Teachers’ Use of Standards-Aligned Curricula Slowed During the Pandemic

By Sarah Schwartz — October 26, 2021 4 min read
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As teachers adapted their lessons to remote learning last school year, many made changes to materials—finding or creating new resources that would work in an online, distanced environment. A new report shows that teachers’ use of standards-aligned instructional materials flatlined during that time, after being on the upswing.

The new report from the RAND Corporation uses data from the American Instructional Resources Survey, given to a nationally representative sample of teachers over three school years, in spring 2019, 2020, and 2021. The survey asked which curriculum materials teachers use and how they use them.

Researchers then cross-referenced survey results with reviews of the curricula mentioned from EdReports, a nonprofit that evaluates commercially available curricula for alignment with the Common Core State Standards. Most states still use the standards, or standards that are quite similar. EdReports’ reviews are conducted by vetted teachers, principals, and other education leaders.

Between spring 2019 and spring 2020, there was a big jump in the percentage of teachers who reported using at least one curriculum material that EdReports shows is fully aligned to the common core: 24 percent said they did in the 2018-19 school year, compared to 35 percent the next year. (The 2019-20 data didn’t include the spring months of school shutdowns.)

But these numbers went down slightly after the 2020-21 school year, the first full school year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic: Only 33 percent reported using at least one fully aligned curriculum material, a 2 percent drop from 2019-20.

Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at RAND, said she and her co-authors on the report didn’t calculate the statistical significance of this change, but that it’s fair to say the previous year’s trend has stopped short.

“I suspect that this leveling off is because everyone sort of took their foot off the gas pedal and said, ‘Let’s do our best to support students right now,’” Kaufman said, noting that implementing district-wide adoption of materials, and sustaining their use among teachers, takes time, energy, and resources that were in short supply during the pandemic.

“I can’t imagine that school systems wanted to undertake that right now. I think some school systems did, but I can imagine not wanting to do so if you had the choice,” she said.

As Education Week has reported, many teachers scrambled to find or create resources that would work in a remote environment during the 2020-21 school year. In some cases, that meant abandoning materials they had used in the physical classroom.

Results from a separate survey bear out the finding that many teachers had to switch up their materials last school year.

In the winter of the 2020-21 school year, Kiddom, a digital curriculum and assessment platform, asked educators in its database if their schools designed their own curriculum this year. About 54 percent said yes, compared to only about 26 percent the previous school year. In a report on the survey results, the authors hypothesized that the pandemic had brought about the change, as teachers “improvised ways to keep their students engaged.”

Standards-aligned materials more common in math than English/language arts

The RAND survey also found that more math teachers reported using standards-aligned materials than English/language arts teachers.

The numbers break down by grade level, though: They’re high for elementary and middle school math, in which 48 percent and 47 percent of teachers, respectively, reported using at least one fully aligned curriculum material. Among high school math teachers, only 22 percent reported using at least one fully aligned material—the same as high school ELA teachers.

The overall trend represents a longer investment in aligning math materials, Kaufman said. “There was a big push to create more standards-aligned math textbooks as long ago as back in the ‘90s,” she said. “What’s been done more recently has just built on that.”

RAND also found that teachers in some states were more likely to use aligned materials than teachers in others.

The survey looked specifically at the states in the High-Quality Instructional Materials and Professional Development Network, a group organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers in 2017.

For the past few years, these states were actively promoting the use of standards-aligned materials. For instance, they’ve been providing information to school districts about which materials are high-quality, offering funding and incentives for adoption of those materials, and holding professional development sessions focused on their use.

In the 2020-21 school year, most of the states in this network reported higher proportions of teachers using standards-aligned materials than the national average. Some of these states continued to make gains during the pandemic, like Nebraska and Delaware, though others lost ground, like Louisiana. And some continued to make progress in one area but fell back in another—like New Mexico, which increased in math but decreased in ELA.

Overall, though, national numbers are still relatively low, and many teachers don’t use any standards-aligned materials at all, the report’s authors write:

“Therefore, very large numbers of students may not be getting the same rigor and high-quality instructional content as their peers in other classrooms. This means that states and districts must continue working to push use of standards-aligned materials, along with curriculum-focused professional development that can improve use of those materials and learning outcomes.”

See the full results of the RAND report here.


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