Educators Like Their Curricula More When the Training Is Good, Survey Finds

Jul 09, 2020

What do educators think about the quality of the curriculum they teach? It depends—mostly on the training they received. That was the driving takeaway from a recent survey of more than 2,100 teachers, the results of which were released today.

The K-12 curriculum market is “incredibly diverse,” says Jeff Seaman, director of Bay View Analytics (formerly known as Babson Survey Research Group), which conducted the survey. There are well over 100 publishers, and none can claim a majority of the K-12 space. Even the top three publishers—Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—together occupy less than half of curriculum adoptions.

With that variety in mind, the survey, which was nationally representative of U.S. school districts, sought to understand whether teachers think their curriculum is any good, and why. It considered all adoption types, from traditional publishers, to local curriculum creation, to open educational resources (OER).

Below are three takeaways from the report.

(Note: This survey was conducted in fall 2019, before COVID-19 transformed K-12 education and forced nearly every school in the U.S. to enact emergency distance learning.)

1. Clear and obvious patterns are ... largely absent

From examining the survey results, Seaman did not find any significant patterns that would indicate what made one curriculum publisher preferable to another.

The survey respondents who use one of the big three publishers, versus a smaller publisher, OER or a home-grown curriculum all reported similar levels of satisfaction and effectiveness. Seaman and his co-author, Julia Seaman, who is research director of Bay View Analytics, looked at the characteristics of the districts to ascertain whether any patterns existed: large districts compared to small ones, rural compared to urban. Still nothing. Then he checked by discipline, comparing math to science to English/language arts. No discernible patterns.

Only one factor came up again and again when educators responded favorably to the quality of the curriculum they use.

“The thing that is really, really compelling is if you ask, ‘How good was the professional development that you received when this curriculum was adopted?’” Seaman says.

Educators who felt they had received ample, thorough professional development when adopting a new curriculum were far more likely to report that their curriculum was high-quality. Conversely, educators who felt they had received a hasty or poor introduction to their new curriculum tended to think it was of low-quality.

“It’s not causal,” Seaman clarifies, meaning the findings don’t indicate that good professional development is what leads to a high quality curriculum. “But it is strongly indicative that there is some very strong relationship here. Our biggest, bottom-line conclusion from the survey is the biggest impact you can make and biggest difference you can show is the quality of implementation and how well planned it is.”

This holds true across all curriculum types: OER, small publishers, large publishers and home-grown materials.

Seaman says district leaders ought to see these results and understand the message to be that—all else equal—the quality of curriculum implementation is at least as important as the selection of the curricular materials.

2. OER is as good as—if not better than—commercial publishers

“There’s a persistent message out there that OER quality is not as good as commercial publishers’ quality,” Seaman says. “We prove that not to be true.”

Educators ranked OER above commercial publishers in nine of the 10 “deeper learning dimensions” the survey asked about, including how well the curriculum helped students to understand key principles of the content, apply their knowledge to situations, communicate complex ideas, collaborate with others and evaluate multiple sources of information.

Commercial publishers won out in only one area: their ability to help students “trust in their own capacity and competence” and feel successful at a variety of academic tasks.

These results, Seaman says, should encourage educators and give them greater confidence in the quality of available OER.

3. Math plays an outsized role in OER

The breakdown of the overall K-12 curriculum market looks like this, according to the survey respondents: 20 percent use Pearson materials, 14 percent use Houghton Mifflin, 13 percent use McGraw Hill, 13 percent grow their own curriculum locally, 5 percent use OER and the remaining 35 percent use one of the 100-plus smaller commercial publishers.

But if you break down curriculum options by discipline, OER plays as big a role in math as one of the top three publishers.

“That’s a big change from about five years ago, when it was essentially invisible,” Seaman says.

In math, 14 percent of adoptions are OER, compared to 4 percent for English/language arts, 2 percent for science and 1 percent for history and social studies.

The trend raises a lot of questions, Seaman says, such as whether OER can follow a similar path in other disciplines, or whether math is somewhat unique. He says it’s not a question he can answer now, but is one he intends to research in the future.

“OER is relatively new on the scene, so the fact that it’s still [used] at low numbers is not surprising—there are over 100 publishers out there,” Seaman contends.

Still, OER is the fifth-biggest provider of curriculum materials, ahead of all but three commercial publishers. “That, to me, is a positive.”

Bay View Analytics is trying to collect more data on this topic in the fall, specifically looking at how patterns and preferences have evolved. Seaman expects that, due to COVID-19, some new trends will emerge: “We have an incredibly diverse market, and we just put major shocks to that market. We have to believe that that market, coming out the other side, will show substantial changes.”


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