Florida to emphasize curriculum, and it’s been exciting to have districts come visit us and walk through our classrooms. Many of them are slowly incorporating the curricula as supplemental material. Some of them will make the shift next year at the elementary level, based on our results and what they see when they visit our classrooms.
Steiner: Final words of advice to other districts?
Vitti: This has been an evolution for me. I have traditionally put more of my eggs in the leadership-development category and in the direct support of teachers through coaching. That’s still a relevant investment. But as I’ve gone through this process and evolved as a leader and a thinker, I would put my eggs more in the curriculum basket than I ever would have before.