Curriculum decisions need a “phone a friend” lifeline

I recently joined my local school district’s new curriculum selection committee for K-5 ELA. At our first meeting, leaders presented information from the state, including the relevant academic standards our materials must address. Given what I do professionally, this was interesting – but to be honest, it would have been a lot more interesting to start by hearing advice and insights from a similar district that had just gone through the same thing.

As I’ve mentioned before, states have far to go in collecting and sharing information on which instructional programs are in place across their districts, let alone how student outcomes match to those choices. Fortunately, the Center for Education Market Dynamics (CEMD) is digging deep into district data to fill the yawning gap in our collective understanding of which materials are actually being used in classrooms across the country. I recently connected with leaders from this powerful organization. Here’s what they have to say about the lifelines they’re looking to offer district decision-makers.

How does CEMD capture data on the “Impact Core”?

CEMD: CEMD collects data on curriculum selection in the largest districts across the US. We intentionally focus our sample on districts that serve a higher percentage of historically underserved students (Black and Latino students, multilingual learners, and students experiencing poverty) than the US population at large. Centering districts in our collection is integral to our theory of change, as district leaders are key decision-makers and buyers of instructional materials.

We collect curriculum selection information on Core, Supplemental, and Assessment materials for ELA, Math, Science, and Social Studies across K–12. We refresh our entire data collection on an annual basis, enabling us to paint a picture of the quality landscape of curriculum selection across the nation and to track trends and changes over time.

Our proprietary data collection, the Impact Core, is represented by 934 districts, approximately 5% of all school districts in the United States. This data provides critical insights into the instructional experience of more than half the students in the country, and an outsized number of historically underserved students, including:

  • 64% of Black students
  • 63% of Latino students
  • 31% of Indigenous students
  • 68% of multilingual learners
  • 56% of students experiencing poverty

What are some of the biggest challenges you hear from district leaders facing curriculum selections?

CEMD: District leaders commonly express challenges in navigating the dynamic process of curriculum selection, highlighting the need for reliable sources of information and insights to guide decision-making. One area of need that we commonly hear is emphasizing the importance of equity, inclusivity, and measurable impact on student outcomes in the selection process. Leaders also frequently emphasize the complexities of curriculum implementation, grappling with issues such as providing adequate professional development for educators, aligning curriculum with pedagogical approaches, and ensuring sustained support to translate selected materials into effective classroom practices. Finally, they grapple with issues such as ensuring alignment with evolving educational standards, managing budgetary constraints, and addressing the diverse needs of student populations.

Essentially, they mostly want to “phone a friend” using the same curriculum.

You’ve recently put out a report on the high school math market. What are some of the big takeaways?

CEMD: Overall, we’re seeing a real opportunity to center the needs of today’s high school students by focusing attention on the high school math curriculum market. Some of the key findings from our recent report include:

  • The high school market is much different than the K-8 market, in that it is smaller, has fewer publishers on the supply side, less spending on the demand side, and generally less research and policy attention focused on it. The market is also divided into two curriculum models – “traditional” and “integrated”.
  • The high school market is largely stagnant. Older titles dominate our district sample, and new, higher-quality curricula have not yet made their way into high school classrooms.
  • HQIM uptake at the high school level requires sector-wide effort. We encourage district leaders to review their high school materials against their current needs and context. We also call on researchers, funders, policymakers, and publishers to help encourage this forward momentum on behalf of high school math students nationwide.

I’m waving a magic wand and creating the ideal state for curriculum data nationwide. What does this look like?

CEMD: In the ideal state, there would be a comprehensive and standardized system that provides foundational data and detailed insights into which instructional materials are in place in all districts in all states across the country, and the effectiveness of those selected materials. This system would afford district leaders an opportunity to look across state and district lines to learn what’s working for diverse student populations, as well as the implementation factors leading to success in like-districts across the country, fostering a culture of continuous improvement. Finally, it would facilitate the sharing of best practices across various instructional contexts, enabling educators and district leaders to learn from successful implementations and make more-informed decisions to enhance curriculum selection and implementation strategies in their own districts, ultimately driving an uptake in the selection of high-quality instructional materials and improved student outcomes.

Thanks to CEMD for the great work they’re doing to build the fiber optics we need for a national “phone a friend” for curriculum. 

Jocelyn Pickford is an education policy and communications specialist focusing on understanding and promoting practitioner-informed public policy across the private, public and non-profit sectors as a Senior Affiliate with HCM Strategists. She began her career in education as a high school English teacher in a regular and special education inclusion classroom and is now a public school parent and recent member of her local district school board. Previously, Jocelyn led the design, launch and implementation of the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education to integrate teachers into the national education policy dialogue. Jocelyn’s passion for her work was seeded during her own public school education and took root during her classroom teaching experience in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she led action research and presented instructional materials to a variety of audiences. Jocelyn earned her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College (CT), working as a professional writer and editor prior to becoming a teacher, and obtained her master’s in secondary education from the George Washington University. Jocelyn lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two children.