Boasts About Textbooks Aligned to Common Core a ‘Sham,’ Say Researchers

By Benjamin Herold — February 21, 2014 3 min read
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Los Angeles

Claims from publishers that traditional instructional materials are aligned to Common Core State Standards are largely a “sham,” say two researchers who have conducted extensive reviews of classroom textbooks, but the jury is still out on the new wave of digital curricula hitting the market.

“Non-traditional and new-media resources hold a great deal of promise,” said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California. But districts’ mantra should be “don’t trust, and still verify” any claims of common-core alignment, he said.

Polikoff and William Schmidt, the co-director of the education policy center at Michigan State University, gave a presentation on textbooks and the new standards, now adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, at a seminar hosted here by the Education Writers Association. Both have conducted exhaustive reviews of the extent to which traditional textbooks are aligned to new standards, and they are in the early stages of similar research into digital materials.

Schmidt blasted the publishers of widely used paper textbooks as “snake-oil salesmen” who “tell poor districts and teachers [their textbooks] line up to” the common core.

His team analyzed 40-50 textbooks covering first through ninth grades—books that are used by roughly 60 percent of U.S. school children—that were purportedly aligned to the new standards.

“Page by page, paragraph by paragraph,” many were identical to the old, pre-standards textbooks, he said.

Polikoff, meanwhile, analyzed a number of textbooks, including three major-publisher 4th grade math textbooks that are used in Florida and claim to be “common-core aligned.”

The books, he found, were “only modestly aligned to the common core” and “systematically failed to reach the higher levels of cognitive demand” called for in the standards. From 15 to 20 percent of the material covered in the books was not tied to grade-level common-core standards, and most of the books failed to cover between 10 and 15 percent of the content in the standards. The books were about 60 percent to 70 percent identical to their earlier, pre-common-core versions, Polikoff found.

Textbook publishers generally don’t want to do thorough, meaningful revisions to accommodate the new standards, the researchers said, because such work is expensive and difficult.

Schmidt framed the textbook problem as just one of several challenges looming over the implementation of the common core. Teachers—many of whom support, but don’t understand, the new standards, he said—tend to teach what is in their textbooks, his research has found. When that material doesn’t match what’s in the standards, it’s a big problem.

Many of the same questions and fears apply to new digital instructional materials, said Polikoff.

“My hope is that materials created after [adoption of] the common core would be better than textbooks that have basically been modified,” he said, but no systematic research has yet been conducted.

In the near term, the growing number of one-off digital instructional materials being curated on online platforms such as Share My Lesson could play an important role in helping educators plug the common-core holes left by traditional textbook publishers, Polikoff said.

But the real promise of the common core, at least in math, argued Schmidt, is finally having “coherent” standards that focus on high-level conceptual understanding. For the time being, he said, neither individual digital lessons nor adapted versions of traditional paper textbooks are likely to fulfill that goal, and there don’t yet appear to be any comprehensive year-long digital curricula ready to do so either.

“Don’t spend your money until [instructional materials] arrive that actually fully line up” with the new standards, Schmidt said he advises districts.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.