The two 5th grade volumes of McGraw-Hill’s Treasures reading series at first glance look remarkably similar.
Both include, for instance, a nonfiction selection about a scientific mission to Antarctica, coupled with snippets from a researcher’s journal. But there are subtle differences in what they ask students to think about as they read. The older edition, from 2008, merely asks them to explain the value of keeping a journal. The newer one, from 2011, asks the students to explain how “sensory details and other language” differ between a primary source, such as the journal, and a secondary source, such as the narrative.
In the 2013 version of its Reading Street series, Pearson officials have excised “reader response” questions and replaced them with prompts asking students to “use examples from the text to justify your answer.”
From analyzing text features, to citing evidence, to de-emphasizing personal responses to readings, such changes nod in the direction of the Common Core State Standards’ English/language arts expectations.
All three of the major K-12 educational publishers have unveiled new basal-reading programs that purport to embody the standards, and supplemented older series, in order to claim that their products are “aligned,” “compliant,” or “coherent” with the common standards.
Yet a crucial question remains: Are the changes sufficient?
It is quite literally a multimillion-dollar question, one whose answer could shape the education publishing industry for years. Publishing officials estimate that upwards of 75 percent of the elementary curriculum market in reading remains dependent on basal textbooks.
The idea of alignment between curricular materials and content standards in reading has always been a bit fuzzy, according to experts who have studied reading programs.
“Publishers are very adept at correlating the standards to the instruction in their programs,” said Peter Dewitz, a professor of education at Mary Baldwin College, in Staunton, Va., and a former basal-reading-program author. “They can issue a page of correlations that illustrate what they’re doing, but if you look really closely, you’ll find that it’s a shallower interpretation of that standard than what the [standards] writers intended.”
Where the common core is concerned, curricular alignment matters because many of its English/language arts expectations—close reading, writing to source texts, using a rich vocabulary to build students’ background knowledge—are as new to educators as to students. Alignment, in that sense, is more than materials. It’s also about making sure they are structured in ways that help instructors make use of the materials.
“It is really, really hard work,” said Kate Gerson, a senior fellow for educator engagement and the common core for the Regents Research Fund, a nonprofit organization that works hand in hand with the New York state education department. “We are really struggling and celebrating as we toil to make sure the materials we are producing will support teachers in their implementation of the standards, while leaving room for them to adapt and improve, and to inhabit texts in a very different way with students.”
Using federal Race to the Top funds, the state has started a collaboration with two smaller publishers, Expeditionary Learning and the Core Knowledge Foundation, to craft a comprehensive K-2 curriculum and modules for grades 3-5, which it will share with other states.
For this story, Education Week obtained and reviewed the 5th grade volumes of the three major publishing houses’ basal programs, comparing them where possible with volumes written before the final draft of the standards was published, in June 2010. They include Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Journeys, from 2011; Pearson’s Reading Street, from 2008 and 2013; and McGraw-Hill’s Treasures, from 2009 and 2011. (McGraw-Hill also offers a new basal series, Reading Wonders, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt a new edition of Journeys, but full volumes of those products were not available for review.)
As one of the few highly visible vetting processes for curricula, textbook adoption offers a window into the thorny topic of curricular alignment.
Fewer than half the states have a formal textbook-adoption or -review process, but among them are states with a large K-12 population, such as Florida. And there are already signs that the common standards are beginning to change how reading curricula are vetted, with many states drawing on the “publishers’ criteria,” a document crafted by two of the lead writers of the standards.
All three of the largest K-12 publishers have put out new core reading series or editions that purport to embody the Common Core State Standards, highlighted in red. They also offer enhancements and supplements for their older curricula.
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT
Journeys Common Core (2014)
Reading Wonders (2013)
Treasures (2011, 2009)
Imagine It! (2008)
Reading Street Common Core (2013)
Reading Street (2011, 2008)
SOURCE: Education Week
For its current English/language arts adoption, Florida built its evaluation framework on more than 100 pages of specifications drawn from the common standards and the publishers’ criteria. Among the state’s demands: Publishers must provide both a quantitative and a qualitative analysis of the complexity of each text selection in their basal series.
Using Lexiles and other quantitative ways of measuring text complexity is already common, but analyzing them subjectively is another matter. That requirement demands attention to such features as whether a story is told in flashbacks rather than chronologically, or contains several levels of meaning, as in satire or parody.
The criteria “reflect what we wanted to be able to work with teachers on,” said Stuart Greenberg, a former Florida department of education employee who helped design the evaluation tool. “Teachers had a lot of good pd on strategy work—main idea, compare and contrast—but one of the things they haven’t had as much training on is how to use the nuances of text structure to support understanding.”
Such demands seem to have been taken seriously by publishers: Of the “big three” bidding on the lucrative Florida contract, all include text-complexity gauges in the series they submitted for review.
A similar desire to help teachers truly embody the standards in their instruction—rather than engage in “the great binder-replacement phenomenon"—caused Tennessee officials to break their English/language arts adoption cycle into two distinct phases, according to Emily Barton, the state’s assistant commissioner of curriculum and instruction.
First, every basal series had to meet seven non-negotiable requirements, all related to the common core, including whether 80 percent of questions are “text dependent” and that at least 50 percent of selections are nonfiction. Only after meeting those requirements were the materials advanced to a second review, which digs into other criteria.
The state’s two-tiered model has already forced some changes. For example, one publisher submitted a series that reviewers determined didn’t provide students with enough writing activities requiring them to delve into source texts, Ms. Barton said. Faced with being disqualified from the rest of the review process, the publisher created an addendum.
“We saw publishers respond, when given information about places where their products were not meeting expectations,” she said.
The major education publishing houses have, in general, distinguished between their bridge products, such as older series or editions they’ve supplemented, and brand-new editions that they crafted from scratch to embody the standards.
Districts using Treasures, for example, were offered free supplements, including teacher guides and new reading selections where needed, according to Daniela Perelli, the vice president of editorial for elementary reading at McGraw-Hill School Education, based in New York City. They were also provided with an analysis showing units in their old manuals they could use to provide aligned instruction.
“We did have that variety of text types already incorporated, and we spent a lot of time teaching about the genres in the piece, the organization of the piece, the particular aspects of writers’ craft that we’re asking kids to look at,” she said. “We felt the base was there, and good instruction was already in Treasures, and that we were now identifying it with the right labels.”
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt offers for purchase common-core “enhancement” packages for districts using its backlisted series, such as StoryTown and Reading.
“A lot of the emphasis in the product is on writing and performance tasks,” said Melissa J. Counihan, the vice president of product management and strategy for K-12 literacy and social studies for the Boston-based company. “Argumentative writing didn’t really exist in the early-elementary grades; that’s one of the things we really had to change for the enhancements.”
Such efforts to retrofit older curricula, as it were, appear partly influenced by the overall decrease in revenue caused by cash-strapped districts’ delays in purchasing new materials. McGraw-Hill officials, for instance, reported a 20 percent decline in its school division earnings in a second-quarter July conference call with investors. They attributed a “low-water mark” in K-12 publishing partly to the common core, and anticipated improvements in 2013.
Even in the publishers’ new “from-the-ground-up” curricula—typically identified by the words “common core” appearing on the cover—as well as in the older curricula, there is a degree of repetition in the series. About half the reading selections are repeated between Reading Street’s 2008 and 2013 5th grade anthology, as are about two-thirds of readings in Treasures between 2009 and 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt officials said about half the selections in Journeys’ 5th grade anthology are identical between the 2011 and 2014 editions, too.
But as evidenced earlier, there are differences, if sometimes subtle ones, in how exercises for students are framed. In a selection about a 19th century woman, the 2011 edition of Treasures, for instance, asks students to detail how an author’s “choice of words” relates to the purpose of her biographical narrative, a question not in the former version’s exercises for the same selection.
The 2013 version of Reading Street has some arguably more difficult “writing across texts” prompts. A narrative about ghost towns is now accompanied by a short piece of historical fiction. Rather than making a poster, as in the previous edition, students must now write a journal entry in a character’s voice, drawing on details from the nonfiction text.
Some of the most important changes, the publishers said, appear in the new teachers’ editions to help them implement the new techniques. For example, the brand new Reading Street teacher editions guide teachers through the reading of each featured text three times, said Nancy L. Winship, the vice president of product development for Pearson PreK-12 literacy. The tool responds to the common core’s demands that complex texts should be read multiple times as students master its new vocabulary, meaning, and craft.
McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt officials say their newest basals, which weren’t available for review, offer similar features.
The ultimate test of alignment, though, lies in the hands of state reviewers.
Complicating those decisions is the fact that state adoption tends to be an all-or-nothing decision, leaving less room for shades of gray. Materials in Florida, for instance, are being evaluated on each criterion on a 1-to-4 scale, but they don’t have to clear a particular point threshold in order to win adoption, state officials said.
In New Mexico’s adoption earlier this year, reviewers detailed perceived weaknesses in several of the K-3 basal volumes. Documents on the state’s website show that reviewers judged that Journeys 2011, even with supplements, “does not sufficiently provide opportunities for in-depth writing instruction” vis-à-vis the common core. And while the 2013 Reading Street’s reading comprehension instruction was praised, its research and inquiry prompts were deemed “limited in scope.” But both series were ultimately approved by the state.
Tennessee, for the first time, will issue letter grades to English/language arts materials, a move officials hope will give a better sense of reviewers’ perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses in each basal series’ alignment to the standards.
Louisiana’s 2012-13 adoption process could serve as a test case of how far states are willing to press on the issue of alignment.
Publishers’ bids, including one by each of the three major houses, were reviewed by committees against three newly developed evaluation tools drawn from the common core. But based on those reviews—which have not yet been made public—and his own perusal, state Superintendent John White said he is skeptical of the textbooks, and is considering whether to recommend any to the state board of education for adoption, in December.
“I’m very concerned that the questions, the assessments, the text complexity, and other dimensions of the textbooks are not remotely ready to be called ‘aligned’ with the common core,” Mr. White said. “My strong belief is that if we make a mistake and allow textbooks to go forward with our endorsement, it will indicate they are rigorous in a way many, if not all of them, probably are not.”
The rush to update the basal readers has some observers asking deeper questions about the architecture of reading curricula. Mr. Dewitz of Mary Baldwin College, for instance, contends that past the earliest grades, basal textbooks may no longer be an ideal way to teach to the depth envisioned in the standards.
“If you read deeply into the common core, it’s the ability to trace and track the development of an idea or a character over time,” he said. “Essentially from 3rd grade up, they are talking about books.”
Ms. Barton says more Tennessee districts have expressed interest in using complete texts in elementary English/language arts classes, rather than shorter, prepackaged curriculum units.
“I do hear districts say, ‘We’re going to use these three short texts and these two long ones,’ and that they want to get the copyright licenses and go from there,” she said. “We don’t yet have the ‘iTunes’ version of curriculum, ... but common standards do change the economies of scale.”
In one development, educators across the country are increasingly making use of free or open-source materials to craft lessons. And while the quality of those materials is widely variable, New York officials view their project as a way of signaling what a baseline standard of alignment quality should look like in the state. Unlike the proprietary basal series, the curriculum will be open-source—free for teachers, districts, and even states to use as they see fit, Ms. Gerson said.
Though it’s difficult to say how the market will evolve as implementation continues, some see opportunities amid the chaos.
“I have a sense from teachers that they are going to want greater control over decisions that heretofore have been oftentimes left to publishers or central offices,” Mr. White said. “That’s going to take hundreds of thousands of different forms; but I do think it implies a shift away from teachers who are willing to say, ‘OK, I will take this book of content, its order, its skills, its sequence, and its assessments on face value as simply what I need to teach.’ ”
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 www.ge.com/foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as New Texts Aim to Capture Standards