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Case study: “We can’t leave good instruction to chance.”

The District

Blackstone-Millville Regional School District is a small district in southern Massachusetts, serving approximately 2,000 students across five schools. 

In this district, 13% of students are students of color, and 37% of students are high-needs students who fall into at least one the following groups: students with disabilities, English language learners (ELL) and former ELL students, or students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch.

The Challenge

Jason DeFalco became superintendent of Blackstone-Millville in the 2018-19 school year. In his first review of district data, DeFalco noticed an inconsistency in student performance, particularly in English Language Arts (ELA). He noted some bright spots, but he attributed them to specific teachers who were highly focused on the standards.  “We can’t leave good instruction to chance for any kid,” he believes. “Every student needs those equal opportunities.” 

We can’t leave good instruction to chance for any kid. Every student needs those equal opportunities.
— Jason DeFalco, superintendent

Patricia Bourgery is a sixth-grade teacher at Frederick W. Hartnett Middle School in the Blackstone-Millville district. She, too, saw the lack of focus. “Year to year, there were a lot of initiatives that never went anywhere,” she reflects. “There was a lot of jumping from one latest new idea to another with no follow-through, no accountability, no thought to proper training in the initiative. Nothing was able to get off the ground.” Bourgery, like other Blackstone-Millville teachers, was eager for a stronger instructional focus.

The data and teachers’ experiences suggested the need for an in-depth look at the ELA curriculum and instruction, and then creating an evidence-based focus district-wide. Superintendent DeFalco and his team set out to do just that.

The Results

Ultimately, a working group selected three high-quality ELA programs for elementary, middle, and high school grade bands to implement during the 2020-2021 school year. These programs received the highest ratings for quality from an external review team and will be the cornerstone to ensuring students have access to rigorous instruction.

It’s going to completely shift the focus of teacher time and energy back onto the students
— Patricia Bourgery, sixth-grade teacher

Teachers and leaders are excited about work they’ve accomplished. Tonya Curt-Hoard, principal of Frederick A. Hartnett Middle School and a participant in the working group, shares her excitement about the impact these new programs will have on student academic growth, as well as their impact on her teachers. She recalls telling a new teacher about the new resources she would be able to access: “A big smile came to her face when I told her, ‘You won’t have to spend the hours planning, but on how you want to teach the content.’”

Sixth grade teacher Patricia Bourgery describes her new curriculum as “life changing” for teachers. “It’s going to completely shift the focus of teacher time and energy back onto the students; student achievement, student success, and student intervention,” she says. “The whole focus is going to be on the kids rather than on the planning part of it, which is the way it should be.”

The Approach

Conduct a curricular inventory

DeFalco hypothesized that the cause of uneven results was the lack of a consistent, high-quality curriculum. “It wasn’t because we didn’t have really smart people working really hard,” he says, “It was because they didn’t have the right materials in front of them.” To better understand the instructional landscape, Blackstone-Millville entered into a partnership with the John Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. Their teams underwent a curricular inventory that included reviews of materials, teacher surveys, and classroom observations. The final report summarized the findings across all studies as follows:

Blackstone-Millville presents an almost uniformly strong, positive school culture. 

Across all schools and in all observed classrooms, teachers and staff were friendly, a good rapport exists between students and teachers, and students manifestly get along with one another. Observers also noted that students were generally eager to participate in lessons and attempt their assigned work. This general finding holds across all grade bands. Blackstone-Millville’s team has done an exemplary job of creating a positive social and emotional environment upon which to build.

The instructional materials used in classrooms, whether published or teacher-developed, do not present a coherent knowledge build for students. 

The Knowledge Map (Grades K-5) shows that, while classroom teachers sometimes select high-quality texts, students do not experience sequenced materials that intentionally build knowledge within units, much less across a year or between grades. The Teacher Survey found that almost all teachers draw from a variety of sources to create and develop their lessons.

In both subjects, students are often underchallenged. 

The Classroom Observations show that teachers tend to break assignments into procedural steps and focus on solving assignments, rather than engaging with larger, conceptual and knowledge-based learning. Students do not have an active role in grappling with content, exploring open-ended questions, or responding to their classmates’ ideas. Productive struggle does not occur consistently enough. Observers found a particular weakness in early elementary ELA classrooms.

Bourgery recognized the report’s findings in her own experience, calling her planning a “search and find mission.” She describes having to determine what direction to go with only scattered data to rely on, and then searching for resources with another sixth-grade teacher. “Sometimes we were successful and sometimes we weren’t,” she says. It was often difficult and frustrating to identify a text to use, much less ensuring that the texts cumulatively covered the appropriate state standards.

With these findings top of mind, Blackstone-Millville set out next to select a high-quality ELA program for Kindergarten through 12th grade with the Achievement Network’s support.

Compose a working group

The first step was to appoint a Literacy Committee to lead the review process. All ELA teachers in the district were invited to apply. The district selected a group of 16 teachers and two principals to represent every school and grade-level.  There was remarkable agreement with the purpose of the Literacy Committee. “I didn’t have anything but unanimous support across the board for the curriculum selection work,” says Superintendent DeFalco. He attributes this to the clarity of the research from Johns Hopkins.

Set a vision for instruction

We really had to crystallize what we were looking for. I had never been through a process that was so thorough.
— Patricia Bourgery, sixth-grade teacher

The Literacy Committee spent their first meeting engaging in shared learning on instructional shifts and standards. The group then moved to crafting a vision for ELA instruction, which served as the guiding light for the entire process. Principal Curt-Hoard describes the vision statement as their first opportunity “to work towards the same goal.” This vision-setting was a step that members of the Literacy Committee had not experienced before when selecting a new program. It allowed them to align on the quality of instruction expected in ELA classrooms and to define what was most important to them. “We really had to crystallize what we were looking for,” Ms. Bourgery reflects, recalling the process. “I had never been through a process that was so thorough.”

The vision-setting process also included looking at previous student achievement data. This led the group to prioritize programs with strong scaffolds and additional learning opportunities so they could better meet the needs of their diverse learners. They named a solid set of criteria they could use to evaluate ELA programs.

Research curricula

The committee spent the remainder of their time together reviewing programs. “Really being able to see what the teachers need, what kids need, what we want kids to have, what’s important to us, and then going into looking at the programs worked out perfectly,” shares Ms. Bourgery. 

Anchored on their vision that the new curriculum align with standards and reflect high usability, the group learned from external reviews. They referenced the Massachusetts Department of Education’s CURATE reviews as well as Edreports reviews, and conducted their own research by digging into the highest-performing programs independently. “Looking into all the programs, there was so much to look at,” Bourgery recalls. “You didn’t want to miss anything.”

The teachers found EdReports especially helpful. They were able to leverage the Edreports reviews, focusing on areas aligned to their vision. They also looked at specific programs online and in print. Once they had narrowed down their top programs, they contacted vendors. Bourgery found this to be the most helpful part of the process, and it solidified their choices.

Consensus and communications

As their final task, the Literacy Committee found consensus on their top two programs for each grade band. For middle and high schools, where teachers worked at the same schools, alignment came relatively quickly. 

We all knew how important it was for us to ‘get this right’ and had some powerful, engaging conversations of what we needed for ourselves and students.
— Esther Cote, first-grade teacher

The elementary teachers spanned two schools; they found themselves valuing components of different programs and spent more time reaching a consensus on their program recommendations. In the end, elementary teachers voted anonymously on their top programs, leaving them with two finalists. The  elementary group completed a “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats” (SWOT) analysis that confirmed their choices. Esther Cote, a first-grade teacher at Blackstone-Millville Elementary school, shares, “We all knew how important it was for us to ‘get this right’ and had some powerful, engaging conversations of what we needed for ourselves and students.”

Cote’s best advice, she says, “would be to trust the process. Understanding the shifts in the common core and researching programs through EdReports made the whole process more meaningful to me.”

After the Literacy Committee determined first choices, they crafted communication strategies to convey to the community, which included other teachers, parents, and students. They also aligned on their key messages around their top program, noting the impact for each stakeholder group. Principal Curt-Hoard noted this programmatic decision “impacts every single elementary teacher,” and that the majority of teachers in Blackstone-Millville teach within the elementary schools. The committee knew it was important to ensure that all teachers were on board with the decision.

The Literacy Committee concluded the work confident in their program choices, and set out to “test drive” lessons in the classroom. They agreed that this approach would allow them to experience the program’s usability and further solidify their decision and messaging. Blackstone-Millville is now ready for the next phase: planning to support teachers strategically with high-quality training to implement the programs in the 2020-2021 school year. Ms. Cote shares her excitement for implementation.  “Once the teachers have become familiar with the curriculum, they will benefit from the multiple resources provided to meet their student needs on all levels. I believe teachers will benefit from more time to devote to their teaching instead of looking for resources on their own to differentiate their instruction.”

Take action
Leverage the following resources the Blackstone-Millville Literacy Committee utilized to begin your journey of selecting high-quality curriculum:

About ANet System Advising

ANet is an education non-profit dedicated to expanding educational equity for students from low-income backgrounds, communities of color, and other underserved populations.   ANet’s System Advising team helps system leaders build capacity, conditions, and coherence to support student achievement. They work with systems to create a strategic vision aligned to their instructional priorities and offer support in making comprehensive decisions on assessment, instructional materials, and professional development for leaders and teachers. To learn more, click here.

About the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy

The Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy is committed to translating research on what narrows America’s persistent achievement gaps to those on the front lines of policy and practice. Specifically, we connect research to the policies and practices that will ensure all children have access to:

  • Deep and intellectually challenging curricula

  • Highly-effective educators

  • Schools models that meet students’ diverse needs

For more information about the Institute’s work, contact Ashley Berner at

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