Curriculum

Common-Core Math Textbooks to Get Online Ratings

By Liana Loewus — August 15, 2014 9 min read

A new group billing itself as a “Consumer Reports for school materials” will soon begin posting free online reviews of major textbooks and curricula that purport to be aligned to the Common Core State Standards—an effort, some say, that has the potential to shake up the market.

The nonprofit organization, called EdReports.org, has gathered a team of 19 educators, about half of whom are classroom teachers, to conduct extensive reviews of yearlong instructional series. The team will start with 21 series for K-8 mathematics and eventually move on to secondary math and K-12 English/language arts curricula. For the first round of reviews, likely to be published early next year, the group selected some of the most commonly used materials: print products that had at least 10 percent of the market share and print and digital materials that had been recommended by at least two states’ review processes.

Funding for the project comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—which also was a major financial backer for the development of the common core—the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Collectively, the three philanthropies have provided about $1 million so far and pledged an additional $2 million. (The Gates and Hewlett foundations also help support Education Week’s news coverage.)

“This kind of information is just desperately needed,” said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, who has conducted research on common-core alignment. “There’s just no question there’s immense demand right now.”

The organization’s launch was spearheaded by Maria M. Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. The fledgling group’s nine-member board includes Ms. Klawe, Maryland schools Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery, senior officials at the Education Trust and the National Council of La Raza, and several educators.

Other Players

Having aligned materials is even more crucial now, given that most states are expected to administer assessments based on the common core for the first time next spring. Yet according to a recent survey by the Education Week Research Center, fewer than one-third of educators say they have access to high-quality textbooks aligned with the new standards.

Do They Align?

The new nonprofit, EdReports.org, has assembled a team of 19 educators to evaluate the alignment of major textbooks and curricula to the common core. It will start with the following 21 K-8 math instructional materials.

GRADES K-5

Common Core, Inc. (Developer); Wiley (Publisher)
• Eureka Math K-5

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
• Go Math
• Math Expressions
• Math in Focus K-8
• Saxon Math

Kendall Hunt
• Math Trailblazers K-5*

McGraw-Hill
• Everyday Math
• My Math

Pearson Scott Foresman
• enVision Math
• Investigations in Number, Data & Space

TPS Publishing, Inc.
• Creative Core Curriculum for Mathematics with STEM, Literacy and Arts K-8

GRADES 6-8

Agile Mind
• Common Core Middle School Mathematics*

Big Ideas Learning
• Big Ideas Math

Carnegie Learning
• Carnegie Math*

Common Core, Inc.
• Eureka Math 6-8

Edgenuity Inc.
• Edgenuity 6-12*

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
• Go Math
• Holt McDougal Math

Pearson
• Connected Math Program
• Digits*
• Prentice Hall Math

*Primarily digital materials
SOURCE: Edreports.org

EdReports.org joins several other organizations that are vetting instructional materials for alignment to the common standards. Learning List, a for-profit company based in Austin, Texas, analyzes digital and print educational resources for common-core alignment but charges a fee for access. Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit that played a key role in launching the common-standards initiative, created EQuIP (Educators Evaluating the Quality of Instructional Products), which trains “jurors” to evaluate the alignment of units and lessons to the common standards. That tool, however, is not currently being used to vet the work of large publishers and does not look at comprehensive curricula.

Some university-based researchers have waded into alignment studies as well. William Schmidt, the co-director of the education policy center at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, has analyzed several dozen K-8 instructional series, and Mr. Polikoff of USC conducted a smaller study with 4th grade math textbooks.

Looking only at print editions, Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Polikoff found the materials generally failed to meet the demands of the common core.

About 20 states also convene panels every few years to develop “adoption lists,” which determine the instructional materials from which districts can choose.

EdReports.org is unique in that it “will be accessible to a wider audience,” said Carrie Heath Phillips, a program director for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, which helped lead the common-standards initiative.

The new group aims to make detailed, easy-to-read reports “available not just to the field but to policymakers and the community at large,” said Eric Hirsch, the recently appointed executive director of EdReports.org. “Our hope is these reviews will influence purchasing decisions, ... and one of our greatest aspirations is that publishers will look at these and that [their] materials will continue to improve.” The group also eventually wants to add a crowd-sourcing component that would allow all educators to post their own reviews.

Review Teams

Ms. Klawe pushed to launch the undertaking after attendees at a 2012 education technology summit, held at the prestigious Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., agreed there was a need for such independent reviews. Education First, a Seattle-based consulting group, will house and provide technical support for the organization until the review website is officially up and running this winter.

The 19-member review team for EdReports.org includes educators who have worked for or with Student Achievement Partners, a group co-founded by several lead writers of the common core; the teacher-training organization Math for America; the Illustrative Mathematics Project, led by common-core writer William McCallum; and EQuIP.

Each instructional series will be evaluated by at least three reviewers, and the results will be presented to the other 16 team members.

Jennifer Vranek, a founding partner at Education First, said the primary qualification for reviewers was “deep familiarity with and understanding of the common-core standards.”

The content review team members have, on average, 10 years teaching experience.

Each instructional series will be measured against three benchmarks, or gateways, as the group calls them. First, reviewers will determine if the series meets the common core’s expectations for focus and coherence—that is, does it devote the majority of class time to the most important topics in the standards, and does it do so in a logical sequence? The materials that pass through that gateway will move on to the next: rigor. Reviewers ask whether the material helps students develop both procedural and conceptual skills, and how well the material connects to the common core’s Standards of Mathematical Practice, which describe the processes that proficient math students use in solving problems.

The final gateway asks how well the materials support student learning and engagement, including whether they help teachers differentiate instruction and use technology effectively.

Looking for Evidence

The reviewers will look at both the student and teacher materials for each series.

Amy Weber-Salgo, a professional-development trainer for the Northwest Regional Professional Development Program in Nevada, who will serve as an EdReports.org reviewer, said she wanted to get involved because the quality of common-core materials is a major concern among the teachers she works with. During her professional-development sessions, she said, “One of the most popular topics that comes up is, ‘Where do we get these resources, and how do we know they’re good?’ ”

In preparation for the reviews, the team spent several days on calibration, Ms. Weber-Salgo said, as a means of ensuring consistency across reviewers. For example, “If we have an indicator, we’re going to look at what evidence do we need and where do we start to look for that evidence,” she said. The website, in addition to providing detailed descriptions and reasoning, will use a yet-to-be-determined rating mechanism—possibly stars, grades, or numerical scores—for the instructional materials.

From educators, “we hear over and over, we wish you were here two years ago,” said Mr. Hirsch of EdReports.org, who previously worked as the chief external-affairs officer at the New Teacher Center, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based group that helps train new teachers.

For publishers, though, now that the majority of states are working under the same standards, the stakes for such an effort are much higher.

“Potentially, this sort of review service could frankly set up big winners and big losers in the process,” said Jay A. Diskey, the executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ P-12 learning group, based in Washington. “We’d hope that all parties involved would make sure nothing like that happened.”

Mr. Diskey also noted that EdReports.org seems to be making a concerted effort to “build awareness” around its pending product, which he said is critical. “If there’s not total transparency about this from the outset, I think it poses some significant issues for everybody involved.”

Representatives from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill Education did not return requests for comment by deadline. Pearson Education declined to comment.

However, Lynne Munson, the president and executive director of Common Core, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that publishes the Eureka Math curricula, said she is “extremely excited” to have her materials to be among the first reviewed by EdReports.org. “We’ve been awaiting opportunities like this and are going to do what we can to provide whatever they need” for the reviews, she said. “We’re confident in the quality of our work.” Eureka Math was the only math curriculum to be awarded the highest possible rating by the Louisiana education department.

What Is Alignment?

In a statement, Lily Eskelsen García, the president-elect of the National Education Association, expressed optimism about what EdReports.org is doing. Implementation has outpaced the development of good materials, “and in areas where our members have found first-class materials, they are not sure how to share them with other educators,” she said. “EdReports.org has the potential to fill this crucial gap by shining a light on materials that have been found to be aligned and high-quality by teachers, for teachers.”

According to Ms. Phillips of the Council of Chief State School Officers, there’s a reason not too many groups have gotten into the business of reviewing materials.

“People are afraid to rate instructional materials because it’s not like a perfect science,” she said. “There’s variation, some of it’s subjective, and it’s extremely time-consuming. And you want to make sure it’s fair the way it’s done, so you’re not getting into legal issues.” She said it’s unlikely more groups will jump on the bandwagon with their own review initiatives.

The definition of alignment itself can be a source of variation, said the AAP’s Mr. Diskey, who has seen state panels and researchers disagree on which curricula meet the standards.

“The fact of the matter is, this process may very well work,” he said. “All I’m saying is there are a lot of complexities to it. We’ve seen adoption processes in states work and not work, not only for publishers but for those states and school districts [where the reviews were done.] There’s just a lot to this.”

For Mr. Polikoff, the effort will be most valuable if it’s eventually able to analyze small independent publishers as well as the larger ones. “That,” he said, “could really shake up the market in a dramatic way.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 20, 2014 edition of Education Week as Common-Core Textbooks to Receive Online Ratings

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