By Lauren Weisskirk
Former EdReports Chief Strategy Officer


By Elizabeth Chu
Executive Director of the Columbia University Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL)

By Andrea Clay
Director of Legal Strategy and Policy at Columbia University Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL)

Before COVID-19, many families were often overlooked when it came to their role in students’ education experiences. However, the pandemic shined a light on the many ways families prioritized and ensured high-level learning continued—even amidst multiple and severe external shocks. 

EdReports’ Lauren Weisskirk had a chance to speak with Elizabeth Chu and Andrea Clay, two lead researchers at Columbia University’s Center for Public Research and Leadership who recently released a report that explores the impact high-quality instructional materials had on educators' relationships with families and students. The study highlights the role curriculum played throughout 2020 and continues to play in involving caregivers in student learning and strengthening communication and collaboration between teachers and the families districts serve.  

Elizabeth and Andrea shared stories from the field as well as recommendations for this school year and beyond.

Lauren Weisskirk: At EdReports, we often talk about the instructional core which focuses on students learning primarily through their interactions with teachers and content. Your report makes a bold choice by adding the fourth dimension of family and family engagement. Why did you do that?

Elizabeth Chu: The instructional core helps us understand where and how learning happens. Traditionally, we’ve understood learning to result from the interaction between three components: students, curriculum, and teachers. But what we saw throughout the pandemic were four components—teachers, students, families, and quality curriculum—all working together to organize and deliver day-to-day learning, as well as facilitate continuous improvement. 

We conducted dozens of interviews with families and heard stories about how high-quality curriculum was really important to organize activities, support kids learning at home, manage extreme demands on time, and navigate conversations with teachers. 

We also talked to families who didn’t have access to quality materials. They would say things like “I feel lost, and I’m stressed. I'm staying up so late on YouTube. I'm looking on Pinterest. I'm looking on Facebook, trying to figure out how I can make sure that my kids are learning in this very challenging year.” 

For so many of the families we spoke with, learning happened when teachers, kids, and families were able to leverage quality curriculum to collaborate. This made us think we should really look harder at the components integral to the instructional core.

Lauren WeisskirkYou mention the difference that high-quality instructional materials made for families, especially over the past year. Can you share some of the trends and impact you saw when families had access to quality curriculum? 

Andrea Clay: One theme we heard from multiple families was that quality materials offered real transparency and an increase in communication from teachers about day-to-day learning. This made families feel more equipped to play the role they were being asked to play, especially during virtual instruction.

Lauren Weisskirk: Please share more about the role of materials with communications and engagement.

Andrea Clay: Quality curriculum built in consistency and set high expectations for students. Having a shared full curriculum gave families a steady and reliable set of routines, protocols, and resources to turn to day after day. 

But more than that, instructional materials provided a shared language for families and educators, specifically around academics. This was language that family members hadn’t necessarily been privy to before, because they weren't sitting in classrooms the way they were during the pandemic. 

In the past, families weren’t constantly hearing from teachers about what they could do to support their children. Now, teachers and families have that shared language. The materials really set the foundation for this communication around student learning at a depth and a specificity that in many cases had not been available before.

Lauren Weisskirk: What about teachers? How did they report that materials impacted classroom practice and their connection to families?

Andrea Clay: I remember a science teacher we interviewed. She was the only science teacher in her school. In the middle of school closures and virtual learning, she switched from assembling her own materials to using a high-quality, aligned curriculum. She described her 100 hour job being cut in half, and the balance it brought to her life as an educator and parent as well as in the classroom. 

Elizabeth Chu: Teachers talked about how high-quality materials have built-in accessibility and language considerations. This meant time saved from having to figure out how to translate the lesson to enable caregivers to support their kids. High-quality instructional materials also accommodate big changes in circumstances, providing consistency, for example, when kids or teachers are in quarantine, or students shift from in-person to virtual classrooms. 

Lauren Weisskirk: In your report, you call for an expanded definition of quality that includes materials that support culturally relevant pedagogy. What does that mean to you in terms of curriculum? And how does a strong partnership between teachers and families make culturally relevant practices more likely?

Elizabeth Chu: It means materials and practices that recognize and affirm the diverse cultures of students and families, deepen students' sense of identity, increase their engagement in schooling, and broaden their worldview.  It means responsive practices that increase the quality of learning for all students. 

Teachers reported that collaborating with families helped them to understand their students and affirm their students’ cultures. Teachers were able to adjust their practices based on their deeper understanding and they attributed instructional improvements to  partnership with families. 

Andrea Clay: Knowing the community, knowing the students in front of you, knowing the families in front of you helps educators assess how responsive materials are which helps them to make necessary adaptations. We thought cultural responsiveness was an important aspect of quality because of how vital it is for students to have affirming experiences and units and lessons that acknowledge their identities and histories. 

Lauren Weisskirk: Finally, what recommendations do you have for districts and educators as they prepare for what lies ahead?

Elizabeth Chu: Our study showed that the expanded instructional core (teachers, students, families, and materials) is crucial for continuity of learning, engagement, and academic and social emotional progress particularly when those historic tools that make schooling tick along may be unavailable to you.

And the instructional core absolutely depends on investing in high-quality, aligned instructional materials. Particularly with the federal funding available, getting those high-quality instructional materials in place is our first recommendation.

Andrea Clay: For me, it is that districts should attend to how technology can enable consistent and seamless access to learning. Aligned content and cultural responsiveness always comes first, it’s also crucial to consider digital accessibility when selecting materials. And reserving time for peer to peer collaboration in professional learning is equally important.

Elizabeth Chu: Definitely. And finally, continue to think about the broader systems and structures needed to bring together family engagement with teaching and learning. In so many of the places that we've seen, two branches of the district (academics and families) are kept completely separate. That division makes it harder for partnership between students, families, and teachers to happen in the instructional core.