Identifying and Implementing Instructional Materials in Middle School by Michael Heinz, Erin Michael Escher, Ellen Ebert

Identifying and implementing science instructional materials that equitably engage students in active learning of science concepts, practices, sensemaking, problem-solving, and decision-making can be overwhelming for schools. The Council of State Science Supervisors (CSSS) works to support science educators in various ways, including providing guidance and support for selecting high-quality instructional resources. This committee, comprised of state science supervisors from across the country, is working to inform statewide policies, support the development of freely accessible science instructional materials, and offer ideas for expanding the science education communities’ perceptions about what is possible. This blog post exemplifies the work CSSS is doing to support educators.

Finding and implementing science instructional materials is challenging and high stakes, especially when we want students to experience learning as meaningful (making sense of ideas rather than just reproducing them), cumulative (requiring them to use and build on what they figured out in previous lessons), and progressive (improving explanations or solutions over time by iteratively assessing them, elaborating on them, and holding them up to critique and evidence). Whether inspired by economic realities and/or the desire to provide the best learning opportunities for students, teachers are purchasing commercial products that are aligned to the science standards, turning to the internet for open education resources (OER), purchasing materials created by other educators, or creating their own. Each strategy has its merits and challenges. In this blog post, we will provide some suggestions for science curriculum adoption committees.

The science instructional material marketplace is rapidly filling with lessons, units, and programs. Each developer makes claims about their alignment with science standards. Selecting and implementing science instructional materials is expensive and will impact students for years to come. Purchasing a fully developed commercial science program has much more appeal. It is essential, though, for the committee to exercise due diligence to verify claims of alignment. Later in this post, we share criterion-referenced tools the committee can use to complete this step.

Fiscal realities, frustrations over being unable to purchase curriculum that is aligned to the standards, or a desire to find more equitable and accessible instructional materials are motivating educators to search online. Some educators are turning to Open Educational Resources (OER), learning, teaching, and research materials that are public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, reuse, repurposing, adaptation, and redistribution. Other educators are turning to websites that sell teacher-developed instructional materials. These are often described as “for teachers, by teachers.” Downloading OERs or purchasing online lessons and units allows educators to create a custom curriculum from scratch. As with commercially available science programs, the committee needs to verify any claims of alignment using criterion-based rubrics and small-scale piloting.

We pause here to discuss the “Lemony Snicket curriculum” trap. Not attending to an evidence-based sequence of learning will likely lead to a curriculum that is a series of unfortunate activities. Regardless of the source of instructional materials, curriculum coherence must receive careful attention. Each unit of instruction should be anchored by engaging phenomena or engineering design and have a storyline that guides the selection of sensemaking activities. A logical scope and sequence throughout a grade level and across grade levels is also vital.

Regardless of approach to selecting and implementing science instructional materials, the committee needs to make evidence-based decisions. Due diligence should include, but not be limited to, reviews by third-party reviewers. EdReports, the Science Peer Review Panel (PRP) at Achieve, and NSTA curators can provide criterion-based information about the extent to which units, lessons, and/or programs are consistent with three-dimensional science standards. Reading the reviews is useful in culling the field of potential instructional materials to a list of options that is manageable.

Once the committee has chosen which products to consider, they need to conduct their own impartial criterion-based evaluation of the products to determine what will serve students the best. This deeper evaluation frequently uncovers aspects of the material that are important to schools, but not a part of the third-party reviews. The EQuIP Rubric for science and NextGen TIME are exemplary resources for this purpose because they are criterion-based tools that are freely available and intended to be used collaboratively among educator reviewers.

The purpose of the EQuIP Rubric for Lessons and Units: Science, Version 3.0 and review process is to (1) review existing lessons and units; (2) provide constructive criterion-based feedback and suggestions for improvement; (3) identify examples/models; (4) inform the development of new lessons, units, and other instructional materials; and (5) foreground equity. This rubric is ideal for evaluating a random sampling of units from a program, OERs, and teacher-developed instructional materials.

NextGen TIME is a suite of tools and processes for curriculum-based professional learning that helps educators evaluate, select, and implement instructional materials designed for next generation science. NextGen TIME empowers educators to aim higher and accomplish more during the instructional materials selection process. It’s not just about choosing better materials, but also about improving next generation science instruction and achievement for all students.

Evaluating and selecting instructional materials that will lead your students to proficiency with the standards is only part of the work. Successful implementation of the new instructional materials requires the school system to be synchronized. These questions can frame the next part of the selection and implementation process.

  • What expertise is available in the community’s businesses, informal education organizations, and community-based organizations that can be leveraged when selecting and implementing science instructional materials?
  • Do we have sufficient funds to purchase any materials and supplies that we do not currently have?
  • What research and design specifications guided the development of the curriculum material?
  • How can our instructional practices evolve so that we can use the materials with fidelity?
  • What did the publisher do to ensure that the instructional materials are equitable and accessible to all of our students?
  • How will the school support sustained and in-depth professional learning for teachers?
  • What is the communication plan to prepare parents for seeing instructional materials and student artifacts that look different from what they experienced in school?
  • What is the impact on our scope and sequence? Will there be gaps in student learning if we follow the curriculum’s scope and sequence? How do we manage change? Will there be resistance to changing what people may have taught in the past? Are there skills or pedagogical content knowledge gaps that need to be overcome?

Selecting and implementing high-quality science instructional materials is incredibly important work that requires a long view. Local and state guidance influence the timeline for when the selection of instructional materials may be revisited. Using evidence-based criteria to select the material is only part of the process. Tools like the EQuIP Rubric for science are useful in uncovering evidence. NextGen TIME provides comprehensive guidance on selection and implementation. After the review, the best curriculum will attend to equity, cultural responsiveness, and accessibility, the vision of science education described in A Framework for K–12 Science Education.

Michael Heinz identifies as a recovering middle school science teacher. His credentials include a BS from Penn State University, a MS from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and a “dad degree” that was delivered in 2004. His dry-erase markers were pried from his hands in 2005. Since then, he has served as science coordinator for the New Jersey Department of Education, where he works on science education issues related to academic standards, curriculum and instruction, and professional learning. He was elected to the CSSS Board of Directors in 2018.

Erin Michael Escher recently joined the Rhode Island Department of Education as Science & Technology Specialist after 20 years of teaching science at the middle level.  He’s dedicated to making real-world connections by engaging students with nature to explore local phenomena. In addition, he has been an advocate and mentor for professional learning as an induction coach and instructional science coach. He holds National Board Certification in Early Adolescence/Science, a BA in environmental studies, and an MEd in curriculum instruction and assessment with a STEM leadership emphasis.

Ellen Ebert is director of science education at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia, Washington. She is a former high school chemistry teacher and past president of CSSS. Ebert has a master’s degree in educational technology, and a PhD in science education. She has been honored with several awards, including the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Education and the Valerie Logan Leadership in Science Education Award. Her current work focuses on the implementation of a state proviso supporting teacher professional development in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), including a special emphasis on the NGSS climate science standards.

Note: This article is featured in the November 2019 issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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1 Response to Identifying and Implementing Instructional Materials in Middle School by Michael Heinz, Erin Michael Escher, Ellen Ebert

  1. James Wenman says:


    My name is James Wenman. I’m a fourth-year education major at Wartburg College in Waverly Iowa and I’d love to ask a few questions.

    In a classroom that I’m working in right now, I’m struggling to maintain classroom management over larger quantities of students while completing small group activities. The program is set up to work with between 8 and 20 6th grade students for about an hour after their regular learning day is over. This time was originally used as a study hall/ discovery time in the past and we are working to change that into something with more value for students. I’ve tried a few different unit activities and I always seem to lose students around the second day of instruction. They normally aren’t finished by then, but I’ve lost the motivation from students to continue. What do you find the balance between moving too fast for students to succeed, and moving on to maintain student motivation? When do you modify the content, and when do you power through?

    James Wenman
    Wartburg College ‘20

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