Cover: Teachers' Perceptions of Coherence in K–12 English Language Arts and Mathematics Instructional Systems

Teachers' Perceptions of Coherence in K–12 English Language Arts and Mathematics Instructional Systems

Published Apr 25, 2023

by Regena Pauketat, Elaine Lin Wang, Julia H. Kaufman, Allyson D. Gittens, Ashley Woo

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Research Questions

  1. From what sources do teachers report receiving messages about what and how to teach, and what are the key messages teachers report receiving? 
  2. How do teachers characterize the messaging they receive about addressing equity and diversity in their instruction?
  3. How do teachers characterize the coherence or incoherence of their instructional systems, and what supports do they seek for greater coherence?
  4. What impact do teachers report that instructional system coherence or incoherence has on their instruction, and how do they navigate incoherence?

RAND researchers explore the messages teachers receive about what to teach and how to teach English language arts and mathematics in kindergarten through grade 12 schools in the United States, as well as teachers' overall perceptions of coherence and incoherence in instructional systems and how they navigate such systems. The authors conceive of instructional system coherence as the extent to which multiple key system components (e.g., curricula, professional development, summative assessments) related to teaching and learning provide the same signals and supports to teachers and leaders about what instruction should look like. Incoherence occurs when one or more components is not linked to other messages within the larger instructional system or provides conflicting signals to teachers about what instruction should look like.

The findings from this interview-based study have implications for policy and practice. The study findings point to practices that school and district leaders might adopt to achieve greater system coherence and support teachers in making sense of the myriad policy messages they receive. In addition, the findings can help state- and district-level leaders reflect on how teachers are positioned to enact equitable instruction. Understanding how teachers are processing messaging around equity and diversity will support schools and districts in implementing effective policy around these goals.

Key Findings

  • Teachers receive messages about what and how to teach from many sources within their instructional system (e.g., academic standards, curricula, student assessments, teacher evaluation criteria).
  • According to interviews conducted by the research team, the most common messages teachers received in 2021–2022 included directives to prepare students for standardized assessments, align instruction to standards, use strategies to promote student engagement, and create safe environments for students returning to in-person instruction after school closures because of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
  • Teachers received little or no explicit messaging about teaching for equity and diversity or supporting students' individual needs, and they indicated that implementing curricula with fidelity could conflict with supporting individual student needs.
  • Teachers perceived limited coherence in their instructional systems beyond alignment of standards, curricula, and assessments.
  • More-coherent instructional systems supported teachers' feelings of confidence and sense of well-being, while incoherence was associated with frustration and anxiety at having to navigate conflicting messages.
  • When teachers received conflicting messages from their instructional system, they used various strategies to cope, from relying on peer collaboration supports to disengaging from the instructional system.


  • Audit the messages in the instructional system and how teachers understand them. Leaders could benefit from auditing the messages they are sending to teachers about what and how to teach, documenting where the messages reinforce and where they conflict with one another, or where teachers perceive them to be reinforcing or conflicting.
  • Take action to ensure that key components of the instructional system provide clear and coordinated messaging. School, district, and state educational leaders should consider how to reconcile potentially conflicting messages about core instructional system components before they reach teachers.
  • Consider how to strengthen peer collaboration so that it supports teachers as they make sense of instructional system messaging. School leaders and district administrators should consider how to make and protect time for peer collaboration.
  • Prioritize equity and diversity messages in instructional system components. To meet the needs of historically underserved students, schools and districts need to provide clear and specific messaging around expectations of how to serve different student populations and ensure that messaging is aligned across components.

Research conducted by

This report is based on research funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Part of the data collection was made possible by additional funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The research was 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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