High-Quality Teaching and Materials in Every Class are Key to Students’ Recovery

Slover & Cohen: Kids do best when curriculum, materials, professional development, tests and state standards align with schools' expectations for them

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

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The pandemic has taken an enormous academic toll on the nation’s students, especially those in high-poverty schools. In response, states and districts are pursuing a range of interventions, from intensive tutoring to summer learning opportunities. But ensuring that students’ daily classroom instruction is built on high-quality, standards-based instructional materials and teaching techniques should be a core component of the work. 

Shifting the focus of state accountability systems from test results to the quality of instructional systems could help. Think of this commitment to instructional coherence as the next phase of the standards movement in public education. As we describe in our essay “Unfinished Agenda: The Future of Standards-Based School Reform,” instructional coherence supports teaching practice and student learning by ensuring that the professional development that educators receive, the materials they use in class and the assessments they give all line up with the expectations for what students should know and be able to do, rather than tugging in different directions.

The interaction among students, teachers and curriculum is key to determining what and how well students learn. Ensuring that teachers have clear signals about what students need to master by the end of the year, high-quality instructional materials and assessments to promote that learning, and training in the materials’ effective use lead to more-coherent instructional systems — and more learning.

A study by the Council of Great City Schools of six urban districts that showed significant improvement in math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress between 2009 and 2019 found that they all sought to increase alignment when it comes to instruction. Louisiana has raised achievement statewide using the same strategy, by helping schools and districts implement more coherent instruction, anchored in high-quality materials and teacher training. 

Encouraging state lawmakers to rethink accountability systems could support the spread of such efforts. We propose that states primarily hold districts accountable for the coherence of their instructional program and its continuous improvement, while continuing to publicly report achievement and attainment results by race and income (in order to shine light on the performance of underserved students) and attach modest consequences to them, consistent with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. To that end: 

  • States should require every district to demonstrate that its curriculum, instructional materials, professional learning and local assessments are aligned with each other and with state standards. States should help districts build a coherent instructional program and then start holding districts accountable for the coherence and quality of their instructional program.
  • School districts should be responsible for conducting or commissioning a coherence analysis, with guidance provided by the state. There is no off-the-shelf guide for this work, but a recent paper from Carnegie Corporation of New York provides a solid framework for aligning professional learning with high-quality curriculum materials and describes the leadership and resources necessary to promote and sustain coherence.
  • States and districts should work collaboratively, with outside expertise, to develop the guidance and metrics that can determine the coherence of local instructional programs. Foundations should help launch this process by funding research and development and the piloting of tools. But ultimately, the federal government should support — but certainly not conduct — coherence monitoring, analysis and improvement efforts to sustain this work. In the short term, federal COVID recovery monies could be used to lay the foundation.
  • States should support the ability of educators to do this work by bringing together district teams to develop and implement comprehensive, coherent instructional-improvement plans. The teams should include curriculum and professional development leaders, teachers, school leaders and representatives of parents and the local community, among others. States should invite districts to participate, with the expectation that there will be multiple groups of teams over a period of years, with the aim of having every district ultimately participate.

    The outcome of this process should be a comprehensive, districtwide strategy that leads to common instructional tools, guidance and support; ongoing teacher and school leader training; and support for struggling students and schools. It would put in place sustained leadership to drive the work. And it would prioritize community investment and engagement in school improvement, while reinforcing a culture that stresses collaboration and accountability. If well executed, this strategy would advance both student learning and educator satisfaction. In this time of exhaustion following COVID closures, this is exactly the kind of renewed energy we need in our schools.
  • States should establish consequences that make sense. That means targeted supports to help districts achieve greater coherence, rather than punishment, unless the problem is a lack of will. A regular review cycle with publicly shared results could be the core of this accountability system. Where local will is an obstacle, states should have the authority to tie financial resources to the use of evidence-based solutions that have been adopted by districts.

Many school districts lack the time, resources and expertise to build new instructional systems by themselves. But Louisiana and the urban districts in the Council of Great City Schools study demonstrate that such systems can be constructed. If the nation hopes to recover from a devastating pandemic and turn its public education system into a true engine of economic opportunity and social mobility, the task ahead is to scale that work dramatically — and reignite a passion for learning in children and adults alike.

Disclosure: Walton Family Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provide financial support to CenterPoint Education Solutions and The 74.

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