“The Common Core standards will only have a chance of raising student achievement if they are implemented with high-quality materials, but there is currently no basis to measure the quality of materials.” This sobering assessment by Matthew Chingos and Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution opens a strong argument for greater focus on instructional materials as states across the country, including Tennessee, implement Common Core State Standards in math and English/Language Arts. The authors contend instructional materials both directly and indirectly influence student learning and should receive greater attention in ongoing discussions around Common Core implementation, yet most of the discussion to this point has focused on the standards themselves and other issues such as teacher preparation and professional development.

Ensuring and supporting effective teaching is essential to student learning—and a cornerstone of SCORE’s work—but Chingos and Whitehurst present compelling data indicating choices of instructional materials can have significant effects on student learning in a given year and subject area. Despite the essential role of selecting the best instructional materials, a national review of 73 elementary school mathematics curricula found 66 of them to “either have no studies of their effectiveness or have no studies that meet reasonable standards of evidence.” We need to know more about instructional materials to make good choices in what materials are used to teach students.

SCORE’s founder and chair, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, recently wrote that the current inability of many states to track the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs based on the performance of their graduates once they reach the classroom “would be like a drug company producing medicines without measuring if the pills actually cure disease.” Similarly, Chingos and Whitehurst lament the current lack of useful data on which instructional materials are used in which districts, schools, and classrooms, or of the effectiveness those materials have in enhancing student learning outcomes. Without reliable data on which instructional materials are being used to the greatest effect for students, it is impossible to know which remedies might best be applied to cure the systemic disease of under-preparing students for success in college and the workforce.

District leaders, school leaders, and teachers are all in need of useful information to help them sort through the myriad instructional materials available to them, particularly in this time of preparation to implement fully the Common Core standards. According to Chingos and Whitehurst, “standards are a very leaky bucket, with the effect on instructional interactions in the classroom being little more than drips and drabs of the content standards adopted at the state level. Instructional materials are likely to mediate the degree to which content standards influence classroom instruction.” They present a three-pronged approach to better collection of information on the use—and usefulness—of instructional materials:

  1. Collect information on materials purchased in districts each year
  2. Survey districts regarding materials actually used in schools
  3. Survey teachers on what they actually use in their classrooms

Collection of this information at the state level could provide valuable resources for district and school leaders, as well as teachers, in making informed decisions about purchasing and using the best available instructional materials to improve student learning. Florida is currently the only state cited by the report as piloting a teacher survey of materials they use in class, but the program there could be replicated in other states, including Tennessee. Such a survey must guarantee anonymity for respondents in order to increase the accuracy of results.

Beyond surveying individual teachers, district surveys should spur more strategic thinking about the purchase and use of instructional materials, providing teachers and, most importantly, students with the tools and resources they need to succeed.