4 Signs of High-Quality Instructional Materials

This is part of a series of blog posts based on HMH’s recent report titled The Connected Learning Era: Mitigating the COVID-19 Learning Loss.

With the COVID-19 pandemic leading to disruptions in the everyday lives of students, educators, and families, school districts across the country responded swiftly, moving toward a completely remote learning environment at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

While some districts and educators were more prepared for this shift than others, this new mode of learning revealed considerable inequities in education. Along with vast differences across student populations in terms of access to technological devices, internet, and basic necessities, the quick switch to remote learning revealed drastic differences in the quality of instructional materials that teachers use across the country.

Now more than ever, it is essential that teachers have access to comprehensive materials that meet standards and offer rich, engaging learning experiences.

At HMH, we have been partnering with school districts to implement a Connected Learning System to help drive student growth while addressing students’ social and emotional needs and the needs of educators and other relevant stakeholders. The system is more than the sum of its parts. It’s coordinated to work harmoniously across all platforms to provide a seamless learning experience that supports the whole child, as well as teachers and families.

As research evaluators at HMH, we understand the power of high-quality programs to improve student achievement and change teacher practices. Our findings have provided valuable insights into the indicators of high-quality instructional materials and aided in the development and refinement of the latest iteration of digital learning tools and resources.

This school year, educators are confronted with many students entering the classroom who are further behind than they would typically be following summer recess. School leaders, teachers, and communities across the U.S. should assess their instructional programs to determine whether or not they are designed to accelerate student growth and achievement and help students overcome the negative impacts that COVID-19 has had on their education.

Why High-Quality Instructional Materials Are Essential

Using high-quality instructional materials, along with ongoing support and professional learning, provides perhaps one of the most intuitive ways educators can counter the negative effects of COVID-19 school closures and subsequent learning loss.

As several authors have pointed out (see here and here), swapping current instructional materials for high-quality ones is a low–cost, effective strategy for improving student achievement. The positive effects on student outcomes are meaningful and often sustained, lasting several school years after materials have been upgraded.

Making the switch is fairly easy. Schools usually face fewer barriers when carrying out an instructional materials overhaul compared with other major educational interventions. Costs for implementing high-quality materials are substantially lower than other school-wide reforms, and implementation can occur districtwide with proper support and buy-in from all stakeholders, including parents.

Indicators of High-Quality Instructional Materials

1. Standards Alignment

First, materials must align to 21st-century standards, as researchers have determined that this can lead to greater academic growth. This fall, students need a standards-aligned curriculum that will prepare them for college or a career. Educators should ensure the materials meet these criteria while also offering plenty of opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery of standards.

Using standards-aligned instructional materials ensures that teachers have clear criteria and guidance for instruction and assessment and are meeting the needs of all students.

"This fall, students need a standards-aligned curriculum that will prepare them for college or a career."

Given the potential deficits students may have from the extended period of school closures, educators need to ensure materials target the most critical and impactful content. These “priority standards” should focus as much as possible on grade-level content, with limited remediation and instruction covering standards from the previous year. By making these modifications, educators can target the most crucial grade level standards to help close any achievement gaps that may have resulted from school closures last spring. To accommodate these instructional shifts, materials should include a clear, actionable, scope and sequence and instructional pathways.

2. Rigorous Instruction

It’s not enough that all materials be designed to address rigorous standards; instructional materials also need to include thoughtful and evidence-based implementation models.

Instructional materials incorporating principles from the Universal Design for Learning Framework offer teachers flexibility and still provide impactful, appropriate instruction to meet the needs of various learners, including students with learning disabilities and those with limited English proficiency. To help support student and teacher engagement, and ease the transition to remote and online learning, schools should focus on instructional models with intuitive designs and predictable routines.

Rigorous materials go beyond standards. These instructional supports offer students opportunities to engage in meaningful, authentic learning activities while providing educators with tools to foster deep academic discussions. Materials should also provide students with multiple opportunities across learning experiences to engage with various primary and secondary resources and use several tools and components to solve problems and demonstrate mastery of concepts.

While reviewing for standards alignment, educators need to evaluate programs to ensure the pedagogical practices and instructional pathways align with their current learning goals. To assess the instructional rigor of materials, teachers and administrators should use a standardized approach employing a well-established and vetted framework. Several third-party organizations offer such guides and evaluation tools to aid districts in assessing the quality of instructional materials. When deciding on a framework, educators should examine several tools to identify one that is relevant, accessible, replicated, and scalable in their district.

3. Based on Research and Learning Science

In order to accelerate and deepen student learning, core curriculum, supplemental, and intervention instructional materials should be research-based, externally reviewed, and have demonstrated efficacy for students across a range of abilities.

To further maximize student growth and engagement, educators will want to focus on the most impactful evidence-based strategies for instruction and practice, including:

  • Scaffolding to support mastery of challenging content
  • Timely and meaningful feedback on learning activities, assignments, and assessments
  • Incorporation of the creative arts into student learning opportunities
  • Spaced retrieval and continuous practice with various learned skills throughout the school year, both in and out of school, by utilizing high-quality digital learning tools

4. Embedded and Sustained Professional Learning

One of the most impactful ways to accelerate student growth and achievement is through embedded and sustained professional learning. It is crucial to support teachers in improvement of their practice, with comprehensive, research-based professional learning that includes cohesive features, such as online coaching, remote peer observations, online collaboration, and facilitated online communities. Now, more than ever, it is essential that all professional learning also focus on how to ensure social and emotional well-being and meaningful student learning in remote, digital environments.

Impact of High-Quality Instructional Materials

Often, the impact of high-quality materials on students and teachers is immediately felt. Improvements in student (and often teacher) outcomes usually occur within the first school year. Many other school reforms can take years to see effects.

This fall and in future school years, we encourage districts to evaluate the quality of current instructional materials. Given the challenges of this school year, high-quality instructional materials are critical tools to help support teachers as they work to navigate new models of instruction and learning.

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How are you navigating a remote and in-person school year? Explore HMH Connected Teaching and Learning to address instructional planning, remote teaching and learning, equity and access, and professional learning.

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