Learning by the Book

Learning by the Book Report Cover

Project Status: Current
Focus Area: School Improvement and Redesign
Location: National
Principal Investigator: Thomas J. Kane
Press Release: Study finds that curriculum alone does not improve student outcomes
Research Report: Learning by the Book
Online Appendices: Table 1 | Table 2 | Table 3

“It may be a mistake to think of curriculum choice and teaching reforms as alternative ways of improving student outcomes. Rather, to gain the benefits of either, districts may need to do both, ”says CEPR Faculty Director Tom Kane.

Learning by the Book is the first multi-state effort to measure textbook efficacy since the implementation of the Common Core, which saw no difference in the average fourth- and fifth-grade math achievement gains of schools using different elementary math textbooks. At current levels of curriculum usage and professional development, textbook choice alone does not seem to improve student achievement. 

To estimate school-level differences in student achievement growth, the research team—led by Thomas J. Kane (Harvard University) and David Blazar (University of Maryland)—used data on student achievement and math textbook adoptions in fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in six states (California, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Washington) from three school years (2014–15 through 2016–17). They also surveyed teachers on their use of textbooks and supplemental materials, as well as the availability and use of professional development related to math instruction and curriculum. The study sample included almost 6,000 schools and over 1,200 teachers across the six states.

Authors

David Blazar, University of Maryland
Blake Heller, Harvard University
Thomas J. Kane, Harvard University
Morgan Polikoff, University of Southern California
Douglas Staiger, Dartmouth College
Scott Carrell, University of California, Davis
Dan Goldhaber, American Institutes for Research, University of Washington
Douglas Harris, Tulane University
Rachel Hitch, Harvard University
Kristian L. Holden, American Institutes for Research
Michal Kurlaender, University of California, Davis

Education Agencies

California
Louisiana
Maryland
New Jersey 
New Mexico 
Washington 

Organizational Partners

University of Washington
University of Southern California
University of California, Davis

Advisory Board

The study also benefited from the experience and feedback from an advisory board of experts on curriculum design and value-added methodology, including: Matthew Chingos (Urban Institute), Erin Grogan and Dan Weisberg (TNTP), Cory Koedel (University of Missouri), Darleen Opfer and Julia Kaufman (RAND Corporation), Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst (Brookings), David Steiner (Johns Hopkins University), and Jason Zimba (Student Achievement Partners) who read drafts of the report and provided comments.

Funders

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
Bloomberg Philanthropies

The research reported here also was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through grant R305B150010 to Harvard University and Grant R305E150006 to the Regents of the University of California (Michal Kurlaender, Principal Investigator, UC Davis School of Education) in partnership with the California Department of Education (Jonathan Isler, Co-Principal Investigator).

The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute of Education Sciences, the philanthropic funders, the departments of education in any of the participating states, the research institutions, nor the advisory board members.

Key Findings

Contrary to prior studies, this analysis finds little evidence of differences in average math achievement growth in schools using different elementary math curricula. Although the researchers saw substantial variation in achievement growth among the schools using each particular curriculum, there were no differences in average student achievement growth between curricula. The findings were similar for specific subgroups of students, such as English language learners, students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and students with high- or low-baseline achievement. Nor was the variation in textbook effectiveness any different in the subset of schools in which teachers reported the highest average levels of textbook usage, or in schools that had been using the text for two or more years.

The vast majority of teachers used their school’s official curriculum in more than half their lessons, but few used it exclusively. Ninety-three percent of teachers reported using the official curriculum in more than half of their lessons for some purpose, such as creating tasks or activities for class, selecting examples to present, or assigning problems for independent practice or homework. Just 25% of teachers use the textbook in nearly all their lessons for all essential activities, including in-class exercises, practice problems, and homework problems. Only 7% of teachers reported that they used their textbook exclusively.

The elementary math textbook market is concentrated, but market share for specific texts varies by state. Roughly 70% of elementary schools in the six states used one of seven texts, and 90% used one of 15 texts (out of 38 textbooks observed in this study). For instance, in New Mexico, the market was nearly evenly split among three textbook series—enVision, My Math, and Stepping Stones—all of which were written for or adapted to the Common Core. Comparatively, in Louisiana almost 60% of schools used Engage NY/Eureka, an open source curriculum also written for the Common Core.

Time spent in professional development varied by curriculum, but was generally low. Teachers using Engage NY/Eureka reported receiving the most professional development tailored to the curriculum, but it was still modest: 1.6 days, on average, compared to 0.8 to 1.4 days, on average, for teachers using other textbooks. Moreover, 62% of teachers using Engage NY/Eureka reported working with a math coach, compared to 38% of teachers using other textbooks.

The research on textbook efficacy is sparse. Of the 38 textbooks observed in the study sample, only five have been evaluated in a manner meeting the highest evidence standards of the federal What Works Clearinghouse, while only three of these are among the top fifteen most commonly used textbooks in our sample.

Read the full research report