Standards

Common-Core Curricula Spark Teacher Resistance

By Catherine Gewertz — March 26, 2013 9 min read

Not long after New York state raised eyebrows with a curriculum solicitation that was anything but business-as-usual, it is triggering uneasiness among teachers who feel that tests are being given on the new standards too soon.

At issue is a new, voluntary curriculum in mathematics and English/language arts that New York purchased from private vendors and is offering for free online as each piece is completed. Also at issue are new tests that the state had designed to reflect the Common Core State Standards, and which are scheduled to be given for the first time next month.

New York is ahead of most states in its work to design detailed curricula and professional development for the common core and to build brand-new tests to reflect them. What’s unfolding in the Empire State as a result of that work illustrates the way the common standards can pressure changes in the education landscape, and torque the tensions involved in a deep reworking of curriculum and instruction.

What happens in the publishing world, for instance, when a state demands total ownership over the curriculum materials it purchases so they can be available to all for free? And what happens when pivotal stakeholder groups disagree about the pace of change that best serves schoolchildren? Those questions sparked the two waves of concern that have arisen from New York’s curriculum procurement and its assessment timeline.

Regent Merryl H. Tisch says teachers should not be surprised about the timeline for implementing the common core.

The first came from the publishing world, whose biggest players snubbed the competitive procurement process because of unusual requirements that the materials be free of licensing restrictions that would interfere with New York’s desire to make them available for free online. The second and current wave arises from the state teachers’ union, which welcomes the curriculum itself, but believes that it’s too soon to test students—and evaluate teachers—on it. Many pieces of the curriculum are posted on the state’s common-core website, www.engageny.org, but it won’t be complete until December 2014.

“We’re giving the test before teaching the curriculum. That’s not what you should do,” said Maria Neira, the vice president for research and educational services for New York State United Teachers. “We’re rushing to do it, instead of doing it right.”

Merryl H. Tisch, the chairwoman of the state board of regents, counters that the state’s timeline for common-core implementation has been clear for more than two years, and that schools and districts would have to have been “living under a rock” to be surprised now.

“There is an enormous pushback against us because we are rolling out the common-core assessment, and some think we should have waited a year,” she said. “But as youngsters graduate high school right now, they’ve already hit a wall. Their reality is right now. We feel this is such an urgent issue, we have to roll it out now.”

Wading Into Content

New York state had never created curriculum before, preferring to leave that job to districts. But in the common core, officials saw the opportunity to create materials—and accompanying professional development—marked by “a real devotion to the higher bar that the standards demand,” according to Kate Gerson, who has been central to the process as a senior fellow at the state’s Regents Research Fund.

With one set of standards shared by 46 states, the landscape had changed, and New York’s resources could prove helpful to states nationwide, officials reasoned. They used money from the Race to the Top program, which encouraged open-source materials, to power the engageny website and pay for contracts with vendors.

Free Materials

New York state’s contracts for common-core curricula require that the materials be free of licensing and other restrictions that would impede the state from making them available for free online. Four vendors won contracts to develop curriculum and accompanying professional development for the state. Their materials are being posted on New York’s common-core website, www.engageny.org, as they are developed, with the full set scheduled to be complete by December 2014.

English/Language Arts
PreK-2: Core Knowledge Foundation
Grades 3-5: Expeditionary Learning
Grades 6-8: Expeditionary Learning, under subcontract to Public Consulting Group
Grades 9-12: Public Consulting Group

Mathematics
PreK-12: Common Core Inc.

SOURCE: New York State Education Department

But their desire to own the curriculum, right down to the source code, and make it available for free meant that the materials had to be unencumbered by the licensing restrictions typically attached to text passages, photographs, and other elements in traditional instructional materials.

That model altered publishers’ typical financial picture for such projects. If what they developed would be posted for free online, it undercut their prospects for a key source of revenue: adapting them and selling them to other states, said Jay Diskey, the executive director of the Washington-based school division of the Association of American Publishers.

“It gave a number of publishers pause,” Mr. Diskey said. “There was a lot of head scratching and wondering if we would see this from other states. I heard a number of publishers saying they didn’t know if it was worth it to bid on it under those circumstances.”

Pearson developed New York state’s new tests for grades 3-8. But it was one of the big publishers that chose to remain on the sidelines in its state’s curriculum procurement.

Mike Evans, who oversees curriculum development for Pearson, said the licensing provisions of the solicitation were a particular tripping point.

“We weren’t in a position to convey things we don’t own,” he said. “We just couldn’t see ourselves past that.”

In its requests for proposals in late 2011 and early 2012, New York state detailed what it sought in curricula and professional-development modules, hewing closely to the standards and to the “publishers’ criteria” that the authors of the standards wrote to illustrate what true curricular alignment to the common core would look like. It awarded contracts totaling more than $28 million last spring and summer to Expeditionary Learning, Common Core Inc., the Core Knowledge Foundation, and Public Consulting Group. (See accompanying box.)

Separately, New York developed—in partnership with Rhode Island and Massachusetts—a new tool to help states ensure that instructional units and lessons they developed, or bought, aligned fully to the common core. That tool, known as the Tri State Rubric, is now being used by more than 20 states as part of an initiative called EQUIP.

The New York curriculum materials posted online so far are drawing praise from the common standards’ most ardent backers. The materials are “unique and a breakthrough” in their breadth and availability, said Amy Briggs, the chief operating officer of Student Achievement Partners, a New York City-based nonprofit whose founders co-wrote the standards and which has been working with states and districts to implement them.

“It is a full curriculum, soup to nuts. We don’t know of any other state doing something of this scope for the common core,” she said.

Also notable is the degree to which New York sought to fully reflect the common standards in its materials, said Susan Pimentel, who leads the English/language arts work for Student Achievement Partners. “More than anyone else, New York was the first to base its RFPS on what is required in the common core,” she said.

In its curriculum solicitation, the state included specifics from the common standards. In English/language arts, for instance, it outlined quarterly modules that should include “close readings of three to five short texts with instructional and assessment supports.” Offering an example from 11th grade, the solicitation said, students could close-read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a poem by William Butler Yeats, and George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”

The modules would also include in-depth study of an extended text such as a novel or play, or longer literary nonfiction or informational work, with written and oral analysis, as well as “a short research project that would require building knowledge, studying sources, and comparing texts.” For example, it said, “Students could draw upon the sources of [Martin Luther] King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ (such as Plato’s ‘Apology’), or read Garry Wills on the Gettysburg Address. They could also read early drafts of a poem by Yeats and discuss its development.”

Seeing Progress

Josel Williams, who has been using the Expeditionary Learning materials in her 3rd grade classroom at School 8 in Rochester City, said she’s been pleased with the growth she’s seeing in her students’ interim-assessment scores.

“I was a little concerned at first, because it’s deeper, and a lot more rigorous, than what they’ve been used to,” said Ms. Williams. “Also, it required me to be more hands-off as a teacher, to be more of a coach than holding their hands every step of the way. But my kids have really been doing well, and I feel like a better teacher when I’m doing it.”

More than a few educators, however, are disturbed by how quickly their state expects them to move from new curriculum to assessment.

Ms. Neira of NYSUT said surveys of the group’s 600,000 members show widely varying levels of familiarity with common-core resources such as the new curriculum. There have also been many “hiccups” as units are posted online, taken down, revised, and reposted, she said. With brand-new curriculum and tests, she said, many teachers feel handicapped in preparing their students. The worry is ramped up because student test scores are now being factored into teacher evaluations in nearly every district.

“Giving a student an assessment they have not been taught to, how does that make sense?” she said. “Right now, students will be hurt. When they sit for the assessment this April, they will learn quickly that they have not been exposed to this material. We feel that the state, unfortunately, will undermine the good about the common core and cause everyone to lose faith.”

State officials contend that there is little reason for surprise now; they announced in December 2010 that they would test students in grades 3-8 on the common standards in 2012-13.

As the deputy commissioner for K-12 education, Ken Slentz, detailed in a memo earlier this month, a range of guidance and resources—including assessment guides, curriculum modules, scaffolds, and professional development—have been available to help teachers prepare for that transition for more than two years. Mr. Slentz argues that the teachers have had the standards themselves for three years, and that these—not the still-unfinished curriculum—should be key in shaping their instruction.

While he acknowledged in the memo that the percentages of students performing at or above grade level is likely to drop on the new tests, Mr. Slentz sought to address teachers’ worries about linking those scores to their evaluations. He said in the memo that since the new tests reflects new, more rigorous standards, they can’t be “directly compared” with the previous year’s scores, so they “should not necessarily be interpreted as a decline in student learning or as a decline in educator performance.”

Because of the way the growth model is built, he said, the state does not anticipate any significant change in the proportions of teachers found to be performing in each of four ratings categories.

Additionally, the memo said, no new “focus districts” or “priority schools"—those in need of intervention under New York’s federal accountability system—will be identified based on the 2013 test scores.

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Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at www.ge.com/foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Educators Questioning Timing of State Tests Reflecting Standards

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