Using COVID Relief for Student Recovery: High-Quality Instructional Materials

Written by Charity Gardner

Policy Manager, A+ Education Partnership


Over $3 billion is coming to Alabama schools from the three rounds of federal funding in order to address the challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and districts have an unprecedented amount of money at their disposal to improve student outcomes, and we are keeping families, communities, and decision-makers up-to-date on best practices and tracking district spending priorities. This is part 6 of our “COVID School Spending” series and the second blog on addressing learning loss.


State education agencies are required to use 5% of their allocation from ARP ESSER funds for addressing learning loss, and districts are required to do the same with 20% of their funds. One highly impactful option for this money is the purchase of high-quality instructional materials, the foundation on which teachers build student knowledge. The use of high-quality instructional materials will not only aid in getting students back on track after multiple years of disrupted learning but will also be a boon to students in the years to come. Investing in these materials with one-time federal COVID relief funds is wise because these materials are often a one-time cost.

What are High-Quality Instructional Materials?

It is important to differentiate between standards and curriculum when thinking about instructional materials. 

  • Standards are a list of what students are expected to know at the end of each grade level throughout their K-12 experience, so that they are prepared for college and beyond. Federal law requires states to set standards for reading/language arts, math, and science, but states are allowed to create and set standards for whatever other courses they choose. 
  • Curriculum are the detailed plans for how teachers will teach the standards. Some examples are lesson plans, unit plans, books, activities, and, of course, instructional materials.  

High-quality instructional materials are, most importantly, aligned with state standards. Without this important feature, the instructional materials being used in the classroom cannot teach what students are supposed to learn, leading to lower student achievement. 

Other features of high-quality instructional materials include: 

  • Content Rich: Instructional materials should include content knowledge for students to learn and understand and not just a list of skills to be acquired. 
  • Assessments aligned to standards: Formative and summative assessments should be aligned with the standards and curriculum to ensure that students are being tested on what they were supposed to learn, not outside or irrelevant skills or knowledge.
  • Engaging: Instructional Materials should be engaging to capture the interest of students as they learn.
  • Rigorous: Materials should require students to learn and apply grade-level knowledge or above, not less. 

Impact of High-Quality Instructional Materials

Research shows that what teachers use in the classroom matters. Changing from an average-scoring curriculum to a curriculum that fully meets the markers of high quality (listed above) has the same effect on student achievement as an additional 35 days of instruction. Switching to a high-quality curriculum from a low-quality curriculum, one that is not rigorous or engaging at all, has an even greater impact. In Indiana, a study showed that the use of one math textbook over another provided a gain of 3 additional months of learning per student with a cost difference of only $2.26 per student. Improving the quality of curriculum has been shown to be 40 times more cost-effective than class-size reduction.

There is also an impact on teachers and their workload. 55% of teachers identified high-quality instructional materials and textbooks as a top funding priority, while only 18% believe that their district’s instructional materials are aligned with state standards. 70% of Tennessee teachers reported spending over 4 hours a week creating or sourcing instructional materials. Providing educators with high-quality instructional materials will allow them to spend more time focusing on implementing a high-quality curriculum, rather than trying to find it or create it. 

Addressing Equity

According to a 2015 study, low-income students are less likely to have high-quality content and curriculum in the classroom. Students of color from low-income backgrounds are less likely to be in classrooms with grade-appropriate assignments. The use of high-quality materials is a cost-effective way to increase the rigor in classrooms that serve these students while also raising the quality of materials that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to, increasing their achievement. 

Selecting High-Quality Instructional Materials

There are a number of resources available when looking for high-quality materials. The following is a list of online resources that rate and review curricula and instructional materials based on their alignment to state standards and teachers’ experience using them in the classroom. 

Implementation and Teacher Support

The impact of high-quality instructional materials grows even greater when teachers are provided with training in how to use the resources well. Professional development that is based on the curriculum that is being taught and aligned with instructional materials being used allows teachers to be supported and successful in engaging students with the materials. The High-Quality Instructional Materials and Professional Development Network, known as IMPD and formed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) recognizes that professional development is a critical component of introducing new instructional materials, and directs its member states to incentivize teacher prep to integrate standards and align curriculum into training programs. 

So What: Takeaways for Families and Communities

The following are some questions that stakeholders can ask when thinking about how to get high-quality instructional materials in the hands of students: 

Questions for Parents:

  • Where do the instructional materials in my child’s classroom come from? 
  • Are they high-quality instructional materials? 
  • Who makes the decision on curriculum and instructional materials in my district? 

Questions for Educators: 

  • Are the instructional materials in my classroom high-quality?
  • How much time do I spend sourcing high-quality materials and curricula? 
  • Does the subject I teach have state-set standards to which material should be aligned? 

Questions for Decision Makers:

  • How can I provide teachers with professional development aligned to the curriculum and instructional materials? 
  • How can I support curriculum and material decision-makers with resources that explicitly tell the quality of resources they are choosing from?