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New Study: High-Quality Instructional Materials Drive Collaboration in Education

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When families are more involved in students’ education, their learning benefits. Decades of research have shown that high family engagement leads to students attending better schools, doing better on assessments and being more likely to pursue a college education. Research has also shown that high-quality instructional materials are one of the most effective tools for increasing student achievement, especially when teachers are well-trained on how to use them.

Recently, as the COVID-19 pandemic blurred the lines between home and school, it became apparent that families can and should engage directly with the materials and curriculum their students are using to help drive academic achievement—and that high-quality instructional materials are the tools that make this possible.

Now, a new study conducted by the Columbia University Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) explores the important roles families and instructional materials played during virtual learning amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and how these roles should continue even as students return to in-person learning. The study spanned nine school systems across seven states that had implemented the use of high-quality instructional materials and served populations that were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, such as Black, Latino and low-income students. After interviews with 294 families, teachers and school system leaders conducted from February to June 2021, researchers found that high-quality materials united teachers, students and families around shared aims and activities, increased collaboration and transparency, and helped students own their own learning. The study also identified four connected pillars that contribute to a successful education—what CPRL calls the “expanded core”: students, teachers, families and high-quality instructional materials.

Four key lessons emerged from the study for educators and providers of instructional materials to better coordinate across the expanded core to fuel learning, even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

1. Expand the definition of what makes instructional materials high-quality.

For instructional materials to be considered high-quality, they must be aligned with college and career-ready standards and be focused, coherent and user-friendly. However, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that high-quality instructional materials should also be:

  • Educational for families: While we now know the value of parents and caregivers as educators, most are not professionally trained instructors with teaching experience. Materials need to be educational for families as well as students and teachers so that parents understand the curriculum expectations and content, and they have tools for monitoring and supporting students’ academic development.
  • Tech-enabled: As students may continue learning virtually, materials must support remote learning. The pandemic accelerated the use of digital tools for teacher and student collaboration with new resources like lesson videos for homework support—however, there is still room for innovation in our approach to the virtual classroom.
  • Culturally and community responsive: The past few years have heightened awareness of the importance of materials that are affirming, meaningful and engaging for students and families of all cultural backgrounds and lived experiences. There is much curriculum developers can do to act on this awareness, and teachers can benefit from support in adapting curricula to meet the needs of students in their school community in ways that remain aligned to standards and promote teacher collaboration. 

2. Use high-quality instructional materials to encourage collaboration within the expanded core.

Simply put: high-quality instructional materials can serve as the connective thread for students, teachers and families to engage together to support student learning. Even amidst the multiple shocks to everyday life caused by the pandemic, high-quality instructional materials laid the foundation for day-to-day learning. With clearly stated learning goals and assessments, these materials aligned expectations for families, students and teachers, providing structure and routine even as the classroom was reimagined to accommodate virtual learning. This was especially important for caregivers who found themselves sitting in on their students’ classes and responsible for tracking learning progress.

Some online programs made it particularly easy for parents to see what students were expected to do and help keep them on track. One of our grantees, Zearn, allowed caregivers to participate in their children’s learning based on their time and capacity. They offered options for caregivers to simply sign in their students and monitor progress, or to engage more deeply in the curriculum using resources for families. When teachers in one Hartford, Connecticut school could see student participation in Zearn was low, they were able to offer family math-learning sessions and other supports to parents to get 96% of students using the program effectively. 

Using high-quality instructional materials also meant that teachers could spend less time sourcing and piecing together effective curricula, and more time meeting each student’s needs and collaborating with families. For example, programs such as EL Education and Illustrative Mathematics, both funded by Schusterman Family Philanthropies, provided guidance and slimmed-down lessons that helped teachers keep the focus on grade level learning even with less instructional time and virtual teaching. During the pandemic, using high-quality instructional materials such as these gave teachers time to open new lines of communication with students and families, such as through texting, allowing for more direct collaboration and feedback.

3. Offer training for professionals focused on a tailored approach to implementing high-quality instructional materials.

It is not enough to simply hand teachers high-quality instructional materials—they deserve quality training that will enable them to bring the materials to life in their classrooms. As the pandemic brought school into students’ homes via virtual learning and families became more involved in day-to-day instruction, it became even more apparent to educators that education needed to be tailored to student, family and community needs. As a result, educators and curriculum providers worked to ensure high-quality instructional materials reflected families’ diverse experiences, backgrounds and cultures in order to provide more engaging, affirming and meaningful learning. Many instructional materials providers began offering materials reflecting a wider range of lived experiences: Amplify started including Spanish audio on their platform in addition to English; OpenSciEd added a unit on the pandemic, highlighting inequities in its impact; and Great Minds expanded the texts included in their Wit & Wisdom language curriculum to include more diverse stories.

While providers can strengthen materials to better reflect and address the needs of diverse populations, only teachers know the students in their own classroom and can adapt these materials as needed. Bringing the appropriate materials to life in instruction is essential for the sustained collaboration between parents, students and teachers. A representative from the provider Teaching Lab interviewed by CPRL noted, “in the past, students were adapting to teachers’ space. Now, teachers need to adapt what they’re doing to fit students’ space … There have been shifts in teacher mindset about how much student preference and culture and identity matter.”

Professional learning can aid teachers in effectively adjusting their curriculum to be more responsive to the communities they serve. For example, teachers in Clarksburg, Mississippi, found success when working with a professional learning provider to adjust portions of an ELA unit on immigration. After collaborating, the teachers focused the unit on the Great Migration, an immigration experience that is particularly relevant for their student population.

4. Create lasting systems for families, teachers and students to design, monitor and improve upon learning experiences.

Researchers at CPRL saw how families, educators and students in the participating school systems embraced high-quality curriculum materials and worked together in exciting new ways during the 2020-21 school year. Now is the time to maintain and build on these collaborative approaches. These systems already exist in fragments in the methods previously discussed in this post, such as teachers texting with caregivers and instructional platforms providing multilingual options for users. We have the opportunity to codify and share successful methods of collaboration, whether it be at the classroom, school or school system level, to ensure that what we have learned now is not lost in the future.

At its strongest, the use of high-quality instructional materials in curricula helps parents, teachers and students co-produce stronger results and gives back time to teachers to connect with parents one-on-one and learn more about student and family backgrounds. As one teacher shared, “I can be focused on the social-emotional health of my students. It makes for a more balanced life for me.” While this has always been a goal for educators, the COVID-19 pandemic made these needs obvious and showed the urgency necessary to meet them. By incorporating the lessons learned in this study, our students, families and teachers are better equipped to learn and teach, no matter what challenges life may bring.

Judy Wurtzel is a Senior Director of Education Grantmaking at Schusterman Family Philanthropies.

(Top Photo: bbernard/Shutterstock)