March 2024 Parent Research Update on K-8 Literacy and K-8 Math at SFUSD

SF Parent Coalition sent this research and advocacy memo on the state of early literacy and math changes at SFUSD to the Board of Education, Superintendent, and Department of Curriculum and Instruction in March 2024. The memo was researched and drafted by Jennie Herriot-Hatfield, an SFUSD parent, K-12 education consultant, SF Parent Coalition Board member, and former teacher. Through our SF Kids Can’t Wait campaign, parents are holding SFUSD accountable to following through on its promises of implementing a successful curriculum overhaul in both K-8 literacy and K-8 math.

Section I.  Executive Summary

SFUSD’s math and reading scores remain unacceptably low, especially for historically underserved student groups. Historically, SFUSD has a decentralized approach to instruction, letting individual schools determine how to teach students math and reading, and how to support students who are not meeting grade-level expectations. This results in high-quality experiences for some, but not all.

SFUSD is currently selecting a new curriculum for reading and math. We applaud district leadership for their commitment to adopting high-quality curriculum that will improve outcomes and address equity gaps. However, we are concerned that SFUSD may not have the resources necessary to effectively implement the new curriculum, nor have they yet communicated a clear, comprehensive plan that aligns with best practices for curriculum implementation. Additionally, the district does not have a full plan in place to support each and every student who is currently struggling: we’re still hearing that there is little guidance for schools on how to support students who fall behind, despite the example of hundreds of districts around the country who are taking a all-hands-on-deck approach to addressing the catastrophic learning gaps that expanded during COVID.

SFUSD can learn from best practices, both with respect to curriculum implementation and intervention (supports for struggling students). When pursuing instructional reforms, leaders need to create clear, comprehensive plans; provide sufficient support to teachers and leaders; gather data, monitor progress, and adjust plans; and engage and communicate clearly and transparently with stakeholders.

We hope to see a clear plan from SFUSD that includes the key elements in place to effectively implement a new curriculum by August and to support students who are currently struggling. As a parent group focused on these issues through our SF Kids Can’t Wait campaign, we would like to have more certainty that SFUSD will:

  1. allocate sufficient resources for teacher training and support;
  2. provide clear, transparent communication and implement an effective change management approach;
  3. develop a consistent district-wide, research-based plan for supporting students who are struggling academically


Section II.

Current State of Early Literacy and Early Math at SFUSD


Roughly 50% of SFUSD students in grades K-3 are meeting grade-level expectations, according to most recent assessment data. For student subgroups or focal populations, only 32% of African American and Pacific Islander kindergarteners and 20% of third graders classified as English Learners (ELs) are meeting grade-level expectations in reading. SFUSD recently set goals related to increasing reading proficiency: The district aims to increase overall K-3 proficiency to 70% by fall 2027, and to increase proficiency for focal students (African American, Pacific Islander, and English Learner students). However, SFUSD is already “off-track” from making progress towards these goals, just one year after setting them.

These unacceptably low proficiency rates are not surprising, given that SFUSD has pursued a strategy of “letting a thousand flowers bloom,” which includes many schools using curricula that encourages discredited instructional practices (e.g., Lucy Calkins/TCRWP Units of Study, Fountas & Pinnell). SFUSD is currently in the process of selecting and implementing a better PK-5 literacy curriculum, and is planning to make a major shift from school-level (and even classroom-level) autonomy to providing a common literacy curriculum and instruction experience for all SFUSD elementary students. See timeline below for more details.

Timeline of Literacy Curriculum Implementation

Spring 2023Piloted Benchmark Advance (PK-2)Began providing professional development (PD) to teachers, coaches, and school leaders related to evidence-based literacy instructional practices (e.g., monthly school-based trainings for teachers, monthly district-led trainings for principles and coaches)
Fall 2023Piloted Benchmark Advance (3-5), Into Reading (PK-5), and EL Education (K-8)Implemented new STAR literacy assessment
January / February 2024Evaluate pilot data (teacher practice, student outcomes, student feedback, teacher feedback, family feedback)
March 2024Recommend curriculum for adoption to the Board of Education
April / May 2024Begin training school-based staff in the adopted curriculumPurchase materials and begin delivery to school sites
Summer 2024Hold PD on adopted curriculum and accompanying instructional shifts
Fall 2024Begin full district implementation PK-5 with ongoing coaching and PD cycles

We appreciate SFUSD’s efforts to adopt a new curriculum, despite our concerns about their readiness for a fall rollout. (Read more about our concerns in Section IV). Additionally, this literacy work focuses mostly on “Tier 1” instruction, which is defined as the initial instruction all students receive together in the classroom. From there, “Tier 2” and “Tier 3” instruction are interventions provided to students who are not meeting grade-level expectations. These interventions are critical to getting kids back up to grade-level milestones, however, at SFUSD these practices are also inconsistent and sometimes still use discredited instructional practices (e.g., Leveled Literacy Intervention). This is a continued area of concern of ours, that there is no systematic, coherent district-wide plan for ensuring that every student who needs it is assigned and receives appropriate interventions and support.


According to last year’s state test results, 46% of SFUSD students are meeting grade-level expectations in math, and broken down by student group, only 15% of African American third graders and 12% of Latinx seventh graders are meeting grade-level expectations in math. SFUSD recently set goals for eighth grade math proficiency: the district aims to have 65% of eighth graders meeting grade-level expectations by fall 2027, up from 42% in fall 2022, as well as increase proficiency for focal students (African American third graders and Latinx seventh graders). Unfortunately, SFUSD is already “significantly off track” to meet these goals, as of January 2024.

Like literacy, these results are unfortunately not surprising. SFUSD has encouraged schools to use a district-created curriculum – a curriculum that was heavily criticized by a group of math curriculum experts that audited the materials in fall 2023. Thanks to advocacy from SF Parents and others, the district has accelerated its timeline for adopting new high-quality K-8 math curriculum. See timeline below for more details.

Timeline of Math Curriculum Implementation

Winter / Spring 2024District math leadership team will develop a rubric for evaluating K-8 math curriculum and select 3-4 programs to reviewA larger review team of site-based educators will select two programs to pilot
Summer / Fall 2024Training for teachers participating in curriculum pilotsPilot two K-8 math curricula
Winter 2025Evaluate pilot data (teacher practice, student outcomes, student feedback, teacher feedback, family feedback)
Spring 2025Recommend curriculum for adoption to the Board of Education  
Fall 2025Begin to implement new curriculum (full roll-out details forthcoming)

Historically, intervention approaches have varied across schools. In the fall, the district began implementing a TK-8 online math program, Dreambox Math, for both Tier 1 and 2 instruction. So far, usage is fairly low: roughly one-third of TK-8 students are using the program. In Spring 2024, the district will begin rolling out IXL in Title I (low-income) schools, which includes digital curriculum, assessment, data analysis, and – for a subset of struggling students – online tutoring.  

Section III.

Best Practices & Pitfalls:

What can we learn from other districts?

Curriculum Implementation

Over the past decade, many districts across the country have implemented new curriculum as one strategy for improving student outcomes and closing equity gaps. District leaders and organizations that support them have identified many best practices for implementing new curriculum, including the following:

  1. Create a comprehensive, intentional plan for implementation – with teacher input. This includes identifying the team members responsible for implementation; spending time with the materials to understand them; developing clear expectations and guidelines to schools and teachers for use; creating a plan for training every teacher and offering ongoing support; setting time to step back and make adjustments as needed. Teacher input is key here, so that the plans reflect the reality of teachers’ experience on the ground.
  2. Ensure teachers and leaders receive sufficient training prior to implementation and ongoing support. Both teachers and principals need training prior to launch that helps them understand the materials, so they can be successful with them. Best practices suggest that pre-implementation training for teachers requires roughly one week; school leaders need less time. Teachers also need ongoing support with planning, reviewing student work, reflecting on instructional choices via collaborative planning time and coaching.
  3. Gather data, monitor progress, and adjust plans. District leaders need to gather data on teachers’ instructional practices and student learning, analyze that data, and adjust their plans for implementation (e.g., teacher supports, policies), based on the data.
  4. Ensure clear communication with stakeholders throughout the process. Leaders need to communicate their decisions – and the rationale for those decisions – clearly to school leaders, teachers, and families/caregivers. They also need to communicate progress over time and share adjustments they are making in the spirit of continuous improvement.

Curriculum implementation experts have also identified common pitfalls, such as:

  1. Teachers are left out of the adoption process, and the curriculum feels forced on them.
  1. Leaders don’t understand the curriculum, so they give feedback that is not aligned with the curriculum’s design, creating confusion.
  1. Teachers are told to implement the curriculum with strict “fidelity,” such that they cannot meet their students’ needs, students struggle, and the curriculum is rejected.
  1. Without sufficient training or guidance, teachers’ well-intentioned adaptations dilute the effectiveness of the curriculum and students struggle.
  1. Curriculum implementation is treated as an exercise in compliance – and yet another initiative that will quickly fade.

Source: Instruction Partners’ Curriculum Support Guide



Best practices for designing effective intervention systems–which serve students who are not meeting grade-level standards–are less well codified. School systems often use an intervention framework (e.g., “Response to Intervention”, or “RTI,” which SFUSD uses). RTI divides instruction into tiers, where “Tier” 1 is general classroom instruction, “Tier 2” is targeted support for students scoring in the bottom 5-10% of their grade level (usually in small groups), and “Tier 3” is more intensive, individualized instruction for students scoring in the bottom 1-5%.

Since the COVID crisis began, one particular intervention has garnered much attention as a way to address pandemic-related learning loss: high-impact, or high-dosage, tutoring. Education research shows that high-impact tutoring can significantly improve student achievement, but only when it meets certain key criteria:

  1. Uses a consistent tutor who receives ongoing support;
  2. Is embedded in the school day or immediately after the day ends;
  3. Uses data to inform tutoring sessions;
  4. Groups (3 students or less) meet at least three times per week;
  5. Uses high-quality curriculum materials; and
  6. Is grounded in equity

SFUSD has only pursued this strategy at a few school sites, in partnership with the SF Education Fund and other outside literacy providers. For math, we don’t believe this kind of high-dosage tutoring is happening in any capacity yet, but we believe it is not.

Potential pitfalls of interventions can include:

  1. Intervention results are not systematically tracked, so effectiveness is unknown
  1. Interventions only reach students (and families) who opt in
  1. Intervention curriculum and instruction are disconnected from Tier 1 curriculum and instruction, which can lead to confusion, duplication of effort, and – ultimately – limited effectiveness

Sources: Instruction Partners’ Intervention Landscape Analysis, National Student Support Accelerator.

Section IV.

Areas of Concern

Curriculum Implementation

  • Resources (time and money) for teacher training and support. Effective curriculum adoption and implementation requires a large commitment of time and money, but it’s not clear SFUSD has sufficient resources at its disposal.
    • SFUSD only has one day of district-led training for teachers in the summer before school starts, which is not enough time to do a pre-launch curriculum training. As a recent example of these challenges, last year’s quick rollout of the new STAR assessment with only a brief training during summer 2023 resulted in mixed implementation, and many confused and frustrated teachers.
    • SFUSD has limited time to provide ongoing PD during the school year – though that can be increased by funding substitute teachers while teachers participate in PD. We are concerned SFUSD lacks the funds for this.
    • For best PD delivery, SFUSD needs to continue funding contracts with external providers who bring the expertise from their past work supporting other districts through the same process. We are concerned SFUSD lacks the funds for this.
  • Communications and change management. Effective curriculum implementation requires an intentional change management approach, especially when a district is shifting from a decentralized approach to a centralized approach, as SFUSD is. Teacher and school leader buy-in will be critical to the success of this work, and we are concerned SFUSD does not have the track record to inspire confidence in this area. Communication to families and caregivers matters too, and again, we are concerned that this is not an area of strength for SFUSD.


  • Lack of district-wide strategy for intervention. SFUSD schools currently use their own approaches and materials to support students who are not yet meeting grade-level expectations. The district is now rolling out new online programs in K-8 math, but does not seem to be providing much support in learning how to use the programs, or a clear plan for how we’ll identify the goals for our students to be addressed through these programs and how each and every student needing support will get served.
  • Limited tutoring opportunities available for students, despite strong evidence that high-dosage tutoring is one of the most effective interventions to address pandemic-related learning gaps. A tiny fraction of SFUSD students have accessed tutoring since schools reopened. We don’t understand why SFUSD hasn’t pursued this strategy for mitigating pandemic-related learning loss, when so many other districts have.

Section V.

Remaining Questions

Curriculum Implementation

  1. What are the biggest obstacles SFUSD expects to encounter as it implements new literacy and math curricula? Can we get very specific as to the key obstacles so that we can work to break those down? (e.g. ongoing coaching and support for teachers, progress monitoring support and evaluating what’s working and what needs adjustments, as we go?)
  1. What funds are at SFUSD’s disposal (e.g., PEEF, Student Success Fund, Spark, others?) to help fill in any resource gaps we currently have in curriculum implementation? What funds are still needed to achieve a thorough, successful implementation plan?
  1. How can SFUSD and partners get creative to address some of the barriers to ideal implementation? For example, the district has very limited PD time with teachers. What can we – city, district, external partners – do to address that challenge?


  1. What is preventing SFUSD from implementing district-wide interventions, like high-dosage tutoring? Can we get very specific as to the key obstacles so that we can work to break those down?
  1. What funds are at SFUSD’s disposal (e.g., PEEF, Student Success Fund, Spark, others?) to help fill in any resource gaps they have in providing interventions like tutoring?
  1. How can SFUSD and partners get creative to address some of the barriers to implementing district-wide interventions like tutoring? What can we – city, district, external partners – do to address that challenge?