The Common Core may be one of the most controversial issues in this election year, but one thing that everyone would agree on is that the standards are not curricula. They do not prescribe lessons or textbooks. They simply set student learning goals.
Although the standards have been adopted by states across the country, in most states districts still select their own textbooks. And in most districts, local school leaders and teachers decide which materials to use.
As Hewlett Foundation staff began exploring this topic a couple of years ago, we found broad agreement among Common Core supporters that finding strong instructional materials is crucial to realizing the promise of the Common Core. As former National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel emphasized, “The new standards, as strong as they are, will not bring us any closer to improved achievement or quality education [without implementation plans that include instructional materials and supports].”
Unfortunately, most textbooks come up short. Bill Schmidt at Michigan State University reviewed roughly 700 math textbooks used by 60% of U.S. public schoolchildren. He found that many claiming Common Core alignment were “page by page, paragraph by paragraph” the same as older versions, resulting in books that reflect the standards minimally, if at all. In some books, less than a quarter of the text matches the standards for the grade in question. “It’s hard to imagine how this could support instruction,” Schmidt told us.
As a result, we found that many educators are developing materials from scratch or cobbling together resources from the Internet, some of which are of questionable quality. This approach wastes valuable time that should be spent on teaching and learning. Worse still, others are simply proceeding with textbooks developed before the Common Core—especially because budgets continue to lag prerecession levels.
Overall, we found that too often, educators are simultaneously overwhelmed by the number of options and underwhelmed by their quality.
In light of these facts, the Hewlett Foundation, together with the Helmsley Charitible Trust, invested in tools to help educators spot quality and, in turn, encourage publishers to provide it. Two of our grantees, Achieve and Student Achievement Partners, have developed quality criteria that have two significant benefits.
First, they help reviewers consistently and efficiently evaluate materials—and, in the process, identify where they may need to create supplements until the market improves. Well-calibrated ratings—if backed up by purchasing decisions—can create smart demand among consumers that sends powerful messages to publishers.
Second, practitioners use these quality criteria to deepen their understanding of the Common Core.
Several pioneering states show how to make the most of these quality criteria. For instance, Louisiana, which rated only one curriculum each in math and English language arts as top-quality is helping other states navigate the marketplace. Louisiana’s level of rigor led the Thomas B. Fordham Institute to call the state the “new sheriff in town” on Common Core curricula. It praised Louisiana as “the first to call out—clearly and unambiguously—publishers whose alignment claims do not match the reality of the material they offer.”
Meanwhile, New York is providing well-regarded options for teachers. These free and openly licensed materials have proven extremely popular nationwide. As of July, they had been downloaded more than 7.5 million times, and almost a quarter of those downloads were by out-of-state users. Curriculum experts and the materials’ users told us that New York’s success was largely due to the fact that the authors and reviewers were meticulous about meeting the states’ priorities for alignment to the Common Core, and that New York provided training for educators in reviewing and using the materials. In the last three years, the state convened over 4,000 educators to explore and refine the materials. As one state official told us, “we see teachers changing their beliefs about what’s possible for kids.”
Efforts like these can spur the innovation and competition leaders need to choose materials with confidence.
Teachers and textbooks will be crucial to student success in meeting the new standards. With the right materials and a sound approach, teachers can spend more time focusing on how they teach, not what they teach. Students will be the biggest beneficiaries. As one New York principal told us, “I’m watching my students [working with the new materials],” she said, “and I know they’re going to be so much more successful.”
Earlier this month, Denis and Rachel Leifer of the Helmsey Chartiable Trust wrote about this topic in greater detail for Phi Delta Kappan magazine –ed.