The Case for Curriculum: Why Some States Are Prioritizing It With COVID Relief Funds

By Sarah Schwartz — September 20, 2022 5 min read
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Much of the conversation around academic recovery has focused on providing additional instructional time: strategies like one-on-one tutoring, or summer learning programs.

But some states have also put a special focus on curriculum—using COVID relief money to promote districts’ adoption of high-quality materials, provide aligned training, and develop plans for using the materials to accelerate learning.

It’s a strategy that could shore up other academic interventions—like tutoring—that target pandemic-related learning disruptions, said Anne Bowles, a program director at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The group is tracking how states are using the federal funding distributed through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER. Most of this money, 90 percent, goes straight to districts to spend as they see fit. But analyzing how states use their 10 percent share provides valuable insight into instructional initiatives, said Austin Estes, the program director of CCSSO’s COVID Relief Data Project.

States have used this money to negotiate contracts for high-quality materials, provide technical assistance on their adoption and use, offer coaching, and review and revise standards. Some states, such as Connecticut, have also funded evaluations of learning recovery programs, and the state drew on those lessons to redesign 2022 summer learning opportunities.

A new CCSSO brief details the ESSER spending decisions of those states that are part of the group’s High-Quality Instructional Materials and Professional Development (IMPD) Network. The collective, formed several years before the pandemic, aims to encourage schools to use curricula aligned to state standards and get students engaged in grade-level work.

The network is part of a broader movement pushing for more coherence and rigor in the classroom materials that teachers use. Traditionally, teachers have a lot of leeway in what resources they use, often seeking out worksheets and activities on sites like Teachers Pay Teachers that host user-created options of varying quality.

Advocates for a more standardized, district-led approach say that using the same curriculum across schools can ensure that all students are receiving grade-level work and that lessons progress in a clear sequence, building knowledge and skills as students move through the grades. As some states have urged districts to adopt high-quality materials, they’ve also offered aligned professional development and coaching to support teachers.

Now, these states in CCSSO’s IMPD network want to make sure that academic recovery plans are connected to this broader instructional framework, Bowles said. “We’re seeing states be thoughtful about how they can align these efforts,” she said.

For months, experts have touted the benefits of this kind of approach to addressing unfinished learning. Studies show that interventions like tutoring and summer learning are more effective when they’re connected to what students are learning in their core classes.

Read on for a few state highlights, and see the entire brief here.

Purchasing high-quality reading and math curriculum

Several IMPD network states, including Massachusetts and Tennessee, are using these funds to adopt new curricula or support schools in purchasing core reading and math materials. In some cases, states have introduced a quality-control element: In Nebraska, districts have to pick curricula that are high-quality, which is defined as meeting expectations on the nonprofit reviewer EdReports’ evaluations.

Curriculum-aligned tutoring

Intensive or ‘high-dosage’ tutoring—usually defined as one-on-one or small group tutoring at least three times a week—is one of the most well-researched academic interventions. It’s also proven to be one of the most effective. Meta-analyses have shown that it can give students big boosts in both math and reading.

Federal data show that 56 percent of schools said that they had used high-dosage tutoring as a learning recovery strategy. But a couple of IMPD network states have set their tutoring programs apart with a special feature: They’re curriculum-aligned.

That means that tutors get trained in using the same materials that districts are using in their core classes, so that tutors are prepared to help students with course-specific questions. That is more effective than doing unrelated skills work.

In Arkansas, for example, tutors are required to take training in specific math and reading curricula. Louisiana’s tutoring plan asks teachers to group students by need and develop lesson plans to use during tutoring time.

Specific, relevant professional learning

Similar to tutoring, research has shown that teacher professional development is most effective when it’s aligned to the materials that teachers are using.

Several states in the IMPD network are using funds for this approach. Rhode Island is providing several cohorts of elementary teachers training on how to use specific math curriculum, and Texas has distributed some funding to districts to purchase curriculum-aligned professional learning.

‘Accelerating’ instruction

A few states have also developed plans for “accelerating” learning among students who are below grade level. The idea is to help kids do grade-level work by providing just-in-time support for areas where they’re missing key prerequisite skills or knowledge.

For example, a teacher would work with their 7th grade math class on 7th grade standards, even if students had missed key concepts from 6th grade math. The teacher would address those concepts in the context of the 7th grade lessons, rather than going back to teach entire 6th grade units.

Advocates of the approach say it can close gaps between lower- and higher-performing students. But it’s also challenging to implement in practice. Acceleration requires teachers to regularly assess what their students know and then reshape instruction to their specific needs.

Massachusetts and Delaware have both developed roadmaps for acceleration and are devoting ESSER funds toward helping schools put the strategy into practice. For example, Delaware is offering training to secondary reading teachers designed to help them provide “equitable” instruction to older students who have gaps in their foundational reading skills.


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