Curriculum

4 Ways States Are Exerting More Control Over Classroom Materials

By Sarah Schwartz — June 07, 2022 7 min read
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States have a limited amount of power over what materials teachers use in the classroom. A new report shows how some of them are trying—and succeeding—to wield influence anyway.

In the majority of the country, districts operate under local control, meaning that school systems, or sometimes individual schools or teachers, have the ultimate authority in deciding what curriculum is taught.

Fifteen states conduct statewide materials adoptions, according to the American Association of Publishers. Even so, in some of these states, lists of approved materials only serve as recommendations. Districts can choose other materials off-list if they prefer.

That means that if states want to influence what teachers are using, they have to get creative about what levers to pull. A new report from the RAND Corporation suggests that some states have managed to do just that.

The report analyzes the work of the High-Quality Instructional Materials and Professional Development (IMPD) Network, a group of states organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The group’s aim is to encourage schools to use curricula and other materials that are aligned to state standards, provide rich and rigorous learning opportunities, and get students engaged in grade-level work. States in the network set their own criteria for what “high-quality” means, so they include a variety of measures—like whether they are culturally responsive or whether they get good marks from EdReports, a nonprofit that publishes curriculum reviews.

The kind of coherence and standardization that the states in the IMPD network are working toward is far from the norm in K-12 schools. Most teachers seek out or create their own materials, either to supplement their district’s offerings or to serve as their primary resources.

The quality of online resources varies greatly, leaving it up to teachers to separate the wheat from the chaff. Doing this work is time consuming, though some teachers say that they prefer to have the flexibility to choose their own materials.

Advocates of this state- and district-directed approach say that it frees teachers from the burden of having to sort through resources on their own time: They say the materials they’re promoting are already designed to help students master grade-level material and engage in deep thinking. English/language arts lessons aim to build content knowledge, a key component of reading comprehension. And math materials mix mastery of basic algorithms with a focus on problem-solving and creative thinking.

“We have all in this profession come to accept that the predominant state of the education system is fragmentation and parochialism,” said John White, a former state superintendent in Louisiana, who led an effort to promote high-quality materials during his time in the role. White, who is currently a managing principal for the consulting group Watershed Advisors, was not involved in the report.

“The promise in this report is that 13 states, without breaching legal lines of local control, have accepted that they have a role to play in breaching fragmentation and promoting coherence, just like the top countries in the world do,” White said.

Why district buy-in matters

To compare the uptake of these materials in IMPD network states versus the rest of the country, the report’s authors used data from an annual survey analyzing teacher responses in 16 states. RAND used EdReports’ ratings to code materials as standards-aligned or not, a metric that many states also use in their definition of high-quality materials.

The researchers also interviewed state officials in the IMPD network about what strategies they employed to encourage materials use.

RAND found that there was a link between IMPD membership and materials: Teachers in states that were part of this network were more likely than other teachers to report that their district had adopted high-quality resources.

District buy-in especially proved critical, the researchers found. A district adoption was the most important predictor of whether teachers were using standards-aligned materials. If a teacher said that her district hadn’t adopted standards-aligned materials, it didn’t matter whether she was in a state that was trying to encourage their use—she wasn’t any more likely to be using these materials than a teacher who was in a state not in the IMPD network.

Still, being in an IMPD network state did seem to give an extra boost to district materials adoptions.

“What’s really interesting in our data is that when a teacher is in an IMPD state, and when their district has adopted high-quality materials, … they’re also more likely to say, ‘My principal considers curriculum in observations, and I get coaching on those materials, and, yes, those materials are adequate for mastering state standards,’” said Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and an author on the report.

About two thirds of teachers in this group—those who were in IMPD states and districts that adopted materials—said they used the standards-aligned math materials at least once a week for half or more of their instructional time, and about half said the same for English/language arts materials.

It’s possible that districts that adopt these materials are more likely to see the value in creating a robust ecosystem of supports around them, Kaufman said: “You could see it almost as a mindset, or a package.”

How can states get that district buy-in? The report doesn’t draw conclusions on that question, but it does include some common strategies—ways that states provided information and guidance for districts, as well as incentives that would give districts benefits if they adopted the materials that states were promoting.

1. Defining what “quality” means and giving examples.

All of the network states provided some information publicly about how they decided what counted as “high-quality.” Some explained the factors that went into their definition, such as alignment to state standards or cultural responsiveness.

Others shared criteria that identified how the state was judging materials across different domains. Some also posted reviews and ratings, such as Massachusetts. And others, like Rhode Island, created guidance documents that would help districts select materials.

“That’s a watershed practice in and of itself,” said White. “States for years have been charged with reporting on or reviewing—these seven-year adoption cycles—and frankly have treated it as a secondary point of purpose.”

Kaufman pointed to Louisiana as an example. The state provided reviews for certain curricula, noting which materials met their requirements—and which didn’t. “They’re not only calling out what districts should adopt, but the things that maybe they shouldn’t adopt. Because that provides that catalyst for change,” Kaufman said.

2. Sharing data on materials uptake across the state.

In Rhode Island, the state department of education collects data every year on curriculum use in districts, and posts it publicly to its website. Nebraska and Massachusetts both maintain statewide, public maps of which curricula is in use where.

Maps like these can demonstrate important trends in outcomes, White said.

3. Making grants or other funding supports contingent on adopting materials or easing the purchasing process.

Some states, like Tennessee, have mandated outright that districts pick curricula from a list. But even states that haven’t required districts to select specific approved materials have found ways to suggest that school systems choose those titles anyway.

Arkansas, for example, offers state grants for districts to purchase specific ELA and math curricula. Delaware has streamlined the process for districts to contract with vendors in a statewide professional learning guide.

“If there’s a district that says, ‘We love this [other] curriculum, we want to use it,’ the state says, ‘OK, you can use it, but if you do use it, you might not be eligible for some of these other resources that you want and need,’” said Kaufman. States can wield influence without forcing districts to comply.

White said the process is less about ensuring compliance, and more about clearing potential barriers for districts. “It is really important that finances never be a reason not to change and do the right thing,” he said.

4. Providing professional learning aligned to preferred resources or streamlining the process for districts to seek it out.

Kentucky provides professional development for district and school staff on how to select materials and the research base behind them. Mississippi has gotten curriculum vendors to provide training to math and literacy instructional leaders across the state.

“We’ve known for a long time that professional development that is focused on what teachers are using in the classroom is the best kind,” Kaufman said.

Even so, only about two-thirds of teachers with lots of curriculum-related supports—teachers who were in IMPD network states and whose districts had adopted high-quality materials—said that their materials were adequate for mastering standards and would cover state assessment content.

Some of these curricula that states are promoting devote significant time to reading and discussing specific books, which students might not be asked about on state tests, White said. “That feels like a remaining void in the coherence that we’re discussing,” he said.

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