How to make teachers believe in a new curriculum? Ask them to help you.

A seasoned teacher in any school district will probably be able to tell the same story: A hot new initiative is coming quickly, perhaps promoted by the newly hired superintendent. Big promises are made and teachers get a few days of training (if they’re lucky).

Then it slowly fades away as teachers ignore assignments they consider unnecessary or impractical.

A new study takes a close look at this phenomenon and its flip side – when teachers are brought into programs designed to help their schools. The results, based on interviews with dozens of teachers at three secondary schools, are not so surprising: teachers are more enthusiastic if their school controls how a new curriculum is designed and introduced.

Lead teachers “were able to build buy-in from their school’s teachers by customizing the design to meet the needs of their students and teachers,” write researchers Christopher Redding and Samantha Viano in the peer-reviewed study.

This involvement, however, brings trade-offs. Teachers who shape adoption of a new curriculum often adjust a new idea to fit the way they’ve worked before, Redding and Viano found. It could mean that promising ideas were watered down when they reached schools – or that teachers are wisely avoiding dramatic overhauls that would have done more harm than good.

Either way, the results are important for districts pushing dramatic reform efforts and wondering how to make sure they stick.

The findings came from discussions with teachers over two school years about changes in high schools in an unnamed large-city school district. The schools were all trying to raise students’ academic expectations and level of responsibility. To do this, schools were asked to allow teams of teachers to develop ideas on how to help students improve their work habits, understand the idea of ​​”the growth mindset and keep track of their class grades over time.

A few elements seemed crucial to convince the teachers. One was that their schools weren’t in the habit of introducing and then removing programs.

Teachers at two of the three schools seemed excited about the new efforts, in part because their schools had recently implemented a literacy initiative the teachers believed in. But in the third school, the teachers were more suspicious.

“We saw a whole bunch of programs and it was there for about three months and it went away and then something else happened,” a teacher from the third school told researchers.

Teachers also appreciated that plans were developed by teachers within their schools.

“We had teachers to put these lessons together; it didn’t come from somewhere outside the school; it’s not from the district, it’s from us,” one teacher said. Even in a school where a small number of teachers did most of the work to develop their curriculum, their less involved colleagues still felt overwhelmingly supportive. (At each school, however, teachers said a handful of skeptical peers had largely not implemented the changes.)

A third winning pitch was to frame the initiative as consistent with what teachers were already doing in their classrooms.

“That’s kind of our main talk is that it’s probably something 95% of you are already doing, we’re just going to ask you to switch languages,” a teaching manager said.

“I don’t see this as an innovation,” said another. “I see that as common sense.”

This may have made teachers more receptive to change, but it may also have downplayed the underlying purpose by suggesting that teachers need not do much differently. In this sense, “teacher involvement risks undermining school improvement efforts,” wrote Redding and Viano. “It is conceivable that teacher leaders fail to identify more systematic changes, preferring incremental changes that will be more welcomed by administration and their colleagues.”

A separate upcoming study co-authored by one of the same researchers found evidence that the program helped students, slightly reducing absences and increasing grades. This suggests that the exercise was not wasted.

Why did this seem to help? One of the teachers interviewed for the initial study offered a theory: consistency. By presenting the initiative as simply encouraging teachers to do things they were already doing, the school succeeded in getting teachers to engage in practices they sometimes skipped, such as helping students monitor their grades. .

“We should probably do [it] anyway,” the professor said. “I can easily find reasons why it hasn’t been… but when I know everyone else is doing it, you know, it kinda forces me to make sure I do it.”