Here's what keeps high-quality instructional materials out of the hands of teachers

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Morgan Polikoff

In recent years, momentum has been building behind the idea that curriculum materials, including textbooks, represent a powerful lever for education reform. And yet, as the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli noted recently, no more than 10 or 15 percent of schools are using materials that have been found by outlets like EdReports to be high-quality and aligned to state standards. Why, Petrilli asked, are these numbers so low?

As I write in a new Brookings Institution report, The challenges of curriculum materials as a reform lever, there are many reasons why districts flunk this basic test.

First, school districts have complex, highly ceremonial practices when it comes to textbook adoptions. In the interviews my team conducted for the report, we found that virtually all districts have processes that involve a) one or more committees of teachers, b) evaluation of textbooks against complex rubrics, c) multi-week pilots, and d) one or more formal votes before reaching a final decision.

Second, even if districts adopt strong materials, that’s no guarantee that teachers will actually use them. The fact is that, while many teachers still use textbooks, large proportions of teachers use them as simply one resource among many. This finding is confirmed in both large, state- and nationally-representative surveys, as well as in our interviews of California teachers. In our sixty-seven interviews, no teachers said they used only the district-adopted textbook for their eighth grade mathematics instruction. Most teachers reported that the adopted book was inadequate in one of two ways—it lacked sufficient opportunity for students to practice foundational skills, or it lacked sufficient enrichment exercises to cover the more conceptual content in the standards.

Whatever the gap in the materials, teachers reported supplementing with lessons from old books or with materials they sourced from various websites on the internet. An illustrative quote from one of our teachers was “We have had to use additional resources. We can’t just settle on just using the [Textbook Title]. There isn’t enough quality in it in order to make it a full, 100 percent program. If you just used the book itself and nothing else, it wouldn’t be enough for them to learn the entire curriculum.” Given this view of textbooks, getting even the best-quality materials to be used with fidelity by teachers may be a challenge.

Teacher surveys suggest that textbooks may not be the main source of lessons for large proportions of teachers. For instance, a five-state study found that 72–80 percent of teachers (depending on subject) reported using instructional materials developed by them or their colleagues at their school at least once a week, as compared to 43–53 percent for materials created by external organizations such as publishers. Another national survey pegged the proportion using district-adopted textbooks once or more a week at about 62 percent. National data from the American Teacher Panel found greater than 90 percent of teachers reported using Google, and more than 70 percent reported using TeachersPayTeachers and Pinterest, to find lessons. Regardless of the data source, it is clear that textbooks are widely used but far from the only source of curriculum in typical American classrooms.

To be sure, our teacher interviews did find certain district-level policies that seemed to be associated with better implementation of standards. For example, we found that teachers did need some sort of backbone for their curriculum, and having a formal textbook adoption provided that. Teachers in districts that did not formally adopt a curriculum, or that took a very long time after the standards were written to do so, complained about the lack of support and their concomitant inability to fully implement the standards. So districts should adopt something, and it’s possible that a stronger backbone—offered by a more effective textbook—would be used even more.

In addition, teachers said they needed specific kinds of professional development focused on both the textbook itself and the standards more generally. They were critical of publisher-provided professional development, which they said often focused on surface elements of the materials. And they often were unable to state specific changes that were called for by the standards, perhaps reflecting a lack of deep knowledge of the standards. In short, teachers in general would like to have both a formally adopted material and support to understand and implement the standards through professional learning opportunities.

There are reasons to be optimistic that curriculum materials, including textbooks, indeed represent a powerful lever for education reform. And there’s are promising steps states, districts, schools, and teachers can take to overcome the many challenges. But each of them requires serious, sustained engagement. Here’s hoping leaders are up to the task.

This essay is adapted from a Brookings Institution report, The challenges of curriculum materials as a reform lever.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1445654, the William T. Grant Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and an anonymous foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funders.

Morgan Polikoff is an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.