From Great Materials to Great Instruction

Instruction Partners, an organization that works with small school systems to strengthen instruction and accelerate student learning, has been working to understand what differentiates better outcomes in school reform projects. Up until now, research has held few practical answers about what specific actions could result in better implementation quality.

Instruction Partners engaged in a two-year project to dig into the stories and find the trends. They started by understanding what commonly goes wrong and found that five problems accounted for the vast majority of implementation challenges:

  1. “Nobody asked me.” Leaders are engaged in curriculum adoption, but teachers are left out, leading them to feel like the decision is forced on them and their students.
  2. “You are telling me to do different things.” Teachers are on board and excited, but leaders are not engaged in the process and don’t understand the materials, so they end up giving feedback that’s in tension with the curriculum’s design, creating mixed signals about what matters most.
  3. “I feel like a robot.” Teachers are asked to be so strict in their fidelity to the curriculum that they cannot meet students’ needs, who then struggle, and ultimately everyone rejects the materials.
  4. “I use it as a resource.” Without training or a specific plan for how the materials should be used, teachers’ well-intentioned adaptations get out of hand and dilute the materials.
  5. “This too shall pass.” The whole curriculum implementation effort is treated as another exercise in compliance rather than rooted in a meaningful vision for teaching and learning.

The problems districts experienced were the same no matter what materials they were using.

Researchers then set out to find districts that had surmounted these challenges, and studied what they did differently. At a high level, the stronger implementers did four key things differently:

  1. In a departure from many common practices, they clearly articulated what instruction in that subject should look like before they selected materials. Materials were in service of a vision of strong instruction; they were not the end goal.
  2. They did not cast a wide net on materials. Instead, they prescreened options based on objective evidence of quality and then had teachers, guided by the vision of excellent instruction in their content area, inform the final choice.
  3. They had an implementation team that was charged with the planning and success of the implementation effort, and that studied the materials together (i.e., did a unit study) to understand the choices teachers would need to make.
  4. They trained principals deeply and engaged them throughout the planning process.

Stepping back from the specifics, researchers also observed two fundamental differences in how the stronger implementers approached this work.

First, they used the curriculum as the centerpiece of their academic strategy. They treated curriculum like a tree, and all other academic systems—from assessments to teacher evaluations—hung on that tree and were supported by it.

Second, they had a wide-ranging set of conversations about how the materials would affect other academic systems. As questions came up about things like testing, grading, or scheduling, they didn’t sweep them under the rug; they dug in and figured out the best answer.

For a Curriculum Support Guide published by Instruction Partners as a result of this research, see

For more commentary, see