Cover: How Instructional Materials Are Used and Supported in U.S. K–12 Classrooms

How Instructional Materials Are Used and Supported in U.S. K–12 Classrooms

Findings from the 2019 American Instructional Resources Survey

Published Aug 31, 2020

by Julia H. Kaufman, Sy Doan, Andrea Prado Tuma, Ashley Woo, Daniella Henry, Rebecca Ann Lawrence

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Research Questions

  1. How do teachers use standards-aligned curricula and other instructional materials in their classrooms?
  2. What other elements of teachers' instructional systems support teachers' use of curricula?
  3. How do elements of teachers' instructional systems — curriculum use, evaluative feedback, and PL — differ across teaching contexts?
  4. How are elements of instructional systems related to the standards-aligned classroom practices in which teachers report students engaging?

If a curriculum — a set of instructional materials intended as a comprehensive course of study for a particular subject and grade level — is well-aligned with state standards, it can help teachers deliver instruction that leads to students' mastery of those standards. However, most research suggests that curricula, in themselves, are not likely to change teachers' instruction because teachers use curricula in a variety of ways. Teachers likely need considerable supports to use curricula in ways that improve student learning.

New results from the RAND American Instructional Resources Survey (AIRS), which was fielded to a national sample of public teachers and school leaders in spring 2019, shed light on how teachers use instructional materials in their classroom. AIRS specifically focused on the curriculum and other instructional materials used by kindergarten through 12th grade teachers in English language arts, mathematics, and science, along with how teachers are supported to use curriculum and the extent to which their students are engaged in standards-aligned classroom practices.

The findings reveal the variety of ways in which teachers used curricula, as well as how curriculum use and supports varied among teachers in states and schools with different poverty levels. Analyses suggest that adoption of standards-aligned curricula — in itself — will not necessarily lead to more student engagement in standards-aligned classroom practices. Teachers who reported receiving more evaluative feedback and helpful professional learning (PL) on curriculum reported engagement in more standards-aligned classroom practices among all or nearly all of their students.

Key Findings

Provided curricula likely have a loose relationship with the curricula that teachers actually use and how they use it.

  • The percentage of principals who reported providing teachers with standards-aligned curricula was much higher than the percentage of teachers who reported using standards-aligned curricula for the majority of their instructional time.
  • Teachers reported using and modifying curriculum in a wide variety of ways.

Both evaluative feedback and PL were related to how teachers reported using their curriculum.

  • Most teachers reported receiving at least some evaluative feedback focused on their curriculum use; fewer reported receiving a range of PL focused on their curriculum use.
  • Science teachers reported receiving less evaluative feedback and PL focused on curriculum than mathematics and ELA teachers.
  • Teachers who reported receiving more curriculum-focused evaluative feedback, were more likely to report using a single curriculum with fewer modifications and less likely to report relying mostly on curriculum they created.

State context and school poverty level were related to teachers' curriculum use and supports.

  • State and school context were related to differences in teachers' use of standards-aligned curriculum, as well as the evaluative feedback and PL focused on curriculum that teachers reported receiving.

Evaluative feedback and helpful PL opportunities were related to student experiences, although use of a standards-aligned curriculum was not.

  • Teachers who reported a greater number of standards-aligned practices in which all their students engaged were more likely to report more curriculum-focused evaluative feedback, report helpful curriculum-focused PL opportunities, and be teachers who primarily created their own curriculum.


  • States, districts, and schools should consider how to provide clear signals to teachers regarding curriculum use through both evaluative feedback and PL opportunities.
  • States and districts should especially consider how to best support science teachers' use of curricula in the coming years.
  • States and school systems should consider which types of PL are regarded by teachers as most helpful and why, particularly in terms of what helps teachers use multiple instructional materials thoughtfully and coherently.
  • Teachers in high-poverty schools likely need much more support and guidance to use standards-aligned curricula.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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