Switch in Curriculum Alone Doesn't Boost Student Outcomes

A cross-institutional study found that textbook choice hardly matters in improving K-12 student achievement. The project was led by researchers from the University of Maryland and Harvard University and also included people from institutions in California, Washington and Louisiana.

The researchers specifically focused on student achievement data and math textbook adoptions in grades 4 and 5 in six states, involving some 6,000 schools during the three school years between 2014-2015 and 2016-2017. They also surveyed 1,200 teachers on the use of textbooks, ancillary materials and professional development. The work was supported by a number of foundations that invest in education initiatives.

The big question the study intended to answer was whether a school or district could improve student learning "simply by switching to a higher-quality textbook." This is a subject that has been at the heart of numerous other research projects that suggested that switching from "less to more effective materials" could offer a "'large potential bang for the buck,'" especially compared to other costlier school improvement efforts.

The timing wasn't accidental. According to a report on the results, "Learning by the Book," "thousands" of districts have adopted new texts to make sure their curriculum aligns with the Common Core. This is also the first time that a cross-state study could be done on textbook adoption, an activity that has typically been strongly dictated by state recommendations and local school boards, making standards and achievement data an uneven business for analysis and often relevant only to individual states.

Overall, the researchers noted, they "found little evidence of differences in average achievement gains" across schools using different math books. That was true where teachers used the books at "above-average" rates, for schools where the books have been in use for more than a year, and even in schools where the amount of professional development teachers received was greater than average. Nor were the findings any different for subgroups of students — English learners, students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch or students with high- or low-baseline achievement.

The vast majority of teachers — 93 percent — reported that they use "official" textbooks in their classes at least some of the time; however, few (just 7 percent) said they use it exclusively. More than three-quarters (76 percent) said they use the books for creating tasks or activities, selecting examples or assigning problems for homework or independent study. Just 25 percent of teachers said they use the textbook in nearly all their lessons for all essential activities, including in-class exercises, practice problems and homework problems. Teacher respondents said they also turn to other resources, such as web repositories, materials created by fellow teachers or from their personal libraries, online content videos and software, to fill out their lessons.

The amount of professional development time teachers received in helping them work with the new curriculum was classified by the researchers as "generally low." Those using Engage NY/Eureka reported receiving the most PD — an average of 1.6 days, compared to 0.8 to 1.4 days for the other textbooks. Also, among those same teachers, 62 percent said they work with a math coach compared to 38 percent of teachers using the other textbooks.

The researchers emphasized that they didn't want to imply that curriculum choice didn't matter. "We believe that would be an overstatement," they wrote. Perhaps larger differences in student achievement would surface, the report suggested, "with greater supports for classroom implementation."

What did come across is that those who preach the importance of a given curriculum need to be specific about how much support and training was required for those changes "to actually bear fruit in the classroom." And they also would need to be clear about whether the costs for the extra supports were justified given the size of the learning impact compared to other changes that might be made?

"While our findings certainly cast doubt on the proposition that there are quick and easy payoffs to curriculum changes, the bigger error may be in thinking of curriculum choice and teaching reforms as alternatives," the researchers concluded. "It could be that in order to gain the benefits of either, districts must do both."

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