Rewriting the Headlines on Literary Education

Covid surfaced inequities in remote literacy learning. Here’s how Detroit Public Schools responded with help from EL Education.

10 min read


Tawana Jordan’s 24th year of teaching was unlike any other. The fourth grade Master Teacher at Burns Elementary-Middle School in Detroit remembers when in spring of 2020 she realized COVID was serious, and schools would remain remote. Jordan and fellow educators scrambled to complete the year with their class. “Our attendance was low, and teachers were still figuring out how to teach remotely,” Jordan says.

Jordan is one of 10,000 teachers in the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) who have implemented a literacy curriculum from New York-based EL Education. EL Education partners with educators to equitably transform public schools throughout the U.S. The non-profit has worked with hundreds of schools across 35 states to reach 500,000 students in their whole school model and literacy curriculum partnerships. According to rigorous research by Mathematica Policy Research, over three years, students learning EL Education’s model see an increase of ten months in math achievement and seven months in reading achievement.

In 2018, EL Education launched an ambitious new literacy curriculum for K-8 students at DPSCD. EL Education’s character, identity and belonging-infused curriculum is paired with evidence regarding how children learn to read. The science of reading, learning, and development, including the importance of culturally relevant curriculum, deeply informed the development of EL Education’s curriculum.

Setting the Stage

The DPSCD partnership had synergy from the start. “We saw it as the opportunity we’ve been preparing for 20 years,” EL Education Chief Knowledge Officer Beth Miller said. “The purpose of EL Education is to be able to create equitable access to opportunities to learn and to learn deeply. DPSCD has a tremendous leadership team that is fully committed to the same values as we are and has a clear strategy. When you look at the opportunities for students to gain and you look at the leadership that's there to make that happen, it really felt perfect.”

Instead of textbook-driven curriculum where identity and belonging may be add-ons, EL Education’s curriculum infuses identity and belonging into the learning experience. “Any shift would have been risky,” DPSCD’s Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Beth Gonzalez says. “EL Education has prioritized the design of their materials on what is critically important to us as an organization, including alignment on the shifts required for students to have success, as well as a diversity of texts and topics.”

For Teachers, Selected by Teachers

The district performed a curriculum audit which clarified current challenges to literacy approach. Executive Director of K-12 Literacy and Early Learning at DPSCD April Imperio says the audit uncovered “an extreme misalignment” between resources the district was implementing and the expectations of the state standards.

Next, the district launched a process to choose a new literacy curriculum. “We did not select the curriculum. It was our educators,” Gonzalez says. The process was collaborative, and included insights from more than 100 teachers and district leaders. EL Education’s curriculum was adopted as part of a comprehensive district-wide literacy strategy. “We’ve walked side-by-side ever since,” Imperio says.

“As a professional learning organization , the focus of our work really has been on teachers. Our curriculum was developed by teachers for teachers,” EL Education’s Beth Miller said. “And teachers see students as human beings whose genius they're looking to unlock.”

A Quick Pivot

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the efficacy of remote learning was pressure-tested. “Our district was disproportionally impacted,” Imperio says of the pandemic. “Our students had very limited access to technology. We’ve since done a lot of work to grow their access, but at the time we had to design curriculum options that would allow us to finish the school year.” The district considered how to educate students that had no access to technology or limited technology, for example a cell phone with limited data plan.

DPSCD worked in tandem with EL Education to quickly pivot at the start of the pandemic, pairing remote instruction with values-infused literacy curriculum. EL Education produced more than 430 printable lessons and over 430 teacher-instructed videos for students in grades K through 8, totaling ten weeks of classes. The team shared lessons on the school district’s YouTube channel and connected with families online or on the phone to provide lesson support. Thousands of paper packets were printed, devices were distributed to support student technology needs, and hotspots were launched to assist families without wifi access. Classes finished for the year in spring of 2020, with teachers including Tawana Jordan training over the summer on protocols for virtual instruction and preparing for students to return to the classroom in the fall of 2020.

It was a learning curve for everyone, but we survived and we’re survivors.

Tawana Jordan

With time to prepare and adapt EL Education’s expanded Covid curriculum, Jordan, named EL Education’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, says the start of the 2020-21 school year went more smoothly. “The students were really stepping up and shining during virtual learning, but it was still a struggle to get them to participate, to build on each other’s learning,” she says. “I didn’t anticipate all the distractions students were having in the background. It was a learning curve for everyone, but we survived and we’re survivors.”

“We were very blessed to already have a contract with EL Education,” Imperio says. “It was ambitious. And as a district, we actually did it.” Even better, the district’s educational resources are open and are being shared. “People from New York and Seattle and all across the country are leveraging our resources and watching our teachers teach,” Gonzalez says. “That’s also a success and a reflection of the partnership.”

In its first year implementing EL, prior to the pandemic, the district improved in every grade level; Detroit’s pace of improvement exceeded the state in grade level, except for one, which was missed by a tenth of a point. The District hopes to use its partnership with EL to recapture this momentum as its students and teachers recover from the pandemic, and address unfinished learning from the past two school years.

“We’re a long way still from where we want to be as a district in terms of producing the kinds of student achievement outcomes that we aspire to,” Gonzalez says. “But we have made a lot of progress together and are happy to talk about that work. We feel really proud of the work that we’ve engaged in.”

A New Storyline

In 2019, before the EL Education curriculum was implemented and before “Covid” was a household term, educators were given an activity to write a newspaper headline about literacy in Detroit. “I asked them to visualize—if we do this together, if we embrace this curriculum, if we learn the best practice of literacy together, and people are empowered with the tools you need—what do you imagine the headlines will be?” Imperio says. Teachers formed groups around the room and wrote headlines, like “The Phoenix Rises.” “It was the most powerful moment,” Imperio recalls, “where they envision where our literacy rates would be.”

We have deep teacher investment and have seen significant progress. Our teachers are getting to see their own headlines come true.

April Imperio

“But we have deep teacher investment and have seen significant progress,” Imperio says. “Our teachers are getting to see their own headlines come true.”

Bezos Family Foundation is proud to support the implementation of EL Education’s four-year strategic plan, Advancing Equity in K-12 Education. EL Education partners with diverse communities to provide students with transformative educational experiences steeped in challenge, leadership, and contribution.