When it comes to student learning and success, we know that teachers are the most important factor. It’s also true that along with the influence of teachers, high-quality curriculum has a significant effect on student learning. But even that’s not enough to improve teaching and learning on its own. An often-missing ingredient is professional learning for teachers that supports their effective use of high-quality instructional materials (HQIM). If a classroom with strong teaching and learning is a puzzle that has successfully been put together, then the puzzle pieces are: an excellent teacher, a strong curriculum, and ongoing support to use the curriculum to its full potential.

Right now, these puzzle pieces are fragmented. Sixty percent of math teachers and 74 percent of English language arts (ELA) teachers reported not using an aligned program at least once a week. Teachers are asked to do an impossibly hard job, and this pandemic has laid bare just how serious the challenges are. But, instead of giving teachers the support and resources they need, they’re often left to find their own materials to use in the classroom. 

How do we ensure all students have high-quality curricula in their classrooms, and that all teachers are using them with fidelity to support the learning of all kids? 

Educators need access to evidence that helps them select the right puzzle pieces for their schools and classrooms. At Overdeck Family Foundation, we do this within our Exceptional Educators grantmaking portfolio by supporting organizations that produce evidence that can help schools and systems choose high-quality curricular materials for their students. Below are examples of how our ecosystem grantees work to empower K-9 teachers and school leaders by generating evidence of what is working at the intersection of curriculum and professional learning. 

As funders, we must invest in evidence-based solutions that support decision-making for educators as they navigate selecting and implementing instructional materials and professional learning that will help all students thrive.

Evidence to support selection of better curriculum

EdReports is an independent nonprofit designed to improve K-12 education by increasing the capacity of teachers, administrators, and leaders to seek, identify, and demand the highest quality instructional materials. Using a comprehensive, rigorous review process developed and led by expert educators, EdReports provides free reviews of math, ELA, and science instructional materials that support smart adoption processes and help educators make informed decisions when selecting new curricula.

As the end users responsible for delivering instruction, teachers are ideal reviewers. They understand first-hand what it looks like to use materials in a classroom with students. EdReports currently has nearly 700 educators reviewers from 48 states with over 8,500 years of combined experience in the classroom. Over the course of four to six months, reviewers invest hundreds of hours individually and collectively for every report, looking at the full set of core materials for teachers and students, touching every page, clicking links, and engaging in the materials to ensure they conduct a fair and thorough review. Reviewers work in their team and across teams to calibrate and share successful practices.

The impact of EdReports can be seen in a few ways: as a result of this work, at least 60 instructional series have been updated and improved, and 51 percent of ELA materials and 44 percent of mathematics materials are now standards-aligned. Forty-six percent of school leaders report having heard of EdReports and 32 percent of those leaders have used EdReports to identify, select, and implement instructional materials. Nearly 1,300 districts representing almost 14 million students have used EdReports to support and strengthen their curricula.

Evidence to support better professional learning aligned to curriculum implementation

Teachers need and want quality professional learning to continue developing and improving. A recent RAND survey, co-funded by Overdeck Family Foundation, revealed that when teachers receive professional learning around their core materials, it affects whether they use them. Ninety-six percent of teachers believe that the number one factor leaders should consider when planning professional learning is whether it will help teachers effectively use their instructional materials. Yet, the majority of teachers, even those that have access to high quality curriculum, are not receiving the professional or leadership support they deserve, which leads them to waste precious time, spending up to 12 hours a week creating or searching for materials online because they don’t have the support that would help them use the materials they have. 

Rivet Education addresses this issue by defining high-quality, aligned to HQIM, professional learning and creating tools and services that support state and local education agencies in putting that definition into practice for teachers. Rivet’s flagship tool, the Professional Learning Partner Guide (PLPG), curates a list of organizations that provide the best curriculum-aligned professional learning services in the country. According to a recent Rivet study, the lack of reliable information about the quality of providers and services in the marketplace is a pain point for school and district leaders in planning effective professional learning opportunities for teachers; because of this, 75 percent of professional learning provided by leaders in the study is conducted in-house, and therefore there is little way to ensure quality for each workshop. 

The PLPG conducts unbiased evaluations of organizations to determine whether they have the skill and expertise necessary to support educators with curriculum-based professional learning. Of 58 professional learning entities that have applied to be featured in the PLPG, 45 have successfully passed the screening. The PLPG has had over 30,000 visitors to date, and serves as a key player in state professional learning strategies to scale the use of HQIM. On the state level, Rivet worked with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the Delaware Department of Education to create custom versions of the PLPG, and in states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island, school systems are pointed to the national PLPG as their bar for quality vendors. 

Evidence to support improvement of professional learning

The Research Partnership for Professional Learning (RPPL) is a research-practice partnership of professional learning organizations, researchers, and school systems. Together, they are creating a research and development infrastructure to support better, faster, and more research on teacher professional learning across four partner non-profit organizations, more than 30 affiliate nonprofit organizations and over a thousand schools. RPPL is a unique endeavor that will not only help professional learning providers elevate the quality and efficiency of their own offerings, but will allow for input on which questions most need answering by the professional learning providers and educators with which they work. 

One early piece of research from the Partnership, “Dispelling the Myths: What the Research Says About Teacher Professional Learning,” evaluates common claims about professional learning against research evidence to distinguish fact from fiction and help ensure that teachers and students receive valuable learning opportunities. RPPL researchers found that, too often, commonly-held beliefs about professional learning were not supported by research. Heather Hill, a professor of teaching and teacher leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Educators, explains that when it comes to professional learning, quality is more important than quantity. “Well-placed professional development that helps teachers build skills they will use in class fairly immediately is probably the sweet spot, much more so than PD that is more abstract on content knowledge absent a focus on specific practices,” she shares.

RPPL is currently diving deeper into this work by planning a large study to understand not only whether certain professional learning efforts work, but why they do or how to do them better. 

How this evidence is being used

At Overdeck Family Foundation, making both direct impact and ecosystem grants is key to our grantmaking model—the former allows us to fund innovation and growth while the latter clears the path to scale for our grantees through research and field building. Funding ecosystem organizations like EdReports.org, Rivet, and RPPL supports the generation of evidence to help educators and decision-makers in the field understand what quality looks like in curricula and professional learning. This benefits our direct impact grantees by helping them identify what is most effective, and make the case to school and system leaders about their importance. 

Two educators work together at a table

Image courtesy of Teaching Lab

Teaching Lab, a founding member of RPPL and one of our direct impact grantees, is an example of this connection. Teaching Lab offers a low cost, high-impact teacher professional learning program that empowers teacher leaders to lead professional learning on their own in three to five years. In Massachusetts, districts can now opt to work with Teaching Lab as a curriculum-aligned professional learning provider through the PLPG and the Massachusetts list of approved providers. The Massachusetts State Department of Education provides districts with guidance on curriculum quality through Curriculum Ratings by Teachers (CURATE), which is based on EdReports ratings.

Looking ahead to the 2022-23 school year and beyond, it is critical for school and district leaders to ensure that students benefit from all the puzzle pieces coming together—excellent teachers, high-quality curricula, and aligned, ongoing professional learning. As funders, we must invest in evidence-based solutions that support decision-making for educators as they navigate selecting and implementing instructional materials and professional learning that will help all students thrive. Guided by our vision for research in the year ahead, Overdeck Family Foundation remains committed to prioritizing research as a key way to increase awareness of what’s effective and to impact evidence-based practices within our primary focus areas.  

We invite you to join us in this effort to build evidence about the most effective ways to support educators, including professional learning aligned with high-quality instructional materials.


Header image courtesy of EdReports.org