American educators have a love-hate relationship with textbooks. For some, textbooks provide a comprehensive curriculum in which content requirements are developed in a systematic and organized way. Textbooks can give teachers ideas for sequencing, presenting, and assessing content, skills, and concepts. New teachers often depend on textbooks. For others, textbooks represent scripted, uninspired lessons that turn teachers into slaves and strip them of their creativity with a one-solution-fits-all approach. For this group, even intelligent, published education researchers lose their credibility when they become affiliated with a commercial textbook publisher.
Most states have committed to implementing the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and mathematics, but whether textbook publishers will help, hinder, or neutralize this effort is an open question.
The release and adoption of the common standards have inspired two major initiatives. The first is to educate teachers about the expectations of the new standards and how schools will have to change to meet the standards. States, school districts, professional-development companies, and educational organizations provide webinars, in-service sessions, and courses on implementing the common core. But most of these don’t include any discussion about curriculum. Instead, they focus on educating the 3.2 million teachers as if they were individually responsible for revising their curriculum.
The second initiative is the incorporation of the new standards into educational materials. In the interest of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, textbook publishers, who have invested tens of millions of dollars in their textbook series, are doing the minimum necessary to address the new standards. While they have added labels, paragraphs, activities, lessons, or chapters to reflect the standards, it is unrealistic to expect that they will re-envision their materials if they don’t have to.
Having teachers individually rewrite their own curriculum is a recipe for classroom chaos. The idea that even two teachers at the same school will interpret a standard in the same way is unrealistic. Without comprehensive and coordinated curriculum efforts, this tree-by-tree approach can easily result in poor student achievement.
By the same token, if textbook publishers simply relabel their existing content without considering the intention of the standards, they will perpetuate the status quo and will not support the educational improvements the standards promise.
Adoption of the common core should result in improvements in student achievement. If educators do not change, student achievement will not change. But change for the sake of change is not the answer. What is required of educators is the careful, intelligent, well-considered selection of content necessary to meet the standards; lessons that are sequenced to support student-learning trajectories; and teaching methods that are based on evidence of effectiveness.
Whether textbook publishers will help, hinder, or neutralize [the] effort [to implement the common core] is an open question."
Educational publishers have the resources to provide a wide variety of new materials that could facilitate these necessary changes. They have editorial departments that keep up to date on education research. They can make connections with education researchers so they can work with teams of writers and editors to develop materials. The publishers can have researchers spend months organizing and testing sequences of lessons to find out what best supports student learning. They have design and production departments to produce the materials in an appealing and accessible format for wide use. They can build professional development into these new materials, which could be a foundation for teaching educators about the common core. But publishers won’t do any of this if they don’t have to.
Instead of a well-considered evaluation of available materials, schools tend to adopt and purchase educational materials for superficial reasons, either because they don’t have time for a thorough evaluation or they have little faith in textbooks. But if textbooks are sold based on design or inconsequential elements, publishers will prioritize visual design and superficial features. This would represent an unfortunate cycle of repetition and promote the status quo.
On the other hand, educational publishers would bend over backwards to make effectiveness their top priority if the top-selling textbooks were those with the best sequence of lessons to develop each standard in depth, the most effective teaching methods, and the richest content. They would do the work that schools so desperately need. But to identify materials with effective characteristics, customers have to know what those characteristics are.
Contrary to what many think, some textbooks are superior to others and do, in fact, meet some of the standards with fidelity. If the most effective materials for a particular population of students, such as higher- or lower-achieving students, were available to teachers, they could use them and focus their energies on meeting the needs of their students. Instead, many must devote time and energy to writing curriculum, although few have any experience in this demanding work. Teachers need to know and understand the new standards, but they should also be able to distinguish materials that faithfully reflect the standards from those that do not.
Schools have it in their power to improve student achievement. They can take the selection of educational materials more seriously, selecting the most effective resources available, allowing the free market to promote continual improvement as it does in other industries.
How can schools identify the most effective materials?
• Establish an adoption team to analyze potential materials. If possible, this team should be given a sabbatical for a month or more, or other compensation, to emphasize the seriousness of its efforts. The team’s first job should be to develop expertise in the common standards and find research that supports effective teaching methods and student-learning trajectories. The members should also study the curriculum their school has used, identifying the strengths and weaknesses.
• Next, the adoption team should establish evaluation criteria for curricula and then employ those criteria to analyze instructional materials. The criteria should evaluate: teaching methods that are based on research and evidence; student-learning trajectories that are the basis for the development of lessons and concepts; content that is accurate and comprehensive and that meets the common standards; and effectiveness that can be verified.
• Finally, the team should confirm that instructional materials in use share specific characteristics: The development of each required standard at a grade level is comprehensive, with a clear introduction, development, practice, and assessment. Content, readability, and skill expectations are appropriate for the population of students. Organization promotes natural learning progressions and logical development of skills and concepts. Lessons include an engaging and appropriate mix of learning activities and experiences that develop the critical concepts as identified by the standards. Teaching methods reflect effective practices as identified by research and experience. Materials support a change in teaching practices and are different from materials currently in use.
Textbooks and educational materials could play an essential role in the implementation of the common core and the promotion of a new era of improved student achievement. Or not.
Educational publishers have the resources to create comprehensive and effective materials that could significantly support teachers’ efforts to realize the promise of the new standards. Empowering well-informed adoption teams to make intelligent selections of effective instructional materials and then having teachers use them in the classroom are key steps in making the necessary changes to implement the new standards with fidelity.
A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Solving the Textbook-Common Core Conundrum