States Take Many Paths to Advance High-Quality Curriculum and Align Professional Learning

State boards can take a lesson from the work of leading states.

Multiracial group of teachers walking in school hallway. Image credit: iStock
Image credit: iStock

The policy landscape around curriculum selection and implementation is thorny: The federal government cannot mandate any state or local curricula, state policy varies widely, and local schools and districts often lack the capacity to support and sustain detailed reviews of materials and ongoing teacher training in quality curricula. Cultural and political battles around curricular content make a tough job even harder.

Despite these challenges, several states are advancing sound policies and programs to make it easier for districts to choose and use quality instructional materials, even as they preserve local control. These leading states range in size, geography, and political environment. But they demonstrate that this work can—and must—be done and that state boards of education can engage in myriad ways.

Defining Quality

The term high-quality instructional materials (HQIM) can be defined in many ways. Here we define HQIM (or, more succinctly, curriculum) as the set of core teaching and learning resources—such as textbooks and workbooks, lessons, tools and kits, digital materials, pedagogical frameworks and guides—that schools and districts adopt for educators to use in classroom instruction. Quality of materials must be verified by an evidence-based review process. EdReports is considered the national leader in providing free, rigorous, educator-led reviews. Several states have partnered with EdReports to conduct state-specific program reviews or have learned from the EdReports process to create their own.

Quality of materials must be verified by an evidence-based review process.

In addition to having access to HQIM, teachers need aligned professional learning opportunities that help them to use those materials in classroom contexts. “Rather than focusing on either teachers’ content knowledge or teaching strategies alone,” said the authors of a recent analysis of science education, “curriculum-based professional learning (CBPL) does both in the context of the instructional materials being used.”[1]

Local Control Is Not a Barrier to State Support

Leaders will often cite “local control” as a reason why states do not get involved with curriculum adoptions and implementation. While it is true that most states ultimately leave curriculum decisions up to local districts, state education departments can and should make it easier, smarter, and cheaper for districts to choose and use quality materials.

Some states require districts to choose from a list of vetted instructional materials or formally ask to use something different, as in Oklahoma and Tennessee.[2] In Wisconsin and Texas,[3] the state does not require or limit instructional materials but provides guidance, recommendations, and incentives for districts that make it easier for them to select high-quality materials. Even in states where there is no recommended list, as in Illinois,[4] state education agencies provide resources like rubrics to help districts assess curriculum quality before they make their selections.

For states that do not yet offer these supports, creating and evaluating resources for districts across all grade levels and subject areas will seem daunting. To begin, state leaders can target curriculum support to just one subject or age group and then scale efforts over time. For example, leaders can leverage momentum around evidence-based early literacy instruction grounded in the science of reading as the starting point for implementing quality materials and aligned professional learning.

State leaders can target curriculum support to just one subject or age group and then scale efforts over time.

State boards play varied roles in this work based on their legal, regulatory, and political contexts. Four examples—from Alabama, Delaware, Colorado, and Nebraska— demonstrate ways boards have chosen to lead. Two of these states participated in the High-Quality Instructional Materials and Professional Development (IMPD) network, launched in 2017 by the Council of Chief State School Officers.[5] Two are outside this network.

Alabama

State Support for Instructional Materials. Alabama’s State Textbook Committee reviews and approves a state list of textbooks and instructional materials. The state board selects some members of the textbook committee and approves committee recommendations. Local districts may apply state funds to purchase from that list or may choose to adopt materials outside it using local funds, but they may not select materials that the state board has rejected.[6]

Math. While many states have new laws to support early literacy instruction, in 2022 Alabama passed the Alabama Numeracy Act. Like the 2019 Alabama Literacy Act, the Numeracy Act calls for a state task force charged with recommending HQIM. With a focus on K-5 math, the task force will review HQIM for regular classroom instruction, as well as for use in specific programs designed to support students in need, in order to recommend a list for state board approval. The act also specifies these added supports:

  • state-vetted CBPL opportunities and supports, with dedicated state funding for teachers and principals centered around core math knowledge;
  • certified K-5 math coaches in each elementary school; and
  • a summer intervention program for identified fourth- and fifth-grade students.

Colorado

State Support for Instructional Materials. Colorado provides evaluation and adoption resources for each subject area, including sample curriculum. In some subjects, like math and reading, the state offers HQIM lists from sources like EdReports, Colorado’s own recommendations, and the Louisiana Department of Education, a national leader in HQIM evaluation and adoption. In other subjects, such as science, the state does not offer explicit lists but recommends supplemental materials.

Local districts are not required to choose from the suggested materials for each subject, but in some cases are incentivized to do so. For example, in 2022, the state offered instructional materials grants to accelerate student learning for K-8 math and K-3 English language arts. Seventy local education agencies received money from Colorado’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) state reserve for the purchase of state-approved HQIM.[7]

Literacy. In 2012, Colorado passed the READ Act, aimed at getting all students to read at grade level by fourth grade. After six years of implementation, policymakers amended the law to strengthen the state’s literacy efforts. Additional amendments in 2021 and 2022 kept the law current with new research on the science of reading.[8] The latest version includes the following:

  • a new Instructional Programming Review Process, which annually creates advisory lists of evidence-based core, supplemental, and intervention instructional programs and professional development programs;
  • a requirement that districts submit detailed improvement plans to the state about the district’s reading assessments, curriculum, and intervention services;
  • a requirement for students with significant reading deficiencies and those reading below grade level to have a literacy block daily; and
  • mandatory, evidence-based training in teaching reading for all K-3 teachers and teachers of grades 4-12 who work with struggling readers.

In addition, Colorado’s Department of Education maintains a Literacy Curriculum Transparency Dashboard to track instructional materials used across districts.

The Colorado state board plays a significant role in READ Act implementation. It sets grade-level expectations in reading, adopts the list of approved assessments, adopts rules as necessary to specify timeframes and procedures for implementation, and manages the appeals process.

Delaware

State Support for Instructional Materials. Since joining the IMPD network in 2017, the Delaware Department of Education has offered districts tools, resources, and guidance so they can navigate local decisions on materials and professional learning.[9] Through a virtual HQIM Learning Series and a dedicated web page, state leaders have stressed to educators and families the importance of quality materials and training.

A state definition of HQIM clarifies that such materials “include a full year’s worth of teacher materials (e.g., syllabi, lesson plans) and student materials (e.g., books, assignments, tests) that support student mastery of grade-level material; are fully aligned to Delaware’s standards for what students should know and be able to do at the end of each school year; and achieved a ‘green’ rating on EdReports.”[10] The state uses EdReports reviews to annually update its list of recommended HQIM for English language arts and math. Additionally, its Digital DE web page provides a “free online hub for best-in-class instructional resources including tools to build educator’s knowledge of HQIM and support the selection of new materials.”[11]

While the Delaware state board does not have a mandated role, the department works in tandem with board members to share information and gather feedback. Board members regularly participate in state advisory groups specific to instruction.

High-Quality Professional Learning. Delaware has emphasized curriculum-aligned professional learning from the early stages of its efforts to advance HQIM. For the past several years, the state has awarded districts competitive grants to advance teaching and learning. As of the 2021–22 school year, these grants have required a focus on vetted HQIM.[12] According to Delaware, high-quality professional learning centers teacher training experiences that are “specific, relevant, equitable, ongoing, and engaging.”[13] The state adopted professional learning standards to “set clear expectations for professional learning at the state, district, and building levels.”[14] It also lists vetted providers that can support curriculum-aligned instruction, providing districts with reliable, time-saving information.

Nebraska

State Support for Instructional Materials. Nebraska codified its focus on curriculum quality in Rule 10, Title 92, of the Nebraska Administrative Code, a part of its school accreditation regulations.[15] While the state does not require districts to use certain curricula, it defines curriculum quality indicators for elementary, middle, and secondary grades in each subject area. To support districts in adopting and implementing HQIM, the Nebraska Department of Education partners with the Nebraska Education Service Unit Coordinating Council and the Nebraska State Literacy Association to maintain the Nebraska Instructional Materials Collaborative, which highlights HQIM and aligned professional development for ELA, math, science, and social studies. Its website guides districts toward a defined selection process, research, and communications tools.[16]

Among the many resources Nebraska provides is a step-by-step guide for curriculum selection, which includes a draft timeline and an example of a district-led consensus protocol. The state also tracks curriculum usage through an Instructional Materials Map,[17] so districts can discover curriculum used in similar areas across the state and the state can track the success of its HQIM efforts. Encouragingly, the map shows that most districts are using HQIM for English, math, and science.

The state board hires and evaluates the state commissioner, who is responsible for supervising and consulting schools, issuing materials, establishing rules around standards and procedures, and approving teacher education programs.

Math. Nebraska aspires to halve the gap in eighth-grade math achievement by 2030, as outlined in the education department’s Nebraska Ready: PK-12 Policy Priorities.[18] To achieve this goal, the state is including HQIM in district accreditation requirements and strengthening professional learning offerings.

It is also incentivizing district use of HQIM by making them free. As part of its pandemic recovery efforts, Nebraska used ESSER funds to offer Zearn Math to all schools. Over 9,000 educators across nearly 500 schools accessed core instruction, tutoring, and summer learning resources to accelerate student learning, reaching more than 110,000 students.[19]

A Zearn study of its curriculum’s impact on 2022 state assessment scores of Nebraska elementary and middle school students in six districts showed that students who consistently used Zearn Math experienced significant growth, with 9 percent increases over 2021 in proficiency scores for all students. This increase was constant or larger across subgroups of students, including Black and Latino students, students eligible for free or reduced lunch, and English language learners. Students who did not use Zearn Math or used it only a little declined 7 percent.[20]

Roles for State Leaders

As the examples attest, statewide progress toward strong materials and aligned teacher training is possible. While there is no universal approach to advancing HQIM, certain characteristics of a strong adoption and implementation process emerge: a dedicated curriculum adoption committee, lists of vetted HQIM, robust opportunities for aligned professional learning, and strong data collection and evaluation processes.

Policymakers can strengthen curriculum adoption in their states in five ways: by learning the role their state education agencies are already playing, engaging partners to raise awareness of the need for better curriculum and materials, engaging with HQIM adoption committees, elevating curriculum-based professional learning, and supporting the collection and analysis of data on curriculum usage.

Know the Landscape. State education leaders should understand what role the state education agency plays in supporting HQIM and CBPL and whether there is room for improvement. The Collaborative for Student Success’s 50-state CurriculumHQ map gives state leaders a snapshot of state supports and lets them compare with neighboring states.

Raise Awareness. To build momentum for state support of HQIM and CBPL, state leaders will need to engage partners such as the CCSSO IMPD Network in making the case. Groups can work together to provide data and examples from other states that demonstrate the effectiveness of HQIM and CBPL and encourage action locally.

Engage with the Adoption Committee. Some states require committees to review and approve mandated or recommended instructional materials while others do not. The state board often plays an important role with such committees where they do exist, offering its members a critical opportunity to expand the use of HQIM. If a state is not providing this support, proposing creation of such a list and guidance around curriculum adoption is an important place to start.

Elevate Curriculum-Based Professional Learning. Leading states in this area provide funding, guidance, and resources to help districts access professional learning aligned to high-quality curricular programs and communities of practice across the state. Existing state structures for teacher training, such as regional service centers, can be leveraged to emphasize the importance of HQIM.

Consider Data Practices. To understand the impact of their efforts, states should support the collection and sharing of information about the use of quality materials and professional learning. Tennessee and Rhode Island’s education agencies surveyed educators on curriculum implementation; such data inform state leaders’ continued investment of time and funding. For example, 96 percent of Tennessee educators reported that they primarily use their district-provided, state-vetted English language arts materials rather than creating their own.[21] In Rhode Island, most teachers report feeling knowledgeable about their curriculum, but many report a need for greater engagement in materials selection and collaborative professional learning.[22] Rhode Island is one of a few states that provides a curriculum map showing each district’s selections. Adopting such a tool statewide could help more districts identify opportunities to coordinate state supports with other districts using the same materials as well as identify local partners.

While the discourse on curriculum has too often devolved into simplistic, partisan debates, state leaders can set a better path for others to follow by improving the structures that enable districts to use quality materials that support teaching and learning. Educators and students deserve no less.

Jocelyn Pickford and Kate Poteet are advisors to the Collaborative for Student Success.

Notes

[1] P. Sean Smith and Courtney L. Plumley, “K-12 Science Education in the United States: A Landscape Study for Improving the Field,” report (Carnegie Corporation of New York, December 2022).

[2] Oklahoma State Department of Education, “State Textbook and Instructional Material Review Process,” web page, updated June 30, 2023; Tennessee Department of Education, “Tennessee Textbook Adoption: Roles & Responsibilities,” N.d., web page.

[3] Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, “Instructional Material & Professional Learning,” web page; Texas Education Agency, “The Review and Adoption Process,” web page.

[4] Illinois State Board of Education, “Standards and Courses,” web page.

[5] IMPD helps states ensure that their students receive high-quality, standards-aligned instruction and that districts provide teachers with high-quality materials and training. The network includes Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas.

[6] Alabama State Department of Education, “Procedures for Adoption of Textbooks outside the State-Approved List,” web page.

[7] Colorado Department of Education, “ESSER K-8 Mathematics Curricula and K-3 READ Act Instructional Programming Grant,” web page.

[8] Colorado Rev. Statutes 2022, Title 22, Article 7, Part 12, Colorado READ Act.

[9] Delaware Department of Education, “High-Quality Instructional Materials,” web page, rev. June 30, 2023.

[10] Delaware Department of Education, “Overview of High Quality Instructional Materials,” web page.

[11] Delaware.gov, “Digital DE,” web page, rev. September 11, 2023.

[12] CCSSO, “Impact of the CCSSO IMPD Network,” case study (Washington, DC: CCSSO, January 2022), 6.

[13] Delaware Department of Education, “High-Quality Instructional Materials.”

[14] Delaware Department of Education, “Professional Learning Standards,” web page.

[15] Nebraska Department of Education, Rule 10, Regulations and Procedures for the Accreditation of Schools, Title 91, Chapter 10, rev. August 1, 2015.

[16] Nebraska Instructional Materials Collaborative, https://nematerialsmatter.org/.

[17] Nebraska Instructional Materials Collaborative, “Instructional Materials Map,” web page.

[18] Nebraska Department of Education, “Nebraska Ready: PK-12 Policy Priorities,” web page.

[19] Zearn, “Across Student Subgroups and All Levels of Proficiency, Nebraska Students Experience Large Gains in Math Learning with Zearn,” press release, 2022.

[20] Alisa Szatrowski, “Efficacy Analysis of Zearn Math in Nebraska,” technical appendix (Zearn, September 2022).

[21] Jocelyn Pickford, “The Kind of Curriculum Transparency We Can All Get Behind,” CurriculumHQ blog.

[22] Jocelyn Pickford, “Survey Says! Perspectives on Progress to Expand Quality Instruction in Rhode Island,” CurriculumHQ blog.





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