“We’re the best. Just trust us!”

Finding unbiased information about instructional materials.

In its State of the Classrooms – Instructional Materials Questionnaire, Student Achievement Partners recently asked educators about the curricular materials they use in their schools. One question in that questionnaire was:

How well are your district-approved instructional materials aligned to college- and career-ready standards (does not include individual teacher supplements)?

48% percent of respondents said their materials were mostly or completely aligned to college- and career-ready standards. Not too shabby. Could be better, but that number wasn’t so bad.

Because Student Achievement Partners is an organization centered on evidence-based work, our next question was:

 How do you know your district-approved materials are aligned to college- and career-ready standards?

46% of respondents told us they relied on vendor-provided information that claimed alignment to standards.

When it comes to curriculum vendors, there isn’t a cabal of people in a back room rubbing their hands together like:The vendors aren’t plotting to ensure that kids receive an education that leaves them unprepared for the next phase in their lives. They are putting forth materials they have worked hard on and believe are the best products on the market. But, if we asked Ford who makes the best trucks they’re not going to say General Motors.

From that same questionnaire we know that state-approved instructional materials lists play an influential role in decisions about instructional materials purchases, but what influences the lists themselves? When it’s claims of alignment from the vendors themselves, that’s problematic. Were I a betting woman, I would say that vendor influence would lead to promotion of their own instructional materials, as well as fee-based professional development on those same materials. Lack of self-interest is critical in unbiased recommendations.

In the same way that we shouldn’t rely on vendors to promote other publishers’ materials over their own, we also shouldn’t rely on them as the only source of information about their own products. Neutral sources of information on materials alignment are freely available, however, and can be incredibly helpful to schools, districts, and teachers. Vendors don’t have to be instructional materials information gatekeepers – we can hop on down to the hardware store, get a set of our own keys, and throw open the doors on alignment information. EdReports offers extensive teacher-conducted reviews of instructional materials. These reviews clearly explain (with concrete evidence) why textbooks are (or aren’t) aligned to college- and career-ready standards. Just want an overview or are hesitant to jump into instructional materials review feet first? Check out Aligned’s introduction to EdReports.

Additionally, the Louisiana Department of Education continuously reviews instructional materials using a rubric based on Achieve the Core’s Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool. Louisiana educators are currently reviewing K-12 English language arts full courses and benchmark assessments, K-12 math full courses and benchmark assessments, K-12 social studies full courses and supplemental materials, and K-12 science full courses.

With the expanding availability of free and open educational resources, the information gained can inform materials review and selection to the tune of low or no cost. Use of these materials can help drive down prices of instructional materials, and allows for a mix of instructional materials.. But what about the quality of open educational resources? Washington State has conducted reviews for a variety of open educational resources developed in 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Whatever your next step, make sure you’re actively seeking neutral information before you make an instructional materials decision. Instructional materials matter. We can’t simply trust labels or vendor promises when it comes to what we put in front of students– we must demand evidence.

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About the Author: Janelle Fann is a member of the Student Achievement Partners Field Impact Team.