Three years ago, two districts with similar enrollments, proficiency scores, and student demographics—not twenty miles apart—chose the same curriculum for middle school English language arts: Expeditionary Learning. But that is where the similarity in this story ends.

Today, if you say “Expeditionary Learning” in the first district, you will hear a story of frustration, with complaints at every level of the system and no change in student learning. Yet, drive down the road to the second district and say the same and faces will light up with joy. They have seen huge growth in student outcomes and educator enthusiasm. How can the same materials produce such radically different results in what appear to be similar systems?

I’m the cofounder and CEO of Instruction Partners, an organization that works with small school systems to strengthen instruction and accelerate student learning. Understanding what differentiates better outcomes is fundamental to our work, but up until now, research has held few practical answers about what specific actions could result in better implementation quality. So we launched a two-year journey to dig into the stories and find the trends.

We started by understanding what commonly goes wrong. We found that five problems accounted for the vast majority of materials implementation challenges:

  1. “Nobody asked me.” Leaders are engaged in curriculum adoption, but teachers are left out, leading them to feel like the decision is forced on them and their students.
  2. “You are telling me to do different things.” Teachers are on board and excited, but leaders are not engaged in the process and don’t understand the materials, so they end up giving feedback that’s in tension with the curriculum’s design, creating mixed signals about what matters most.
  3. “I feel like a robot.” Teachers are asked to be so strict in their fidelity to the curriculum that they cannot meet students’ needs, who then struggle, and ultimately everyone rejects the materials.
  4. “I use it as a resource.” Without training or a specific plan for how the materials should be used, teachers’ well-intentioned adaptations get out of hand and dilute the materials.
  5. “This too shall pass.” The whole curriculum implementation effort is treated as another exercise in compliance rather than rooted in a meaningful vision for teaching and learning.

The problems districts experienced were the same no matter what materials they were using. And educators found them to be predictable. Say to teachers, “You have a box of good materials. What can possibly go wrong?” and they’ll often name all five. Even if leaders knew the challenges, they didn’t know what to do to avoid them.

We set out to find districts that had surmounted these challenges, and we studied what they did differently. This framework captures the key differences:

A framework for surmounting challenges implementing curricular materials.

At a high level, the stronger implementers did four key things differently:

  1. In a departure from many common practices, they clearly articulated what instruction in that subject should look like before they selected materials. Materials were in service of a vision of strong instruction; they were not the end goal.
  2. They did not cast a wide net on materials. Instead, they prescreened options based on objective evidence of quality and then had teachers, guided by the vision of excellent instruction in their content area, inform the final choice.
  3. They had an implementation team that was charged with the planning and success of the implementation effort, and that studied the materials together (i.e., it did a unit study) to understand the choices teachers would need to make.
  4. They trained principals deeply and engaged them throughout the planning process.

Our Curriculum Support Guide is a collection of findings and resources to support strong implementation. It includes workbooks, resources, guiding questions, timelines, and vignettes that schools, systems, leaders, and educators can use to launch action in this work.

Stepping back from the specifics, I also observed two fundamental differences in how the stronger implementers approached this work.

First, they used the curriculum as the centerpiece of their academic strategy. They treated curriculum like a tree, and all other academic systems—from assessments to teacher evaluations—hung on that tree and were supported by it.

Second, they had a wide-ranging set of conversations about how the materials would affect other academic systems. As questions came up about things like testing, grading, or scheduling, they didn’t sweep them under the rug; they dug in and figured out the best answer.

Every successful implementation story was the product of intense effort. We did not find shortcuts or simple fixes. It clearly takes much more than a box of books to translate great materials into great instruction. But done well, materials implementation can reinvigorate schools and systems.

As one district leader explained, “This has not just been about curriculum. This has transformed how we support our teachers and students.”

Emily Freitag is the cofounder and CEO of Instruction Partners.