Despite research demonstrating how critical high-quality materials are for student success, less than 20 percent of materials used in classrooms nationwide are aligned to standards. 

As the national leader in identifying and supporting the selection of quality, standards-aligned instructional materials, EdReports provides free reviews for existing curriculum based on standards alignment and usability to support all students. Their goal is to ensure that district administrators, teachers, and other key stakeholders use these reviews to select stronger curriculum to support student learning. 

We’ve been proud funders of EdReports since 2017, and are excited to support them with a new grant of $400,000 that will help them reach more users and influence more districts across the country. The interview below was conducted in June 2020 with Lauren Weisskirk, Chief Strategy Officer, and has been edited for clarity.

It’s been five years since EdReports first launched its curricula reviews. How have you seen your work affect the field, and how is your work particularly relevant now?

Five years ago, we put a stake in the ground that instructional materials matter for student success. They matter even more today. We all witnessed what happened when schools abruptly closed due to COVID-19 in March and teachers were not empowered with coherent, standards-aligned content. Students were forced to learn from unvetted low-quality resources quickly found online or not learn at all in many cases. 

EdReports’ theory of action is that independent information about the quality of materials will lead to an increase in demand for quality. This demand will push the market to improve its products. Better materials in the field means more students will have access to the materials they need to be college and career-ready. Moving our nation’s school districts and publishing houses to change their approach to instructional materials is no small undertaking, but we have seen positive shifts in the field since we launched in 2015. At least 30 publishers have updated and improved their products as a result of our reviews. Nearly half of ELA materials and a third of mathematics materials are now standards-aligned. Districts can now consider which aligned curricula is the best fit for their students’ needs and their local priorities. 

What’s more, our work is reaching local decision makers whose choices impact generations of students. Forty percent of school leaders report having heard of EdReports and 27 percent of those leaders use our reviews to identify, select, and implement instructional materials. We’ve heard from over 900 districts representing 11.1 million students that they have used EdReports to support their curriculum work.

As our work has expanded into new content areas and partnerships with districts and states, our team has grown, too. We now have 30 full-time staff and have trained nearly 700 educator reviewers who work in teams to conduct reviews. Because of the dedication of staff and reviewers, EdReports has become the go-to place for school boards, parents, and educators to learn more about instructional materials.

Image via EdReports

That’s an impressive amount of growth and impact for such a short timeframe, especially in the social sector. Would you say there were enabling early conditions that made this success possible?

Yes, definitely. Really it was the match between the environment, the solution, and the timing. In 2012-13, 46 states and the District of Columbia had adopted the Common Core State Standards. Federal grants provided incentives for the adoption of standards-aligned materials, but teachers and district leaders across the country were raising the flag that the materials that claimed alignment were not meeting the mark.

At that point, investing millions of dollars on new materials based on sales pitches or word of mouth was the norm. Our desire to create a “Consumer Reports of instructional materials” was in direct response to this environment. EdReports and our anchor funders believed that independent information could change the lopsided power dynamic between educators and publishers and help districts demand improvements–and know where improvements were needed.

When we launched in 2015, only 18% of teachers agreed their materials were aligned. So there was a clear need for information about the market and an audience ready to act. Within our first year, districts began to use our reports to demand that publishers explain their current ratings, how they were going to improve materials, or why they had not been reviewed. This district demand has only grown and has been a powerful lever for change.

One of your key goals is to empower educators and districts to make data-informed decisions when choosing a curriculum. Talk to us what it means for something to be “high-quality” and why high-quality instructional materials are important. 

Let’s start with why high-quality materials matter. Research shows that students learn primarily through their interactions with teachers and content, and that quality curriculum influences classroom practice and student outcomes. 

The average student spends three-quarters of instructional time each year on assignments that are not high-quality or aligned. Lack of access to quality resources affects students of color the most, which perpetuates opportunity gaps that follow students throughout their education and into college and careers. 

This is why we are so passionate about our work and why we think our reports have been so influential in a short period of time. We provide information about the characteristics of materials that we have learned are the most important for students and teachers, including  alignment to college and career-ready standards, guidance for supporting English learners and students with learning variances, and how well materials help teacher planning and delivery. We not only listen to the field; our reviews are conducted by practicing educators – those closest to the classroom. We know that teachers trust other teachers, and a critically important decision made in the development of our organization was to have educator expertise at the heart of our work.

Our commitment is to listen to the field, understand the market, and ensure the information we provide is relevant and valuable to educators making decisions on behalf of their communities.

Lauren Weisskirk,  EdReports

Even with all the progress we have made in identifying and advocating for quality materials, fewer than 20 percent of materials used in classrooms are standards-aligned. We are driven to ensure that yet another generation of students does not miss out on the support they deserve.

How are you thinking about the importance of digital curricula in our current situation and for the future? What should educators consider when adapting to the virtual classroom environment due to COVID-19? 

The COVID-19 crisis has illuminated to many what those of us working in the field of curriculum have known for a long time: the majority of students do not have access to high-quality instructional materials (whether paper-based, digital, or a combination of formats). 

The foundation for any materials initiative is a strong instructional vision rooted in equity and access for students. The question isn’t one of “digital” versus “paper” products, since nearly every product has online and digital components. The charge for districts and schools is to understand their vision for instruction, identify the current and aspirational technology capacity in the district, and find the materials that match these goals.

Our newly enhanced reports and our new reflection and planning tool offer districts ways to determine their vision for instruction, identify their technology needs, and identify which materials have the technology capabilities and features that can support the realization of this vision in remote, hybrid, and in-person environments. 

The enhanced reports show current features, what is under development, and what is available through additional purchases or in conjunction with another technology product. Districts are now able to learn about both the content and technology specifications of programs to find the best match for their communities.   

What lessons have you learned over the last five years that can help other education nonprofits hoping to drive change, especially when it comes to district buying decisions?

So much of what we do is built on a belief in the power of information, but we have also learned that information alone is not enough. Our work with states, districts, and educators centers on building a compelling case for why the status quo needs to change and how to do it. Our mission is to ensure quality materials are used—information is the lever, not the outcome. That’s why we invest time and resources into communicating why materials matter and how great materials can transform teacher and student learning experiences.

The COVID-19 crisis has illuminated to many what those of us working in the field of curriculum have known for a long time: the majority of students do not have access to high-quality instructional materials.

Lauren Weisskirk,  EdReports

To be an effective messenger, we knew we needed to be a trusted and credible source of information. From the beginning, we’ve taken steps to safeguard our independence. We purchase all materials for our reviews from publishers. We never recommend specific programs, because we believe local communities are in the best position to choose materials that will meet students’ needs. We are transparent about our review process, criteria, and results.  Anything you want to know about EdReports can be found on our website. And while we want to have the broadest possible reach, we have prioritized ensuring that district curriculum decision makers and teacher-leaders understand the value of our reports. That means we stay laser focused on reaching leaders in these influential roles. We always come back to the idea that getting the best information to the right people can help raise the quality of the entire market. 

Finally, while we are still a relatively new organization, we have invested in building internal capacity so that we operate like a much more seasoned non-profit. Approximately two years after our first reviews were published, we fundraised to build up our communications and field outreach teams because it doesn’t matter how great our reviews are if people don’t know that they exist and how to use them! We also have invested in our knowledge management and data capabilities. We have a robust impact-tracking system, are now conducting original research into the materials market and our influence, and make strategic decisions based on this data. The commitment we have had from the philanthropic community has enabled us to execute on our theory of action and continue to grow to meet the demands of our audience for quality information in a rapidly changing marketplace.

What’s next for EdReports? 

As we look at our mission and the state of the market, we see three primary areas of growth. 

The first is to deepen our current areas of review (K-12 ELA, math, and science) to provide more information about the characteristics of quality materials. For example, this summer, we enhanced reports of aligned materials with important technology information about how well these materials support remote learning. 

In addition, we want to expand into new areas of review. Our commitment is to listen to the field, understand the market, and ensure the information we provide is relevant and valuable to educators making decisions on behalf of their communities. We are working to identify new review areas in which we can have the greatest impact and support the most students.

Finally, we will amplify our reach with new audiences. We know that for the promise of high-quality materials to be achieved, we need the entire K-12 ecosystem—from teacher prep programs to charter networks to parents and community organizations—to be involved. 

We are excited for educators, partners, and funders to share the challenges they see in the market and how EdReports can support the field even more. We have seen that our theory of action and by-educator approach can have great impact, and our next efforts will be to increase this impact and help even more students achieve the promise of K-12 education. 

If you’re interested in learning more about EdReports’ work and what the organization has planned for the future, reach out to Lauren Weisskirk directly.