Benchmarks of Quality: A Powerful Tool for High-Quality Adoptions

April 24, 2023

“Most of them just create a text box on the side that provides the most basic support. It is not very creative in that it almost seems like they have a drop-down box of a list of ELL strategies and just choose one to insert.” - Elementary ELA Teacher

“I generally adapt the curriculum to add more mathematical language routines (MLRs).” - Middle School Math Teacher

These quotes about instructional materials are typical of the many voices of ELA and math teachers across the nation. English Learners Success Forum (ELSF) and San Diego State University (SDSU) surveyed 2,558 educators to gain insights into their perceptions and use of their current instructional materials. They discovered that nearly 80% of teachers believe that instructional materials do not include the necessary guidance and built-in scaffolds to effectively serve multilingual learners (MLLs.) As a result, teachers spend an average of 7-12 hours of their precious preparation time each week creating or finding materials that meet the needs of the students they serve (Goldberg, 2016).

Yet, the demand for MLL-effective materials continues to grow. According to the U.S. Department of Education MLL student numbers have surged by over one million students in the last twenty years and continue to rise. In some states, like South Carolina, MLL numbers have risen by as much as 400 percent. Troublingly, recent studies (TNTP, 2018; Schmidt, et al, 2015) demonstrate that students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to have access to high-quality curriculum and grade-appropriate assignments. This is especially an issue in some states like California, where MLLs comprise more than 40% of students, with 1.1 million of them still designated as English learners.

ELSF is committed to ensuring that teachers have access to high-quality instructional materials (HQIM) that are responsive to MLLs. These instructional materials are especially important since 68% of teachers reported that they do not feel adequately prepared to teach MLLs. So, what can we do to make sure teachers have the materials they need, or that they are using their instructional materials effectively?

One critical piece of the puzzle is to help state, district and school leaders understand what high-quality instructional materials look like. When purchasing traditional ELA and math instructional materials, state, district, and school leaders must consider ALL students, including MLLs. ELSF has stepped in to fill this gap by creating a powerful set of tools entitled the “Mathematics and ELA Benchmarks of Quality.”

The Benchmarks were designed because states, districts and schools are clearly voicing the need to understand the features of HQIM and how they support their particular demographic of students before they purchase materials. These Benchmarks contain clear criteria that can be used to assess materials during the materials adoption and implementation process. They synthesize research-based practices into five key areas (above) that effectively support MLLs–and all students–when included in core materials.

The Benchmarks can be used by anyone who is interested in ensuring that K-12 core instructional materials are equitable and reflective of MLL student needs and assets. For example, many states convene committees to create adoption policies and procedures, and to develop criteria for the review of core instructional materials. Once reviewed, these states publish a list of recommended textbooks. Using ELSF’s Benchmarks as a professional learning resource for these committees can ensure that the criteria and review process reflects the needs and assets of MLLs. States can use the Benchmarks to write strong requests for proposals from publishers and develop robust protocols for conducting equitable material reviews.

These tools can also be used by districts or school-level teams seeking to adopt or adapt new curricula by 1) informing the creation of local instructional materials evaluation tools (IMETs) or, 2) using them to assess the extent to which the needs of the multilingual learners in their own contexts are addressed in the materials. They can also be used in professional learning for teachers refining their lessons and implementing adopted materials.

For example, district leaders in San Leandro, CA wanted to leverage the adoption process to ensure that they improved the math scores of all students, including the 26% of MLLs attending their high schools. One phase in these improvement efforts involved preparing for an adoption process that reflected the needs of ALL students. Teachers, instructional leaders, and other district staff came together in professional learning sessions to learn about effective design features, to try them out in their instructional settings, and to make recommendations for preferred curriculum.

At the end of the sessions, teachers felt “awareness that the needs of multilingual learners were a priority” and that moving forward they “will definitely consider the language” in math. One teacher said, “I am very happy we are making this a focus.”

The Benchmarks have also been leveraged in highly rated professional learning sessions with cohorts of California districts readying their committees for mathematics adoptions. Partnering with professional learning providers, ELSF designed sessions that used the Benchmarks to help participants understand what elements are essential in instructional materials in order to support MLLs. These sessions prepared the districts to lead a strong materials adoption process and engage stakeholders to focus on the specific needs of the community. The vast majority of participants indicated that they would apply what they learned in their curriculum adoption work. One participant said the Benchmarks sections helped to “think holistically about supports” and another said the Benchmarks would be especially helpful “to guide questions for the adoption committee.”

Instructional materials are not the silver bullet that alone reduces the educational disparities between MLLs and their Native English-speaking counterparts. But, research demonstrates that core instructional materials can provide the octane that boosts instructional performance and learning opportunities (Opfer, et al, 2018; Koedel & Poliko, 2017; Kane, et al, 2016; Chingos & Whitehurst, 2012). High-quality core instructional materials (not just add-on ELD materials) that guide teachers to address the assets and needs of culturally and linguistically diverse learners are a powerful driver in improving educational outcomes for not only MLLs but all students.

Every member of the educational system has a role to play in improving the instructional materials options for teachers and students. Curriculum developers must create content that meets the needs of MLL students. Education leaders need to understand what high-quality instruction materials look like and then adopt those materials. Additionally, advocates need to push for the importance of instructional materials that are inclusive of MLL students who are too often sidelined. The Benchmarks can assist in all of these endeavors, only then will teachers have the materials they need to truly provide better instruction for MLLs and all students.

Renae Skarin has almost 30 years of experience working with English learner and minoritized populations through research, advocacy, and program development and implementation with educators nationwide and abroad. She currently serves as the Senior Advisor for Content at the English Learners Success Forum (ELSF) where she leads its research efforts to identify strategies and develop resources for improving education policies and practices with regard to high quality instructional materials for multilingual learners. Before joining ELSF she served as an associate researcher at Understanding Language at Stanford University. She received her M.A. in Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and did Doctoral studies in Educational Linguistics at Stanford University.


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