Purchasing Instructional Materials

Purchasing Quality Instructional Materials

Selecting the right curriculum is a high-stakes, legacy decision. Some districts adopt as often as every few years while others wait decades before making new procurement decisions. Too often we at EdReports.org hear of districts and schools that experience buyer’s remorse as soon as the materials begin to be implemented. They learn the hard way that while many products appear to have the same or similar characteristics, not all materials are created equally despite the same claims of academic rigor and standards alignment.

What You Choose Matters

As a talented teacher-leader from Kentucky shared with us, “If I didn’t have standards-aligned materials, I would be wasting time, spinning my wheels because I would not be teaching my students the standards they need. I would be teaching them something, but it would not be the right standards or the right content and in the end I would be doing them a disservice.”

Identifying which materials are aligned is difficult. There are many sources of data about materials alignment, so consider more than a 1:1 checklist of standards. Finding high-quality, standards-aligned materials is about much more than the mere presence of standards. We need to assess how well these materials support quality pedagogy and support students to reach the standards. Are math curricula focused, coherent and rigorous? Do ELA materials provide complex texts, support students in grounding evidence from text, and help build background knowledge through quality nonfiction?

Prioritizing investments in high-quality, standards-aligned instructional materials reap both short- and long-term benefits. Many recent studies confirm the importance of materials. One study found that quality materials can have 40 times greater an impact on student learning than reducing class sizes. Another showed that providing teachers with quality lessons had as great of an impact as moving from an average-performing teacher to one in the 80th percentile, with even higher effects for novice teachers.

The choices that districts make during their adoptions have far-reaching effects on other instructional priorities. For example, the design and quality of the materials affect the type of professional development that teachers will need, informs the interim and formative assessment strategy, shapes how teachers spend their PLC and team time, and affects how parents engage with their children’s classwork.

How You Choose Matters

Finding the best materials is only half of the challenge. To ensure that this investment will support student learning, the materials need to be accepted by the community and used in classrooms. The adoption process is often a key determinant for whether materials are embraced and utilized.

EdReports.org has heard from hundreds of districts nationwide about how they select standards-aligned curriculum, and we have learned a lot about what district adoption processes look like. The districts that report highest success with their processes have used the adoption process as a time to engage community, build the skills and knowledge of their teachers around the Common Core or other state standards and advance local priorities.

One district learned this lesson the hard way. After district leaders identified and purchased well-aligned materials, they expected their teachers to implement them the following year. Later, they found that some of their teachers were struggling to implement the materials with fidelity since they did not know how the materials were aligned. Other teachers had kept the books in the back of their supply closets, not embracing a decision that had been foisted upon them. The district team realized that in its rush to make a good decision, it had not engaged educators deeply in the review process and that top-down decision-making had hindered the adoption.

This district is now undergoing a second review process in two years and will purchase new materials again this year. The district is spending its valuable time and resources to fix the results of its previous adoption process instead of deepening implementation of high-quality materials. This time they are engaging educators from the beginning, providing professional development on what high-quality materials look like, and are building the foundation for the next several years of curriculum implementation.

Successful Adoption Practices

Districts that structure adoption processes that meet their local needs and have school buy-in reap the short- and long-term benefits of high-quality materials. We’ve compiled successful practices from across the country to support you during your next adoption.

  • Know district needs. Spend time analyzing your student and teacher data, preferably using a low-inference data analysis protocol. What does the data show about where students are succeeding? Struggling? What special populations do you need to support?
  • Clearly identify district goals, parameters, and decision-making process. What are your primary and secondary goals for an adoption? What are your district non-negotiables — e.g., materials must be aligned to the standards or the same program must be adopted across grade levels? What is your budget for this adoption, for supplementary materials, and for educator training and support? What criteria and data will be collected to inform final decisions? How will that decision be made and who will be included?
  • Engage educators early and often. Bring in teacher leaders to reflect alongside district leaders about the goals for this adoption. Clearly define roles for educators within the adoption process. Who better than classroom teachers to inform whether these materials will work to support your students? Include specialists like English language learner and special education coaches in the process. Develop a clear communication plan to update all educators in your district on your progress and goals, not just committee members.
  • Engage community members. This decision will affect the entire community, and engaging the school board, parent groups, unions, and other key stakeholders to provide input as the process unfolds will help prevent surprises down the line. Identify where their input would be most valuable.
  • Focus on aligned materials. The materials market is crowded; however, most teams do not have the time or capacity to truly consider more than two to three options. A best first filter for narrowing the list is the quality of standards alignment. This means looking deeply at materials beyond the labels or presence on recommended lists to ensure that they meet the standards with depth. This is the best way to ensure whichever materials are adopted will support your teachers and students to meet the rigorous expectations of the Common Core or other state standards.
  • Apply local priorities. After you’ve winnowed the field, work with your committee to develop and apply a rubric for determining how well materials meet local priorities. For example, is your district implementing a new technology initiative and you need materials that are delivered online? Districts can gather this data through piloting in classrooms or through dedicated PLC time to study the options.
  • Make a decision. Review the data from the pilots or the study. Structure time for committee members to share their experiences examining the materials, preferably using a protocol that links their data to the review rubric and the adoption goals. Prepare to share the data and how the process worked with your school board and the full education community.
  • Create a rollout and implementation plan. No materials will come off the shelf perfectly ready to meet your district’s needs. Map how materials need to be supplemented to become better aligned, what professional development your coaches, school leaders, and teachers will need, and how you will assess how well the materials are working over the next several years.

Supporting Students And Teachers

Which materials you choose and how you choose them will make a difference to students, teachers, and the entire community. With the right process that prioritizes high-quality, aligned materials and strong community engagement, you will be able to ensure that students have the materials they deserve to support them to be ready for college and careers.

Lauren Weisskirk is the Director of Partnerships and Strategy at EdReports.org. EdReports.org is an independent nonprofit that publishes free reviews of instructional materials, using educator-designed tools that measure standards alignment, usability, and other quality criteria. The reports help districts and educators make informed purchasing and instructional decisions that support improved student outcomes.

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