In this debut episode of our new “EdVoices” podcast, EdReports’ Chief Strategy Officer Lauren Weisskirk explains why engaging with instructional materials is such a powerful way for families and caregivers to join the curriculum conversation and support student learning.
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Hey, everyone. I’m Tom—I’m on the Communications team at EdReports. I’m here today with Lauren Weisskirk, who is our Chief Strategy Officer. Hello, Lauren!
Hello, thanks for having me!
Yeah, thanks very much for being here. And today, we’re going to be talking about families and caregivers, and how they can best support children in their learning, particularly by engaging in their instructional materials. All right, so let’s dive in!
First of all, could you give us an overview of why instructional materials matter for student learning, and maybe what they are as well—what we mean by the phrase, “instructional materials”?
That’s great. So as you sometimes will hear this as instructional materials, sometimes as curriculum, depending on which school system you’re in, and who you’re speaking with. But basically, what we’re talking about is the content through which students learn—and their interactions with teachers are really engaged around the content.
That could be if you think about, like, I think the classic thought is a textbook. But instruction materials can also encompass the digital materials and the digital content through which you’re able to see what your child is learning and the lessons, etc. And it can also include materials like online supplements, that you might also see when looking at your kid’s homework or what’s coming home, [something] that looks more like a handout. All of that—everything that’s included in that—are instructional materials.
Nice. So you touched on interactions with materials and the interaction between students, teachers, and instructional materials. Why is that important—can you tell us more about that?
You know, Tom—we were actually talking about this earlier today. Where it’s, “yeah, of course, we all know that materials are important.” And I think while that is somewhat true, the real challenge that we’ve had is—and when I say “we,” I mean education at all levels, and communities, etc—is actually understanding what the content is that students are engaging with every day.
I remember when Edreports was founded eight years ago, and the role of our organization is to provide free reviews of instructional materials, particularly the core materials. And when we were founded, we’d go out and talk to people, and everyone would be like, “yes, yes, materials are important.” But then you’d ask a couple questions like, “so what are students learning?” “What are the materials that are being used?” And people wouldn’t necessarily know.
Or, we would ask, “how do you know which set of materials are better for your classroom than others?” And people wouldn’t necessarily know because almost all materials claim to help students become college- and career-ready. And that’s the ultimate goal of what we’re doing in K–12, right? Making sure that our students are learning what they need to know, in order to enter colleges, trade, schools, careers, etc. And yet, this is an area in which there’s really historically been little insight into how good those materials are, and which materials are better—and particularly: better within the local context of a school system, district, state.
We’re really looking—we’re hoping that materials are high quality. What makes materials high quality?
Yeah, so there’s a few [factors]—I mean, there’s more than a few! But if I were to boil it down at the end of the day, high quality materials mean that there is content that’s grade level aligned so that students are getting the access to the skills and knowledge they need to build year over year towards [being] college and career ready.
They’re also equitable, so all students are able to engage with the material and have entry points. So for example, if you have multilingual learners, there are access the materials themselves are designed to enable access to the content and skills those students need. If there are students behind grade level, what are the different types of—we call them scaffolds or supports—that are in place to help those students also be on a trajectory to graduate college and career ready?
And another one that’s really important is that they are—from the teacher perspective, they can be used. That they aren’t so big or voluminous that … it’s hard for them to figure out which lessons [to use], or plan for the lessons—that there’s also enough strong content in there, that teachers aren’t required to go off and Google, or Pinterest search, or use other ways to supplement the content—like, it’s there. So those are some of the ways—some of the big high level ways—that we think about quality instructional materials.
Bringing in families and caregivers—you know, families and caregivers have always been important in student learning. And when we had the period of school closures from the pandemic, that issue became more salient. And a lot of families in different parts of the country became more involved and more engaged in what their kids were learning and what their instructional materials looked like. Can you tell us a bit more about that—about what the findings were?
One of my favorite studies about how families experienced the pandemic with regards to instructional materials came from this group, CPRL. It basically showed that families whose children were in school systems that had high-quality instructional materials—that the teachers were assigning and were able to use—they reported having not just more positive [experiences], it’s more than that—more ability to engage and support their children to learn the high-level content and skills that they needed. And that curriculum itself, when it was high quality and being used by the teachers within the building or within the Zoom classroom, actually improved family communication with the school.
So we have this thing now, this curriculum that’s solid, that can be accessed as a common reference point, that really helps actually facilitate more discussion and dialogue between teachers and caregivers—which has been a stated goal of the people thinking about education for a really long time. Flipside: in systems where those materials weren’t accessible, weren’t already in place—families reported a much higher degree of dissatisfaction, of challenge—figuring out how they could help their child, and also what [content] it is they’re supposed to be finding.
And so I think it really underscored the value that having a high quality set of instructional materials can have, both in the worst of times when we are deep in the throes of the pandemic, but also: what are the lessons that we could learn about how that can help us now, even as school buildings are open (largely open) and even as we are transitioning out of the pandemic?
Zooming out there: obviously, high-quality materials are important; we’ve seen that they can be a way for families to engage and to better support their kids’ learning. And why is that important, family engagement? Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Yeah, study after study shows that when families are brought in as partners in the educational experience of their children, that children do much better. There was one from a few years ago that showed that elementary schools where there’s substantial parent engagement, the kids were more likely—I think it was four times more likely to succeed in reading and 10 times more likely to be succeeding and on grade level in math.
There is a powerful role [for families] because I think, as, as parents know, and as teachers know, learning doesn’t stop at the classroom door. So this isn’t even necessarily about homework—it’s: how do we engage parents in understanding the skills, the content that their students that their kids are learning? I think we’re really good at talking—in some school districts, in some schools—we’re really good about talking about extracurriculars with families. “Here’s what we’re doing around sports or field trips, or you know, Homecoming events”—and all that is important too, that community building.
[But there’s] been a missed opportunity for us to all meaningfully engage families and caregivers on the instructional and academic end too, in this way. That really could be a place for us to start using instructional materials—again, as that common reference point that could be accessed by the educator, by the classroom teacher, and by the caregivers.
Families and parents and caregivers have this opportunity to try to engage with instructional materials. It’s a great place to start supporting your kids and kids in your community. So If we take it back to basics, how can families get started learning more about their kids’ instructional materials? What should they be looking for or looking at?
Yeah, I mean, the first place to start is by asking questions of and with the classroom teacher, with the school building leader. So, think about different points throughout the year: “What are my children learning? What are the expectations for where there’ll be by the end of the year? What can I expect to see as a parent coming home [in terms of] either assignments, homework, or report cards, etc? Talk to me about that.” So you can start with questions.
Another thing is that there’s a lot of information. We have a website that has free information about almost every single set of core instructional materials for K–12 ELA, K–12 math, and currently K–8 science—and we’re expanding into high school science now. So there’s a ton of information about those materials. How well are they aligned to standards? How well do they provide access for students at different entry levels? How usable are they by teachers in classrooms? Strengths, gaps—all of that’s available on our site. There’s also information that families can find about materials through many state websites.
So there’s a way to go out and do a little bit of understanding on your own which, again, can help you— as you go into the conversation and the partnership with the teacher—to understand: what does the teacher see? Does a teacher notice the same strengths? How do we build on them? You can look inside—and this is a paper pencil example—but look inside the backpack, check out the copyright year of the materials that are coming home with your child.
We have too many examples of students still having, for example, social studies textbooks from the 90s. And that’s their core set of materials. A lot of things have happened since the 90s! So there are ways that you can check and have some entry points to conversation, so that you can better understand both what your student’s learning, and also find out if your teachers need some support or are interested in sharing more about what materials or resources they wish they had. Because as parents, you can have a really strong relationship as that partner.
Yeah, I’d like to hear more about that, how you think about that relationship, So if you’re a parent, caregiver, or a family member, and you want to engage with your children’s teachers, particularly around instructional materials, how should you go about that? What sort of mindset should you have? Yeah, what do you recommend?
I cannot say enough of this idea of “partner.” So your child is spending so much time with these teachers that are incredibly dedicated, and who are trying to think about what’s best for the 30 children in their classroom or the 20 children in their classroom. And so understanding what the goals are, how the resources available support those goals, asking how you can help, how you can not just help the teacher but help the student at home—all of that, I think, is really important.
Because teachers are professionals who are also trying so hard and doing such great work to support the children in their classroom. And so, you know, really entering in with this common sense of purpose, that we’re all here—and centering the students, we’re all here to help these children be ready to enter their post-high school life, equipped with the skills and information they need to really succeed.
Yeah, and as a partner, you mentioned asking about the teacher’s impressions of those materials, what they saw in them. Are there any specific things to ask teachers about specific factors about materials?
Yeah, I mean, well, it depends on which materials you have, right? So as you come in understanding a little bit—again, I’m going to plug the EdReports reviews as a place to start—you can ask questions about what does this mean [in the report], what does it look like?
Another thing you can ask is about their training, “so are you getting training on this?” We put out a study last year that showed that—I think it was fewer than half of teachers were getting any professional learning associated with the materials that they were teaching. And so there’s a real place where we need to improve and think about the supports that educators are given in order to effectively understand, deliver, work with the content, right? It’s not a script, you have to know a lot about it in order to adjust to meet the demands of your classroom. So what are the professional learning opportunities that teachers are getting that help them do that critical work?
On another note‚—I guess if you were a caregiver just trying to understand the materials—or we often hear about math with a lot of the Common Core shifts, like, “this isn’t the way I learned math,” right? A lot of caregivers have that experience when they’re trying to help their kids with their homework. So is that somewhere you’d recommend engaging with teachers as well?
Yeah, and actually, this is more of a recommendation I have for schools and districts, which is, you know, not to underestimate the power of a parent curriculum night. So I used to work in the New York City Department of Ed School District. And I was blown away by how many schools would throw a parent curriculum night. “Come in, here’s what we’re working on. Here’s what it looks like. Does it look different from how you learned math? Here’s why.” Like, just really engaging.
So this is, again, a recommendation for schools and districts—engaging with caregivers to help them also learn that there’s science and research behind the new approaches. And that empowers families. And it also improves that communication we were talking about earlier—of how proactive communication from the school or from the district can really, really support parent understanding and strengthen that really strong bond that we talked about—that you said takes a village, right? That it can really strengthen that community, again, centered around the child.
Well, I know we’re almost at time but before we go, is there anything else you wish families and caregivers knew that we haven’t covered yet?
You know, a couple of things. One is, not all materials are the same or are created equal. Like we know through our work here at EdReports, and through reports and work that other places have done, there are differences in quality. And I think that can be really hard for us to know, and for community members to know. Because if you look at if you look at that outside of a book, or you look at the sticker on a digital program, everyone—a lot of people are claiming to do the same thing. Right? And so how do how do you understand what the differences are?
And then another really important piece is, when schools and districts are choosing their curriculum or their instructional materials, something we always say is, “you’ve got to know your instructional vision going in.” What is the vision for a successful student experience in your school, in your district? And so how do we ground conversation in that vision? And then materials are one piece—or one resource that’s necessary to move along, but it’s not the only one. And so how do all these all district or school initiatives fit together around that vision of a student and student success?
Yeah, and just picking up on not all materials being created equal—if you’re a parent or a caregiver, how likely is it that your school or district already has high quality materials? What’s the sort of variability out there?
It’s pretty variable. So while there are standards-aligned options at every grade level, we have found that, through nationally representative surveys, that only about 40% of math classrooms are regularly using standards-aligned materials. And about 25 or 26% of ELA classrooms are regularly using standards-aligned instructional materials.
Is it because those materials aren’t available, haven’t been procured or purchased? Or is it because there hasn’t been enough professional learning or coaching? That is something that I know a lot of us who work either in the policy or the implementation side are really thinking a lot about. And so it’s something I think for us to be aware of—it is not a given that there’s necessarily high-quality materials in every classroom.
All right, well, thank you very much, Lauren—thanks for joining me today. We’re going to wrap it up there. But there’s lots more information on edreports.org—If you go to our resources page, there’s a ton of different blogs and resources and links and things. We’ve also got a few links in the description of this video of different things we’ve referenced. So check those out! Thank you very much. Thanks again, Lauren.