Even as more teachers say that their curriculum materials are standards-aligned, they still identify some major shortcomings that they say make it harder to reach all students. And they’re still spending their own money to supplement the resources that their districts provide.
That’s according to a new research brief from the RAND Corporation, released this week.
The report highlights why tracking what materials teachers are using in the classroom is so complicated. Even when districts adopt new products, individual teachers retain a lot of control over how and when to implement those changes.
The report is the latest installment in the organization’s American Instructional Resources Survey, which tracks schools’ use of curriculum and other classroom materials. Researchers asked a nationally representative sample of 3,719 English/language-arts teachers and 2,680 math teachers about the materials they used and their perceptions of them.
Overall, the share of teachers that said they were using new materials during the 2021-22 school year decreased from previous years. Only 45 percent said they did so this past school year, compared to 56 percent of teachers in 2020-21 and pre-pandemic.
Still, the ones they were using were more likely to be standards-aligned than in past years. (The researchers designated materials as “standards-aligned” if they met the criteria set out by EdReports, a nonprofit that reviews curriculum for adherence to the Common Core State Standards and other factors including usability.) Half of respondents reported using materials that were standards-aligned, compared to 37 percent pre-pandemic and 36 percent in the 2020-21 school year.
“This is good news, and it reflects some of our prior work,” said Andrea Prado Tuma, a behavioral and social scientist at RAND, and the lead author on the report. “There’s this trend where it seems like standards-aligned materials are being taken up more and becoming more common.”
(Earlier this year, RAND released research findings showing that when states made high-quality materials adoption a priority, teachers were more likely to say their schools were using them.)
Teachers say even aligned curricula aren’t tailored enough
Still, teachers often felt that standards-aligned materials fell short in other ways.
More than half said that they needed materials that could better engage students, differentiate lessons for students at different levels, or provide more options for students with disabilities.
Teachers’ ambivalence showed up in their use patterns. Most teachers who used new curriculum materials this year—61 percent—used them for less than half of their instructional time. While most teachers said these new materials were purchased by their districts, teachers reported spending their own money on supplements. More than half said they spent at least $100 on materials in 2021-22. About one in four said they spent $300 or more.
In some cases, teachers might be using new materials less frequently because they’re supplemental, and not designed to be part of core instruction. But the researchers also hypothesize that it could be because teachers are continuing to use older materials, even if districts have purchased new options.
“Teachers like to combine materials, and they curate a selection of materials that they use,” said Prado Tuma. “I think the key here is the importance of having professional development.”
If teachers don’t have support or time for implementation, they might rely on older resources that they already know how to use well, Prado Tuma said.
That could explain some of the variance in different surveys of instructional materials use.
For example, the new RAND survey found a lot of variety in the new ELA materials that teachers said they were using—no one product claimed more than 5 percent of respondents.
But other surveys that ask about what programs teachers are using, regardless of when they were adopted, show more uniformity. A recent EdWeek Research Center poll showed that elementary ELA materials use is clustered around a few specific programs.
It’s unrealistic to expect that teachers won’t supplement district-provided resources—even “if you provide this great curriculum, and you provide training,” Prado Tuma said.
Schools can help teachers become better evaluators of quality, she added, by helping educators make choices that will complement and strengthen core programs, rather than detracting from them.