Championing a Knowledge-Building Curriculum, One Classroom at a Time
- Expertise: Curriculum
- Position: Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning
- District: Daviess County Public Schools, Owensboro, Ky.
If you’re looking for Jana Beth Francis, the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the Daviess County district in Kentucky, you might find her in her car.
Over the past few years, Francis has led schools in a districtwide adoption of new elementary and middle school English/language arts and math curricula, designed to build students’ knowledge and engage them in more intellectually challenging work.
Now, she’s supporting principals and teachers as they learn how to teach in a new way—which means heading out to the rural-suburban district’s 20 schools on a regular basis to look at student work and observe classrooms.
Getting an entire district on board with universal curriculum is no small feat in Kentucky, where state law gives local school councils the right to make their own decisions about materials. But for Francis, how teachers are using these new resources is just as important—if not more so.
Lessons from the Leader
- Explain the why: Educators need to understand the why behind your actions. Without developing understanding of the why, it’s unlikely attitudes and aspirations will change. Both are essential in making sustainable change.
- Focus on two to four key shifts: Teaching and learning require educators to attend to vast amounts of information. Keeping your list of key shifts small increases clarity. Concise, well-focused shift scale fast.
- Learn together: Take every opportunity to learn as a team. Leaders create the conditions for educators to learn together to solve problems. Model taking vast amounts of information and turning it into usable knowledge.
“It doesn’t matter what cool program or resource I bring in. It rises and falls based on how the teacher attacks that resource,” she said. “You have to really stop and think, ‘How can I build their capacity to really understand this and use it in the best way?’ ”
Take, for example, two teachers Francis recently visited who were both using high quality materials but implementing them in vastly different ways.
In a 1st grade classroom, students were drawing detailed diagrams and synthesizing knowledge they had learned from a reading. But in a 6th grade classroom at a different school, students were copying down information the teacher was writing out, rather than doing the intellectual work on their own. The questions asked would have been challenging, but they weren’t with the teacher guiding students’ answers, Francis said.
Seeing students working showed Francis something about instruction that she couldn’t have learned from the resources alone: The 6th grade lesson was less rigorous than the 1st grade one—not because of the materials but because of the way the teacher was using them. Later, Francis would create professional development for instructional coaches designed around these work samples, highlighting the importance of increasing challenge through grade levels.
It’s not that Daviess County hadn’t prioritized instruction before, said James Lyddane, the district’s director of elementary schools. But over the past few years, Francis started a coordinated drive forward that felt new—and urgent.
In doing so, she became part of a burgeoning national movement around universal, high-quality curriculum. More districts are now looking to materials designed to build knowledge coherently through grade levels, aiming to prepare students with a strong foundation for reading comprehension. But many school systems are still figuring out how to support their teachers with PD that helps them use these new resources effectively.
Francis is now expanding this work across the county, starting to examine instruction in other grade levels and subject areas. Her goal is for all educators in the district—from principals to instructional coaches to teachers—to come to a shared understanding: What does standards-aligned, cognitively demanding teaching really look like? And when it’s not happening, why not?
Francis, 47, is a third-generation teacher. Her mother and grandmother both taught in Flatwoods, Ky., near where Francis grew up in Russell, Ky.
She considered other career paths—in high school, she was set on becoming a corporate lawyer—but the idea of teaching kept calling her back. So as an undergraduate at Wellesley in the 1990s, Francis joined the college’s new, nontraditional certification program.
The class of 10 women included history, computer science, and psychology majors. Francis was working toward a degree in pure mathematics. In class, they dove deeply into the content they were preparing to teach.
That liberal arts approach was “the biggest influence on my career as an educator,” said Francis. “I was actually in an institution that asked me to read, and think, and argue, and convince not only myself of my ideas but to prove them.”
After college, Francis taught in DeKalb County school district in Georgia. But she moved back to Kentucky soon after, starting as an instructional coach in Daviess County and eventually becoming the district’s assessment coordinator. Even then, she saw her role as instruction-oriented. “Yes, I can crunch the numbers,” Francis said. “But can I help you figure out what to do to get the numbers to change?”
Now, she says, she spends a lot of time “getting teachers to think about ideas.” Why is it important that students learn this? How does it fit into bigger district goals? “That to me is what being a thinker is about,” Francis said. “Taking an idea and being able to break it apart, learning more about it, and then saying, ‘How does this apply to us?’ ”
But when the district adopted the Common Core State Standards nearly a decade ago, there was one idea she couldn’t break apart. Francis was in charge of training teachers and principals on the shifts in ELA, but when she got to the standards’ requirement for building knowledge, she paused. She remembered thinking—standing there in front of 200 educators who were waiting for guidance—that she had no idea how that could be done. How could a school system create a coherent program of study from K-12, when schools almost always made content decisions independently?
Through workshops with the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners, Francis found curricula that were designed to build knowledge across grade levels and subjects. She learned about the body of research on the importance of background knowledge for reading comprehension. She started to think that districtwide curriculum might be the way forward.
But Kentucky’s site-based decisionmaking presented a logistical challenge. So instead of starting by suggesting resources, Francis started with a question for the district’s principals and instructional coaches: What do you want out of instruction? “Really study it, decide,” she said. “And then let that guide you for curriculum.” Francis’ job, she said, was to then put the best stuff in front of them.
Tricia Murphy, the principal at Whitesville Elementary in the district, recalled arguing with Francis about her ELA lessons before the switch. Francis wanted to know what she was building knowledge about, but Murphy was frustrated by the question, which she didn’t understand. Her lessons were about finding the main idea, she said.
But after teaching with the new curriculum, Murphy understood. Before, she said, “we were just more focused on here’s the skill from common core and here’s what we’re going to teach [to meet it].” Now, kids come out of units as subject-matter experts in specific topics, raising the quality of classroom conversation and deepening students’ understanding. Through the implementation process, Murphy said, Francis kept this end goal front and center. “When teachers were about to jump off the bandwagon, she brought us back to—what is the reason we’re doing this?” said Murphy.
As of this year, all the elementary and middle schools in the district have adopted new curricula: Eureka Math and one of two ELA curricula—Wit & Wisdom or EL Education in the elementary schools and Wit & Wisdom in the middle schools. Still, schools are at very different points in the implementation process. Some are just one year in, while others are going on four or five.
Daviess County hasn’t seen an implementation dip in student-test scores. But while the district has had pockets of success in some schools, it also hasn’t seen growth trends yet.
In part, Francis said, that reflects the scale of the change the district is undertaking. Knowledge-building curricula in ELA require teachers to learn new subject matter, too. Teaching math in a more conceptual way requires a shift in mindset. “If you don’t stick with it for four to six years, there’s no way that the learning curve of the teacher catches up to where it needs to be to really be effective,” Francis said.
If you don’t change those core beliefs … then it won’t matter what resource you put in place.
But it also demonstrates the need for a continued focus on instruction. Recently, Francis has been looking at student work.
She and her district instructional team visit teachers’ classrooms together—not to evaluate but to understand more about what students are learning. Every so often, Francis sends the school instructional coaches on a one-day mission to gather work samples, a snapshot of instruction in time that they then discuss together as a group in twice-monthly meetings.
Looking at work and talking with principals and coaches, Francis found some instructional gaps in early-reading skills, such as phonics and spelling, and in shoring up students’ foundational math knowledge before tackling higher-level concepts. So this past summer, the district organized trainings for teachers in these areas.
The school-based coaches and the several district coaches come together twice a month. The meetings, where coaches study student work and workshop teaching strategies, are Francis’ brainchild. The group also does book studies—recently, they’ve included titles on foundational reading skills and classroom management.
“We take what she feeds us with and we turn around and make it work for the work that we’re doing,” said Jeanette Barreiro, the district’s teacher-induction coach. Last spring, for example, Barreiro asked Francis if she could start a summer book club for teachers. “You flesh it out and tell me what it will look like, and we’ll see what we can do,” Barreiro remembers her saying. Francis also found grant money to underwrite the project. “I always feel like I can bring ideas to the table and that they’re going to be taken seriously,” Barreiro said.
Anytime someone at the district level has a chance to represent Daviess County—at a conference or presentation—Francis tells them to bring a teacher, too, said Angela Gunter, the districtwide literacy coach. “She has a true eye for spotting people who want to grow,” Gunter said.
And as Francis sees it, there’s still more growth that needs to happen.
It’s been harder to dig into instruction at the high school level. For one, there aren’t as many high-quality curricula available, Francis said. The district’s high school math teachers are adopting options now, but its ELA teachers are still searching.
And high school teachers, who are more often seen as content specialists than their elementary peers, can see shared curriculum as a challenge to their expertise. The different circumstances might call for a different approach, Francis said, which she and her team are still figuring out.
Regardless of the specific resources teachers are using, Francis wants them to think critically about what they’re teaching and why. The message has started to take root.
Gabrielle Yeckering, a 4th grade teacher at Tamarack Elementary School in the district, said that Francis always asks the same two questions of Yeckering’s students when she visits her class: What are you learning? And why is that important to learn?
Knowing that Francis is going to be posing those questions has made Yeckering reflect on her instruction, she said, and “cut out the fluff.”
“If you don’t change those core beliefs, what people really think about teaching and learning, then it won’t matter what resource you put in place,” Francis said. “We almost always default back to what we believe about instruction.”