A Change Comes to Mississippi: Materials Matter and the Results Show It

Mississippi educator Deia Sanders talks about her work to elevate the importance of high-quality instructional materials in the Magnolia state.

In 2019, Mississippi educator Deia Sanders joined a group of education leaders at the annual CCSSO Policy Forum to discuss the research pointing to the importance of high-quality instructional materials (HQIM) and the state action to advance this work.

Since then, Deia has continued to advocate for this work locally. She has created a Curriculum Review Team within her district where she helps educators to make future curriculum decisions and raise awareness on what HQIM means for equity. EdReports had the opportunity to chat with Deia about why she believes HQIM is critical for teaching and learning in the Magnolia state.

What is your current role?

I have been an educator in Simpson County Schools in rural Mississippi for the past 12 years and have taught everything from 4th grade math to algebra I. I am currently the math instructional coach for the entire district (seven schools).

Teaching looks different this year and so does PD! Ms. Sanders working with her curriculum team…virtually.

How did you become interested in high-quality instructional materials (HQIM)?

I was part of a statewide team that helped align the state assessment to classroom curriculum, and subsequently part of a team that rewrote a more rigorous set of state standards. The team did a deep dive into the standards to see where our current and proposed curriculum aligned.  It was easy to spot the deficiencies and to see where it did not match the standards. Mississippi made it a priority to adopt HQIM, and I witnessed the change not just in our district, but in our state as a result.

Mississippi made it a priority to adopt high-quality materials, and I witnessed the change not just in our district, but in our state as a result.

What spurred you to begin advocating for and training educators on the importance of high-quality materials?

Ms. Sanders leading a professional development session on high-quality instructional materials.

As a district, we recognized that differences in curriculum was an equity issue. If students had poor materials and limited time with teachers, there was no way they were going to close gaps; and performance between schools within our district varied widely. Mississippi did not have ratings for secondary math materials. I knew we couldn’t afford to wait another year so we used EdReports’ reviews and rubrics to select our math materials. We saw positive results of using HQIM within months of adopting and implementing.

Why does access to high-quality, aligned instructional materials matter for Mississippi teachers and students?

I worked with a teacher in the Delta who was the only certified math teacher and taught all grades at her elementary school. She struggled because she didn’t have strong materials and had to plan lessons for several grades. I was able to help her find quality materials, and she no longer had to come up with individual lesson plans. She was able to invest time back into her students.

Math scores in that district grew, but that particular teacher was just relieved to have strong support in place. Many high-quality materials have online components that help teachers identify gaps, student assessments to help identify student groups, and guidance on how to scaffold for student groups such as English learners or lower performing students. It is a game changer not just for teachers but for students.

How has the way instructional materials are selected and implemented changed in the past few years?

When I was a classroom teacher, we stayed after school and reviewed all of the sample materials that the curriculum companies sent, picked our top picks, and then invited the sales people from those curriculum companies to present. We didn’t have any kind of rubric or way to evaluate for alignment and high-quality.

A couple of years ago, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) valued our expertise as educators and convened a group of us from all over the state. We spent four days with EdReports to get trained on their rubric, scored materials with their rubric, and then brought in the top two scoring materials.  We asked each reviewer on the team to use each set of materials for a week in their classrooms and rate them on the rubric for usability. The ratings were shared with all teachers and they selected from those two sets of instructional materials.

We have come a long way since the days of picking materials based on sales pitches! Now we have the knowledge of how to evaluate instructional materials for our districts, and educators from all over the state are speaking the same language about HQIM. Because of our experience with MDE, we created a district committee of math educators from each school and level that evaluates our district adopted curriculum materials regularly.

“There is a difference in just looking at the reports from EdReports and taking the rubric and applying it as you actually go through the materials yourself. This gave us a much deeper understanding of what quality materials looked like.”

What role has EdReports played in the way Mississippi is selecting and implementing instructional materials?

EdReports increased our awareness of key details. We weren’t necessarily checking for how focused, coherent, usable, or aligned the materials were. Those were questions we weren’t really digging into; we were basing our decisions on what the salespeople shared.

Once we got the training from EdReports, we realized what we had been missing all along.

There is a difference in just looking at the reports from EdReports and taking the rubric and applying it as you actually go through the materials yourself. This gave us a much deeper understanding of what quality materials looked like, and we could easily see the strengths and weaknesses of the instructional materials.

What kind of work have educators been doing in your district to support the adoption and implementation of quality instructional materials?

In our district this year we developed our own Curriculum Review Team and trained them on EdReports review rubric. This has allowed us to share our district vision for quality materials with others.  Even if we aren’t buying a new core curriculum at this moment, teachers have questions and may want supplemental materials. Additionally, the team analyzes situations in the classroom and provides teachers feedback on how to use the curriculum. We have some of the highest performing teachers on the team that are already getting great results every year, and they realize that when they utilize the quality materials in their classroom their teaching is even stronger.

“High-quality instructional materials level the playing field. I would feel confident to put my own children in any of our elementary schools because they are all using HQIM.”

Why is it important for teachers to be leaders in the adoption and implementation of instructional materials?

They are the daily users. I can’t truly give materials a usability ranking from my office.

It needs to be teachers leading the process because they know how it works for the students and how usable it is across the district with different types of teachers and students. Additionally, there is buy-in from the teachers that have the opportunity to teach the curriculum, evaluate and rate it, and then share with other teachers.

“Without access to quality materials, the situation for our schools was inequitable. Some teachers found better materials and had better results. Now more teachers are succeeding.”

What are you most proud of about the work you and your colleagues have done in your school and district?

We had teachers create pacing guides for the quality materials in the district. Teacher planning time is now spent discussing curriculum, studying the lesson, and making necessary notes instead of searching the internet for lessons.

We are in a rural district and it’s harder for us to recruit teachers. Not only is it rural, we also pay less. However, more and more teachers have left surrounding districts and come to ours because we have quality materials. There is less turnover in our teacher force because expectations and support are clear. We have teachers that come in to teach from other districts and say, “In my old district I got to make up my own stuff.” When they realize how much stronger and easier their teaching is with HQIM, I then hear them say: “This is the best out there. Why would I want to change it?”

Without access to quality materials, the situation for our schools was inequitable. Some teachers found better materials and had better results. Now more teachers are succeeding. I am very proud of our teachers and administrators who have embraced HQIM and increased student success.

What advice do you have for others working in the state to increase knowledge of and access to quality instructional materials?

On the state level, bring in educators representing all of your schools and students and train them on why materials matter and how to use them. Across the state of Mississippi we all speak the same language and have the same expectations around high-quality materials. Districts should also develop their own curriculum evaluation team and develop teachers who share the vision and understand HQIM. This amplifies the teacher voice and creates more curriculum-minded teachers.

Last year, I was on a panel with superintendents from across the country and most of the questions from the audience were directed at me—the non-Superintendent on the panel. Mississippi had been ranked 50th in the country in student performance and student outcomes. This has drastically shifted over the past few years. Folks in the audience were dying to know what we had done. MDE brought in people to help write the standards, to help write the test, to help rate materials. That strengthened our teaching and changed outcomes for all of our children—especially for our most vulnerable students who had been left behind for so long.

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