If you ask 10 educators for their opinion on what makes a high-quality curriculum, you’ll likely get 10 different answers. Why? For many teachers, curriculum is personal. It guides their instructional practice and outlines the key concepts their students will need to learn in a school year.
So it’s not surprising to learn that more than half of U.S. teachers craft curriculum for their students. When it comes to instructional materials, teachers have simply not received the support they need. But 2022 is not 2002, and there are more high-quality programs available than ever before.
As school districts rightfully invest federal pandemic stimulus dollars in high-quality materials, it’s equally important that they meaningfully include teachers in the selection and implementation process. Part of this work has to be understanding teachers’ misconceptions about high-quality materials and engaging in productive conversations about how materials can support their practice. Explore three of these misconceptions below, and dive into the data revealing the true benefits of high-quality instructional materials.
Misconception: Great teachers create their own instructional materials
A long-held belief by many teachers is that core comprehensive materials are too prescriptive and limit teacher creativity. This could not be farther from the truth.
While such hard work and dedication is laudable, “teachers do not have unlimited time and resources, and we should not expect 3.7 million people to develop their own ways of doing things.” What’s more, an analysis of supplemental materials found that many online resources fail to align to academic standards, and using unvetted or self-created content makes coherence across grades and/or schools nearly impossible.
Truth: Teachers spend 7–12 hours per week searching for and creating instructional resources (free and paid). Let’s be real: that is time teachers do not have to spare. But in a recent paper by the Center for Public Research & Leadership studying year one of the pandemic, it found that “[H]igh-quality instructional materials enabled teachers daily to spend time on high-impact activities like strengthening relationships with students and families, tailoring instruction, and participating in curriculum-based, peer-led, and embedded professional learning, rather than on low-impact activities like creating curricula from scratch.”
In addition, “[H]igh-quality instructional materials afforded teachers the time to connect with families about their basic needs… . Teachers focused their attention on building in additional scaffolds, weaving in opportunities for differentiation, and finding supplemental texts to build students’ background knowledge and incorporate more diverse perspectives.”
With access to high-quality materials and aligned professional development, teacher time can be directed to bringing materials to life and meeting the needs of individual students. Access to great materials means that teachers can focus on doing what they do best: getting students excited to learn.
Misconception: Teachers have the supports they need to implement instructional materials well.
Truth: Most teachers are not receiving access to curriculum-embedded professional learning and other systemic supports. This creates a barrier to using new materials or implementing them with integrity.
A recent report from the RAND Corporation found that nearly a quarter of teachers say they have no curriculum-related professional learning at all, and nearly a third have access to only 1–5 hours of learning per year. And, when teachers do participate in professional learning sessions, they often don’t feel satisfied with the learning they receive. Half of teachers do not feel that their professional development prepared them to use their district curriculum.
In “The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning,” the authors argue that: “Curriculum-based professional learning invites teachers to participate in the same sort of rich, inquiry-based learning that new academic standards require. Such learning places the focus squarely on curriculum. It is rooted in ongoing, active experiences that prompt teachers to change their instructional practices, expand their content knowledge, and challenge their beliefs.”
They go on to say: “The positive effects for students are amplified when strong curriculum is paired with strong professional learning: not only are students working with more rigorous instructional materials, but they also have a more skillful teacher to guide them.”
Misconception: Educators need to implement new instructional materials with fidelity.
The word “fidelity” understandably raises eyebrows when it comes to implementing new materials.
Truth: At EdReports, we prefer to support educators to implement instructional materials with integrity. The fact is, there is no “one size fits all” program that will work in every classroom exactly the same way. Adaptation is a necessary and important aspect of implementing any set of high-quality instructional materials.
The Research Partnership for Professional Learning recently highlighted two studies focused on professional learning around new curriculum. They suggest that “adaptation with guardrails” can actually help strengthen impacts on student outcomes beyond what is possible through program fidelity alone.
In both studies, teachers initially implemented the program as intended. However, once teachers gained a basic familiarity and comfort with the program’s routines and structures, facilitators encouraged them to carefully adapt some program aspects while keeping its core elements stable. In both studies, these adaptations led to gains in student outcomes over a comparison group of teachers who continued to implement the program without a single deviation to meet individual needs.
The study goes on to say: “While the adaptations created by teachers in these studies led to stronger program effects, the research emphasizes teachers’ initial mastery of the program as a precondition to adaptation success. Often, programs come with interlocking parts—for instance, content mastered in one lesson is a precursor to mastering content in another, or a points-based student incentive structure keeps students focused on program activities. Understanding how program elements work together can help teachers adapt wisely.”
The Truth About High-Quality Instructional Materials
High-quality, core comprehensive instructional materials are not a script. Instead, they provide teachers with a strong, standards-aligned foundation to work their pedagogical prowess on. Quality materials ensure that every student is receiving access to grade-level content, that units build upon concepts, and that learning is coherent and cohesive year-to-year.
Quality curriculum should be implemented with integrity and not fidelity to unleash its full potential. This means that teachers are meaningfully involved in the selection process and receive the necessary curriculum-aligned professional learning they deserve.