We know that most American students are suffering from unprecedented learning loss. Student achievement—already below expectations before the pandemic—has dropped to crisis levels. More than ever, high-quality instructional materials (HQIM) are needed in the classroom to get kids back on track.
EdReports—a nonprofit organization that evaluates K–12 curricula—has released a new report that looks at the use of HQIM in the classroom. “State of the Instructional Materials Market 2021: The Availability and Use of Aligned Materials” combines EdReports’s reviews, copyright dates, and data from the RAND Corporation’s American Instructional Resources Survey on curriculum use. It shows that, while teachers broadly recognize the importance of HQIM, adoption in the classroom has lagged behind that recognition.
Why the gap? The first issue is availability of HQIM, which are defined as being aligned to state standards. EdReports finds that barely half (51 percent) of available English language arts materials on the market in 2021 met expectations for standards alignment. (Pre-pandemic—i.e., in 2018—it was 48 percent.) The situation was worse in mathematics: 44 percent of available materials were standards-aligned (up from 31 percent in 2018).
The availability of HQIM obviously limits their use in the classroom. Only 25.6 percent of teachers reported using materials from at least one aligned curriculum per week in ELA in 2021. In mathematics, it was 39.7 percent. As low as those figures were, they still represented improvements from 2018 (14.8 percent and 30.2 percent, respectively).
These findings varied across grades levels, and students were less likely to be taught with HQIM as they matriculated. Less than half (44.9 percent) of elementary school teachers reported using at least one standards-aligned material per week in mathematics, but that was more than double the percentage of high school teachers who reported doing so (21.3 percent). In fact, a clear majority of high school teachers (63.6 percent) reported using “unrelated materials.”
But these figures did not represent educators’ views of HQIM. The vast majority of teachers (73.3 percent) stated that it was “extremely important” that they use materials that are standards-aligned, and another 20.9 percent said it was “somewhat” important. Only 1.3 percent of teachers said it was “not important” at all.
Aside from their availability, what other factors could be holding teachers back from using HQIM? Leadership matters: Less than half (41.9 percent) of teachers reported that their school principal encouraged them to use recommended or required materials. That was less than the percentage of teachers (43.7 percent) who reported their principal telling them to use “whatever materials they thought best.”
There are other obstacles to the implementation of HQIM not mentioned by the report. Not all states have adopted learning standards, making standards-aligned curricula moot. Even if standards exist for ELA and Mathematics, they might not for science, history, and other subjects. Some districts are in “state adoption” locations, meaning that there is no local control over classroom materials. And there might be some unlucky educators who teach subjects for which there are state standards but no aligned curricula on the market. In a nation where education falls under the responsibility of state and local governments, the barriers to adopting HQIM are many and diverse.
Of course, HQIM might not be effective if teachers are not properly trained to use them. Here was another cause for concern, as 22.8 percent of teachers reported receiving no professional learning on how to implement classroom materials. Another 37.7 percent received just one to five hours. Less than a tenth of teachers (9.8 percent) received more than twenty hours of professional learning. And the perceived quality of this professional learning was low. Half of teachers stated that this training “did not prepare me at all” or to a “slight extent.”
EdReports concludes this study with three recommendations: (1) that districts invest in HQIM, which will ensure that all students have access to rich, rigorous instructional materials; (2) that districts dramatically increase the required professional learning in HQIM for both teachers and their principals; and (3) that teachers should participate in the selection of HQIM.
The report suggests that teachers widely recognize the importance of HQIM but are held back by their availability and the lack of institutional support from their schools. Tackling pandemic learning loss will require schools to get serious about adopting and implementing HQIM.
SOURCE: EdReports, “State of the Instructional Materials Market: The Availability and Use of Aligned Materials,” EdReports.org (May 2022).