This is the first installment in Curricular Counsel, a new ongoing series of conversations with district chief academic officers about their best practices and biggest challenges in resource adoption, standards alignment and more.
Pam Betten has seen a lot in her almost 30 years with the Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to her current role as chief academic officer, she's also seen the 16,000-student, high-poverty, high-English learner (EL) district from the perspective of a principal and a teacher.
On curriculum and instruction, she says she's turned her team into "curriculum snobs," seeking materials built for the standards now being used rather than retrofitting from existing resources. And it's all done with a focus on student agency, identity and equity.
Education Dive: K-12 recently spoke with Betten to learn more about how this approach fits with the district's 1:1 device program, social-emotional learning (SEL) integration and countering notions that some students "just aren't math people."
Editor's Note: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
EDUCATION DIVE: One of the interesting things about curriculum is you have a broad federal accountability expectation, but each state has its own expectations and standards, and then there are certain guidelines at the district level. And each school has its own approach, as well. When you're developing a standard guideline across an entire district, what are the challenges in balancing these pressures with the need to innovate in the classroom?
PAM BETTEN: It's a huge piece of it, because inherent in that and those accountability systems also are these big data pieces. We have a state test here, AzMERIT — and that's what, of course, makes it in the paper. That's how schools get their letter grade. So there's all this spotlight, this shine to it.
But that is not meant to be, nor is it, a metric that actually helps in day-to-day instruction, you know? It's after the fact. That is a battle right out the gate, to really work with sites and our own teams to say, "This is not about chasing that piece of big data. This is about creating the highest quality we can, minute-by-minute, day-by-day.” Because if we do that and we do that well — that small data, that minute-by-minute data, what's happening in this lesson, and did my kids understand this? That is what's going to give impact to that big data.
Me saying that and doing that are incredibly different things. It’s very challenging. The world shines a spotlight on big data to help teachers and leaders really focus on what's happening in the classroom every single day. So when we think about those balances and we add in accountability, it’s another layer of challenge.
In my role, I need to be systemic. I need to really ground the work in not the latest, greatest [products]. There's not a product out there that's going to do all and be all. It's really us as a district teaching and learning team being really clear and able to articulate the common expectations.
With the district's 1:1 device program, how important is it for success in launching something like that or adopting new resources for it that there's a breaking down of silos between the academic and IT offices?
BETTEN: We learned that early. When we went to 1:1, for a period of time, I was actually the 1:1 director — I was the teaching and learning, curriculum side of the house. Our CIO, Javier Baca, continues to be my partner in the work. We were super lucky in that his take on this was about the classroom first.
The silo between IT and curriculum and instruction is pretty small. He sits in on our curriculum and instruction director’s meetings. For a while, we had district technology integration specialists when we first rolled out. Now we don't need them anymore — the devices are part of what we do. We don't have to really spend time on that, but I do have a direct report who's the integration curriculum specialist. He has a foot in each world.
It's not all about the device. It's helping our teachers understand it as one of the resources and not the be-all, end-all of instruction.
Chief Academic Officer, Sunnyside Unified School District
We try to keep that as far away from the classroom as we can. Removing or reducing those silos was so key in our implementation, especially when we're using a lot of digital curriculum. It was super important that we met daily. We were in constant communication about what that was, because it couldn't be about the logistics of IT. [Baca] took his techs from the district office and put one at each site so they became a part of that culture. He removed the IT barriers as far as connectivity and all that ahead of time, and then we just made sure we got better at it.
We weren't great the first year, but we got better as we went along so the device is simply a resource, like a notebook or pencil. It's not all about the device. It's helping our teachers understand it as one of the resources and not the be-all, end-all of instruction. Over the years, we've worked with a lot of districts, helping them out with 1:1 implementation. I will tell you it's the siloing that kills them.
During your session at SXSW EDU this year, one of the things you mentioned was the difficulty of countering the notion that some students are “just not math people.” What are some of the challenges of getting both students and teachers beyond that idea, especially as there's a lot more pressure to get more STEM into curriculum?
BETTEN: A lot of the work that we focus on is from that lens of student identity. How do I identify academically? That's the piece where you'll hear kids and teachers say, "Well, I'm not a math kid,” or “I'm not a science kid.”
We are getting better at being intentional about what we say and don't say. What does that look like in front of kids? Every time anyone steps in front of a group of kids, you're sending a value statement. We have to be aware of how our decisions in assignments and how much we choose to scaffold the work for students send a message around what kids are able to do. Over the course of time, you end up with kids who say, “I can't do this” or “I don't know this" or “I can't write” or “I can't do math.”
The other piece is when we think about STEM, when we think about how we infuse these ideas that are trendy right now. Our high schools are academy-based. We have an iSTEM Academy where the kids can go through and they can earn certifications that are pretty high-tech, that they can walk out of high school with. We have some formal structures that we put in play around the act of engaging in STEM and in some of that kind of engineering work and some of those pieces like makerspaces. What we're learning is it's the identity piece. It's how kids see themselves as a learner in all those different courses or all those different contents.
Do I want to go into medicine? Do I want to be a lawyer? Whatever those pieces are, [it’s about] really thinking through these kinds of college and career pathways — not from just the traditional, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” What we know is we have to give kids the skills and dispositions so they can take advantage of those opportunities. That means things like, “How do I figure this out? What do I do when I'm solving x problem and I don't know how?”
Really, it's, "What am I, what is my next step, and how do I figure it out? How do I become an agent of my own learning and take that on and learn to do it?" There's a lot about soft skills and grit and all of these things.
When SEL and soft skills come up, there's often debate about trying to figure out where to fit that into curriculum, treating it like a standalone thing. But there are all these places throughout curriculum where soft skills can get incorporated into a lot of topics. Even with more hands-on experiences with technical skills within STEM or other fields, some of that can be infused into existing curriculum. So what are some of the challenges for people in your role who have to figure out where those puzzle pieces fit?
BETTEN: Kids need to understand this is a part of the way they work every day. As we build out our new graduate profile, we have this big concept of “knowledge for impact” or “critical consciousness” — What does that mean, and where are they gonna learn that? Who's going to teach that to them? Is that in social studies?
What we're in the process of doing is saying, “OK, so how do we look across and what are we really talking about with these competencies? And then where, in what teachers are already doing, do we really create a focus? Because we also can't do the opposite and just say, “Oh, they're somewhere in there if you just teach the lesson.”
There are habits of character built in. It has to be intentional, but it doesn't have to be outside of [what you're already teaching].
We're working this summer on some of our quarter four units that exist in EL curriculum. One of them is a water unit in 3rd grade, in their language arts unit. We have some historic water issues in our community that have had a profound impact on a lot of families. So how do we bring in the community and give our kids some sort of hands-on work that takes them out of just the hypotheticals of a curricular unit and make that real, that isn’t outside of their theme and what they're doing, but is connected in? I have crews of teachers, and we're doing 3rd, 4th and 5th grade first, literally taking that fourth unit of study and taking the graduate profile in whichever competency we've identified for that, and we're building that in.
That will live in our [learning management system]. When a teacher gets there, they'll see, “OK, here are the ways that I'm going to really be intentional about building out some of these SEL skills."
The other piece is how we build out protocols that really get to that. Peer feedback is a huge thing for us. Not traditional peer feedback, where it's like, “OK, I like the way you did this” or “You need to check your spelling.” We do a lot of video clips of kids giving each other feedback and [talking about] how the teacher set up the opportunity for it.
Listening to the kids that have learned to give this feedback is amazing. They're not talking about surface-level things. You'll hear a 1st grader say, “I don't think you understood when we were talking about habitat. I think it meant this.” And then this conversation engages, and these kids are having this deep conversation about the content or what it was they were focused on learning. It's happening literally between two 6-year-olds or 5-year-olds.
That's the work of SEL. They’re learning habits of character. They're learning to be a good listener. I believe for it to be meaningful, it has to be intentional by the teacher, and it has to be a part of what happens every day because that's the way we want them to be in life.
As they're going through life, when they run into this situation, it's not like, “Hmm, what did I learn in my last lesson?” This is an automatic. This is the way we operate. This becomes the DNA, the fiber of how we work together, how we settle problems, how we handle conflict, how we have these conversations.