Veteran educator Jonathan Regino shares lessons learned from how the selection of instructional materials at a systemic level impacts everyday classroom life.
I have held many different roles in my 17 years as an educator, including over a decade as a classroom teacher, an educational consultant supporting Pennsylvania districts across the state, and a content supervisor dedicated to a single district. And, like thousands of other parents in the world, I found myself in the unexpected role of being a teacher to my own children during the pandemic.
Throughout these experiences, the predominant challenge I observed is that education systems are often not set up to support teachers to reach every learner in their classroom. So much of this is connected to the resources, training, and supports educators have access to.
In 2015, the drive to ensure teachers are truly supported to reach all students led me out of the classroom to the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units. This is an organization that provides support for schools and districts such as professional development, instructional coaching, and curriculum auditing. My work there allowed me to partner with superintendents and content specialists from 15 districts to evaluate current curriculum gaps and create plans to select new, high-quality materials.
The experience was eye-opening. I received an inside look at the culture of curriculum selection across the state, and a birds-eye view of the systemic issues multiple districts were facing. Due to a lack of consistent guidance, many districts did not conduct a comprehensive adoption process. Instead, they decided what to adopt by looking to a neighboring district or, perhaps most troubling, selecting materials based on a program’s “bells and whistles”— such as the visual design or superficial technology capabilities of a particular program.
These approaches to selecting curriculum were not because educators didn’t care about the quality of materials or meeting the needs of students. Rather, this is what happens when educators lack the resources and knowledge about how to make informed, inclusive, and strategic decisions.
As part of my deepening understanding about the role instructional materials play in supporting student outcomes, I knew I wanted to do more to support the districts I worked with. This led me to become a math reviewer for EdReports. This experience helped me learn more about what makes materials high quality and gain expertise in applying academic standards in the context of local priorities and student needs.
But, just as I was about to apply the skills I gained as an EdReports reviewer to my work with the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units, the COVID-19 pandemic upended communities across the country. My wife, who is a kindergarten teacher, and my school-age children were on the frontlines of what all schools were facing. As I watched my family go through the daily shifts and uncertainties of navigating the school environment during a global pandemic, I knew I could do more to help them and other families. I was compelled to work alongside them and decided to leave my job serving multiple districts to return to serving a single school district.
Today, as the supervisor of mathematics and science for a school district in Pennsylvania, I’m helping schools and teachers understand the materials they have and how to work with them to encourage student growth.
I’m in a unique position having seen how the selection of instructional materials functions at a systemic level as well as how these choices impact everyday classroom life.
Every role I have ever played as an educator has contributed to my belief that establishing comprehensive adoption processes can make a difference both broadly and on an individual scale. Here are three lessons I’ve learned:
During my time at the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units, I saw how important it was for districts to genuinely engage educators in selection. I often worked closely with teachers through a district selection process only to have leadership make a completely different choice. Teachers felt defeated by the process and were less likely to use the materials the district chose.
But it’s not just important to engage and train the handful of teachers on the adoption committee. I often saw a disconnect between educators who were part of the selection process and those who were not. Working with districts, we saw success in having small groups of trained teachers share more about the selection process and potential materials with their peers. Consistently letting everyone know what is going on and how they can weigh in helps establish that all voices are truly valued and can head-off issues that might appear during implementation.
Districts should shy away from choosing a program simply because a neighboring district has selected it. Each district’s instructional vision is likely distinct, and, more importantly, teachers and students in different communities may have different needs. But that doesn’t mean districts can’t learn from each other.
Sharing how and why programs worked or didn’t work for your students can help other leaders make informed decisions that avoid the mistakes others have made. Districts can also collaborate around best practices for selection and how to work together to effectively engage publishers.
Traveling across the state, I saw that districts that narrowed down their choices (based on their own goals and a baseline of quality) were able to best leverage other districts’ data and learnings. When educators were clear about the aspects of the program they wanted to investigate, they were able to get information that actually helped them make the best choice for their students.
My experience working directly with teachers has shown me that when we focus on choosing quality materials upfront we no longer have to rely on online supplements that seemed so crucial before.
This is not to say that high-quality materials can be used straight out of the box. Adapting materials and supplementing programs are often necessary instructional choices.
Programs are not one size fits all, and a single classroom will have many students with individual and varying needs. However, quality materials offer the space and resources to adapt to individual student needs without having to scour the internet for (often unvetted) resources to provide those supports.
Jonathan Regino spent a decade as a middle school math and science teacher at the Twin Valley School District in Pennsylvania. He is now a Supervisor of Teaching and Learning for Math and Science at the Marple Newtown School District, and an EdReports Klawe Fellow.