Jan. 27, 2020
When the instructional materials available to districts are insufficient, lack quality or standards alignment, or don’t reflect the diverse perspectives students need to see, what do districts do? They often try to buy their way out of these problems, or just dig in to the resources that are easily available. But some of the bravest districts embrace the challenge and work with their teachers and other talent to find a better way forward.
One example is that of Match Charter Public Schools, a network of three schools in Boston, Massachusetts, that created the comprehensive K-12 curricula called Match Fishtank. Leaders at Match have created resources that solved several problems for their network. Specifically, they worked together to create resources that were standards-aligned, culturally relevant, and openly-licensed to be shared and remixed.
A few years ago, leaders at Match wanted to try something new with their instructional materials. Teachers joined instructional specialists and worked on developing comprehensive curricula in English Language Arts (ELA), math, science, and social studies. The team started their work in two targeted grade levels—7th and 9th grade ELA—before scaling K-12. First the team needed to understand the scope of the work and what exactly they wanted students to learn by the end of each grade level. Using their content standards to help guide them, they worked backwards to plan out the units that would allow for knowledge building to take place in a logical progression. As they looked at each unit, they also consciously chose to incorporate materials that were culturally-relevant, inclusive, and representative of the students in their schools.
Match Fishtank is directly aligned to specific grade level and content area standards like Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) thanks to the team’s backwards design. All of the curation and creation of materials were driven by the standards and were multi-disciplinary as much as possible. For example, since the CCSS emphasize nonfiction and informational texts, teachers intentionally integrated texts from other disciplines, such as science or social studies in the ELA curriculum, in order to meet multiple content area standards. The fiction texts are often paired with high-quality nonfiction texts that unpack certain elements a bit deeper with informational content. Additionally, the essential questions for the units are rooted in standards, are grade-level appropriate, and allow for the development of student mastery.
Match Charter Public Schools’ student population is representative of the diversity found in Boston, and is similar to Boston Public Schools: 95% of students are black and/or Hispanic, 59% qualify for free and reduced lunch, 23% qualify for special education, and 27% are identified as English Learners. Match Fishtank was intentionally created to be culturally relevant and reflect the students from the network of schools.
Elementary ELA Curriculum Director, Anne Lyneis, said “oftentimes the knowledge that is put in front of kids is knowledge that is typical white history or the history of the culture of power and less often all kids seeing themselves in the curriculum. We wanted to create curriculum that allows students to experience both windows and mirrors, where they see themselves in the curriculum but also learn about other cultures, experiences, and histories that are different than theirs. As we created the courses for grades K through 12, we were always thinking about making sure that multiple perspectives were represented."”
Open Educational Resources, or OER, are freely available educational materials that can be downloaded, customized, and shared. Match Fishtank’s entire curricula, across grade levels and content areas, is openly-licensed. This comprehensive series of standards-aligned instructional materials is available to any educator to access, download, and customize for their local context, and even share with others. In fact, this is already happening. Match reports that there are over 750,000 unique educators that have visited the site in the past 3 years.
Flexibility, Less Rigidity
EdReports is a nonprofit organization that reviews instructional materials in three areas—text quality, building knowledge, and usability. When EdReports reviewed Match Fishtank’s 3-5th grade ELA content, it gave the mark of “meets expectations” for the first two components, which are text quality and building knowledge. However, EdReports said that the third component—usability—did not meet expectations.
In response, Match officials wrote: “Match Fishtank’s curriculum is intentionally less prescriptive about implementation than many other published curricula. Our goal was to create a culturally-relevant and standards-aligned curriculum that provides strong texts, tasks, and questions that push students and teachers to the rigor of the Common Core Standards, while also leaving teachers autonomy to decide how to teach the curriculum in their classrooms. A unique feature of our curriculum is that we do not script daily lesson plans or provide student worksheets.”
Match Executive Director Claire Kaplan, explained that within the school’s charter system, there is ongoing professional learning that is specifically targeted to help teachers engage with the content prior to teaching the units and lessons. This way, the focus is on what kids are learning rather than how it’s being taught. As educators access the content outside of the system, the frameworks and teacher tools provide ample guidance for effective use and implementation.
The approach to developing standards-aligned, culturally-relevant, and open content is an iterative process that requires updates based on implementation in actual classrooms. The Match Fishtank team continues to refine the curriculum to make it work for students and then share their work with the greater education community through their website. Brave districts like this show there is power in taking risks to make learning relevant and engaging, and therefore in the best interest of students.
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