This post is authored by Jessica Fredston-Hermann, Portfolio Manager, Exceptional Educators, and Meghan McCormick, Research and Impact Officer. 

Over the past two decades, it’s become more clear that curricula matter for student learning. For instance, a number of compelling experimental studies have found positive impacts of high-quality instructional materials (HQIM)—that is, materials that are rigorous, research-based, and aligned with grade-level standards—on student achievement, making the call for the adoption of HQIM in schools louder than ever.

Yet, as the field learns more about curricular use and adoption, it is also becoming evident that just using HQIM may not be effective for boosting student achievement. How these materials are implemented, including the support educators receive in implementation, is important and could ultimately be a key factor in impacting student learning.

Curriculum-based professional learning (CBPL), which invites teachers to actively participate in the inquiry-based learning that standards-aligned instructional materials require, has emerged as a powerful way to help educators improve and strengthen their use of HQIM. CBPL includes structured opportunities for teachers to deeply understand the standards students should be learning, practice the activities that will prepare them to meet standards, and plan for implementation of HQIM in their own classrooms.

Curriculum-based professional learning (CBPL), which invites teachers to actively participate in the inquiry-based learning that standards-aligned instructional materials require, has emerged as a powerful way to help educators improve and strengthen their use of HQIM.

Researchers studying education reform have demonstrated that standards-aligned, academically rigorous curricula, though potentially beneficial, can be complicated to implement as designed. Traditionally, when adopting a new curriculum, teachers might receive a day or two of training on the new materials before using them to provide instruction in the classroom. So even though the materials may be “high-quality,” little else has occurred to help teachers make the deeper changes to their instruction—such as analyzing student misconceptions and using cognitively demanding practices—that are important for boosting student achievement.

In contrast, CBPL pairs HQIM with regular training and consistent coaching where teachers receive individualized feedback on their use of HQIM. And there is strong evidence that shows pairing HQIM with CBPL is both more effective and more cost-effective—and should be something districts prioritize when considering what to cut given the approaching ESSER funding cliff. 

Understanding the evidence

In a large-scale randomized controlled trial (RCT) of science-focused CPBL, researchers compared teachers receiving professional development focused on content knowledge, pedagogical approaches, and HQIM to teachers receiving the same amount of professional learning but with a sole focus on content knowledge. The former approach—with aligned CBPL and HQIM—improved students’ content knowledge by about half a standard deviation more than professional learning on content knowledge alone. This finding highlights the potentially high return of pairing CBPL with HQIM and collectively addressing multiple components of teacher knowledge and skills at the same time.

A separate RCT examined the effects of providing teachers with access to off-the-shelf HQIM and no support, compared to HQIM access plus a small amount of support to use and implement the materials. Researchers found that the impact on math achievement was 50 percent larger when teachers had access to aligned support.

This evidence is not unique to these two particular RCTs. Researchers from SRI found a striking pattern when they sought to identify the common characteristics of effective professional learning: almost all approaches that had positive impacts on teacher practices also included aligned HQIM. Relatedly, a meta-analysis of 95 RCTs and quasi-experimental studies of STEM professional learning found that impacts on student achievement were consistently largest (about one-quarter of a standard deviation) when the study tested the combination of CBPL coupled with implementation of new curricular materials. This work highlights the unique combination of using CBPL to support strong implementation of curricula for boosting student achievement.

Yet, despite this robust evidence base, most professional learning for teachers continues to be unrelated to the curricula used in the classroom, resulting in only about one-third of teachers reporting they have received training to effectively implement materials. Meanwhile, too many teachers aren’t receiving any development at all. Findings from a recent RAND study revealed that almost a quarter of teachers reported receiving no professional learning on how to implement their curricular materials, and just over a third reported receiving only one to five hours over the course of the academic year. This stands in direct contrast to meta-analytic work finding that effective professional learning approaches include about 49 contact hours with teachers.

Investing in evidence-based solutions

Courtesy of Leading Educators

Based on the evidence, our Foundation’s Exceptional Educators portfolio has long believed that to have the biggest impact on student learning, educators need to have access to HQIM aligned with CBPL. We’re proud to put this belief into action by funding two curriculum-based professional learning providers that work directly with schools and districts to implement high-quality curricula coupled with effective professional learning.

Since 2016, Overdeck Family Foundation has funded Leading Educators, a nonprofit that partners with school systems to provide curriculum-based professional learning and strategic advising to build and sustain strong conditions, teaching, and leadership. Recent research using a rigorous, quasi-experimental approach found that school adoption of the Leading Educators’ fellowship model was associated with improvements in students’ ELA and math standardized test scores. And an RCT of the program done in the Chicago Public Schools found causal evidence that Leading Educators’ professional learning boosted students’ standardized test scores.

Importantly, the study also found evidence that impacts were largest when the program targeted a small proportion of fellows in each school to implement its professional development intervention (perhaps resulting in greater dosage intensity), when fellows remained in the program for at least two years, and when fellows with district-level roles participated alongside fellows with school-level roles. Leading Educators is now building on these findings to continue strengthening implementation of the program as they scale to new schools. 

Another long-time partner of Overdeck Family Foundation is Teaching Lab, a research-based professional learning organization focused on providing educators with professional learning aligned with high-quality instructional materials and developing teacher leadership capacity to improve student outcomes. An external evaluation of Teaching Lab found descriptive evidence that teachers participating in the organization’s six-week virtual professional learning series on math experienced substantial improvements in their knowledge of math pedagogy, self-efficacy, and teaching practices. Teaching Lab is committed to demonstrating more rigorous evidence of impact that goes beyond fall versus spring outcome score comparisons, and has launched two large-scale RCTs as part of federally funded EIR grants.

Looking forward

This year, our team will continue to focus on supporting improved HQIM implementation, and we remain committed to ensuring educators have the supports they need to effectively use research-backed pedagogy, high-quality instructional materials, and aligned assessments in their classrooms. One area that we’re particularly excited to deepen is targeted coaching for educators in acknowledgment of the strong research base on individualized coaching that provides teachers with specific, timely feedback based on research about mindsets and the science of learning. We’re also exploring the opportunities that AI can play in scaling coaching to reach more teachers more quickly, and improve the effectiveness of coaching overall.

Lastly, as districts make difficult choices on what interventions and supports to keep or cut given the impending funding cliff, policymakers and funders have the responsibility to promote evidence-based decision making, which requires high-quality research in contemporary settings. Today, most of the foundational evidence that the field relies on is from over a decade ago and does not reflect significant shifts in teaching and learning that have occurred as a result of Common Core, changes in assessment structures, and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. By strengthening the evidence base on HQIM and CPBL in the coming decade, we can better prepare the sector to support strong student learning at scale in the years to come.

To access a full list of recent research funded by Overdeck Family Foundation, we invite you to explore our Research Repository.


Header image courtesy of Teaching Lab