High-quality curriculum materials are increasingly available to school districts — but many teachers still face roadblocks in putting them to work in the classroom, including a lack of training on how to go about it.
Those were a few of the top findings in a report released this week by the nonprofit EdReports, which analyzes curriculum materials’ alignment with college and career-ready standards, as well as for product design and usability.
The findings show that the availability of aligned English/language arts materials that meet college- and career-ready standards grew from 42 percent of materials on the market in 2018 to 51 percent last year, including slight growth during the pandemic.
The availability of aligned math materials that meet standards has also grown, from less than a third of materials on the market to 44 percent, in the same time frame.
Yet the pace of professional development does not appear to have kept up. About a third of teachers got five or fewer hours of professional learning to implement curriculum during the 2020-21 school year, the EdReports analysis found. And half of them said the professional learning they did receive either prepared them only “slightly” to roll out the material or did not prepare them at all.
To assess if materials meet standards, or if they’re partially aligned with standards or do not meet them, EdReports uses a complex rubric and educator reviews. The reviews don’t just evaluate if the material covers the right information. They also evaluate if the material covers the right amount of content and at the correct times.
For example, standards-aligned math materials should not just teach fractions at an elementary level, EdReports Executive Director Eric Hirsch said. They also need specifically to introduce the basic concept in 3rd grade to start to build the foundation of learning for more advanced math.
The new study, however, shows that only about 40 percent of teachers are using math standards-aligned materials at least once a week. The percentage is even lower for materials aligned to English/language arts standards, with 26 percent of teachers using them at least once a week.
In addition to EdReports reviews, the study also relies on data from the RAND Corporation American Instructional Resources Survey on curriculum use, teacher perception, and school context.
“[The materials are] there,” said Hirsch. “The question is, why aren’t teachers using them?”
One reason, he said, is that districts face delays in procurement and purchasing that are exacerbated by long adoption cycles that create lengthy processes for choosing new resources and getting them into classrooms.
One example of long adoption cycles can be seen in California, which last approved statewide curriculum resources for math in 2014, noted Hirsch.
The roadblocks to adoption are ones Arun Ramanathan knows well. As the CEO of California-based Pivot Learning, which seeks to help districts select curricula that meet their students’ needs, he said the politicization of the adoption process and bureaucratic hurdles are preventing districts that are flush with federal aid from purchasing new standards-aligned materials.
“This is way more important than tutoring. This is about, first, best instruction, and tier one is how to address the issue of learning loss at scale,” Ramanathan said.
Adding high-quality, standards-aligned instruction is the best way to fight that learning loss, not relying on outdated materials, he said.
Allowing bureaucracy to get in the way of doing so is “simply unconscionable,” he said.
Bringing Teachers Into the Process
Ramanathan sees the issue as a national one that requires state and federal policymakers to streamline adoption processes, especially before districts’ deadlines to spend federal COVID relief funds run out.
“We have these crazy adoption processes that haven’t changed in 30, 40 years,” he said. “What’s the point? [Policymakers] should be telling people to buy materials, buy them on an ongoing basis, and update materials in similar ways they’re updating technology. The market is stuck in a six-to-seven year adoption cycle.”
Julia Seaman, research director for education statistical research firm Bay View Analytics, said K-12 research the firm recently completed largely mirrors EdReports’ findings.
We have these crazy adoption processes that haven’t changed in 30, 40 years,Arun Ramanathan, PIVOT Learning
For example, more than 50 percent of teachers Bayview has surveyed said it’s either somewhat or extremely difficult to change the required primary instruction materials they use.
Even if policymakers act to improve adoption processes, Seaman said it’s important for teachers to have a role in their own districts’ procurement. About 22 percent of teachers Bayview surveyed said they have no influence on what course material is chosen for their classrooms, and roughly 40 percent said they have some influence.
Involving teachers in the curriculum selection process is key to increasing the accessibility and use of standards-aligned, high-quality materials in the classroom, said Hirsch of EdReports.
“How you pick [the materials] matters,” he said. But what is equally, or even more important, is how the resources are implemented, he added.
When Bayview Analytics’ team speaks to administrators or publishers, Seaman said their biggest advice is to invest in professional development to support curriculum materials. Good curriculum materials matters, she said, “but having that support aspect to implement it is almost more important.”
Teachers need to be supported with a strong professional learning strategy to implement high-quality materials effectively, Hirsch said, with principals and other district leaders setting the tone and making that prep work [professional learning] a high priority.
“I am optimistic that with more and more materials on the market, with the right content in the right doses at the right time, and having kids really reading engaging things, that we’ll start to get at that professional learning piece,” Hirsch said.
Those changes should help teachers understand why strong core materials “are a resource, not a handcuff or a script,” he said, ultimately increasing both their usage and student success.
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