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CCSS and the selection of high-quality materials

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EdWeek recently reported that 68% of districts that participated in a national survey indicated that they would purchase new instructional materials to support the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. The 2013 survey was conducted by MDR, a market research group that focuses on education. MDR has released a four-part report, State of the K-12 Market 2013. Results cited in EdWeek indicate that most survey respondents felt that modifying curriculum and instruction — 84% — as well as assessments — 79% — to meet the demands of CCSS were a “high priority.”

As MDR’s findings indicate, the implementation of the CCSS has prompted districts to make large-scale changes in the instructional materials they use with students. However, as some policy groups have warned, districts must use caution when selecting new materials because there is currently a shortage of high-quality instructional materials that are aligned to the CCSS. In a report released in November, the Business Roundtable highlighted the need for an independent organization to review new instructional materials to assess their alignment to the CCSS and to help educators make “well-informed, cost-effective decisions” about the instructional materials they choose.

Not surprisingly, many districts face challenges in selecting high-quality instructional materials that are aligned to standards. In my 32 years in public schools as a teacher, principal and executive director of curriculum and instruction, I have learned how important it is to make sure that the instructional materials used in teaching are aligned to standards. If materials are not aligned to standards, students will not be successful no matter how hard the teachers and students work. I also saw firsthand the results of purchasing poorly selected instructional materials due to selection teams not knowing what criteria to use in the selection process. The results were frustrated teachers who many times chose not to use the instructional materials, which ended up in the loss of thousands of dollars, students not motivated or challenged, inaccurate feedback from poorly-designed assessments and most importantly, no increase in student achievement.

Recently, I began working to support other districts in making cost-effective, well-informed decisions about the instructional materials that will best meet their students’ needs. In this role, I have worked with a team to review the research literature addressing the characteristics of high-quality instructional materials and conducted focus groups with curriculum directors and instructional technology directors to understand the information they need when they make selection decisions. In the sections that follow I briefly summarize what we have learned through our work.

Organization and presentation of content

Instructional materials must be well organized and easy to read, with clear, measurable objectives for student learning. Content should have a clear scope and sequence and be presented logically, with explicit links to prior learning, and that content is presented in sections that are the appropriate size for the age and ability level of the student audience.

Content and rigor

High-quality instructional materials clarify for students what they should know and be able to do as a result of instruction. New material is introduced at a controlled pace with limited extraneous information and key information is prioritized. Students have access to opportunities to think critically about what they learn and see its relevance to the world they live in and their own lives. Effective instructional materials also include opportunities for students to practice what they’ve learned and to demonstrate their mastery of content in meaningful ways.


If instructional material includes assessments, they should enable educators to evaluate students’ mastery of content and provide critical feedback to guide and inform instruction. Assessments should be ongoing (e.g., pre-test, progress checks, summative), fully aligned with objectives, and should include opportunities for student performance on challenging tasks.

Technology-based activities

Increasingly, instructional materials include technology-based components. These components should be interactive and easy to use. They should facilitate purposeful learning activities with clear links to content and support individualized student learning.When considering technology-based instructional materials, educators will need to carefully consider minimum system requirements, such as necessary hardware and software, bandwidth and browser requirements, and time on task requirements.

I hope this brief summary of what we learned about the characteristics of high-quality instructional materials helps you or your campus in choosing the high-quality materials that best meet your students’ needs.

Dolores Riley is the director of alignment for Learning List, an instructional materials review service for schools and districts. Prior to joining Learning List, Riley spent more than 30 years serving public education as a teacher, campus principal and district-level curriculum director.