Cover: Exploring Coherence in English Language Arts Instructional Systems in the Common Core Era

Exploring Coherence in English Language Arts Instructional Systems in the Common Core Era

Published Nov 4, 2020

by Morgan Polikoff, Elaine Lin Wang, Shira Korn Haderlein, Julia H. Kaufman, Ashley Woo, Daniel Silver, V. Darleen Opfer

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Research Questions

  1. To what extent are ELA teachers provided with, and to what extent do they use, standards-aligned curriculum materials?
  2. To what extent do teachers receive curriculum-related instructional resources that can support their use of curriculum?
  3. What curriculum-specific professional learning do teachers receive?
  4. To what extent do teachers' evaluations include criteria related to the alignment of their instruction to standards and the degree to which they meet the needs of diverse students?
  5. To what extent do students take standards- or curriculum-aligned interim assessments?
  6. To what extent do teachers and district leaders report the presence of conditions that might enable coherence within schools?
  7. How many teachers have access to an ELA instructional system that demonstrates coherence along these dimensions?

Coherence among components of an instructional system is key to changing teachers' instructional practices in standards-based reforms. Coherence involves working across traditional silos—or system components (e.g., curriculum, professional learning, assessment)—to integrate components to avoid fragmentation of experiences for educators and students. The authors set out to understand how districts and schools are activating various policy levers (i.e., instructional components) to drive instructional coherence and student learning in English language arts (ELA) in the Common Core era.

The authors investigate the coherence of teachers' instructional systems using survey data from state-representative samples of teachers and smaller samples of district leaders across three states: Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Specifically, in spring 2019, the authors asked state-representative samples of teachers in these states about the extent to which their curricula, assessments, and other components of their instructional systems cohered with one another and aligned with state standards.

The authors examine the alignment of curriculum to standards, as well as the extent to which four components of instructional systems hypothesized as key to supporting instructional coherence are aligned to standards or the curriculum: curriculum-related resources (e.g., lesson plans, pacing guides), professional development, teacher evaluation, and student assessments. Using these findings, the authors build a measure of the overall extent of coherence in teachers' ELA instructional systems.

Key Findings

  • Few ELA teachers used standards-aligned curriculum materials in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, while most did in Louisiana.
  • In classrooms composed of more than half students of color, teachers were more likely to use standards-aligned materials than those with fewer.
  • Teachers generally agreed that their main materials had coherence with other policy documents (e.g., state standards, state assessments).
  • Teachers generally received multiple supports to implement their curriculum materials, but elementary teachers were more likely to receive these supports than teachers at higher grades.
  • Districts offered and teachers received a variety of curriculum-related professional learning opportunities, but teachers rarely received curriculum-specific training or training focused on implementing the curriculum for specific student groups.
  • On average, teachers were only moderately positive about the effectiveness of their curriculum-specific professional learning.
  • According to teachers, their evaluation criteria focused on aligned instruction, following curriculum guidance, and meeting the needs of low-achieving students and students with disabilities.
  • Teachers generally believed that their interim assessment systems were aligned with their ELA standards, summative assessments, and curriculum materials.
  • Teachers indicated moderate presence of hypothesized conditions that enable coherence, particularly having clear student-learning goals and using assessment results to benchmark progress.
  • Teachers differed tremendously by states in their ELA instructional systems, with teachers in Louisiana reporting teaching in systems that show evidence of far greater coherence.
  • There is greater evidence of incoherent instructional systems for teachers serving more students with disabilities and for elementary teachers.


  • Districts should consider reaching out to and surveying teachers—perhaps in an anonymous way to ensure honest responses—to get a clear picture of coherence across their systems.
  • States, districts, curriculum providers, and professional development providers, among others, need to ensure that teachers of students with disabilities are getting ample support and guidance.
  • State policy matters, and states seeking to improve instructional coherence might look to Louisiana's efforts for guidance.

Research conducted by

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

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