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The Overlooked Support Teachers Are Missing: A Coherent Curriculum

The research on how districts can improve instructional systems
By Morgan Polikoff, Elaine Wang & Julia Kaufman — March 02, 2021 5 min read
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It goes without saying that educators have been under tremendous pressure during the COVID-19 crisis. While there has been a good deal of attention on issues related to technology access and student engagement during the pandemic, there has been somewhat less attention to supporting teachers to teach a high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum during these times.

Even during the best of times, supporting teachers through coherent instructional systems—state and district policies around curriculum, assessment, and professional learning that provide teachers clear and consistent messages supporting standards implementation—has been a challenge. Students need access to a high-quality, coherent curriculum—both during the COVID-19 pandemic and when they return to in-person classrooms after the crisis has passed.

The three of us sought to characterize the presence of coherence in teachers’ schools and districts prior to the pandemic. Our study, published in November, offers a sort of baseline for how districts and states were doing to support standards implementation as we enter the fourth decade of the standards movement. Unfortunately, our work shows that a large majority of teachers do not teach in a coherent instructional system. However, our work also offers evidence-based recommendations for states and districts seeking to improve standards implementation through building more system coherence.

Last spring, we surveyed state-representative samples of English/language arts teachers in three states—Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island—using RAND’s American Teacher Panel to study curricular coherence. We also surveyed district leaders in these states and we spoke with state leaders about their policy contexts. We reached several important insights about the coherence of instructional systems in these states.

First, we found that just a third of teachers in our sample reported regularly using a high-quality standards-aligned core curriculum (which we determined based on ratings from EdReports.org). Many quality materials exist, but schools and districts are not systematically providing them, especially in the higher grades.

Second, we found that not even half of teachers receive curriculum-specific professional learning—57 percent of teachers reported never receiving multiday, curriculum-specific professional learning opportunities, and only 6 percent reported receiving more than a few of these opportunities a year.

More collaborative supports, like professional learning communities or common planning time, were much more common. But while these are undoubtedly important, they may not have the same curriculum orientation as more targeted opportunities. We found similar weaknesses in the provision of other curriculum and standards-implementation supports, such as lesson plans and aligned interim assessments.

Third, we found that very small proportions of teachers reported being in schools with high degrees of the conditions we think are necessary to support standards-aligned instruction. Just a quarter of teachers said that “goals for student learning that are clear for everyone” were present to a large extent, and just 10 percent said the same for “leaders who model learning.”

Based on our results, we drew some important conclusions that can inform standards-based efforts moving forward.

District leaders provided more positive responses, but even then, 41 percent of leaders reported that “the master schedule allocates sufficient time for all aspects of ELA instruction” in no or only some schools.

Using the results from the teacher survey, we classified the extent of coherence in their instructional systems. What we found was sobering. Just 1 in 7 teachers worked in a system that a) provided them a high-quality core curriculum, b) provided them two or more of four key policy supports for coherence, and c) reported at least a moderate level of conditions that support coherence. In fact, teachers were 50 percent more likely to meet none of these three targets than to meet all of them—meaning that they were more likely to work in an incoherent system than one that provided coherent guidance around how to implement standards and provide high-quality ELA instruction.

Based on our results, we drew some important conclusions that can inform standards-based efforts moving forward.

Our clearest conclusion was that the state policy context clearly matters. We saw very sharp differences between Louisiana teachers and teachers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in their descriptions of coherence. For instance, a third of Louisiana teachers taught in schools that met all three of the overall indicators we set for coherence versus just 1 percent of Massachusetts and 7 percent of Rhode Island teachers.

A major driver of the difference was access to high-quality curriculum materials, which Louisiana policy has made far more likely by introducing strong statewide incentives for districts to adopt so-called Tier 1 curriculum. In addition, Louisiana teachers reported more curriculum-aligned professional development and better alignment of interim assessments with standards. RAND researchers have studied Louisiana’s approach for several years now and demonstrated how state policy there has affected teacher knowledge and standards implementation. It is an approach to be emulated.

We also found some troubling gaps among teachers serving different kinds of students, and these gaps point toward an area for greater policy attention, particularly given the imperative to ensure equitable access to high-quality education for traditionally underserved students. The clearest gap we saw was for teachers with greater proportions of students with disabilities. They reported less professional learning and that their professional learning was less helpful. They also reported fewer enabling conditions for coherence at their schools. Clearly, this group of teachers and students has specific standards-related needs that states and districts must work to meet, perhaps through targeted professional learning and curriculum supports aimed at standards-based teaching for students with disabilities.

We are still too far off from the classrooms envisioned by standards advocates, and it will take sustained effort from educational leaders for us to reach these ambitious goals. States and districts must prioritize efforts to support teachers to understand and implement standards through high-quality curriculum materials, aligned professional learning and other policy supports, and efforts to improve the conditions in districts to enable coherence.

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