By Julie Parrish

Think for a moment about the difference between a really, really great strawberry and a really, really awful strawberry—one you buy from a produce stand in May and one you buy from a supermarket in December. The first is perfectly ripe—sweet and tart, soft (but not too soft), and almost candy red—while the second…well, the second is flavorless, fibrous, tough, and pale. 

Now, if I told you to come on over to my house for strawberry shortcake tonight, which would you hope I’d be serving? I’d bet you’d hope for the fresh ones because you’d know they’d be immeasurably better. 

Ingredient quality matters. You can’t have a good strawberry shortcake without good strawberries. If the raw materials aren’t packing a punch with flavor, bringing the right texture, and looking delicious, the dish won’t be all that great no matter how good a cake I bake.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why you’re reading about strawberries (isn’t this blog about instructional materials?). The reason is, I want you to think about instructional materials as central, raw ingredients in students’ educational experiences. If the materials anchoring the major learning of your classrooms aren’t strong, it’s challenging for teachers to deliver rigorous, meaningful instruction that prepares students for subsequent grades and beyond.

As discussed in our Early Literacy Playbook, teachers need “high-quality materials that attend to foundational skills, knowledge building, and vocabulary instruction.” High-quality materials can be defined as standards-aligned, coherent curricula rooted in the science of reading and associated research.

However, even the best materials aren’t a cure-all for improved instruction (as even the best strawberries won’t do the work of baking a shortcake). No matter how great your materials are, students are unlikely to draw deep learning from them if stakeholders are ill-prepared to use them. 

At Instruction Partners, we’ve worked with many schools across the country to support the selection, adoption, and implementation of high-quality instructional materials.

Here are four common pitfalls that we’ve seen schools and districts fall into.


Pitfall #1: Making decisions without teacher input

From pre-selection to implementation and beyond, one key to success in materials adoption is teacher buy-in. Too often, a small team chooses the curriculum that teachers throughout an entire school or district are expected to use without getting essential feedback from those very teachers. When new materials arrive, teachers wonder why the change is happening. What was wrong with their old curriculum? And what’s so much better about the new one?

Without teachers’ perspectives, selection teams can miss critical, on-the-ground context that could influence the selection, adoption, and implementation processes.

If leaders don’t adequately address these questions during the curriculum adoption process, they may find that teachers aren’t fully bought in to the new materials when it comes time to begin implementing them. Moreover, if they don’t attend to teacher perspectives, leaders may not ultimately select the best possible materials for students.

Though leaders have a bird’s-eye view of what’s happening across classrooms and schools, teachers are on the ground doing the day-to-day work of making sure the materials in use meet the needs of their students. Without teachers’ perspectives, selection teams can miss critical, on-the-ground context that could influence the selection, adoption, and implementation processes. For example, teachers may be quicker than administrators to flag the number and quality of student practice opportunities that curricula include, provide insight into what meaningful student practice looks like in the classroom, and determine whether a given set of instructional materials provides sufficient opportunity. Or, they may notice that accessing teacher support resources through a given provider is clunky and will be challenging to use practically. 

Here’s how to include teachers every step of the way.

  • Before selection
    Teachers have valuable on-the-ground experience with instructional materials; rather than limiting their role in the adoption process, bring them to the table. Creating room for teachers’ voices increases the likelihood that newly selected materials will meet the needs of students and complement the cultural context of classrooms. For instance, run surveys or hold focus groups that allow teachers to voice the strengths and weaknesses of the current materials, what they would like to see in new materials, and red flags to look out for when evaluating materials. In turn, allow leaders to share what they identify as lacking in the current curriculum.
  • During selection
    Teachers tend to feel more invested in new materials when they confidently understand both the factors that inform the selection process and how the new materials will better equip them to support student learning. Share the “why” behind the process and decisions with teachers, and create a throughline that connects leaders’ and teachers’ needs to the materials ultimately selected.
  • During year 1 implementation
    For the first year of implementation, the focus is acclamation—making sure that teachers understand how to use the materials, plan lessons, and navigate their time. During this adjustment period, leaders need to be in regular communication with teachers. Surveys, focus groups, and classroom visits provide opportunities for leaders to offer encouragement, address questions, and gain important insight into how teachers and students are experiencing the materials. That, in turn, helps leaders make informed decisions about ongoing training and development.At this stage, it’s important for leaders to stay at the teacher level, which means serving as a partner in the work. When observing classrooms, leadership teams must 1) explicitly share with teachers what they are looking for; 2) talk to teachers about trends, bright spots, and areas for improvement; and 3) use all of the data and information collected to strategically plan professional learning.
  • After year 1 implementation
    Lastly, remember that the initial transition to new materials isn’t the end—it’s the beginning. After a year, teachers should have settled into the rhythm of the curriculum; however, true curriculum mastery is a years-long process. Leaders need to facilitate continued reflection on what it’s like to actually put the materials to use, where teachers want more support, and current priorities for deepening student learning. Leaders can say something like, “We know that implementing a new curriculum is hard—tell us what is and isn’t working, and how we can help.” Statements like these make teachers feel supported and like their voices matter. It allows teachers to leverage their expertise, and it helps leadership teams fine tune implementation.

By attending to teachers’ voices, teachers will feel seen, valued, and heard, and leaders will make better-informed decisions about what materials and strategies will make the biggest difference in classrooms.


Pitfall #2: Inadequately training stakeholders

After selecting materials, leadership teams need to shift their focus to planning for continued professional learning about curriculum implementation. This is an important juncture because failure to appropriately train and support stakeholders in using new materials can lead to confusion, frustration, and ultimately dips in teacher and student success. 

Curricula creators promote their own training, which has its merits (e.g., a solid overview of materials composition, guidance for use in virtual vs. in-person formats); however, these trainings tend to be one-off, high-level overviews of the materials. Rarely does training offered by curricula providers include follow-up touchpoints throughout the year or deep dives into units, lessons, and instructional planning. Training on how to use the materials is a great first step, but teachers and leaders need more than a shallow understanding if they want to effectively leverage the materials to improve instruction and student experiences. 

It takes years of training, using materials as an anchor, to refine and strengthen teachers’ ability to use the materials well. Follow-up training needs to get more granular to address how teachers are internalizing units and lessons to inform planning and facilitation and how they are using data to inform future instruction, including customized student support.

Facilitating this kind of meaningful, ongoing training requires implementation support teams to have a solid understanding of the materials. They need to have internalized the units and lessons—to know the materials as well as teachers do—to deliver the support teachers actually need, such as coaching and feedback, modeling, and curriculum-based training and lesson planning support. Though not all leaders in a building or district need such extensive knowledge, schools and districts need to dedicate a person or team to lead curriculum-based professional learning efforts, then let those folks create training and support opportunities for teachers.


Pitfall #3: Moving forward without a strategy

Imagine this scene: The curriculum selection team has made its choice. After completing initial training, teachers have a working understanding of how to use the curriculum. The leaders conducting classroom observations know the materials well enough to recognize whether or not they are being used with fidelity in the classroom.


It’s one thing for leaders to know that their teachers need support; it’s another to know what type of support they need and what next steps to prioritize. This is where a strategic implementation plan comes into play.

But how will they support teachers in improving their practice?

It’s one thing for leaders to know that their teachers need support; it’s another to know what type of support they need and what next steps to prioritize. This is where a strategic implementation plan comes into play. The heart of strategic planning is backwards mapping: getting teachers to Point B (i.e., successful use of materials in service of student outcomes, however teachers and leaders define it) from Point A (i.e., where you are now).

Once stakeholders create a vision for successful implementation, they can determine a strategic plan for realizing that vision, including identifying clear look-fors in classroom observations and outlining clear roles and responsibilities for everyone involved in supporting early literacy. Equipped with a vision, a strategy, and real-time data from classroom observations,* leaders can determine whether professional learning opportunities should focus on unit internalization, lesson preparation, progress monitoring, or something else.

*Tools like Instruction Partners’ Instructional Practices Guides (IPGs) can help leaders stay focused during classroom observations, track improvement over time, and further refine their strategic plan. IPGs also work well when used in conjunction with the implementation guides that accompany the curriculum. Here are our IPGs for Math, ELA, and early literacy.


Pitfall #4: Not protecting time for ongoing support

As discussed in pitfall #2, offering teachers an introductory high-level training and a few flyover follow-ups isn’t sufficient to develop deep knowledge of new curricular materials. Change takes time. Teachers and leaders cannot expect perfection right out of the gate; leaders need to carve out appropriate time for ongoing support.

But time, of course, is the scarcest resource in a school building. Protecting time is challenging in and of itself, but it’s only half the battle—you also have to protect that protected time. It will always be tempting to repurpose time to handle one of the never-ending situations that arise in school buildings or to cancel the time outright to give educators a break, but it’s absolutely crucial to stay the course in order to achieve long-term gains.

The good news is that leaders can tap into some of the teacher collaboration and learning structures they already have in place—professional learning communities (PLCs) are one great option. Activate PLCs so that you can leverage the protected time you already have for the sake of strategic curriculum implementation support. 

This story serves as a good example of how a school leader transformed his team’s PLC to better meet teachers’ and students’ needs, as well as how PLC members navigated challenges and remained rooted in the curriculum.


For more detailed guidance, tools, and templates for supporting the selection and implementation of early literacy materials and putting in place strategies and structures that can help you and your team avoid each of the four pitfalls, check out our free Early Literacy Playbook.