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Curriculum Alignment: What to Look for When Evaluating Educational Resources

Monday, June 5, 2017 -- Pete Rogan

The modern world of an educator includes a blizzard of online learner resources. We have open resources, home-brew materials in a district, online textbooks from major publishers, and online only materials like Edmentum products. We also have emerging models like playlists and adaptive instruction. The question teachers, schools, and districts face about such materials remains the same as it has always been for instructional materials – which ones are the good ones? In this blizzard of materials, how do you look closely enough to find those unique snowflakes that truly meet the needs of your students?

In response, schools need to build a process to analyze the quality of materials, looking across multiple dimensions and criteria to identify the best fit. Some larger districts are helping with this process, designing and developing adoption processes. Some states have taken on the challenge as well, providing lists of state approved materials, evolving their textbook adoption processes to provide similar analysis and evaluation of online learning materials. We see this move in the California “a-g” program and in the partnership Maryland has developed with Quality Matters, as well as other state-based programs.

For those schools and teachers without the benefit of such institutional support, let me propose a model for evaluation based on the research and design done by the educators that have worked and contributed to Edmentum curriculum design over the past 5 decades. This model lays out six dimensions of evaluation that can be used by any educator or team of educators to review and evaluate the materials you are considering for use with learners in and out of the classroom. I’ll present and discuss these criteria through concrete examples of how the criteria play out in the design of some specific materials provided by an organization like Edmentum. In particular, we’ll focus on a set of writing lessons included in our new Exact Path product for individualized learning and also discuss a unit of lessons included in one of our high school math Courses.

Dimensions of Quality

Alignment to standards – Online materials should provide a clear designation of the standards they teach in each lesson and should provide sufficient coverage of your local standards to make them useful and productive in your teaching environment. Whether based on the Common Core or not, state-approved standards are here to stay as a way to document the instructional goals of teachers and students alike.

In Edmentum’s new Exact Path product, each grade includes a series of writing lessons that center on four primary genres of informative, opinion, narrative, and research writing. Each lesson also includes elements of writing process, including an optional task to submit to the teacher for evaluation. With these instructional structures represented, we provide rich instruction that addresses the standards for a broad base of state needs.

Flexibility of delivery – A lesson may take place as part of a station rotation model, or in the room of a reading or math specialist. It may be part of a flipped classroom where direct instruction happens at home and guided practice in the classroom. It may be delivered one-on-one to accommodate physical, emotional, developmental, or scheduling needs for learners. Online materials need to be flexible and accessible enough to support this range of delivery modes.

The writing lessons for Exact Path are designed from the ground up to be self-contained instruction for a learner-driven experience, including direct instruction, practice with feedback, a quiz to assess understanding, and open response activities to practice writing that can be turned in for teacher feedback. This range of instruction can be used in combinations of independent learning, work with a tutor or specialist, small group lessons, or full class instruction.

Engagement – Ask a group of teachers to name their main challenge and most will likely say classroom management. A key to managing a group of learners is designing classroom environments and lessons that engage the learner, provide opportunities for learner autonomy, and engage a range of learners. This is part of the art of teaching. Online materials should provide engaging experiences for learners, with age-appropriate use of multimedia, storylines, and characters or real world scenarios. You want your students eager to hear that they get to work with these materials – you want to hear cheers not groans when you announce the next step in their school day.

The new Exact Path writing lessons use visually appealing animated characters which age and mature as the lessons move from kindergarten to sixth grade. For younger learners, the lessons have recurring characters in a colorful world that appears like a television cartoon. For older grades, the visual style shifts to a graphic novel style with older characters in a summer camp setting. Learners feel like they are watching videos or playing a game as they work through these rich, media experiences.

Relevance – Coupled with engagement, relevance stands as a key to activating learner’s internal motivation to learn. The age-old question from kids in the classroom is “Why are we learning this lesson?” Your lessons or materials need to provide a hook into the lesson, a sense of the importance of the topic to the everyday life of the learner.  

The Exact Path writing lessons and tasks leverage realistic settings and topics of relevance to learners in the K-6 grade range. These lessons involve storylines and songs and such to hook the learners into the task of writing, bringing learner attention to the material. The examples in the lesson and interactive questions follow topics like favorite foods, school events, and research on animals for relevance to the lives of young learners. The writing samples follow grade-appropriate vocabulary usage expectations to ensure understanding and relevance for each age group.

Beyond the writing lessons described thus far, it’s instructive to look at a unit of lessons from Edmentum’s middle and high school courses, specifically the Geometry unit on Similarity and Proof.

Instructional approach Instructional materials embody particular instructional models. Each district and school sets expectations for teachers around how learners are taught and what instruction and interaction look like in their classrooms. Is your high school classroom focused on direct instruction with a teacher at the front lecturing about a topic?  Do you flip the classroom model and have learners answering challenging application questions with an expert teacher during the school day, with direct instruction provided online at home? Do you set up environments and pose problems where learners engage in projects to demonstrate they mastered the subject matter defined by your state standards?

The Similarity and Proof unit in Geometry includes four lessons, a course activity, a unit activity, and a group discussion. The instructional tutorials follow a modern model where early in the lesson the learner is presented a scenario in an interactive tool to explore and manipulate through some guided tasks. For example, the lesson on Properties of Dilation provides a pre-populated tool with a scenario about altering a logo for a boat dealer. By the end of the exploratory task, learners capture observations and conclusions they have drawn about slopes and congruence from direct exposure to the process of dilating triangle shapes. Then, the lesson follows up this exploration with a brief summary of the principles at play to make sure the learner has drawn the most important conclusions. This pattern plays out across the lessons, enhanced by student-driven projects in the course activity and unit activity, and an opportunity to generate discussion amongst students about their views on an innovation in the 1600s of the pantograph and how it relates to congruence and similarity.

Rigor – Finally, instructional materials need to provide rigor across multiple dimensions:

  • Accurate content
  • Appropriate depth of understanding
  • Access to quality assessments
  • Concise feedback
  • Cycle of revision and maintenance to ensure quality over time

The Geometry lessons in the Similarity and Proof unit were developed for accuracy by a team of math subject matter experts and experienced instructional designers, including three separate rounds of quality review and revision followed by a comprehensive edit by professional staff. The instruction is designed to reach the depth of understanding expected from a range of state and national standards. For example, the Properties of Dilation lesson addresses the development of a learner’s ability to verify experimentally the properties of dilations given by a center and a scale factor. Within the lesson, learners are asked to solve questions along the way with feedback on their success or errors. The exploratory tasks also provide feedback at each step to make sure the learner can draw the proper conclusions through the process. Each lesson links to a focused mastery quiz, and the unit ends with a comprehensive post-test to provide the learner and teacher with assessment of the learner’s mastery of the unit objectives. Finally, all these lessons and activities receive regular updates to keep the technology and instruction up to date, as well as regular maintenance releases to address any quality issues that inevitably exist in all materials.

Design your Model and Evaluate

Hopefully, this model based on our years of curriculum design expertise provides you with a great starting place. A model like this can be captured in a checklist to use in an evaluation process.

Evaluation criteria:

Curriculum Alignment Evaluation Rubric

Interested in learning more about the research and efficacy behind Edmentum solutions? Check out this study linking Exact Path and the Lexile Framework, or take a look at our whitepaper on The Next Generation of Digital Curriculum with Plato Courseware.In the end, the exact criteria used to evaluate the quality of instructional materials for your classrooms lies in the hands of your district or school. At Edmentum, we are proud that our Courses and other materials have been evaluated and approved through rigorous systems like Quality Matters and California “ag”, as well as many other state list processes. We’ve had our assessment writing approach and item pools reviewed and certified by the WebbAlign team to document our understanding and application of the Depth of Knowledge framework. We know our content stands up to the rigors of well-designed evaluation methods, and we look forward to having it go through the thorough and targeted evaluation system used by your school or district.