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By the Books

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Sitting at your middle school desk, you probably didn’t think all that much about the textbook in front of you. Sure, you read the assigned chapters or rebelliously doodled in the margins — but you probably didn’t give much thought to why your school picked this textbook, out of all the textbooks, to be your class’s source of knowledge. 

You wouldn’t be the only one. Little is known about how school districts choose learning materials — a major gap in our understanding of education policy, considering the massive effect these choices have on students’ learning outcomes and future trajectories. Differences in curriculum are a huge contributor to achievement gaps between distracts, with Black, Latino, low-income, and English-learner students disproportionately fronting the consequences.1

The power of a good textbook

Switching to better learning materials is one of the most impactful and affordable ways to improve outcomes at school. On top of this, prices don’t differ significantly between high- and low-quality curricula, meaning that better learning materials are within reach for all districts.

When schools select higher-quality learning materials — and provide teachers with support on how to best use them — student learning outcomes thrive. The results of higher-quality learning materials are equivalent to reducing class size by 15%, and students who learn from better curricula rank up to 12 percentile points higher on standardized tests. These impacts are far-reaching, from college admissions prospects, to earning potential, to quality of life.

So how do districts choose which materials to buy?

In the U.S., curriculum choices are decentralized, meaning districts select their own learning materials (in line with state standards). As a result, these choices tend to be made with many stakeholders in mind. But why do districts choose to go with this learning service, or distribute that textbook? Until now, there’s been little to no research on how these purchasing decisions are made, despite the major consequences they have on students. 

To address the black box that has developed around learning material choices, TDL partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to map out the curriculum purchasing process from start to end. Our project was the first of its kind, and an invaluable step towards understanding and improving curriculum decision-making nationwide.

group of children in a classroom

We started by figuring out why district officials make the choices they do by conducting hundreds of surveys with school district leaders. We sat down with leaders from across California and Texas, prioritizing districts with the most impacted student populations — Hispanic, Black and low-income students — in order to better serve the groups who needed curriculum support. 

After a deep dive into their decision-making processes, we mapped out the entire journey that district leaders went on when selecting learning materials, including key touchpoints where people become most susceptible to bias. We found that at many points along the way, information overload and confusing criteria for evaluating learning materials pushed administrators to rely on heuristics to pick their schools’ curricula, instead of on more important indicators of quality. 

To give just one example of how this might play out, imagine you’re a district leader attending a publisher fair to get a sense of what materials are available for your school. You’re surrounded by displays advertising countless different curricula, and representatives from the publishing companies telling you why you should choose their program. As the day wears on, all of this gets to be too much information, and it’s impossible for you to compare so many options objectively when there are so many variables to consider. In the end, the curriculum you pick might not be the one that’s actually best suited to your students’ needs, but instead the one that had the nicest-looking display at the fair — the halo effect at work.

Bringing evidence to curriculum decision-making

As behavioral scientists, we’re fans of evidence-based decision-making. So we used the results of our research to develop 15 pilot interventions to remove the barriers to evidence-based choices in curriculum selection. We wanted to help these key decision-makers make the most informed decisions possible.

Here are a couple of the ways we recommended purchasers simplify their decision-making process:

  • Create curriculum evaluation “cheat sheets” to make information easily accessible and reduce information overload

  • Facilitate the creation of social norms by leveraging the influence of teacher role models and leaders

  • Make training and development opportunities more accessible to reduce the influence of the status quo in curriculum adoption decisions

As behavioral scientists, a lot of our work revolves around frameworks: tools that allow us to think differently about problems and potential approaches for addressing them. To develop concrete solutions, we turned to one of our favorites: the Behavior Change Wheel, a framework that maps behavioral concepts to evidence-based behavior change techniques (BCTs). To ensure these solutions would work in the real world we brought together 30 leading experts in California to help us work through and refine the solutions. 

But we didn’t want to stop at individual stakeholders. To scale our findings, we also built a predictive model: a framework that can be used to improve curriculum decisions anywhere, by laying out the typical behaviors that govern district leaders’ choice of learning materials.

Piloting solutions in California

It’s easy to do research and sketch out concepts for solutions. The real challenge is testing those solutions in the real world and measuring their potential for impact at scale. 

In collaboration with CalCurriculum, a partnership between Pivot Learning and EdReports, we had the opportunity to test the solutions with 13 school districts in California who signed up to participate in a year-long cohort. The focus of our involvement in the collaboration was to test the interventions with real decision-makers, assessing their potential to change behaviors, mindsets, and ultimate outcomes when it comes to choosing instructional materials. With this data we would be able to assess whether these interventions were worthy of greater testing and roll out to a larger sample of districts in the future.

The [cohort] process helped us to focus on what our priorities are. . . . We really want our teachers to be empowered and equipped to use the material. . . . Just having the cohort and being able to have these conversations was extremely beneficial. It also gave us some ideas, [on] how to better refine and do things.

— Participant from a Southern California school district

Over the course of the school year, our interventions helped unite school district administrators and teachers in the curriculum selection process. Part of the reason that administrators often end up choosing materials that teachers don’t want to use is misaligned priorities: administrators focus on standards alignment, while teachers are focused on the usability of materials in the classroom. When we brought both groups together to create a shared vision of how the process should work, they were more able to find common ground, identifying shared goals and “must-haves” for a new curriculum.

Project Leader Jayden Rae and TDL Director Marielle Montenegro at the 2022 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference.

Our interventions also helped engage some of the most important stakeholders in curriculum selection: students and their parents. Prior to the cohort, only 21% of the district administrators we surveyed reported receiving feedback on curriculum from students in the past year, and 23% from parents. Our interventions emphasized the importance of building strategies to bring these stakeholders into the process, with participants expressing a stronger willingness to do so by the end of the cohort. 

The full set of recommendations for districts and policymakers is found in the full report.


  1. TNTP, Inc. (2018, August 15). Choosing the opportunity gap. https://opportunitymyth.tntp.org/choosing-the-opportunity-gap

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