Research Brief
A female teacher stands in front of a class explaining a concept while her students listen. Photo by wavebreak3/Adobe Stock

Photo by wavebreak3/Adobe Stock

Key Findings

  • We asked teachers which of seven components of their instructional system gave them the most effective guidance for their instruction. Teachers reported curriculum materials, peer collaboration, and academic standards as offering the most information to teach English language arts and mathematics.
  • Most surveyed teachers viewed their instructional systems as moderately coherent.
  • Teachers give precedence to state academic standards when they detect inconsistencies among system components.
  • Teachers felt that guidance in addressing equity and diversity was sparse across instructional system components and wanted more.
  • More-coherent instructional systems supported teacher confidence while incoherence evoked frustration and anxiety.
  • Study results suggest minimal association between instructional system coherence and measures of teachers' instructional practice as measured in surveys.

Teachers get a lot of messages about what to teach and how to teach it. These messages come from different sources: State education departments, district leaders, and school principals all offer guidance to teachers. It is not just people or organizations that give these messages, either. For example, curriculum, student assessments, and professional development activities signal to teachers what to emphasize in their instruction.

This influx of messages can be an asset when messages reinforce each other and all messages align with a shared educational goal. The synergy — or coherence — of messages from the different sources can provide clear direction that drives high-quality classroom practices and deep student learning.

But what happens when these messages do not cohere — or even clash?

When messages conflict, teachers become uncertain about what to prioritize in their teaching. Teachers may get frustrated or overwhelmed by the myriad messages that they have to address. Their approach to instruction may become unfocused, and the quality of instruction can vary across a school district or within a school if instruction depends too much on teachers' own priorities and understandings. As a result, students in different classrooms could experience very different learning opportunities and may not be focused enough on grade-level content that is aligned with their academic standards.

Concerns about instructional system coherence have risen over the past decades as states adopted more-rigorous standards, such as the Common Core. Yet adopting academic standards alone will not shift student learning without consistent schoolwide effort; that is, standards need to be supported across school instructional systems for every student to receive and master them. This means teachers need to receive clear, aligned, and consistent messaging from all parts of the instructional system, from curriculum materials to professional learning and beyond.

Despite growing commitment to instructional system coherence, little is known about the degree to which American school systems are coherent. There is also little evidence telling us how teachers perceive the coherence of the messages that they receive from various parts of the systems.

RAND researchers sought to fill in these blanks by surveying and then interviewing K–12 teachers across the country. They then developed recommendations to address the most common systemic disconnections. This brief synthesizes their multiple studies. In this respect, this brief presents a portrait of the extent of coherence in U.S. public schools and suggests ways forward to improve coherence in instructional systems.

Instructional System Coherence: Definition and Drivers

The authors leverage previous research and literature to suggest that key components of an instructional system should cohere in messaging. In other words, important parts of the system should deliver consistent or complementary messages to teachers regarding what and how to teach. Messages should also address how instruction can meet the educational needs of historically marginalized students. The bottom section of Figure 1 illustrates such a system.

Figure 1. Standards-Aligned Coherent Instructional System Conceptualization with Supportive Conditions

Flow chart showing five conditions that lead to seven instructional system components

Hypothesized drivers or conditions supporting the development of coherence

  • Vision for academic improvement
  • Culture of continuous improvement
  • Instructional leadership
  • Common instructional practices
  • Time, structures, and resources

lead to:

  • State standards
  • Professional development
  • Teacher collaboration guidance
  • Curriculum materials
  • Teacher evaluation
  • Summative assessment
  • Interim assessments

SOURCE: Adapted from Elaine Lin Wang, Jonathan Schweig, Julia H. Kaufman, V. Darleen Opfer, and Tiffany Berglund, Coherence in English Language Arts and Mathematics Instructional Systems Across the United States, RAND Corporation, RR-A2168-1, 2023.

NOTE: The figure depicts the instructional system at the school level only. Additional components of instructional systems and supportive conditions for coherence exist at various levels, including state, district, and school levels.

The system in Figure 1 consists of seven components. The idea is that if these components seamlessly cohere with academic standards, teachers can put their schools' instructional priorities into action with confidence. Thus, students get more-consistent, grade-level, standards-aligned learning experiences.

The top part of Figure 1 shows five critical contextual conditions that, based on research literature, are considered necessary for supporting coherence throughout the system.

Findings

Where Do Teachers Get Guidance About What to Teach?

Curricula, teacher collaboration guidance, and academic standards offered the most information to K–12 teachers about teaching English language arts (ELA) and mathematics. Teachers participating in the survey were tasked to identify which of the seven instructional system components offered guidance on the following five key aspects of ELA/mathematics instruction: (1) content to emphasize, (2) rigor or difficulty, (3) instructional strategies, (4) pacing or sequencing, and (5) addressing equity and diversity. The top three components that teachers reported as giving them guidance on each of these topics were the same for both ELA and math: curriculum materials, teacher collaboration guidance, and state academic standards. Most teachers said that curriculum materials and teacher collaboration guidance helped them address all five aspects of their instruction noted in the survey.

We also asked teachers in interviews about who provided them with guidance for their instruction. About one-half of the interviewed teachers noted that administration at the school and district levels provided key messages. Fewer than 20 percent of the teachers said that messages came from the state level.

Teachers most commonly pointed to professional development, teacher evaluation, and summative assessments as either missing from their systems or not providing them with teaching guidance. About one-third of math and ELA teachers stated that their teacher evaluation did not offer guidance or was not part of their instructional systems. Similarly, 25 percent to 30 percent of these teachers reported the absence of professional development and summative assessments in their instructional systems. In contrast, fewer than 10 percent of teachers indicated that their state standards or curriculum materials did not provide them with guidance or were not present.

How Much Instructional System Coherence Do Teachers Perceive?

Most surveyed teachers perceived a moderate level of instructional system coherence. There are 21 possible pairs among the seven instructional system components in Figure 1. All possible pairs are illustrated in Figure 2, and teachers were asked to rate the similarities between messages about instruction provided for each pair.

Figure 2. Twenty-One Potential Pairs Among Instructional System Components as Identified by Teachers' Perceptions of Interconnectedness within Their Instructional System

Diagram with seven points in a circular shape and lines connecting the points

The educational needs of historically marginalized students are all tied to each other.

  1. State standards
  2. Teacher professional development
  3. Collaboration
  4. Evaluation
  5. State summative assessment
  6. Benchmark assessments
  7. Curriculum

SOURCE: Reproduced from Elaine Lin Wang, Jonathan Schweig, Julia H. Kaufman, V. Darleen Opfer, and Tiffany Berglund, Coherence in English Language Arts and Mathematics Instructional Systems Across the United States, RAND Corporation, RR-A2168-1, 2023.

NOTE: This figure illustrates a fully coherent system in which all seven instructional system components align with or reinforce each other.

According to the survey, teachers rated, on average, about 13 out of 21 potential connections between instructional system components as both present and providing messages that were more similar than dissimilar. This finding suggests that U.S. teachers generally see a little more than one-half of their system components as providing similar or supportive guidance on teaching methods or content. Most teachers rated the connections among standards, curriculum, professional development, and teacher collaboration as pairings of system components that convey the most-similar messages.

In addition, on average, teachers tend to rate around five of the 21 possible pairs as present and more dissimilar than similar. This finding means that, on average, teachers perceive about five pairs of system components to be sending dissimilar or conflicting messages. Teachers tended to rate the connections between evaluation and summative assessments as components conveying the least-similar or -reinforcing messages to each other and to other system components.

What Do Teachers Turn to When They Perceive Incoherence?

When teachers notice inconsistencies among instructional system components, they tend to prioritize state academic standards. Most of the surveyed teachers indicated that state standards and curricula provide the most aligned guidance on teaching approaches and content. When faced with conflicting or absent guidance from other components, teachers reported that they rely on state standards for direction. Following standards, teachers typically seek clarification from teacher collaboration and curricula when they perceive conflicts in the messages they are getting. Only a small minority of teachers reported prioritizing guidance from their school systems' teacher evaluation criteria, professional development, summative assessments, or benchmark assessments.

Are There Coherent Messages About Equity and Diversity in Instructional Systems?

Guidance in addressing equity and diversity was sparse across instructional system components. About 30 percent to 45 percent of surveyed teachers indicated that most of the guidance in this area tended to come from professional development and teacher collaboration opportunities. This finding indicates that the topic isn't entirely overlooked in many instructional systems. However, in interviews, teachers commented on the lack of clear guidance from their districts or schools about how to deliver equitable instruction. More than three-quarters of ELA and mathematics teachers expressed a desire for more guidance on addressing equity and diversity in their instruction.

Most teachers did not feel that they received adequate guidance to teach English learners, students with disabilities, or students of color. Approximately 80 percent of surveyed teachers reported that the guidance from at least one of the seven components noted in the survey offered them “a lot” of support in instructing all students. However, this percentage fell below 50 percent when teachers were asked whether any of the seven components provided them with substantial support in teaching students with disabilities, English learners, or students of color.

A male teacher assists a female student in a classroom full of students. Photo by Rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock

Photo by Rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock

What Is the Relationship Between Coherence and Teaching?

Analysis of survey responses suggests small connections between teachers' perceptions of coherence and their use of standards-aligned practices. On the whole, there were few connections between teachers' perceptions of coherence and their instruction. However, there was one important link that stood out in the analysis: When teachers thought that the system was coherent, they were less likely to modify their lesson materials. Future research should look more closely at the important role that use of instructional materials are thought to play in promoting system coherence.

More-coherent instructional systems supported teacher confidence while incoherence evoked frustration and anxiety. In interviews, teachers reported that coherence helped bolster their confidence in teaching effectively. On the other hand, teachers who perceived unclear or conflicting messages — especially among curricula, assessments, and standards — experienced feelings of frustration and anxiety. Teachers used such words as "disheartening," "frustration," and "stressful" to characterize how they felt.

Recommendations

The following recommendations for district and school leaders to consider are based on the findings from these studies. They offer ways for districts and schools to move forward in enhancing coherence throughout their systems.

Review instructional system messages and assess how teachers interpret them. The studies demonstrate that conducting a teacher survey and/or having discussions can shed light on teachers' current perceptions of where messages support or conflict with one another. As RAND researchers noted previously, the Improving Instructional System Coherence Toolkit was developed specifically to help district and school leaders collect and interpret staff perceptions of coherence and incoherence and consider how to improve.

Take meaningful actions to build systemwide coherence. When inconsistencies are identified, system leaders should work with their staff to determine solutions that will ensure that all system components convey clear and consistent messages about teaching and learning, thereby reinforcing each other. These solutions will likely take time to implement and to assess, and they may not lead to greater coherence all at once. However, system leaders should regard coherence-building as a process that requires continual reflection and course correction as needed.

Consider how to leverage curriculum materials and peer collaboration guidance as mechanisms for supporting systemwide coherence. Teachers participating in the studies perceived that state standards, curriculum materials, and peer collaboration guidance provided them with the most guidance about what to teach and how to teach it. Furthermore, when they perceived conflict in their instructional systems, they prioritized messages from standards, curricula, and peer collaboration. School and district leaders cannot change their state standards, but they can choose curriculum materials that are closely aligned with standards, and they can set up structures for peer collaboration that help teachers focus on topics and content aligned with both standards and curriculum. Attending to these instructional components, in particular, could go a long way in supporting teachers to deliver more-consistent, high-quality instruction.

Give priority to messages that help teachers attend to diversity, equity, and inclusion in their classrooms. Teachers highlighted receiving minimal, superficial, or no guidance on how to address equity-related issues in their classrooms, and they reported much less guidance on how to support English learners and students with disabilities in their classrooms. State, district, and school leaders guide and support various aspects of teaching, such as curricula, teacher development, and student assessments. To better serve historically underserved students, leaders should make sure that schools and districts provide clear, consistent messaging on how to meet diverse student needs and ensure that all students have coherent instructional experiences.

Research conducted by

This research brief was sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation.

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