Message of ‘Publishers’ Criteria’ for Math Standards: Focus

August 07, 2012 8 min read
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A new set of “publishers’ criteria” crafted by the lead writers of the common core in mathematics is intended to help reshape K-8 instructional materials nationwide by spelling out what it means to align faithfully with the math standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

The document blends general guidance with some real specifics, such as suggesting how long textbooks should be—fewer than 200 pages at the elementary level—and at what grade level it’s appropriate for chapter tests to address particular topics.

A key mantra is the standards’ push for focus—covering fewer topics in greater depth—which the authors acknowledge “can seem like hard medicine for an educational system addicted to coverage.”

Some in the education and publishing fields have offered generally favorable reviews of the 24-page document, which has been endorsed by several prominent organizations that provided feedback on early drafts, including national groups representing governors, chief state school officers, state boards of education, and large urban districts, as well as Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that managed the process for developing the Common Core State Standards.

A similar document for the common English/language arts standards—first issued last year and endorsed by the same five organizations—was revised this spring.

“I believe that, in general, publishers will welcome the deeper level of clarification represented in the [math] criteria,” said Charlene F. Gaynor, the chief executive officer of the Wilmington, Del.-based Association of Educational Publishers. “Much of the document sells the overarching pedagogy of focus, coherence, and rigor, which, for most publishers, is like preaching to the choir.”

From Standards to Classroom

The “publishers’ criteria” issued for the common core in math offer guidelines for K-8 instructional materials that align to the standards.

“Focus requires that we significantly narrow the scope of content in each grade so that students more deeply experience that which remains. ... Failing to meet any single focus criterion is enough to show that the materials in question are not aligned to the standards.”

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

“Educators will need to pursue, with equal intensity, three aspects of rigor in the major work of each grade: conceptual understanding, procedural skill and fluency, and applications.”

Time on ‘Major Work’:
“In any single grade, students and teachers using the materials as designed spend the large majority of their time, approximately three-quarters, on the major work of each grade.”

Grade-Level Work:
“Differentiation is sometimes necessary, but materials often manage unfinished learning from earlier grades inside grade-level work, rather than setting aside grade-level work to reteach earlier content.”

Math Practices:
“Over the course of any given year, ... each mathematical practice standard is meaningfully present in the form of activities or problems that stimulate students to develop the habits of mind described in the practice standards.”

Specialized Language:
“The language of argument, problem solving, and mathematical explanations are taught rather than assumed.”

Problems With Purpose:
“Each problem or exercise has a purpose—whether to teach new knowledge, bring misconceptions to the surface, build skill or fluency, engage the student in one or several mathematical practices, or simply present the student with a fun puzzle.”

Visual Design:
“The visual design isn’t distracting or chaotic, ... but instead serves only to support young students in engaging thoughtfully with the subject.”

Text Length:
“A textbook that is focused is short. ... Elementary textbooks should be less than 200 pages, middle and secondary less than 500 pages.”

SOURCE: “K-8 Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics”

Diana L. Kasbaum, a math consultant at the Wisconsin education department and the president of the Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics, agreed: “I think it’s very good. ... It’s exactly what we need to move forward.”

Linda Gojak, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said the document aligns “very nicely” with the standards and offers helpful guidance, such as the emphasis on ensuring coherence in materials across grade levels to build knowledge over time.

However, Ms. Gojak said she was disappointed that the NCTM and other math groups were not invited to provide input before the document was published.

That point about broader input was made more bluntly by Robert C. Calfee, a professor emeritus at Stanford University’s school of education.

“The process really bothers me; no public input into any of this, no indication that they consulted extensively with publishers, and just a document that has come down from Mount Sinai, at times almost arrogantly so,” said Mr. Calfee, the vice chairman of a California standards commission in the 1990s.

Jason Zimba, a co-author of the criteria and one of the lead writers of the common-core math standards, said the document will be revised early next year to reflect input from across the field.

“We do expect NCTM and others to provide feedback on the substance of the document,” he said.

Criteria for high school math are also expected to be issued early next year.

‘Fixing the Market’

Called publishers’ criteria, the document also explicitly seeks to guide states and districts in evaluating and selecting curricular materials or revising existing ones.

“These criteria were developed from the perspective that publishers and purchasers are equally responsible for fixing the materials market,” the document proclaims. “Publishers cannot invest in quality if the market doesn’t demand it of them nor reward them for producing it.”

To that end, one endorsing group, the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, recently signaled that more than 30 of its member districts—including Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City—would use the criteria in math and ELA to guide their decisions in selecting materials.

The goal of the criteria, the document cautions, is not to dictate acceptable forms of instructional resources. Instead, it says that “materials and tools of very different forms” can be deemed acceptable, including digital and online media.

The document speaks at length about the need for focus, coherence, and rigor in materials aligned to the common core, and wades into specifics that may raise eyebrows, such as the proposed 200-page limit for elementary math books.

Ms. Gojak of the NCTM, a former elementary teacher, argues that the limit will help teachers meet the goal of increased focus. “If you were to line up the traditional elementary math books over the last 15 years, they have grown thicker and thicker.”

For middle and high school, the document says page lengths should not exceed 500 pages.

But Ms. Gaynor from the publishers’ association questioned the value of limiting page counts. “I don’t think good curriculum is driven by that kind of directive.”

In addition, the criteria say that at any given grade level, approximately three-fourths of instructional time should be devoted to the “major work” of that grade. To illustrate, at the K-5 level, the “major work” generally consists of arithmetic and the aspects of measurement that support it, Mr. Zimba explained.

The document also spells out when it is appropriate for certain topics to be assessed in textbooks, such as through chapter or unit tests. Probability should not be assessed until grade 7, for instance, the document says, and statistical distributions until grade 6. That timing, it notes, is pegged to when those topics are first introduced in the common core.

Mr. Zimba said wading into the particulars of curricular decisions rather than being overly vague was a deliberate strategy.

“Some of these specifics are going to attract comment,” said Mr. Zimba, a co-founder of Student Achievement Partners, a New York City-based nonprofit working with states and districts on common-core implementation. “But if we weasel out of limits and specifics, then we’re actually not pushing things forward.”

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 who is working on a common-core project for the Pearson Foundation. Mr. McCallum and Mr. Daro also are advisers to Student Achievement Partners.

Carrie Heath Phillips, a program director at the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington, said the criteria will be a vital resource. “We’ve heard loud and clear, especially from district-level curriculum specialists or supervisors, that they need that guidance,” she said.

Need for Coherence

On the issue of “coherence,” the criteria make clear that this is not simply across topics but across grade levels. “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.”

Also, the criteria emphasize three aspects of rigor 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,” it says.

W. Gary Martin, a professor of math education at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., gives the document high marks for “hitting the right notes,” though he raised a few concerns, including treatment of the eight standards for mathematical practice, which range from making sense of problems to constructing viable arguments.

“My biggest surprise was that the math practices were as buried as they were,” he said, noting that they are not dealt with in any depth until more than halfway through the document. “To me, that is a central issue with textbooks. That’s where textbooks are not even in the ballpark.”

Peggy Brookins, a high school math teacher in Ocala, Fla., who served on an American Federation of Teachers team that provided feedback on the common math standards, said she’s pleased by the document.

“They captured a lot of what teachers were thinking,” she said. “The big part of the standards that it talks about that I like the most is having problems worth doing.”

Ze’ev Wurman, a former education official in the George W. Bush administration who has been an outspoken critic of the standards, said the document “represents a reasonable effort to translate the standards into textbook criteria.”

But he had several concerns, including the absence of language stipulating that instructional materials should have indices and glossaries and should support “self study” by students.

“Some popular current textbooks ... do not support self-study and some do not even contain an index or glossary,” he said 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.”

Question of Affordability

A variety of observers say it’s hard to know how influential the criteria will prove to be.

“How are the publishers really going to use this?” said Auburn’s Mr. Martin. “Are they actually going to redo their materials in light of this, or simply retrofit a bit?”

Brad Findell, the associate director of math teacher education at Ohio State University, in Columbus, said publishers may balk at some criteria because of the cost.


“[Some] misinterpretations are going to be business decisions,” he said. Publishers will say, “We can’t do that. That’s going to cost us $450,000,” Mr. Findell said.

At the same time, the criteria document says it’s not just publishers who need to respond, but also those who select textbooks.

“As a publisher, we respond to market demands,” said Stewart Wood, Pearson’s editorial chief for mathematics.

Mr. Wood called the criteria a “positive step,” but said there’s more to come that will shape the materials market.

“I expect a series of events that will change expectations of common-core materials: these criteria, their final version in early 2013, assessment items released in the spring of 2013, actual tests released in 2014,” he said. “Each of these events will place new demands on common-core materials.”

Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at

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A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Publishers’ Guide for Mathematics Stresses Focus


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