A District 65 school board committee gave its initial approval Wednesday for the $1.1 million purchase of a new literacy curriculum and instruction materials.

The full board is expected to green light the change later this month. Their approval is the result of a process, begun in November, to find a new and improved curriculum for English and language arts from kindergarten through fifth grade.

Currently, District 65 uses the Lucy Calkins’ Reading and Writing Units of Study for all elementary school language arts classes. That curriculum has faced waves of criticism in recent years. A 2020 report from Student Achievement Partners, a New York based nonprofit advocating for equitable education systems, concluded that Calkins’ method “would be unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.”

The study argued that Calkins’ curriculum works well for experienced readers and poorly for students who are still learning how to read. For example, its study units frequently emphasize visual cues to deduce what is happening in a passage – a technique that research has shown reinforces common bad habits of struggling readers.

Calkins also did not include phonics in the curriculum until 2018. Most educational experts consider phonics a well-established, evidence-based method in which students learn about decoding words through sounds.

Acknowledging how recent research has shifted public opinion toward District 65’s existing literacy curriculum, Director of Literacy Shyla Kinhal said a change is necessary.

“Given this information, it is imperative that the district engage in a curriculum selection process to select a high quality and equitable English Literacy and Language Arts curriculum in grades K-5 and plan for high quality professional learning to support teachers in making shifts that support equitable literacy instruction,” Kinhal wrote in a memo to the school board.

Two Evanston first graders at a book fair event last month. They will be using a new literacy curriculum starting this fall. Credit: Heidi Randhava

Since November, Kinhal and a subcommittee of elementary school reading teachers have tested potential alternatives to the Calkins’ curriculum.

On Wednesday, she recommended the District 65 board purchase $1.1 million of new materials based on the Heggerty, Fundations and Geodes curricula for kindergarten through second grade and the Wit & Wisdom curriculum for all elementary grades.

The proposed curricula focus heavily on phonemic awareness, phonics and decoding, Kinhal said. Several studies have suggested this approach significantly improves letter and word recognition, particularly among younger students in kindergarten, first and second grade.

While the new materials cost more upfront, annual recurring charges should be less than the current curriculum, said Stacy Beardsley, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. Deploying more effective, evidence-based literacy instruction could save the district money on services such as interventions for students reading below grade level, she said.

The $1.1 million investment covers both physical and digital instructional materials for all four different instruction methods the districts plan to use.

Federal pandemic relief funds and the district’s general fund for the current school year will pay for the new materials, District 65 records show, though it’s not clear how much money will come from each source.

“The short answer is, it is more expensive upfront, but we are getting a comprehensive solution that will have a full set of resources for our educators to draw on,” Beardsley said, noting that the Calkins’ system has required frequent buying of supplementary reading materials not included in the standard curriculum. “That should, in time, lessen some of the weight around intervention and additional supports.”

Earlier this year, the district purchased and began using new literacy materials for TWI, the two-way immersion program for native Spanish speakers and a number of English speakers. That program will not be impacted by the pending change.

Kinhal and her team said implementing a new curriculum district-wide will present a major challenge and will take time for teachers to adjust.

To ease the burden, district officials plan to host a three-day summer workshop during which teachers will learn all the basics about the new instructional materials and lesson plans. Next year, early student release days for teacher professional development will also center around the shifts in literacy education.

“I really appreciated you acknowledging that you all have been on this journey, and that your colleagues will be going through this in a more compressed amount of time. I think that’s really important when thinking about implementation,” board member Joey Hailpern said, wishing luck to Kinhal and her team. “That’s going to be a big lift. Change is hard.”

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Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. I tutor some 5th grade students who are already using the Great Minds curriculum. The criticism leveled at the Caulkins program can just as easily be used against the Great Minds curriculum. The central literature sources for the children are probably just fine for above average and sophisticated readers. But for those who struggle with comprehension it is far over their heads. Every week I come across a task or question that students should respond to that are far beyond their capacities. Some would challenge me. One brief example I came across the first week I was working with these students – the students are asked to define the word, whether. That’s quite difficult, particularly for a struggling student. The material on word play is based on a number of external references that few children would be familiar with. There are countless examples where this program is a poor fit for below average readers. I think it’s a serious mistake to adopt this program.

  2. I believe that the failure of our schools to educate – reading and math – is not the fault of our teachers or the selected curriculum.

    Like a horse and water… You can show a student the path to knowledge, but you cannot force them to learn.

    Why pay for a new curriculum when the problem is the student’s parents, the student’s family?

    We can spend $1.1 million on a new curriculum and a year from now we will have the same learning deficiencies.

    Sadly – but truthfully – I’m not clever enough to know the solution to why our schools are failing but I am clever enough to know why.

  3. I applaud research-based curriculum. Some children learn to read no matter how they are taught. However, phonics can be very helpful for children just learning to read or who are not “natural” readers. I see this as good news for my grandson, who will enter kindergarten soon. He sounds out words in preschool and enjoys following along during our story time.

  4. I applaud the district for taking steps to revamp the literacy curriculum based on current, and best research into student literacy. Even Calkins has questioned the blanket adoption of her work.

    Two recent articles to support the shift:


    I know nothing about the particular curricula the district is securing, but I’m happy to see them proactively respond to research in order to improve learning outcomes for Evanston’s kids!

  5. I taught remedial reading to first and second grade students, and used many of these techniques successfully. Reading thru these curriculum sites *almost* makes me want to get back into teaching!! There’s a ton of really effective stuff here, but the students we worked with who were most successful were those whose families supported them at home. Home practice with family involvement in the early grades is equally important as what is happening in the classroom. I hope D65 finds a way to reach out to parents and emphasize the critical importance of parent/family involvement in student learning. Continuing outreach to families would make a huge difference for struggling students; we saw this over and over again in our little program. The burden cannot be wholly on schools. In addition, one thing Lucy Calkins emphasized was the integral connection between reading and writing, and while I assume that is also the case with these programs, it does not appear to be the priority it was in Calkins programs. One of the skills I believe is sorely lacking in society overall is the ability to communicate effectively. (That we fail to teach rhetoric in our upper grades is a great loss—to all of us.) Teaching excellence in communication starts with foundational reading—and writing. I’d like to know more about how the District plans to address that.

  6. Personally, I find it hard to believe that anything District 65 is doing is a genuine improvement versus finding a pathway to hire more consultants and vendors. Are the critics of Lucy Calkins’ really just vendors who are selling some less successful program in the name of “equity” – the education business right now is just flush with snake oil salesman telling every district that if they buy their stuff, then they’ll accomplish “equity” but in reality, much of the programming is worse than what we had before. I find it hard to trust anyone involved in this process actually cares about the kids.

    Glad my son is learning to read in D65 while we’re still using the curriculum that has worked very well for him.