Are Schools Choosing High-Quality Math Curricula? A New Database Offers Clues

By Sarah Schwartz — October 17, 2023 5 min read
Illustration of a large database server connected to smaller stacks of information with math numbers and symbols floating into the large server
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It’s possible to quantify a lot of things about the U.S. education system, but there’s one stat that remains notoriously elusive: what materials teachers are using in their classrooms.

There’s little national data about which curricula are most popular. And though many states approve or recommend materials, most don’t keep public-facing lists of which districts choose.

It’s a situation that makes it difficult to understand whether waves of proposed reforms to educational practice have actually led to substantive changes, and how those trends may vary across the country.

Now, a new project aims to shed some light on this landscape.

The Center for Education Market Dynamics, a nonprofit market-intelligence organization, has created a database of math curricula used in 934 districts, representing more than 52 percent of all students in the country. The database demonstrates which publishers hold the most control over the market—but it also tracks the spread of high-quality materials.

By making this data publicly available, CEMD hopes to provide a “utility for the ecosystem,” said Jeff Livingston, the founder of CEMD and the CEO of EdSolutions, an education consulting and strategy firm.

Most market research of this kind is proprietary, even though it could help states, districts, and teacher and administrative professional organizations make decisions about what to purchase or endorse, Livingston said.

About 36 percent of elementary schools and 22 percent of middle schools in CEMD’s sample selected exclusively high-quality math curriculum, as defined by EdReports, a nonprofit curriculum evaluator. Slightly higher percentages used at least one high-quality curriculum—45 percent of elementary schools and 40 percent of middle schools.

While these numbers may seem low, they’re likely to increase in the coming years as districts go through their next adoption cycle, Livingston said.

California’s adoption cycle has been delayed as the state has worked to pass a new math framework. Still, some districts have started purchasing new programs anyway, “and the new things they are buying tend to be of higher quality,” Livingston said.

“The wave is building, and it’s going to crest at the adoption.”

Less than half of districts are using high-quality materials

In creating the database, CEMD intentionally oversampled large, urban districts, said Livingston. The dataset includes all U.S. districts with more than 10,000 students as well as the three largest districts in each state.

The goal was to center the curricular experiences of historically underserved students—Black and Latino students, students from low-income families, and multilingual learners. “The experience of these kids should be at the center, not the experience of the wealthiest and most privileged kids,” Livingston said.

To gather the information, a team working for CEMD combed through records from across the country, manually searching district websites, contacting district offices, and relying on other documents such as contracts with vendors.

“This information is ostensibly public, but ‘public’ sometimes means in an unlocked file cabinet that only four people know the location of,” Livingston said. “So actually going out and getting the information was itself the heaviest lift.”

Among districts that haven’t selected any high-quality curricula, what they’re using instead varies.

Some are using materials that EdReports has rated partially aligned or not aligned. About 16 percent of elementary math selections and 29 percent of middle school math selections fall into these categories. And about 28 percent of elementary curricula and 30 percent of middle school curricula didn’t have an EdReports ranking.

Unrated doesn’t necessarily mean bad, said Kevin Dykema, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and a math teacher at Mattawan Middle School in Mattawan, Mich.

“I would argue that there are some districts that are creating their own stuff and have really put a lot of thought behind what is being done,” he said.

But it’s hard to determine which unrated curricula fall into that category, and which aren’t as well-developed, he said. Curriculum development definitely shouldn’t be left to individual teachers, Dykema said.

“All content areas build on each other, but particularly in math there has to be attention paid to how skills develop from grade to grade,” he said—something that districts, with their comprehensive perspective of math trajectories, are better suited to do.

Smaller publishers are gaining a foothold

The “big three” education publishers—McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Savvas (formerly Pearson)—still dominate the market. Together, these three providers account for about 61 percent of the elementary curriculum selections in the database and 67 percent of the middle school curriculum selections.

But other smaller publishers are gaining ground, Livingston said. This is the case, especially among districts that are using high-quality materials.

EdReports could be one of the reasons behind this shift, Livingston said.

“EdReports has emerged as the best, most widely referenced definition of quality in the market,” he said. “A lot of the purchasers, to a higher degree, are saying, ‘We are only looking at green-rated.’”

EdReports’ criteria help to putsmaller providers on the same footing in that arena as established publishers, Livingston said.

Future uses for the database

CEMD has started building similar databases in other core subjects: English/language arts, science, and social studies.

The organization is also collaborating with several state departments of education, such as Massachusetts, to develop systems for collecting, organizing, and presenting curriculum use data.

Eventually, Livingston said, CEMD would want to be able to connect this information about curriculum use with data on student outcomes. That way, districts could use the database to identify which materials are associated with better outcomes in school systems that are similar to their own.

“It’s very clear to us that the reason districts make what we consider to be poor choices is a lack of information. They don’t have a definition of what they consider high quality, they don’t have a mechanism for determining that, and they don’t have a mechanism for identifying fast enough,” Livingston said. “We want to be more and more a part of their decisionmaking by creating an information rich environment for them.”

Still, Dykema stressed that curriculum alone isn’t enough to move the needle on instruction. Teachers need support to help them use materials well—professional development and time to plan and practice, he said.

“I worry about districts that think adopting that curriculum is going to be the silver bullet,” Dykema said. “Just adopting the highest-rated from EdReports doesn’t mean that your teachers are going to implement it the way it’s supposed to implemented.”


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