Curriculum Producers Work to Reflect New Standards

By Catherine Gewertz — August 20, 2010 7 min read
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It was a giant wave: Three-quarters of the states adopted a new set of common academic standards in the past six months. As that wave crests, education groups and publishers are preparing to follow with one of their own—curriculum materials that aim to embody the new standards.

An early example comes from the Washington-based advocacy group Common Core, which last week released free online “maps” of the common standards that are intended to serve as a frame upon which teachers can build curriculum and lesson plans. The 2-year-old organization has focused on being a clearinghouse for what it considers high-quality liberal arts curriculum, but the maps mark its first foray into writing its own materials.

In responding to the common standards with instructional materials, Common Core will soon have a lot more company. The major educational publishers are adapting long-standing lines of products to the new set of mathematics and English/language arts expectations. School improvement groups such as America’s Choice are adjusting the curriculum they use. And many who have not yet committed to producing curriculum tools are discussing the possibility.

Michael Cohen doubts systems are in place to determine if curriculum is aligned with academic standards.

As teacher guides, course outlines, lesson plans, and other supports for the common standards begin to flow into the marketplace, many in education policy circles are raising questions about how to interpret the makers’ claims that their products are “aligned” to the common standards.

Five weeks before the final new standards were issued in June, the education company Pearson touted a new set of instruction-embedded formative assessments that would be aligned to the common standards upon their release. Carnegie Learning issued an announcement earlier this month that its math curricula align to the common standards.

Many close to the Common Core State Standards Initiative worry that it will be difficult for states and districts to sort through the dizzying array of alignment claims. Some will derive from extensive analysis and comparison, while others might be based on a simple keyword search, they say.

“Almost no one thinks there are solid processes in place to examine the alignment of instructional materials to state standards. And we’re facing that all over again with the common standards,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based group that helps states craft academic standards and helped write the standards that emerged from the common-core initiative.

Adjustments Under Way

The major publishers have been working to adapt their materials for many months, using as guidance the drafts of the common standards that were circulating for feedback before becoming final. Officials from the three largest—Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—said they anticipate having their materials adapted and available by fall 2011.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been developing an elementary school math program “alongside” the common standards all year long and is revising its other core math and English/language arts programs where necessary, said James O’Neill, the company’s senior vice president of K-12 portfolio management. The company spent months on “very in-depth manual correlations,” he said, because “a keyword search wouldn’t get us anywhere.”

Pearson and McGraw-Hill have been conducting comparisons and adapting their core programs as well, finding that adjustments were needed in some places but not in others. Some skills in math, for instance, are introduced at different grade levels in the common standards than in some publishers’ programs.

Dan Caton, the executive vice president of McGraw-Hill’s School Education Group, which oversees the company’s pre-K-12 product development, said the common standards’ emphasis on having students read more informational documents and tackle progressively more complex texts dovetails with the company’s own shifting those directions.

“We’ve gradually brought more skill development down in the grade levels in informational text, and a greater percentage of our reading selections are in informational text,” he said.

In the case of Common Core, no adaptations were needed, since the group created a product from scratch to reflect the common standards. The group worked with teachers to break the English/language arts standards into thematic units, each with an overview, a description of the skills and standards covered, suggested texts and student activities, and links to teaching resources.

America’s Choice, a Washington-based group whose school improvement model includes several math and English instructional programs, is making “minor modifications” in those programs and anticipates completing the work by midwinter, said Judy B. Codding, the group’s president and chief executive officer. Pearson recently announced, but has not yet finalized, a purchase of America’s Choice.

Beneficial Alliances

In some cases, publishers and others working on curriculum materials say the process has benefited from additional insight because of their associations with some of those who helped shape the standards.

One of Pearson’s authors, for instance, Francis “Skip” Fennell, was a member of the initiative’s math writing team. Common Core developed its curriculum maps with Diana Senechal and Sheila Byrd Carmichael, who served, respectively, on the committees that wrote and provided feedback on the English/language arts section. Two senior fellows at America’s Choice, Phil Daro and Sally Hampton, were lead members, respectively, of the math and English writing groups.

Observers in some quarters criticize those connections as unseemly efforts to capitalize on the standards-writing venture. In others, they are seen as inevitable and desirable overlaps of expertise that will strengthen the end products.

Even as various organizations shape or reshape materials for the common standards, state and district curriculum offices are abuzz with making their own curriculum adjustments.

Ohio has launched an online portal through which teachers can access model curriculum and lesson plans for the common standards. Stan Heffner, the state’s associate superintendent for curriculum and assessment, said the system includes explanations of each standard, suggested instructional strategies, and descriptions of what students’ work should look like if it meets the standards.

In a pilot that begins this fall, 1,000 teachers in 100 schools in New York City will receive intensive training and support to help them align curriculum to the common standards, learn to measure and apply the “text complexity” that the standards demand, and devise performance-based assessments for the standards.

The Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 65 of the nation’s largest districts, is working with Achieve and the American Federation of Teachers to determine the best way to help school systems “unpack” the standards to help clarify their intent. Such a process could serve as a bridge between the standards and the writing of curriculum, said Michael D. Casserly, the council’s executive director.

As many people work to design curriculum and instructional materials for the common standards, the chief challenges are to maintain the project’s focus on fewer, clearer, and higher standards and to ensure high-quality materials, according to Carina Wong, who oversees college-readiness grants at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The philanthropy awarded $19 million in grants for development of such materials in February and expects to award another round by early next year. (“Gates Awards 15 Grants for Common-Standards Work,” Feb. 24, 2010.

(Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week, also receives grant money from the Gates Foundation.)

Who Judges?

While the work progresses, the question of how to evaluate producers’ claims of alignment remains unresolved. Some advocates argue that the best products will naturally rise to the top in a lively marketplace.

The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, which co-led the common-standards initiative, have discussed the possibility that an independent panel could be formed to weigh in on how faithfully instructional materials embody the standards. Alternatively, the CCSSO, the NGA, and other groups could play a technical-advisory role to help states and districts as they make decisions on such materials.

“We care about making sure the work that’s out there is quality work,” said Chris Minnich, who is overseeing the common-standards initiative for the CCSSO. “Part of our challenge is that we lead in this area but not prescribe in this area. We’re trying to find that balance.”

In the meantime, the curriculum landscape could change shape as it responds to the new standards.

“All kinds of things will happen,” said Mr. Casserly. “Some of it will make sense; some of it won’t. Some will be fast, clumsy, and incomplete. Others will be slower and more thoughtful.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 25, 2010 edition of Education Week as Curriculum Producers Work to Reflect Common Standards


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