A group of rural Wisconsin school districts shares lessons learned from a locally driven materials selection process.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic caused disruptions across the education system, when districts attended a publisher fair in search of new materials educators often only had a few brief minutes to speak to the representatives. Booths contained beautifully designed materials to examine. Everything looked great—but the question remained: what about what’s “under the cover”? Educators often left these events still wondering if materials were aligned to college- and career-ready standards and if they would meet the specific needs of their students.
Engaging with publishers is an important part of adopting new materials and as many schools return to face-to-face instruction, the possibility of meeting with different representatives may also return. Benefits can include learning more about the product and its design in detail and hearing from publishers firsthand about the types of supporting materials that come with the program.
This may all sound like common sense, but accessing the benefits from a publisher engagement can be harder than it sounds. It’s not uncommon for educators to attend large publisher fairs without deep knowledge about the programs they're investigating. Rethinking publisher engagement can be a successful tactic to ensure that educators have a clearer understanding about how materials will meet their students’ needs.
We had the opportunity to learn from a group of rural Wisconsin school districts—the Cooperative Educational Service Association region (CESA-4)—that ran an exemplary publisher engagement process.
Explore our case study to learn more: Big Changes in Rural Wisconsin: Improving the Instructional Materials Selection Process
Rather than putting together a publisher fair, the districts banded together to develop an innovative, effective model that would better serve their local needs. Check out three best practices from their experience on how districts can strategically and successfully engage publishers during a materials adoption.
Before buying a new car—or even trying a new restaurant—most people research the pros and cons of what they’re about to invest their time and money in. Selecting new materials is no different. In our experience, districts that have benefited the most from publisher engagement have first developed an instructional vision, analyzed their district context, and understood what they wanted to see in materials to reflect their district’s unique needs. Then they reach out to vendors to learn more about programs. Having your instructional vision and knowledge of materials in hand will make it easier for you to distinguish between a vendor’s presentation and the qualities of a program that will make a real difference for the teachers and students in your district.
When CESA-4 was preparing for their K–5 math and 6–12 English language arts adoption, they first spent time analyzing student data and comparing what they found against reviews on EdReports.org. The preparation paid off. High school principal Jason Cress said, “We developed sharper and more strategic questions about the materials because of the preparation we had.”
CESA-4 districts honed-in on program-specific questions as they related to community needs. Laura Veglahn, CESA-4 program director, said, “Districts were able to engage with publishers in a much better way and focus on academic content because they had built their own knowledge of the programs through professional learning sessions and resources like EdReports reviews.”
When engaging publishers, preparing questions in advance is key. In Wisconsin’s CESA-4, the adoption committees gave thought to what they would ask before the publishers arrived.
Questions varied depending on the district but many focused on potential professional learning required for strong implementation, assessments and data collection, English language learner supports, and opportunities for differentiation. All of these questions allowed the district teams to drive the conversation about the things that mattered most to them.
It is likely that educators will also need to consider questions on how programs meet their district’s technology needs. Over time, schools’ needs have evolved from ensuring materials could be accessed on older browsers and versions of operating systems to detailed questions about interoperability, compatibility, security, support, and digital design. These concerns have become even more important during the pandemic as districts assess what instructional materials may work best in their communities not just in-person, but also remotely and in hybrid settings.
It’s easy for publisher visits to become about the bells and whistles of a curricular product rather than the actual content. Focusing the conversation around content and top priorities not only helps inform what questions districts ask but also helps to keep educators in the driver’s seat and ensure that the information collected can actually support a final decision.
In the case of Wisconsin’s CESA-4, every district had “alignment to college and career-ready standards” as their primary must-have but also identified other key elements required to meet local needs. One district had English language learner supports, cultural relevance, and assessments that were connected to the materials being taught. Another district focused more on learning about strong vocabulary components and the overall scope and sequence.
CESA-4 organized their publisher visit to spotlight district priorities and gave each publisher one hour to present. In order to keep the presentations focused on content, all publishers were required to walk through their materials in relation to the EdReports review criteria. For math, publishers needed to discuss the materials’ alignment to focus and coherence and rigor and the mathematical practices. For ELA, they had to cover text quality and complexity and alignment to standards with tasks grounded in evidence along with instructional supports.
The choice to focus on content was significant because it set parameters around the conversation in an attempt to side-step the flashy “accessories” that are often highlighted in curriculum presentations. Instead, the alignment and quality of materials was the roadmap everyone used. Ultimately, the engagement between CESA-4 and the publisher was less about selling and more about listening and responding.
Setting Yourself Up for Success
Success with publisher engagement does not happen in a vacuum. In CESA-4 it was possible because of the thoughtful planning of the regional office and because of the deep learning teams committed to before the vendors arrived. CESA-4’s publisher engagement model illustrates how it is possible for all districts, even within budget and capacity constraints, to change the dynamic of the vendor-customer relationship so that it better serves teacher and student needs.
Wisconsin CESA #4 is not alone in developing best practices for publisher engagement. Other districts offer their own models for how educators can be strategic and learn more from vendors about how programs can meet the needs of their students.