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Beyond the “Magic Bullet”: Lessons on the Integration of High-Quality Instructional Materials and Personalized Learning

Five fundamental findings from independent research conducted by Student Achievement Partners and Highlander Institute

Co-authored by:

Sue Pimentel


Cathy Sanford
Highlander Institute

This blog post is cross-posted on Student Achievement Partners' blog.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, the field of education could well be considered certifiable. The long-standing popularity of the “magic bullet” approach to reform persists even though we are still waiting to realize the promise of a single solution to a knotty education problem.

As Larry Cuban writes in his April 2020 blog post, the rationale for a magic bullet solution is deeply embedded in “the popular hope of tax-supported public schools solving problems besetting a democracy.” The expectations for public schools to responsively address everything from poverty to obesity to the changing labor market are overwhelming. Within this complex landscape, we continue to have a proclivity for simple solutions.

Consider the current emphasis on high-quality instructional materials and the recent focus on highly resonant personalized learning. Similar goals; very different means. We’ve watched district leaders, philanthropists, and product developers jump on the bandwagon of one or the other of these two reforms, but—Spoiler Alert—we are not one purchase or framework away from closing the achievement gap. As you likely suspect, a more complex and nuanced “both and” approach has a better chance of improving learning environments and student outcomes.

Independently of each other, Student Achievement Partners (SAP) and Highlander Institute set out to understand and elevate the implementation intricacies of a combined approach. We came at this issue from different directions; some might even say from opposing camps. SAP conducted a synthesis of the scholarly and academic literature in literacy, personalization, and equity to identify what factors can accelerate students’ literacy. Highlander Institute conducted action research to explore areas of alignment between rigorous curricula and personalized practices in mathematics classrooms.

Despite the different approaches, we came to very similar conclusions. This doesn’t mean that we agree on every detail; our definitions of personalized learning, for instance, are not identical. But we think the times call for a fresh conversation about accelerating learning for students—particularly those frequently at the margins of design considerations and resource allocations—that leverages our shared discoveries. There is no proverbial magic bullet, but we are not without direction. SAP’s literature review and Highlander Institute’s action research both point to how rigorous curricula combined with personalized practices can be mutually reinforcing and accelerate student learning.

The core requirement of any instructional product or approach—and it is a gateway to all others—is to pinpoint how it will advance grade-level learning. But a narrow focus on grade-level instruction is not enough. The following five fundamentals are crucial components for success:

Fundamental No. 1. Content is Key: Demand that rigorous curricula and personalized practices work in tandem to advance learning. 

Decades of work have gone into developing rigorous core instructional materials in math and ELA that follow the research. Teachers need and deserve such curricula to form the basis of their teaching and learning. Personalized learning practices need to be well planned so they work in close concert with the core instructional materials.  

What does this mean for your district?

Ensure you have high-quality core instructional programs in place in math and ELA that support all students in accessing grade-level work. Take time to vet programs you are reviewing (or are currently implementing) with teachers and, ideally, students and parents. Elevate areas where the curriculum may fall short. Discuss these considerations with product developers and develop a district-level plan detailing how teachers can address gaps or choose a higher quality curriculum that more closely hews to the research. Also, inventory your personalized learning tools and approaches. Determine what gaps in instruction you are trying to close by adopting or using a personalized product or approach. If it is only vaguely or peripherally related to filling that gap, then move on. Don’t waste valuable student time or precious instructional dollars.

Fundamental No. 2. Center Students: Deeply know and affirm students to build their capacity for challenging work. 

Putting students “at the center” is a core principle of personalized learning, but it takes on new meaning in relation to the implementation of high-quality instructional materials. The establishment of a trusting academic classroom community is essential to successfully engaging students in rigorous curricula. For students to thrive, they need to have a sense of belonging and safety—a rapport and bond with their teacher(s) and peers. This means investing time to deeply know each student not only as a learner, but also as a person who exists within different contexts across family, community, and societal systems. A singular focus on curriculum or a particular personalized approach or product assumes that each student will respond to the material in the same way, an assumption that has not played out in the classroom. Centering students allows teachers to proactively determine what students will need in order to stay engaged and focused in a rigorous lesson.

What does this mean for your district?

Find ways to humanize the learning experience—to make students partners in their learning. Time and energy dedicated to better understanding students and their families has a strong return on investment. Home visits, community walks, student shadow days, and identity webs are ways in which teachers and leaders can generate a new level of understanding of student values, responsibilities, interests, and strengths, and leverage those in the creation of a trusting academic community. Attention to developing student mindsets ensures that students are ready to tackle curriculum challenges. Use the University of Chicago Consortium’s checklist to determine how strongly your students agree with these statements:

  • I belong to this academic community.
  • I believe I can succeed.
  • My ability grows with the effort I put in.
  • This work has value.

Make changes in your curriculum approaches and instruction products to increase agreement.

Fundamental No. 3. Check Bias: Examine inequity within the system and counteract prejudice in the delivery of content. 

Collectively, we must switch from a focus on addressing student deficits to understanding the deficits within our system that generate persistent achievement gaps. Systemic racism and inequity underdevelops students’ cognitive processing skills and undermines their natural competence and confidence. This often takes the form of lower expectations for different subgroups of students and instruction that focuses on compliance and repeated practice rather than deep thinking and engagement. Within this environment, even well-crafted instructional materials—core and supplemental—can be over-scaffolded when delivered to students, preventing some pupils from receiving the full benefits of a strong program. Decision-making when assigning content must be deliberate and transparent, checked and rechecked in light of which students are getting what content to ensure that portions of students are not condemned to months of low-level, dead-end work.

What does this mean for your district?

Openly and actively check your collective biases regarding BIPOC students, students experiencing economic insecurity, and English learners—students who are too often marginalized and chronically underserved by schools. Support teachers in using data to examine unintended biases and how students are experiencing learning. Take care not to deem students deficient based solely on test scores. Review the bases on which you assign students to personalized work and how students move between skill-based groups. Connect test scores with student perceptions of belonging and academic mindset, and be mindful of the expectations and cognitive demands placed on students. Ensure teacher attitudes and pedagogies elevate student assets and challenge destructive narratives about the academic ability of traditionally marginalized students. Continuously collect student feedback to monitor their academic confidence and engagement.

Fundamental No. 4. Embody Respect: Advance culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies

We can restore natural confidence and competence to students who have been marginalized by systemic inequity through anti-racist, culturally sustaining education. This manifests through work that affirms student cultures and communities while building student capacity to become critically conscious. It requires the combination of rigor and relevance—high-quality curriculum materials embedded with culturally relevant opportunities to reflect, become inspired, and act in ways that address and transform inequities in schools, in communities, and in society.

Ultimately, a culturally relevant and responsive lens must be baked into both pedagogy and instructional materials from the start. Given that many rigorous curricula fall short on cultural relevance, personalized approaches that support critical thinking within relevant learning applications are a particular strength here. These approaches can improve students’ engagement in learning, support their access to rigor, and empower them to accept the intellectual challenges in lessons.

What does this mean for your district?

Students need to see the value of what they are learning, and apply new knowledge in ways that are meaningful and transformative. When students see the ways in which their learning can be applied to promote community problem-solving, research shows their outcomes improve. Explicitly name the roles that rigor and relevance should play within district classrooms, and provide teachers with the tools needed to implement this vision. Culturally responsive pedagogy can’t work as an afterthought or superficial gesture; consequently, teachers require an intentional, aligned approach to frame their lessons. Enlist teachers—and even students and families—to design a model that integrates rigor and relevance using the best materials available to the district. Provide time for relevant applications within a curriculum scope and sequence. Simultaneously, continue to push developers to embed culturally relevant content and applications more seamlessly into curricula.

Fundamental No. 5. Tend to Teachers: Afford teachers ongoing and just-in-time training so they embrace the change. 

In order for a set of instructional materials or a personalized approach to effect meaningful change and academic benefits, it must be doable in the classroom. That will increase the likelihood that the reform will be sustained. Efforts to deeply integrate products or approaches present a challenging undertaking, as do efforts to help teachers learn better ways of working with students. Learning to recognize and correct for bias requires attention, time, and resources. In short, teachers need high-quality, ongoing training to implement rigorous instructional materials effectively and personalize instruction skillfully to further advance cultural relevance and excellence for students.

What does this mean for your district?

Don’t shortchange PD. Treat a curriculum update like a complex change initiative for teachers and students. Make professional learning curriculum- and program-specific. Teachers need to understand and unpack the rationale and components of a new curriculum and hear directly from the content developers. However, they also need district experts in special education, multi-language learners, cultural relevance, etc. to provide aligned training to ensure that all students access the material, rise to the academic challenge, and find relevance in their new knowledge.  Ongoing training opportunities should include common planning time, professional learning communities, and embedded coaching. There is a not-to-be-ignored hearts and minds aspect to setting aside old ways of instruction so that teachers can move forward to make progress for their students.

These five fundamentals set the stage for attaining new levels of rigor, relevance, achievement, and academic confidence in classrooms despite school zip codes. At the core of each fundamental is a new and more nuanced conversation about the intersection of rigorous core instructional materials and well-planned personalized learning practices.

Each of our reports delves into greater detail on the hows and whys of this premise, offering a strong research base and path for moving forward. We are excited to continue—and further refine—the conversation as we strive for better results and experiences for our students.

Reports Mentioned In This Blog Post