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Research Questions

  1. What guidance about instruction did teachers report receiving from various instructional system components? How much more guidance did teachers report wanting?
  2. To what extent did teachers perceive that guidance from instructional system components supported them to address the needs of students, and particularly traditionally underserved student populations?
  3. What were teachers' perceptions of the coherence of their schools' instructional systems? Which component did teachers prioritize when they perceived incoherence?
  4. How were teachers' perceptions of instructional system coherence associated with conditions identified as related to the development of coherence?
  5. How were teachers' perceptions of instructional system coherence associated with instructional practice?

Standards-based reform is a key feature of U.S. education policy. Several decades ago, scholars posited that if states set ambitious standards and then aligned curriculum, assessments, and professional development (PD) to those standards, teaching and learning would improve. However, the focus on establishing standards has often overshadowed the important idea that standards are effective only if the other inputs in an instructional system (e.g., curriculum, assessments, PD) are in alignment with those standards and coherent with each other. Without that alignment and coherence, teachers may perceive different messages about what to teach and how to teach it. At worst, those messages can conflict, leading to both fragmented instruction and reduced learning opportunities.

In this report, researchers aim to contribute to evidence on the extent to which an instructional system is coherent and provides consistent and clear messages to teachers about instruction, including messages about how to address the learning needs of traditionally underserved students. The research team uses survey responses from a nationally representative sample of public school kindergarten through grade 12 (K–12) English language arts and mathematics teachers to present a portrait of instructional system coherence in schools across the country during the 2021–2022 school year.

Key Findings

  • Majorities of teachers reported receiving guidance from various instructional system components — particularly from curriculum and teacher collaboration opportunities — about content to emphasize in instruction.
  • Teachers perceived little guidance around addressing equity and diversity and desired a lot more guidance.
  • Teachers reported receiving insufficient support to teach traditionally underserved groups of students.
  • Teachers perceived a moderate level of instructional system coherence, with state standards and curricula conveying the most-similar messages about what and how to teach. In the face of conflicting messages across system components, teachers prioritized state standards.
  • In systems in which coherence was stronger, contextual conditions hypothesized to be associated with coherence were present to a greater extent. However, the authors found minimal associations between coherence and their limited measures of instructional practice.


  • Districts and schools might want to ensure that curriculum materials and teacher collaboration opportunities are conveying the messages they intend.
  • Schools and districts may wish to examine their formal PD offerings and/or elicit teachers' direct feedback to understand how PD can be more helpful for teachers' instructional planning and day-to-day work.
  • Districts and schools may consider how to shape teacher evaluation processes and criteria to be more directly helpful for guiding classroom practice.
  • Districts and schools should consider providing more guidance on strategies for differentiating instruction or leveraging students' diverse backgrounds to engage students and help achieve academic targets.
  • Districts and schools must be mindful that simply adopting standards-aligned materials may be insufficient for improving coherence and for propelling the implementation of desirable practices.
  • Future research and measurement improvements are needed to improve understanding of the relationship between instructional system coherence and instructional practice.

Research conducted by

This study was sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

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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