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Illinois district uses a systems change approach to implement and evaluate a new curriculum

Illinois District Uses a Systems Change
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

By Maggi Ibis
October 28, 2021

When making major changes to complex education systems, states and districts can draw on the science of continuous improvement to support long-term success (Butler et al., 2019). In Illinois, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest is coaching leaders at Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 on the use of high-leverage systems change and continuous improvement methods to guide the restructuring of the freshman curriculum. The project, which is being carried out through the REL Midwest Achievement Gap Research Alliance, is increasing the capacity of district leaders to plan, implement, and evaluate this complex change.

Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200, which consists of one school outside Chicago, serves more than 3,300 students in grades 9–12.

Approaching curriculum restructuring with a systems change mindset

Located in a thriving suburb of Chicago, Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 consists of one school that serves more than 3,300 students in grades 9–12 (Illinois State Board of Education, 2020). The district is committed to improving educational outcomes for all its students, who represent diverse ethnic/racial and economic backgrounds.

In line with this priority, district leaders opted in 2019/20 to replace an academic tracking program, which had placed grade 9 students in either a college preparatory track or an honors track. The restructured freshman curriculum will provide a single rigorous track in which most courses are taught and assessed at the honors level.

At the district’s request, a REL Midwest team with expertise in systems change, continuous improvement, evaluation, and curriculum development has been providing in-depth coaching and consultation to support the curriculum restructuring. For example, the team is assisting the district in thinking through how to implement the curriculum change from a systems approach, such as determining who should be involved in planning and how to include stakeholder input.

Research on School Tracking
School tracking is defined as separating students into groups based on perceived academic ability; this may be used for just certain courses or all subjects (Corbett Burris & Garrity, 2008). Research shows that being in a lower track is related to decreased academic achievement, attitudes, and postsecondary outcomes (Lleras & Rangel, 2009). Furthermore, students of color are more likely to be assigned to lower tracks (Oakes, 2005).

Rather than implementing an intervention or change in a vacuum, a systems approach involves taking a step back to gain a broader perspective and account for the interaction of different stakeholders (such as school staff, parents, and students), existing systems and structures, and the data that will be used to measure implementation and impact. Understanding the relationships among these components helps create a more cohesive school ecosystem. Often, a logic model is used to map out the interaction of these components and the overall change process, along with the desired outcomes.

Over the past school year, the REL Midwest team worked with the district to develop an implementation plan for the curriculum restructuring. By taking this time to consider each step in the process before rolling out the new curriculum, district leaders were able to think more deeply about how to prepare staff to implement the change, such as by providing professional learning and communications support.

When reflecting on the successes and lessons learned throughout the coaching project, REL Midwest team members shared the following takeaways that district leaders can consider when planning a systems change:

  • Consider the impact of the change on different stakeholder groups and create a plan to set them up for success. For example, to understand the impact of the curriculum restructuring from a systems change perspective, REL Midwest coaches guided the district team in identifying the stakeholder groups that would be affected. The team then considered each group’s differentiated needs for the change to be successful. For instance, district participants noted the need for professional development to prepare staff for the change.
  • Take an inventory of what the district already measures and the data it collects to determine how to measure the impact of the systems change. District leaders led this effort, and REL Midwest served as a sounding board and provided suggestions and guidance throughout the process. For example, the project team discussed the possibility of collecting racial demographic data on courses affected by the curriculum change to examine the diversity of class rosters.
  • Determine how staff will measure and evaluate the systems change, including implementation and outcomes. REL Midwest coaches guided district staff in identifying the intended measurable outcomes of the curriculum restructuring. The group then used the district’s data inventory to consider how to measure student and adult outcomes. This exercise involved refining and building out the team’s logic model to map out the overall systems change.
  • Cultivate a systemwide culture of data to inform decisionmaking in the district. REL Midwest helped district staff think through the data elements to include in dashboards to monitor the impact of the curriculum restructuring. This process encouraged the district to update its system for maintaining, reviewing, co-analyzing, and communicating data and results to department heads and others in the district to support informed decisionmaking.
  • Create a space to discuss next steps related to the systems change. It can be challenging for district leaders to find uninterrupted time to think about the tasks and roles needed to sustain work related to systems change. The coaching relationship with REL Midwest helped district staff cultivate a space for thought partnership and collaboration to reflect on their progress and consider best practices for communicating about the curriculum change with administrators, faculty, students and families, and the community.

Next steps for the project

The district plans to implement the curriculum change beginning in the 2022/23 school year. To prepare for this major change, REL Midwest and district leaders are working together to develop an infographic that will share information about the curriculum restructuring with affected stakeholder groups, such as administrators, teachers, and staff; students and their families; and the community. The handout will provide answers to the following questions:

  1. What exactly will the restructuring of the freshman curriculum look like?
  2. Why are you making this change?
  3. How will students and the community benefit?
  4. What’s next?

Next, the REL Midwest team and district staff will collaborate on developing a plan for evaluating the curriculum restructuring. Developing this plan will involve identifying data sources and metrics that will help the team measure the effectiveness of the implementation of the new curriculum.

When reflecting on his experience working with the district, Aaron Butler, PhD, a REL Midwest principal technical assistance consultant, said, “A few things that I have really enjoyed while working with the Oak Park and River Forest district team on this project include their willingness to grow their own systems thinking, their commitment to examine and discuss their own assumptions and beliefs about the need and purpose of this work, and their dedication to keep student needs and equity at the core of their decisions.”

District staff working on the curriculum restructuring also have had the opportunity to reflect on the progress made throughout the year. According to a survey of district personnel participating in the coaching project, all respondents reported that they now have greater capacity to use research on systems change related to rigorous curriculum to inform decisions about policies or practices. In addition, one respondent said they “really appreciated having thought partners grounded in research practices.”

Related resources

Visit the Midwest Achievement Gap Research Alliance page to learn more about the alliance’s research, projects, and resources.


Butler, A. R., Johnson, J., & Hall, G. E. (2019). Getting to outcomes: Planning, continuous improvement, and evaluation. In D. Osher, M. J. Mayer, R. J. Jagers, K. Kendziora, & L. Wood (Eds.), Keeping students safe and helping them thrive: A collaborative handbook on school safety, mental health, and wellness (pp. 413–432). Praeger.

Corbett Burris, C., & Garrity, D. T. (2008). Detracking for excellence and equity. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Illinois State Board of Education. (2020). Illinois Report Card, 2019–2020.

Lleras, C., & Rangel, C. (2009). Ability grouping practices in elementary school and African American/Hispanic Achievement. American Journal of Education, 115(2), 279–304.

Oakes, J. (2005). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality (2nd ed.). Yale University Press.

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Author information

Maggi Ibis Staff Picture

Maggi Ibis

Research Associate | REL Midwest


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