Which Instructional Materials are the Best? Funders Aim to Provide the Answer

Educators across the country often wonder, “Which instructional materials should I use, and how will I know if they are any good?” A recent grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation may make those questions easier to answer.

A $1.5 million, two-year grant from Hewlett will fund the growth of EdReports.org, a new nonprofit operating under the sponsorship of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, the grant recipient. The idea for EdReports.org was hatched last year at an Annenberg Retreat, where a group of K-12 and higher education leaders identified a need for better reporting on the plethora of curriculum materials on the market and how well aligned they are to new standards such as the Common Core.

EdReports.org provides free, web-based reviews of instructional materials, examining their educational quality, usability, and alignment to the Common Core and other standards. Think of EdReports as a kind of Consumer Reports for school curricula. The grant from Hewlett will fund the new nonprofit’s growth and capacity building over the next two years.

In its short existence, EdReports.org has already made a splash in the K-12 curriculum world. Recently, the group published a devastating review of 20 different math programs used in schools across the country. The group’s reviews found that only 3 of the 20 lived up to claims that they were aligned to the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states and the District of Columbia. The other materials were judged to only partially or not at all meet criteria for alignment.

To review the materials, EdReports used groups of teachers and instructional leaders, having them examine K-8 mathematics materials from some of the best known educational publishers, including Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin-Harcourt. The organization plans to turn its attention to secondary-level math and K-12 reading/language arts curricula.

Hewlett isn't the only backer of EdReports, which has also received funding from the Helmsley Charitable Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates was a major funder behind the development of the Common Core. EdReports is chaired by Maria M. Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College in California. The organization’s board includes representatives from the Education Trust, the National Council of La Raza, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, as well as a state superintendent, an elementary school principal, and a master teacher.

Funders’ support for an organization like EdReports can be viewed in two ways. On one level, the support can be seen as an effort by funders to lend further support to a policy change—in this case, the Common Core Standards— that they championed. Since the adoption of the Common Core by the majority of states, there has been controversy over the standards themselves, the amount of testing, and the plan by some states and school systems to tie teacher evaluations to test scores. Some states that adopted the Common Core have since had a kind of “buyer’s remorse,” and backed away from implementing the standards or withdrew altogether. Oklahoma, Indiana, and South Carolina, all of whom adopted the Common Core in 2010, have since withdrawn.

At another level, however, the effort to provide school systems, principals, and classroom teachers with more information about the curricular materials used in classrooms can be seen as an attempt to move from just shaping policy to forging better links between policy and practice. In a recent paper presented at a conference on education philanthropy, Stanford education Professor Larry Cuban faulted funders for overemphasizing policy and being unable to influence classroom practice.

In this context, funding of EdReports is an encouraging sign that funders are making a greater effort to understand and address the challengers faced by educators, who are tasked with carrying out policy directives passed by federal and state policymakers.