Moving ‘Forward’

Montgomery County Public School’s Erick Lang aligns curriculum forces and pushes ahead

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero 

Montgomery County Public SchoolsGetting an inside perspective on a major U.S. school system’s collaboration with the world’s largest learning company is interesting to say the least. As Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) and Pearson collaborated, it became clear that Pearson would be working with the experiences and expertise of the district curriculum, but also needed to make revisions to meet the needs of a national audience. To ensure that the philosophy and content of the MCPS curriculum would transfer successfully into other districts, the curriculum being marketed as ‘Forward’ has some differences from the one being implemented in Montgomery County.

For example, the MCPS curriculum includes nine subjects, incorporating Health, Informational Literacy, Music and Art, while Forward focuses on the five core subjects of Reading, Writing, Math, Science, and Social Studies. In some cases, the MCPS curriculum is written in alignment with Maryland state science and social studies standards, calling for the national product to be revised to meet the needs of states nationwide. In addition, the national program includes some features and assets that are not part of the MCPS implementation. These changes were based on Pearson’s research-based knowledge of the needs and expectations of districts nationwide. However, the program indeed reflects what one could certainly call a partnership between Pearson and MCPS. As part of the collaboration, the national curriculum was reviewed by staff in MCPS to ensure that the national program aligns with the essence and philosophy of MCPS’s vision.

In this in-depth interview, Dr. Erick Lang, Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instructional Programs, Montgomery County Public Schools, offers his thoughts and insights into what it takes to integrate curriculum into a school system, why the right partnership is essential, the role of technology, advice to others in similar shoes, and some interesting thoughts on the future of education.

Victor: First off, thank you for granting this extensive interview. I hope others might benefit in knowing some of these details. Alright, let’s provide our readers some background. What’s unique about Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS)?

Erick: MCPS is the 17th-largest school district in the United States located in the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C. Our 149,000 student population is 21 percent African American, 14 percent Asian, 26 percent Hispanic/Latino, 4 percent two or more races, and 33 percent White. Although we are often thought of as an affluent district, we have 47,000 students who receive free or reduced-price meals. This is approximately the same number of students enrolled in the Washington D.C. public schools. MCPS also enrolls 19,000 English language learners and 17,000 students receive special education services. Our school district is proud of our diversity and has made significant gains in student achievement during the last 10 years. MCPS students took 32,974 Advanced Placement exams in 2012, an increase of 1,240 exams from 2011 and the most exams taken during any year in MCPS history. Across the district, 75 percent of those exams received a college-ready score of 3 or higher, an increase of more than 3 percentage points from 2011. In addition, MCPS graduates scored an average combined score of 1,651 on the SAT. Seventy-one (71) percent of the MCPS Class of 2012 took the SAT and the average score increased by 14 points.  

Victor: Great. Next: What specifically is your role at MCPS? 

Erick: As the associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs, I lead a team that is responsible for developing curriculum, assessments, and instructional materials and provide professional development for our principals, teachers, and support professionals. We also administer the Title 1, English for Speakers of Other Languages, Career and Technology Education, Gifted and Talented, Magnet, Consortia Choice, and Early Childhood programs.

Victor: Why was the decision made to partner with Pearson to develop this unique integrated curriculum aligned to the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS)?

Erick: Staff from Pearson heard about our work and asked to preview it. Following some joint discussions, we determined it would be mutually beneficial to collaborate on the development of this unique curriculum. The partnership, and the resulting resources, provided MCPS with the opportunity to expand our staff, resulting in a more robust curriculum, including more assessments and online professional development. For Pearson, there was an opportunity to take the common core-based curriculum we are implementing in our district and offer it to other districts.

Victor: Why did you name the curriculum Forward?

FORWARD_KiteErick: Initially, MCPS had named our curriculum NorthStar to express the idea of high standards for student success. During implementation, we revised the name of the program to Curriculum 2.0 to emphasize not only the way the elementary curriculum was transforming, but also to tap into the digital change the program represented.

When Pearson worked with us to devise a name for the national product, we looked for a name that conveyed the innovative, targeted idea for changing the way that teachers teach and plan, and changing the way that students learn and think. We wanted to find a name to express the “NorthStar” idea of keeping a goal, like the Thinking and Academic Success Skills (TASS) in mind. Pearson chose Forward to capture that notion that the curriculum system will allow districts, teachers, and students to meet the high expectations of the 21st century.

Victor: What role does technology play in this new curriculum? How does technology enhance learning here? How is technology used at MCPS?

Erick: Technology plays a significant role in the implementation of our integrated curriculum. Staff members access an online platform where the curriculum is housed. The “lessons” are available by marking period, week, and day. Online resources, including multi-media professional development opportunities also are found in the online environment and allow teachers to plan anywhere, anytime without the burden of multiple curriculum binders. Our technology environment also provides teachers with the opportunity share and rate lessons and resources offering our staff immediate access to best practices.

Victor: What is the value of an integrated curriculum? How is it different from the type of curriculum used in most schools today?

forward diagramErick: The integrated curriculum allows us to focus on the whole child and nurtures the skills that build confidence and success. It engages students beyond reading and mathematics to spark greater interest in science, social studies, information literacy, art, music, physical education, and health. This type of curriculum integrates thinking, reasoning, and creativity for a lifetime of learning. We know students who are good, well-rounded learners are also good at reading, writing, and mathematics.

By connecting content areas, threading the TASS throughout the curriculum, and providing online resources including professional development, the integrated curriculum enhances learning.

Additionally, as more digital natives join the teaching ranks, it is incumbent upon us to provide instructional resources in the environment in which these teachers live and work.

Victor: How does this curriculum prepare students to meet the learning goals of the CCSS? How does the technology used support that?

Erick: The integrated curriculum was developed for, and fully aligned with, the CCSS. Additionally the TASS that are threaded throughout the curriculum support the development of 21st century skills such as critical and creative thinking, problem solving, collaboration, motivation, and persistence and are consistent with the characteristics of literate individual and the competencies included in the Standards for Mathematical Practices.

Victor: Tell me about the process used to develop Forward. How did MCPS and Pearson work together?

Erick: When the collaboration began, MCPS had started work on the integrated curriculum. Our expertise was in curriculum writing and we needed support in the areas of professional development––in particular, assessment. Pearson identified members of their team in the areas of curriculum, professional development, and assessment to work with our staff. In addition, Pearson brought in nationally known and respected independent experts to guide our work and provide input and feedback. Our teams worked together to discuss the research and our implementation experiences which resulted in agreement on our philosophical approach and a development plan. We established weekly development meetings and the executive sponsors and project leads from both organizations met on a monthly basis to celebrate successes, monitor the work, and to resolve challenges and issues.

Victor: How long have MCPS elementary students been learning with this new curriculum? What kinds of changes in achievement have you seen over time?

Erick: MCPS began piloting the integrated curriculum in some kindergarten classrooms during 2009–2010, with all kindergarten classes using the integrated curriculum in 2010–2011. During the pilot phase, evaluation has been focused on implementation of the integrated curriculum. We’re now implementing K–3 and expanding to Grades 4 and 5 next year. Although we are in the early stages of implementation, we are hearing positive feedback from our staff on the quality of the curriculum and on increased student engagement. The strength of the academic content, inclusion of the critical and creative TASS discourse, and collaboration have been cited by many of the district’s practitioners as benefits for students.

Victor: How did your teachers respond to teaching with the new curriculum? What kind of professional development was necessary? Did you use technology to deliver that professional development?

Erick: As with any systemic reform, there were early adopters and those who struggled to give up their curriculum binders. Once teachers began to see their students engage with the rich and challenging content across multiple subject areas, the motivation to unpack the online curriculum increased. We learned that teachers and administrators continue to enjoy face-to-face training, prefer to learn together in teams, and are adjusting to online learning. A range of professional development opportunities are available to MCPS teachers including training core teams from local schools, grade-level job-embedded professional development at the schoolhouse, and web-based professional development. Technology is used to enhance and deliver professional development in a variety of settings.

Victor: Are you exploring a similar approach to learning at the secondary level?

Erick: MCPS is moving all curricula into a web 2.0 environment that includes instructional resources, multi-media professional development, and online professional networking for teachers.

Victor: Why do you think students in other school districts around the country would benefit from learning with Forward? 

Erick: Reading and mathematics are essential to a child’s success, but they do better in these subjects when they are well-rounded students. A curriculum written for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that connects multiple content areas, and integrates TASS, enhances teaching and learning. The integrated curriculum renews focus on the whole child and nurtures skills that build confidence and success. Forward adheres to the CCSS approach to text complexity, and helps teachers strongly focus on the CCSS for mathematics, deepening students’ conceptual understanding and procedural skills. It also engages students beyond reading and mathematics to spark greater interest in science and social studies. By encouraging the applications of reading comprehension strategies across science and social studies topics, students are encouraged to progress from learning to read to reading to learn.

Victor: What advice do you have for others in the “before” picture shoes about going forward with such an initiative?

Erick: Agree upon the vision and philosophy of the initiative—everyone needs to be on the same page moving forward including system leaders, business leaders, etc.

Identify a core team that has the expertise to carry out the vision. Include people who can think out-of-the-box, have different points of view, and can respectfully challenge each other.

Develop a thorough, multi-year plan and make sure you have the multi-year budget to fully carry out the plan with fidelity.

Include multiple stakeholders in the planning process again with multiple perspectives and out-of-the box thinking.

As the initiative rolls out, establish processes to gather input and feedback and be willing to change course as needed to respond to unanticipated challenges and barriers.

Provide time and professional development to those who are learning something new.

Include multi-media communication as part of your plan. Identifying key messages that explain the why, agree upon the messages, and share them out in a variety of ways.

Victor: Excellent, thank you. Alright, now on to a few broad questions: What are your thoughts on the state of education today?

Erick: Public education remains the key to the American dream. As our economy becomes more global and the 21st century workplace continues to rely on critical and creative thinking skills, innovation, and technology, it is critical that our students be able to compete in the world market. Fostering classrooms where students are routinely asked to collaboratively solve relevant problems using skills and knowledge from multiple content areas will equip our students for success in their future. We need more problem solvers than effective test takers.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Erick: Our students have been raised in a digital environment. They are constantly interacting with a screen—cell phone, computer, handheld game, streamed media—and are connecting by social media 24/7. As educators, we need to capitalize on students’ need to be engaged. With information at their fingertips, the “sit and get” method is no longer an effective pedagogical strategy for most 21st century students. We must challenge students to engage in their learning in new and innovative ways.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of an integrated curriculum, such as Forward? What makes you say that?

Erick: The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was successful in getting school districts across the country to focus on accountability for all students and all student groups. However, it had the unintended consequence of narrowing the focus to only mathematics and reading, virtually eliminating instruction in science, social studies, and the arts. The integrated curriculum renews focus on the whole child and nurtures skills that build confidence and success. It engages students beyond reading and mathematics to spark greater interest in science, social studies, information literacy, art, music, physical education, and health. This type of curriculum integrates thinking, reasoning, and creativity for a lifetime of learning.

By connecting content areas, threading the TASS throughout the curriculum, offerering a new approach to Mathematics and Reading to align with the goals of Common Core, and providing online resources including professional development, the integrated curriculum ensures students have not only the academic knowledge they need, but also the important skills required for success in the 21st century.

Victor: Thank you for your energy and insights, Erick!

Erick: Thank you, Victor!

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