The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced last week that ten grants of $1 million each will be awarded to professional development companies who partner with comprehensive curriculum developers to make an impactful difference in student learning.  They cited a recent study showing that high quality curriculum that teachers have been trained to use has a greater positive effect on student learning than was acknowledged. 

That statement seems so simple and logical, but high quality curriculum and training to implement it doesn’t always happen in a timely fashion. Training is offered when a new curriculum is adopted.  In recent years, adoptions have been delayed as publishing companies worked to create comprehensive curriculum that matched the new state standards. 

People hired after initial trainings often have to figure it out themselves. Campuses tend to have friendly staffs that assist each other when asked. For those who pride themselves on being knowledgeable and self-sufficient, asking isn’t easy especially when they see how busy colleagues are. 

Collaborative teams that meet regularly, like Wednesday afternoon teacher cohorts, can be a place to share successes and troubleshoot issues. Groups that have developed rapport have greater problem solving prowess like addressing outdated curriculum and students reading below grade level. 

Some schools are choosing to drop textbook adoptions for Open Educational Resources (OER). Promoters of these free resources claim they can replace outdated textbooks and be updated in real time. Skeptics warn that they take teacher time to locate quality lessons and while free, they cost money to print.  

 Many open resources lack the comprehensive quality of commercial textbooks and thus aren’t as effective. Someone has to create and post lessons and units which take time and money as does promoting and training others to use them. Quality is important and teacher training makes them more effective thus the Gates Foundation grants are looking to fill this gap by awarding millions to those poised to deliver training. 

 Regardless of whether curriculum is from a textbook or open source, students have to be able to read it. Accelerated Reader recommends that students choose books in their ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development) or the sweet spot. These “just right” books offer the right amount of challenge and success to keep students reading. 

STAR Reading is the program that screens students using 34 questions on a computer adaptive test to determine placement.  By starting with vocabulary and moving to comprehension this online diagnostic test helps determine the range of reading levels for individual students or their ZPD.   

Knowing the reading level of individual students helps teachers determine what material can be easily comprehended by most of their class. This is common practice for most elementary teachers and middle school English Language Arts teachers. When the average middle school class’s reading level is fourth grade and the text is written at a seventh grade level, teachers have to work harder to scaffold the material to bridge the difference.

Students who read several years below grade level struggle to keep up.  Teachers use videos and collaborative peer groups to help struggling readers succeed.  Some schools use independent computerized systems to deliver texts so that student needs are more easily met.  

This can be motivational in terms of successful content delivery, but most students crave peer interaction. Offering engagement strategies such as structured academic conversations helps to motivate students to persevere through challenging material.

Lexile/reading levels are often determined by sentence length. Some companies don’t adjust the vocabulary they just put in more periods to shorten the sentence length which does little to improve comprehension.  

The complexity of educational issues such as textbook adoptions, teacher training and student reading levels are big issues requiring lots of teacher cohort problem solving prowess to overcome. Learning happens because quality caring educators persevere daily against the odds to make it so.


Kristi McCracken, author of two children’s books and a long time teacher in the South Valley, can be reached at

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