Curriculum

Do High School Literature Series Make the Grade?

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 12, 2017 4 min read
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It’s the best of times and the worst of times for a few of the largest literature series used in America’s high school classrooms.

A review of six major textbook series concluded that three of them align well to the Common Core State Standards, the academic goals in use in 37 states. But three other series—two from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and one from Pearson—fell short in at least one grade level, according to EdReports.org, which aims to serve a Consumer Reports-style role in the materials marketplace.

Beyond the specific ratings, efforts like EdReports.org are a sign of the disruptions occurring in the K-12 publishing world. So-called “open” curricula are competing with traditional publishers. Textbooks are getting more scrutiny thanks to research confirming the impact that high-quality materials have on learning. And states and districts are demanding better materials aligned to upgraded expectations for students.

But perhaps most of all, quality-control reviews of curricula are easier, now that many states’ standards have converged.

“I don’t know that EdReports.org or something like it could have been as easily created absent common standards. If they had to do reviews 50 times over, it would have been a totally different undertaking,” noted Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a nonprofit that works with states to make student learning more rigorous.

Curriculum Gateways

The grades 9-12 literature reviews are by far the most extensive that EdReports.org has put out in its three-year existence. Some of the literature anthologies that were reviewed spanned nearly 3,000 pages. Those that fell short tended to falter when it came to putting in a comprehensive structure to support writing, the development of research skills, and students’ ability to read complex material independently.

“We know that teaching students how to look at different kinds of information, to synthesize information, and to understand what it means and actually be able to defend an opinion or talk about what they’re studying is critical to post-K-12 work,” said Lisa Potts, EdReport.org’s director of English/language arts reviews. “And it’s something that is tremendously difficult to put into a program.”

As with its prior text evaluations, the nonprofit used a series of gateways to review each literature series against sets of standards. Each of the series was examined by a team of five teachers.

Each curriculum had to pass a hurdle for text quality and complexity, which deal with the selection of interesting, well-crafted texts worth analyzing, and then how well the textbook helped build students’ knowledge via vocabulary, activities, and coherent theming. Textbooks needed to score a “meets expectations” on both gateways to be deemed aligned to the common core; those that reached that goal also received a separate score for the ease and usability of their teacher-related supports.

Some major groups, notably the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, have pushed back on EdReports.org’s earlier reviews, questioning the concept of the gateways, among other things.

But Jocelyn Chadwick, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English, praised the diversity of the texts EdReports.org reviewed this time around. She also noted the potential for EdReports.org’s tools to help disrupt chummy relationships between district textbook buyers and the large publishers who court them.

“Textbook committee members could be potentially predisposed to express support for that publisher, thereby seeing advantages and attributes in the text that may not be present at all,” she said. “Having this kind of tool, however, actually removes the potential for such a predilection to occur—a good thing in such a critical process.”

Market Variability

In all, EdReports.org reviewers gave Pearson’s MyPerspective, Odell Education’s Developing Core Literacy Proficiencies, and the College Board’s SpringBoard good marks across the board. But the other three series struggled.

Notably, the reviews show the diversity of results within the commercial publishing houses: Pearson’s MyPerspective was deemed aligned, while its other one, Pearson Literature, was missing some components.

And specific series can also have individual strengths and weaknesses. HMH’s Collections did well at choosing great selections for students to read with a range of text complexity, but failed to scaffold activities to build students’ knowledge coherently.

EdReports.org allowed publishers to submit feedback and comments on their review, but neither Pearson nor Houghton Mifflin Harcourt did, nor did they return requests for comment.

NCTE’s Chadwick said teachers and local leaders could apply the nonprofit’s review criteria on their own to other literature collections—but should have the flexibility to tailor it, too. “As I read through, I am also thinking about additions, modifications, of micro-indicators,” she said.

With its latest release, the nonprofit has now completed a review of curricula in all K-12 grades in English/language arts and math. It will release updates on a rolling basis as new curricula come out and as publishers revise the old ones. It also plans to use a similar process to review science texts.

EdReports.org is funded primarily by philanthropies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was a major financial backer of the common core’s development. (The Gates Foundation also supports some coverage of the assessment and implementation of college- and career-ready standards in Education Week and edweek.org.)

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as Watchdog Group Gives Passing Grade to 3 Literature Series

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