Early Reaction to ‘Publishers’ Criteria’ for Math Common Core

By Erik W. Robelen — July 31, 2012 10 min read
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Feedback is starting to roll in on a set of “publishers’ criteria” issued this month for the Common Core State Standards in mathematics, with many (but not all) of the early impressions I’m hearing generally positive, even as some specifics are sparking debate, such as the call for elementary textbooks to not exceed 200 pages in length.

The 24-page document—crafted by the three lead writers of the math common core—provides guidelines to judge whether textbooks and other instructional materials are closely aligned with the new standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Suffice to say that most experts tell me such alignment is still largely wanting. The document has been endorsed by five national organizations in the education sphere (which provided input on early drafts): those representing governors, chief state school officers, state boards of education, and the nation’s largest urban school districts, as well as Achieve, an organization that played a key role in managing the development of the common-core standards.

“I believe that, in general, publishers will welcome the deeper level of clarification represented in the criteria,” said Charlene Gaynor, the CEO of the Association of Educational Publishers, pointing for example to the inclusion of a progression table and examples of how to connect the grade-by-grade content standards with companion standards for mathematical practice. “Much of the document sells the overarching pedagogy of focus, coherence, and rigor, which, for most publishers, is like preaching to the choir.”

Jay Diskey, the executive director of the schools division at the Association of American Publishers, was upbeat (even as he cautioned that publishers were still digesting the document), calling it a “a very solid document that I think will be of great use in publishing houses.”

Peggy Brookins, a high school math teacher in Marion, Fla., who served as part of an American Federation of Teachers team that provided feedback on the common-core standards, also was upbeat in her assessment.

“I think it’s great,” she said. “It’s been a long time since teachers have really had somebody advocate for the type of materials that should be used, and I think it was necessary and fortuitous. ... They captured a lot of what teachers were thinking.”

She added, “The big part of the standards that it talks about that I like the most is having [math] problems worth doing.”

For a state perspective, the document received high marks from math officials I reached in Utah and Wisconsin, including Diana Kasbaum, who is both a math consultant at the Wisconsin department of education and the president of the Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics.

“I think it’s very good. I think it’s exactly what we need,” Kasbaum told me, highlighting as one example the emphasis on not simply repeating the same content from grade to grade.

“We can’t be teaching and reviewing the same material ad nauseum,” she said. “We need to be able to move on and know that when students are done with elementary school, they’ve got this really solid foundation of number and fractions, for example.”

Her biggest concern? The lack of companion criteria for high school, which is not expected out until early next year when an “updated” version of the K-8 document is also to be issued.

Robert Calfee, a professor emeritus at Stanford University’s school of education, was decidedly more mixed in his assessment, however. One key concern of Calfee, the vice chairman of a California standards commission in the 1990s, was the lack of public input on the document.

“The process really bothers me,” he said. “No public input into any of this, no indication that they consulted extensively with the publishers, just a document that has come down from Mt. Sinai, at times almost arrogantly so,” he said. (I’m told that broader input will be gathered and reflected in the updated version of the criteria issued early next year.)

Calfee also expressed concerns with some dimensions of the content. For example, he is not a fan of the criteria’s call for spelling out the length of textbooks—fewer than 200 pages at the elementary level, 500 pages at secondary. (More on that in a moment.) Overall, he found the document “too prescriptive” at times and so vague as to be unhelpful at others.

In my quick search of the blogosphere and related online commentary, I’ve seen relatively little discussion of the document other than this piece from the Watson Math blog and another from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly.

To make this post more easily digestible, I’m organizing it below by a few themes I encountered in my conversations.

Math Practices

While some people praised the document for explicitly trying to link up the common core’s standards for mathematical practice with the content standards, Gary Martin, a math professor at Auburn University, suggested that the practices themselves failed to gain enough prominence in the document. (Overall, Martin, a former research director at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, offered high praise for the publishers’ criteria, calling it a “very favorable document that makes a lot of very important points.”

“My biggest surprise is that the mathematical practices were as buried as they were, because you really have to get to Page 13" before they are discussed in any depth. “To me, that is the central issue with the textbooks, based on our experience with a textbook review we did this winter. That’s where the textbooks are not even in the ballpark.” (Incidentally, I will return to this textbook review Martin mentioned, conducted by educators in a collection of Alabama school districts, in a future post.)

Length of Textbooks

In what may be one of the most talked about passages, the criteria seek to set limits on the length of textbooks.

“It’s one thing to say elementary textbooks are too darn long,” said Martin. “‘OK, instead of 600 pages, we’ll make it 580.’ But to throw something out there. They were being provocative. It was a nice thought.”

“If we’re going to really focus on students’ conceptual understanding in a really deep or thorough way, we can’t be doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” said Kasbaum of the Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics.

But Gaynor from the AEP wasn’t so sure this particular nugget was helpful.

“I don’t think good curriculum is driven by that kind of directive,” she said of the page counts.

Calfee from Stanford was more blunt: “There is no understanding of how they reached that decision, which just seems as arbitrary as can be and doesn’t make practical sense,” he said.

Meanwhile, in emailed remarks, Pearson’s editorial chief for mathematics, Stewart Wood, said of the page-length prescriptions: “We don’t quite see it this way. While the publishers’ criteria notes that there should be fewer pages in a ‘textbook,’ ... we are committed to creating digital and online instructional resources and libraries which allow for a personalized education for every student. For example, the library will have the equivalent of thousands of ‘pages’ of many, many different modules and types of common core-coherent instructional resources (including videos, games, embedded assessments, tutorials quizzes), but only the assets a teacher needs for her group or individual instruction would be accessed.”

(Overall, Wood said the quantitative and qualitative measures proposed in the publishers’ criteria are “a positive step toward breaking the culture of ‘mile-wide, inch-deep instruction.’ ”)

The Textbook as ‘Video Arcade’

The criteria’s discussion of visual design in textbooks was much appreciated by Brad Findell, the associate director of mathematics teacher education programs at Ohio State University. The document says the design should not be “distracting or aimed at adult purchasers,” but instead should serve only to help students engage thoughtfully with the subject.

“I really like the bit about visual design that isn’t distracting or chaotic,” Findell said. “I’ve opened too many textbooks that are like walking into a video arcade. ... You want the graphics there to support the mathematical ideas, rather than just being, ‘Wow, what a cool picture.’ Skip to the next page.”

Special Populations

Findell said “one of the most important contributions” of the publishers’ criteria was clearly stating that instructional materials should be consistent with the common core’s call to provide all students the opportunity to learn and meet the same standards. As the document explains, “Thus, an overarching criterion for materials and tools is that they provide supports for special populations such as students with disabilities, English-language learners, and gifted students.”

Findell told me: “We have an unfortunate history in this country of identifying some students as not yet ready for grade-level instruction and then giving them something less—often much less. In other words, we notice students who are behind, and we slow them down. We usually do it out of compassion, but the consequences are devastating for students.” So he said a “crucial message” about common-core implementation is that all students receive grade-level instruction, even if some students need additional support.

Missing Criteria?

Ze’ev Wurman, a former education official in the Bush administration who has been an outspoken critic of the common-core math standards, said he thought the criteria document overall “represents a reasonable effort to translate the standards into textbook criteria.” That said, he identified a few “weaknesses.” One example is the lack of “important criteria” in two areas: indices/glossaries and supporting “self study” by students.

“While it may seem ridiculous to many, some popular current textbooks ... do not support self-study and some do not even contain an index or a glossary,” he wrote in an email. “Such textbooks make teachers the sole gatekeepers to content and create extra difficulties for transfer students or students absent due to illness.”

Stay tuned for another blog post where I’ll share some feedback on how the market will respond to criteria. Remember, although the title of the document says “publishers’ criteria,” the authors make clear that the intended audience is also those involved in selecting and purchasing materials.

Of course, readers of this blog are strongly encouraged to share your own reactions. Post them below and to help spark a continued dialogue.

UPDATE: NCTM Responds (2:19 p.m.)

Since I published this item, I had a chance to speak with Linda Gojak, who recently became the new president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

She cautioned that she has not yet had time to study the publishers’ criteria carefully, but was generally upbeat about the guidance, saying it aligns “very nicely” with the common core and will prove very helpful to publishers. She highlighted several dimensions, including the strong emphasis on coherence in teaching across grade levels to build knowledge over time, and on multiple aspects of rigor. “I liked the fact that they focused right in on the rigor, not only the procedural skills but also the conceptual understanding as well as the applications.”

As for keeping elementary math textbooks below 200 pages, Gojak, a former 5th and 6th grade math teacher, says she’s all for it. “We have crammed everything in,” she said of today’s textbooks, arguing that slimmer books are important to achieve the standards’ push for a focus on studying fewer topics in greater depth. “If you were to line up the traditional elementary math books over the last 15 years, they have grown thicker and thicker.”

Gojak did express some concern, however, about the development process, saying she was “disappointed” that NCTM and other math organizations were not invited to provide feedback before the document was published. In any case, she expects NCTM will closely analyze the criteria and offer suggestions to be incorporated when the document is updated early next year. (Jason Zimba of Student Achievement Partners, a coauthor of the criteria, told me he expects that feedback from NCTM and other organizations will help inform the revised version published in early 2013.)

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