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Why are High-Quality Curricula Not Reaching More Students?  

Results from the latest round of testing by the National Assessment of Educational Progress are disappointing, with national averages stagnant or declining in reading and math. While there is no single reason for these results, part of the problem is that many students are not exposed to instructional materials that meet expectations for college and career readiness.

According to EdReports.org, an independent nonprofit that delivers evidence-based reviews of K-12 instructional materials, only 15 percent of English language arts (ELA) materials and 23 percent of math materials regularly used by teachers are aligned with college and career-ready standards, even though the supply of high-quality materials has improved dramatically in recent years. In 2018, 49 percent of ELA materials and 28 percent of math materials available were found to be aligned to rigorous standards.

Access to quality materials is not a silver bullet, but it is a fundamental component for student learning. Research has shown that quality materials impact not only what content students are exposed to, but also teachers’ instructional choices and behaviors. One study shows that improving the quality of curriculum can be 40 times more cost-effective at improving achievement than reducing class size. So what can we do to change the status quo?

Until five years ago, there was no clear way to know what instructional materials were better than others. Independent data was essentially non-existent, leaving educators to depend on sales representatives for information about how curricula might meet students’ needs.

It was easy to think of instructional materials as interchangeable or non-essential to students’ academic outcomes. That sort of thinking has fed narratives like “Great teachers create their own materials” and “Curriculum limits teacher autonomy and creativity.”

In our experience at EdReports, these narratives do not match lived experience in classrooms. When teachers don’t have access to great content they hunt for it online, spending an average of seven to 12 hours a week on the task. In a survey by Scholastic, teachers cited high-quality instructional materials as a top funding priority, more important than digital resources, intervention programs, and even higher salaries. Jodi Hufendick, an ELA teacher in Washington State and EdReports reviewer, put it this way: “If I can spend the bulk of my time doing the actual art of teaching and leave it to someone else to do the heavy lifting of the curricular materials—to me that’s gold.”

That’s not always as simple as it sounds. Too often, teachers are not involved in the curriculum-selection process and aren’t trained sufficiently on the materials they’re handed. A 2019 Harvard study found that, on average, teachers reported only one day of professional development a year on their instructional materials.

Fortunately, a growing number of districts are changing their approach to curriculum selection by conducting thorough reviews that prioritize alignment to standards and deep educator engagement. Baltimore City, Chicago, and Detroit, for example, all include independent third party reviews as a requirement in curriculum requests for proposals and have redefined their adoption processes to ensure deeper educator and stakeholder engagement.

There are several ways that states and districts can leverage greater use of high-quality instructional materials:

States can signal quality while supporting local autonomy. States are in a unique position to set a high bar for aligned, quality instructional materials and offer guidance for districts to choose materials that meet state standards, while preserving local decision-making and autonomy.

In Mississippi, the state brought teachers together, offered extensive professional learning around how to evaluate materials for standards alignment, and created a curated list of programs to support math adoptions. Districts are not required to use the materials recommended by the state, but the list points districts in the right direction as they make their selection decisions.

Louisiana conducts reviews of K-12 instructional materials but does not mandate that districts choose specific programs. Louisiana assigns programs to tiers based on how well educators rate materials for alignment to college- and career-ready standards, which sends a clear message about quality.

Then there are states that do not have the mandate or resources to conduct their own reviews yet still lead the way. Nebraska, for example, sends a clear message about the value of high-quality instructional materials on its NEmaterialsmatter.org website. It leads with its definition of quality, provides evidence about which materials meet this definition, and has created resources to support districts to engage in better adoption practices.

Districts can improve selection through deeper stakeholder engagement. Ensuring that teachers and principals have leading roles in the selection process increases local educators’ buy-in and ownership of the decision. Districts such as Baltimore City Public Schools cast a wide net of engagement by conducting surveys and setting up public sessions that give the wider community of educators, parents, and students opportunities to contribute to  decision making. That work is made easier by the fact that there is now a wealth of information about the alignment and usability of hundreds of math, English language arts, and science programs available to districts for free on sites such as EdReports and Louisiana Believes. Districts no longer need to rely on publishers or word-of-mouth in order to learn about their options.

States, districts, and schools can see curricular efforts succeed when they align with professional development. Materials are only as good as the professional learning provided to teachers on how to implement them in classrooms. The current norm of one day of curriculum-specific professional development per year sends a message that quality curriculum is not a priority. It also does not effectively support teachers to use instructional materials to reach their students.

Unless all students are able to engage with quality instructional materials, we will struggle to close performance gaps. Students are forced to trust that the content and skills they’re learning are preparing them for future studies and careers. As educators, we need to face the fact that we are often not keeping that promise.

Lauren Weisskirk is the chief strategy officer at EdReports.org, an independent nonprofit that delivers evidence-based reviews of K-12 instructional materials.