‘Your Why Should Be a Lighthouse’: A District Leader on Equity and High-Quality Curricula

With a growing number of states mandating the use of high-quality, standards-aligned instructional materials, many school and district leaders may find themselves wondering if the investment of time and resources will result in meaningful changes for student academic performance. Can the right curriculum paired with strong instruction make a measurable impact, even with the setbacks of the pandemic?

This question was front and center when we began our partnership with Passaic Public Schools in 2021. TNTP worked closely with this small, urban district in New Jersey, to select, adopt, and implement new curricula in ELA and math across all its K-12 public schools—including a full set of materials in Spanish for multilingual learners. TNTP’s Northeast Partner Shauna Hart sat down with PPS Director of Elementary and Secondary Education, Lisa Rowbotham, to discuss why having a clearly articulated vision for your students matters and how to engage entire school communities when launching a new curriculum.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Would you tell us a bit about Passaic and your connection to the community?

Passaic is a diverse, urban city, but it spans just over three square miles. It’s very small, but densely populated. Passaic is a very closely knit community, and our school district is really like one giant family.

I grew up in this community and graduated from our public schools in the area. I was passionate about education and knew that I wanted to work in an urban district. What better place than my hometown, where students can see themselves in me and I can see myself in them? It’s extremely impactful—both ways—to see a role model who really understands your situation, has walked in your shoes, sees you and recognizes your needs. I wanted to be that pivotal person for some of our children and be among those change-makers in their lives.

Lisa Rowbotham, Director of Elementary and Secondary Education, Passaic Public Schools.

What were some of the factors that influenced your decision to seek out high-quality instructional materials for PPS, including materials that had full Spanish-language supports?

Being a city where many of our students are a little more transient, moving from school to school, we wanted to make sure that there was equity in access for our kids. We wanted them to be able to access grade-level assignments and tasks—and we also wanted them to have similar experiences across grade levels in different schools. Our students deserve the opportunity, access, and rigorous content, especially in response to the time we had with COVID.

It was an eye-opening experience for us as a district to discover that there are very few high-quality instructional materials that come in both English and other languages and offer comparable experiences for students. We weren’t willing to compromise on the quality. With TNTP’s support, our team was able to review multiple instructional materials, vet them with a task force, and then make the best decision for our students.

What is the impact you’ve seen on students and classrooms so far?

We’ve always had students who are amazing; you give them the task and they will complete the task. It’s just that previously our tasks weren’t asking them to do enough. And now that they are experiencing rigorous, grade-level work, students are still showing us they can do it. We’re seeing student success on assignments and on acquiring the demands of the standards. There has been a real increase in their ability to articulate their thoughts and justify their positions. It is such a moment of happiness for us, of success for our students and staff.

What have been some of your biggest takeaways from your experience working with TNTP on curriculum adoption and implementation?

My biggest takeaway has been to go slow if I want to go far. I think that’s really different from what most of us experience in education. We all work with a sense of urgency because we know that children cannot wait; they are being formed today. But the best we can do for our children is really plan things out systematically.

To make sure all teachers throughout the district were receiving consistent communication, I would do a screen cast and blast out the recording to all district principals, who would play them at faculty meetings. We also expected all our teachers, principals, external providers, and district leaders to fully engage in the training, and to implement the curriculum and instructional approach with at least 80% fidelity. Everyone had to understand our vision for implementation and ensure their support for teachers was aligned.

What advice would you give another district that is considering implementing new instructional materials?

Anything worth doing is hard and takes multiple steps. But if you’re contemplating making a change, that’s likely because there is a need. Take action and respond to that need. Always, always start with your vision and goal for your students. Your ‘why’ should always be the lighthouse that guides the direction you’re going in.


In Passaic’s first year of implementing a high-quality curriculum and prioritizing access to rigorous, grade-level instruction, they have seen strong progress as teachers and students engage with the new curricula and instructional practices:

  • Overall, access to grade-appropriate assignments has increased by 36 percentage points since the baseline diagnostic in October 2021. This is due, in large part, to the district’s decision to implement new HQIM and support educators across the district with implementation.
  • Because students are receiving more consistent access to assignments that challenge them to master grade level standards, students are rising to meet the demands of the standards in their assignments. In our most recent progress monitoring visit, students were meeting the demands of the grade-level standards in 74% of the student work samples collected, compared to 30% in October 2021.

Percent of Students who Met the Standards of the Assignment

To learn more about selecting and implementing high-quality instructional materials in your school or district, contact us.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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