Review of Math Programs Comes Under Fire

By Liana Loewus — March 17, 2015 7 min read
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A Consumer Reports-style review of math instructional materials that called out nearly all the curricula evaluated for failing to align to the common-core standards is now coming under attack for its methodology.

The nonprofit posted online its first round of reviews, which focused on K-8 mathematics materials from widely used publishers such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, at the beginning of the month. The group found that, contrary to their publishers’ claims, 17 of 20 math series evaluated failed to meet criteria for alignment to the Common Core State Standards.

Publishers and at least one outside math expert, however, argue that the teacher-led reviews were tainted by shoddy methodology and are misleading. One publisher of a primarily digital curriculum that was found unaligned even claims that some reviewers spent little or no time logged into its materials, making the review “inadequate and inconsistent with rigorous standards.”

If widely accepted, EdReports’ reviews could have profound effects for adoption decisions, curriculum experts said.

Infographic: See How Math Programs Rated

“In general, the results are pretty bad for all the publishers,” said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, who was not part of the project. “I think people really will pay attention to this.” The outcomes echo previous alignment studies conducted by Mr. Polikoff and others.

But publishers have since sharply criticized the methodology, especially the use of “gateways,” or thresholds, that curricula needed to pass through to continue in the review process.

Jay A. Diskey, the executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ P-12 learning group, based in Washington, said the use of such gateways resulted in “a very shallow, incomplete review.”

Diane J. Briars, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, also has “very serious reservations” about the process. “I think they ended up with a lot of false negatives,” she said.

Just one curriculum series stood out from the pack. Eureka Math, published by Great Minds, a small Washington-based nonprofit organization, was found to be aligned to the common core for all grades, K-8.

Teacher Teams, spearheaded by Maria M. Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont, Calif., was launched in August. The project is underwritten primarily by $3 million in grants from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also was a major backer of the development of the common core, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation of Menlo Park, Calif., and the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust in New York City. (The Gates and Hewlett foundations also support, respectively, coverage of college- and career-ready standards and deeper learning in Education Week.)

The 46 reviewers, half of whom are practicing teachers, worked in teams of four over several months to review the K-5 or 6-8 instructional series. Team members combed through the curricula independently—up to a dozen textbooks apiece—and then met in a weekly videoconference to discuss their findings.

The curricula were first evaluated on whether they met the common core’s expectations for focus and coherence—that is, whether they stuck to grade-level content and followed a logical sequence for math learning. If a text passed that first gateway—and a majority did not—the reviewers then moved along to gateway two, which looked at whether the curriculum met the expectations for rigor. The third and final gateway measured usability.

Reviewers and representatives said in October that team members were spending three or four hours a week looking over the texts on their own.

But Philip Uri Treisman, the founder and executive director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Charles A. Dana Center, which helped develop the Agile Mind curricula, said that his group tracked the amount of time reviewers spent logged into Agile Mind’s digital materials. It found that two of the four reviewers “logged into the digital materials for little or no time at all, depending on the grade level of the program,” and that “less than 23 percent of the total content were reviewed by more than one panelist for an hour or more,” he wrote in an email. Some units were reviewed for less than 10 minutes, he said.

Reviewers’ Response

Eric Hirsch, the executive director of, responded that not all the logins worked, and that teams came together and completed their individual reviews from a projector screen. “It may have only taken 10 minutes for reviewers to look or assess whether a unit or lesson were to cover the major work of the grade sufficiently,” said Mr. Hirsch. “We stand by the work our educators did on the review.”

The website uses a three-tiered rating system—"meets criteria,” “partially meets criteria,” or “does not meet criteria"—for each gateway. The site also has more-detailed reports for each textbook, which include documentation on how the reviewers reached each score.

Among the highlights:

• My Math, a K-5 instructional series by McGraw-Hill, was deemed fully aligned for grades 4 and 5.

• Of the seven Houghton Mifflin Harcourt instructional series reviewed, four partially met alignment criteria for at least one grade level.

• One of the four Pearson texts reviewed was judged to be partially aligned for at least one grade level.

• All texts by Agile Mind, Big Ideas Learning, Edgenuity, Kendall Hunt, and TPS Publishing Inc. were considered not aligned to the common standards.

More than 40 states have adopted the common core, the set of English/language arts and math standards released in 2010 by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.

Publishers had two weeks to write responses of up to 1,500 words, which were posted with the reviews on the website.

Pearson wrote that the reviewers “applied a very narrow standard for measuring focus.” Big Ideas said that the gateway process “discredits” the evaluation, because it allowed reviewers to come to “the generalized conclusion that Big Ideas Math fails two other gateways, rigor and usability, without even a perfunctory analysis” of those characteristics.

In an email, John Hartz, a spokesman for the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Edgenuity, said that the gateway process “will mislead readers.”

Ms. Briars, the NCTM president, agreed with many of those critiques. Gateway one, she said, had a “fatal flaw” in that, in order to pass through it, instructional material could not assess content from future grades. “If that gets a zero, the whole program is thrown out,” she said. “But the assessment tasks are separate from what the kids see every day. And I might want to assess informally what students know and how in-depth their knowledge is.”

Methodology Debate

Several publishers noted in emails and interviews that their curricula had been adopted by state and district review teams.

“It has to be asked whether some of the differences here have to do with the type of rubric and alignment tool that was used” by, said Mr. Diskey of the AAP.

But USC’s Mr. Polikoff said’s review process made sense. “There can always be methodological quibbles,” he said. “It would be useful to look at all three gateways for all the books, but this seems to me a perfectly reasonable way to constrain the task.”

Mr. Hirsch said the gateway process came out of discussions with educators, who consistently concluded that “if you’re not teaching the right math, these other things won’t matter as much.” Even so, he said, “we view every publisher response as an opportunity for learning.”

Alignment studies conducted by researchers William Schmidt, the co-director of the education policy center at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, and Mr. Polikoff came to the same conclusion as Claims of common-core alignment are generally unfounded.

For Denise Walston, the director of mathematics for the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, the review has the potential to improve what’s going on in classrooms. “Districts considering buying, I think they need to pause and wait a little bit,” she said. “But for those that have bought materials and have some programs that only partially met expectations from EdReports, now’s the time to look at what’s there and try to figure out ways they can supplement. ... The textbook is what [teachers] depend on, so you’ve got to make sure what you put in their hands is right.” plans to eventually move on to secondary math and K-12 English/language arts curricula and to institute a rolling review process for K-8 math materials, said Mr. Hirsch.

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Backlash Brews Over Critical Review of Math Materials


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