Research and Reflections

Making the Connection Between Materials and Instruction

Why instructional practice should be at the heart of all instructional materials decisions

Though I’m no longer in the classroom on a day-to-day basis, I’m lucky that my role at Student Achievement Partners gives me the opportunity to speak with teachers frequently. We discuss their triumphs and their setbacks; what they love about their jobs and what makes them question their decision to enter the profession; the resources they have and what they could do with more. Most of our conversations circle back around to a common refrain: “I want to make sure I’m doing the best that I can for my students.”

How we can best serve our students is a matter of constant study, but what we do know is that in order to succeed, students need great, engaging, thoughtful instruction, and they need high-quality instructional materials that serve as the foundation for that instruction. When we spoke with teachers early in the implementation of their states’ college- and career-ready standards (and when we speak to them today for that matter), they wanted a reflection tool that helped them think about both components of a successful classroom at the same time. And they wanted answers to the question: “What does standards-aligned practice look like?”

In order to answer that question, Student Achievement Partners created the Instructional Practice Guides (IPGs) for math and ELA/literacy in 2012. The guides have recently been updated, so you can check out all the enhancements in my colleague Lisa Goldschmidt’s blog post here. While the IPGs are designed to speak specifically to the practice moves that teachers make in the classroom, they also shine a lot of light on the materials and resources that are in our classrooms. If you use the IPG, either for personal reflection or to observe another teacher, you’ve probably realized that instructional practice moves are only part of what makes a successful lesson.  We know that one of the best ways to support teachers in helping their students with the work of college- and career-readiness is by putting great materials in their hands—and reflecting with the IPG makes that case for this. The language of the Core Actions and Indicators demonstrates the many connections to quality materials, as well as clear implications for a teacher’s ability to be successful if those materials aren’t present in the classroom.

For example,  Core Action 1 in the ELA/literacy IPG includes: “The anchor text(s) are at or above the complexity level expected for the grade and time in the school year.” If the teacher is required to use a curriculum that features insufficient complex text options or that directs teachers in a differentiation strategy wherein struggling readers receive a lower-level text, she is hamstrung from the beginning. Even the best instruction can’t compensate for the wrong content.  In mathematics, the IPG Core Action 1 examines whether the “enacted lesson focuses on the grade-level cluster(s), grade-level content standard(s), or part(s) thereof.” If the teacher is using an unaligned textbook, she is faced with the daunting challenge of reordering and supplementing her materials instead of having time to focus on bringing strong content to light and meeting the different learning styles of her students. From the feedback we’ve received from those using the IPGs, we know that using the tool has forced some tough and honest conversations about what can realistically happen in the classroom when the right materials aren’t in place.

While the work of teaching and coaching is never easy, having the right materials in the hands of teachers can pave a way to effective instructional support.  And conversations about materials and practice should never be had in isolation because that’s not how classrooms work. Whatever role you play in process of  making the case for aligned instructional materials, I’d encourage you to push the conversation beyond how new resources are better than old resources, or how they are better than other resources available on the market. That’s important, but it’s not the whole picture. Use the IPG as your evidence. Show how materials shape the ability to teach well. Great teachers can adapt materials–but they shouldn’t have to. That time could be spent planning creative, engaging activities, and tailored support that build on a strong foundation, rather than having to create that foundation themselves. In our joint efforts of advocating for what teachers and students need to make the work work, we can focus our conversations about materials around their impact on supporting instructional practice.  The language found in the Core Actions of the IPGs can be used to frame the potential impact of an investment in aligned materials.

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About the Author: Sandra Alberti is the Senior Fellow for Strategic Partnerships at Student Achievement Partners. Sandra joined Student Achievement Partners from the New Jersey Department of Education where she served as the Director of Academic Standards and as the Director of Math and Science Education. In these roles, Sandra was directly involved in state standards, assessment, and professional development policy and implementation strategies. Prior to working at the state level Sandra held several district-level positions including school superintendent, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, principal, subject area supervisor and high school science teacher. She holds a bachelor's degree in Biology from Rutgers University and master's and doctorate degrees in Educational Leadership from Rowan University.