Do teachers receive adequate support when new standards are implemented?

Discussions about standards tend to focus on either the caliber of standards themselves or how well teachers understand them, but a third aspect of quality standards-based instruction is the support districts and schools give teachers to implement standards. Good standards-based instruction requires supports like aligned curricula and textbooks, professional development, and knowledgeable leadership. A recent RAND study finds deficiencies in two such supports: school leader knowledge of standards and the quality and alignment of classroom materials.

Researchers Julia Kaufman and Tiffany Tsai surveyed 1,349 members of the nationally representative American School Leader Panel (ASLP) in October 2016, and received responses from 422, or 31 percent. The survey asked what materials schools recommended or required in English language arts (ELA) and math, and compared responses to a report from EdReports, a nonprofit that has reviewed popular instructional materials for quality and alignment with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). RAND researchers used these reviews to calculate a “percent alignment” for all EdReports-rated materials. The ASLP survey also asked questions to assess school leaders’ knowledge about approaches and content in key areas aligned with the CCSS (and most non-CCSS state standards): use of close reading and complex texts for ELA and grade-level content and balance between three areas of rigor (conceptual understanding, fluency, and application) for math.

Kaufman and Tsai find that many of the materials school leaders said were required or recommended are not aligned with standards. For example, a key instructional shift in the CCSS-ELA is the requirement that all students read complex texts at their own grade level. However, 64 percent of elementary school leaders and 22 percent of secondary leaders reported a requirement or recommendation to use “leveled readers,” an approach not mentioned in the CCSS-ELA. High percentages also reported use of guided reading series involving leveled reading, including Accelerated Reader/Renaissance Learning (35 percent of elementary principals and 30 percent of middle school principals) and RAZ-Kids/Learning A-Z (42 percent of elementary principals). In math, most of the top-mentioned materials had been criticized by EdReports as partially meeting or not meeting expectations in at least some areas or grades. Of the top ten math materials cited by principals, only Eureka Math was classified as meeting expectations in all categories and grades—and only 17 percent of elementary school leaders and 7 percent of secondary school leaders reported using it.

The study also finds that many school leaders do not have a strong grasp of the standards-related concepts assessed by the RAND survey. Less than half of school leaders said that requiring all students to read complex texts was aligned with their state standards, while the majority thought leveled reading was aligned. Notably, school leaders who reported using materials that met EdReports criteria were significantly more likely than others to recognize aligned concepts. School leaders were not consistently able to match the major standards-aligned math topics with grade levels, particularly beyond the elementary grades. 

Results did not all show lack of support, however. School leaders had more success matching math standards with relevant areas of rigor, and 15 to 20 percent of school leaders reported using materials that met EdReports expectations for all categories and grade levels. As researchers expected, whether states had officially adopted the Common Core made a difference to the alignment of materials: In CCSS states, the average percent alignment was 60 for math and 72 for ELA, compared to 54 for math and 64 for ELA in non-CCSS states.

The study has several limitations. Any material not reviewed by EdReports, including eight of the top ten ELA materials, was omitted from the analysis, but some of those materials might be high quality or standards-aligned. The survey explored only a few aspects of school leader knowledge of standards, and, as researchers repeatedly remind readers, questions on standards are adapted from surveys originally intended for teachers, and may reflect the level of detailed knowledge needed by teachers, rather than school leaders. Because the survey does not ask whether schools have curriculum specialists or other content leadership in implementing standards, results may not reflect the level of knowledge and support actually available to teachers.

The report contributes substantially to the conversation about standards implementation. Researchers make the important point that principals cannot encourage teachers to faithfully implement standards (or assess implementation) without some grasp of the instructional shifts required. The issue of misaligned materials is particularly pressing, and the report should encourage schools and districts to consult independent reviews such as those by EdReports. Even strong standards lose value when not supported with knowledgeable leadership and aligned materials—an area where schools and their leaders clearly still need support.

SOURCE: Julia H. Kaufman and Tiffany Tsai, "School Supports for Teachers' Implementation of State Standards," RAND Corporation (2018).

Emily Howell
Emily Howell Research Intern