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Research Questions

  1. What guidance about ELA instruction did teachers report receiving in the first year of COVID-19? How did it compare with the guidance in 2019–2020?
  2. To what extent did the teacher perceive that guidance from instructional system components supported them to address the needs of traditionally underserved student populations?
  3. What were teachers' perceptions of the coherence of their schools' ELA instructional system in the first full year of COVID-19? How did it compare with 2019–2020?
  4. How were teachers' perceptions of ELA instructional system coherence associated with conditions regarded as related to the development of coherence?

Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented stresses on the public education system in the United States. Many of these challenges have been operational in nature. Existing research on COVID-19 and teaching has largely focused on teachers' practices and experiences. What has not been examined in the same depth is the guidance that teachers received about instruction during the pandemic and the ways guidance changed from before the pandemic. This work is important, especially as the pandemic continues to affect the provision of in-person learning in the 2021–2022 school year. It is also important to understand how state and district efforts to improve instruction have fared during this unprecedented educational disruption.

Developing a coherent, standards-aligned instructional system is challenging for education leaders and teachers in the best of times, and it may be especially difficult to achieve as the pandemic continues to affect public schooling. This report examines issues of instructional system coherence during the 2020–2021 school year, and how teachers' perceptions compared with the 2019–2020 school year. The authors investigate teachers' perceptions of the (1) guidance they received about English language arts (ELA) instruction, (2) guidance around addressing the needs of traditionally underserved students, (3) coherence of their school's ELA instructional system, and (4) presence of contextual conditions identified through literature as supporting coherence. The authors also explore variation in these findings across grade spans, instructional modes (in-person, remote, hybrid), and focal states (Louisiana, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Tennessee).

Key Findings

  • During the 2020–2021 school year, K–12 public school teachers across the country reported receiving more guidance on what ELA content to emphasize than how to address diversity and equity in ELA.
  • The instructional system components from which teachers reported receiving guidance narrowed during the pandemic. In general, guidance was provided through curriculum—not from teacher evaluation criteria or summative assessments.
  • Small proportions of teachers reported that the guidance from instructional system components provided "a lot of support" to help them address the needs of traditionally underserved students.
  • Most teachers indicated that instructional system components provided similar, but not reinforcing, messages. Moreover, most teachers reported that overall instructional system coherence had decreased from the previous school year.
  • High school teachers and those providing remote or simultaneous hybrid instruction reported less guidance on multiple aspects of their systems and less coherence.
  • Reported instructional system coherence correlates positively with hypothesized conditions that support development of coherence.


  • It will be a continuing challenge for our education systems and structures to support local educators to emerge from the pandemic stronger and better prepared to support students.
  • State departments of education can use this opportunity, and the substantial funds that have been allocated under recent federal spending bills, to draw on the lessons of the past several decades of standards implementation efforts to better support standards-aligned policy systems moving forward.
  • States should consider focusing on curriculum and professional learning as supports.
  • Results suggest that teachers providing remote instruction experienced more guidance on considerations of equity, inclusion, and diversity than did teachers of other modes, perhaps because differential access to technology and educational resources was particularly acute for these teachers.

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The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For this document, different permissions for re-use apply. Please refer to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation section on our permissions page.

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