Common-Core Writers Issue Math ‘Publishers’ Criteria’

By Erik W. Robelen — July 20, 2012 7 min read
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The lead writers of the Common Core State Standards in mathematics have finalized a set of guidelines for curricular materials that seek to promote “faithful” implementation of the new standards at grades K-8. The 24-page document, to be published online today, is intended to guide the work of educational publishers in developing textbooks and other instructional materials, as well as states and school districts as they evaluate and select materials or revise existing ones.

The so-called “publishers’ criteria” document homes in on the issues of focus, coherence, and rigor, and gets pretty specific at times. It suggests, for instance, that elementary math textbooks should be fewer than 200 pages in length, and that at any given grade level, approximately three-fourths of instructional time should be devoted to the “major work of each grade.” (To illustrate, in grades K-5 the “major work” generally consists of arithmetic and the aspects of measurement that support it, one of the authors explained.)

In addition, the criteria spell out when it is appropriate for certain topics to be assessed in curricular materials, such as through chapter tests or unit tests. Probability should not be assessed until grade 7, for instance, the document says, and statistical distributions should not be assessed by materials until grade 6. The document notes that this timing is pegged to when those topics are first introduced in the common standards.

If the new criteria are widely embraced by publishers and educators, they could have a profound influence on teaching the common math standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. As we’ve noted on this blog, similar publishers’ criteria for English/language arts (recently revised) are indeed being taken to heart by publishers.

In a sign that the new math document will be taken seriously, it has the endorsement of several prominent organizations in the education sphere, including the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Council of the Great City Schools, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and Achieve, a national nonprofit that managed the process to develop the common standards. Both the NGA and CCSSO spearheaded that undertaking.

In fact, a group of more than 30 big-city districts, led by the Council of the Great City Schools, served notice to publishers last month that any materials they purchase must reflect the priorities of the publishers’ criteria.

That said, the criteria are likely to provoke a lively debate, and perhaps some pushback from those who disagree with particulars, or believe more broadly that the standards writers may be wading too far into pedagogy.

In an interview, Jason Zimba, a co-author of the document and one of the three lead writers of the math standards, said he anticipates some disagreement.

“There will be pushback on some of these things, because shifts are not shifts if they’re painless,” said Zimba, a co-founder of Student Achievement Partners, a New York City-based nonprofit organization working to help states and districts with common-core implementation. “It’s going to take a culture shift to achieve the focus and coherence of the standards.”

The other two co-authors of the criteria (and lead writers of the math standards) are William McCallum, a math professor at the University of Arizona, and Philip Daro, an education consultant to states and districts. Both McCallum and Daro also are advisers to Student Achievement Partners.

Some readers may recall that the companion document for English/language arts caused quite a stir, especially for its criteria for reading aloud to students and cutting back on the practice of “prereading.”

To be clear, this is not the final word from the standards writers. An “updated” version of the publishers’ criteria for math, taking into account feedback, is expected out early next year. In addition, a separate document for high school math will be issued around the same time.

Zimba argues that the single most important element to ensuring the common core’s success in improving math education is the emphasis on focus—essentially the idea of covering fewer math topics, but in greater depth.

“If we don’t get to focus, the rest of the promise of the standards is a fantasy,” he said.

The criteria document acknowledges upfront that it may be hard for math educators and experts to let go of some topics.

“During the writing of the standards, the writing team often received feedback along these lines: ‘I love the focus of these standards! Now if we could just add one or two more things,’ ” it says. “But focus compromised is no longer focus at all. ... ‘Teaching less, learning more’ can seem like hard medicine for an educational system addicted to coverage.”

The authors emphasize that the criteria are intended both for publishers and those who select their wares.

“These criteria were developed from the perspective that publishers and purchasers are equally responsible for fixing the materials market,” the document says. “Publishers cannot deliver focus to buyers who only ever complain about what has been left out, yet never complain about what has crept in. More generally, publishers cannot invest in quality if the market doesn’t demand it of them nor reward them for producing it.”

This point calls to mind a recent book I blogged about, Tyranny of the Textbook. It was a broad indictment of the textbook market, suggesting that blame can be shared by a variety of actors for what the author suggests is the generally poor quality of many textbooks and related instructional materials.

In addition, the new criteria are also aimed at helping to shape professional development pegged to the common-core standards.

The goal of the criteria, the authors say, is not to dictate acceptable forms of instructional resources, suggesting that “materials and tools of very different forms” can be deemed acceptable, including digital and online media.

Carrie Health Phillips, a program director at the Council of Chief State School Officers, said she believes the new document is on target and will be an important resource to educators.

“We’ve heard a lot of need for this type of guidance,” she said. “It’s something people will take or not, but we’ve heard loud and clear, especially from district-level curriculum specialists or supervisors, that they need that guidance on how do we make these decisions.”

That said, she was quick to note that the guidelines are not binding.

“Ultimately, it’s still up to people at the local level. We think it’s better to have something to react to than to have nothing out there, ... with people guessing on what they’re supposed to do.”

Zimba said wading into the particulars of curricular decisions rather than being vague was a deliberate and important strategy in writing the guidelines.

“Some of these specifics are going to attract comment,” he said. “But if we weasel out of limits and specifics, then we’re actually not pushing things forward. ... So you have to be quantitative in order to be understood.”

Beyond the push for focus, the criteria spend a lot of time exploring the issue of “coherence” and what that should look like in curricular materials. And here, the document emphasizes that coherence is about making connections not simply across topics but across grade levels, to examine the progressions spelled out in the standards and how major content is developed over time.

“Materials cannot match the contours of the standards by approaching each individual content standard as a separate event,” the document says. “Nor can materials align to the standards by approaching each individual grade as a separate event.”

Meanwhile, the publishers’ criteria emphasize three aspects of “rigor” in the major work at each grade level: conceptual understanding, procedural skill and fluency, and applications.

“To date, curricula have not always been balanced in their approach to these three aspects of rigor,” the document says. “Some curricula stress fluency in computation, without acknowledging the role of conceptual understanding in attaining fluency. Some stress conceptual understanding without acknowledging that fluency requires separate classroom work of a different nature.”

There is far more covered in the publishers’ criteria than I can possibly address in this blog post. So, take a look for yourself, Dear Reader. I expect to be back with more analysis and feedback later, once folks out in the field have a chance to digest this. And if you have opinions pro or con about the document that you wish to share, by all means post a comment here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.