Standards Writers Wade Into Curriculum

By Catherine Gewertz — August 09, 2011 9 min read
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New guidelines on crafting curriculum materials for the common standards in English/language arts are reigniting debate about how to ensure a marketplace of good instructional materials for the new standards without crossing the line into telling teachers how to teach.

The focal point of the conversations is a set of “publishers’ criteria” issued recently by the two lead writers of the English/language arts section of the common standards, which have been adopted by all but five states.

Working under a contract with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an avid backer of the standards, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel wrote a pair of documents highlighting the key ideas of the standards and describing the qualities of instructional materials they consider a faithful reflection of them.

Vetted informally among publishers, researchers, state officials, teachers, and others, the documents are being circulated more widely now, and are eventually headed for posting online to guide not only publishers, but also anyone developing curriculum for the standards.

The criteria center on aspects of the standards that represent a significant shift. The heart of that shift is an intense focus on close examination of text as the source for study across disciplines. Students are expected to learn how to conquer increasingly complex readings, both literary and informational; infer meaning from what they read, and build arguments based on evidence from the text. The guidelines discourage work that does not demand deep understanding of the studied text.

“Eighty to 90 percent of the reading standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis; accordingly, aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions,” say the criteria for grades 3-12.

“Materials should be sparing in offering activities that are not text dependent,” say the criteria for grades K-2. “Whether written or spoken, responses based on students’ background knowledge and the experiences they bring to school are not sufficient.”

The impetus behind the criteria, Ms. Pimentel and Mr. Coleman said in a joint phone interview, was to respond to teachers’ requests for support by helping them focus on the cornerstones of the standards and understand how classroom work will have to change to reflect them.

“It’s almost a betrayal to support setting higher standards without some effort in that direction,” Mr. Coleman said.

“If we’re asking students to be able to look at text and draw evidence from it, it means they need to be given text, with good teacher support, but without a lot of excessive spoon-feeding up front,” Ms. Pimentel said.

Questions play a crucial role in helping students master what they’re reading, she said. She cited a question that might be posed by instructional materials or by a teacher: “In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln says the nation is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Why is equality an important value to promote?”

“It gets kids off and running, but we’ve totally left the text,” Ms. Pimentel said. “They don’t need the text to answer that question.”

Validating Materials

The two publishers’ criteria documents, totaling 24 pages, land in a swirl of discussion about how to create good curricula for the common-core standards, which emerged from an initiative led by the nation’s governors and state schools chiefs. One central tension in the discussion has been trying to address the need for instructional tools without dictating pedagogy; another has been the question of who should shape curriculum design.

Leading advocates of the standards have been trying to think through possible approaches to validating curricula as sound embodiments of the standards. They have discussed creating a panel of experts to review materials for alignment, or designing a validation process that educators and publishers could use.

But no moves have been made to do either, partly because other sectors’ models don’t translate well to education and partly because of sensitivity to issues of influence over curriculum, according to participants in those talks.

The Gates Foundation, for instance, has convened conversations that included representatives from other sectors, among them the environmental-protection and food industries, to talk about how their certification processes might inform parallel work in the curriculum world.

Jamie McKee, who helps lead common-standards work for the Seattle-based Gates Foundation, said that while the foundation “cares deeply about the quality of the [instructional] materials that come from the common core,” it hasn’t yet decided whether it favors a panel or process for validating such materials. The foundation continues to listen to a range of views about “what comes next for the standards, and how to find the right balance” between helping the field produce a range of sound instructional materials and wading into judgments about products, she said.

Teacher Training

Some of those involved in the discussions about curriculum validation see the publishers’ criteria as a way to offset the need for any official certification process or body, by responding to educators’ requests for guidance and building the field’s grassroots knowledge about good curriculum.

“These new publishers’ guidelines are a way to have that conversation quickly and in a nonthreatening way,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group that represents the country’s largest districts.

Linda P. Chen, the deputy chief of the office of teaching and learning in the 154,000-student Philadelphia schools, said the criteria will help the district’s teachers as they adapt to the standards. They’ve been crafting performance-based tasks to gauge learning, and the criteria can help teachers think about the design of those tasks, she said.

She worries, however, that it will be difficult for teachers and for district and state curriculum officials to evaluate publishers’ claims that their materials reflect the new criteria.

“You really have to know your stuff in order to know whether or not they’re quality materials,” Ms. Chen said. And she cautioned that the new standards are at “such a high level” that intensive professional development—not just curricular criteria and materials—will be required for teachers to make the transition.

Educational publishing companies see that need as well. James O’Neill, the senior vice president of K-12 portfolio management at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, said good teaching of the common core will require far more than “handing out new sets of materials.”

“There is a huge teacher-training element here, and from a business standpoint, that is our highest demand right now,” he said. “Professional development is what’s driving the common-core market.”

The new publishers’ criteria are “incredibly helpful” as Boston-based Houghton Mifflin designs materials for the common standards, Mr. O’Neill said. But the uptake of materials that truly reflect the big changes called for in the standards lies in the hands of the states and districts that a decide whether to buy them, he said.

“These criteria aren’t a cookbook for publishers,” he said. “The cookbook is provided by the states and districts. That’s who we take our lead from. Those are our customers. Everything depends on how they interpret the standards and put their curriculum together.”

Venturing Into Pedagogy?

Some leaders in the field take issue with the publishers’ criteria. Barbara Cambridge, the director of the Washington office of the National Council of Teachers of English, said her organization agrees that it’s important to articulate how materials should reflect the standards. But the new publishers’ criteria “signal a usurpation of teacher judgment in ways that are alarming.”

For instance, the K-2 criteria advise teachers to read texts aloud to pupils themselves rather than use recordings, when there might be “perfectly legitimate places to use recordings” in the classroom, Ms. Cambridge said. She also faulted the document for shortchanging the value of children’s own experiences in responding to what they read.

“The way we learn something new is to attach it to something we already know,” she said. “So of course what kids bring to school isn’t sufficient, but it’s important. And to imply we shouldn’t spend time on it, with 1st and 2nd graders, is just bad advice.”

Barbara A. Kapinus, who helped shape the standards as a senior policy analyst with the National Education Association, said she was upset by the way the publishers’ criteria ventured into pedagogy. For instance, she said, advising that “fluency should be a particular focus” of materials for 2nd graders could lead teachers to put a premium on it, despite the developmental variations in when children reach fluency.

She also criticized the criteria for advising teachers to teach reading strategies only “in service of reading comprehension, not as a separate body of material.” Good reading instruction, she said, requires pulling out and practicing specific skills.

“This isn’t just a description of what curriculum should look like, it’s a teaching guide,” Ms. Kapinus said. “I’m afraid people will take this and say, ‘This is what instruction has to look like.’ ”

Susan Pimental says the criteria were not meant to spell out instructional approaches.

Mr. Coleman and Ms. Pimentel said they did not intend the criteria to be a teaching guide and are open to feedback about revisions that would address those concerns.

Some policymakers who oppose the standards saw the criteria as a step toward concentrating too much influence over curriculum and instruction in the hands of too few people.

“The very people writing [the standards] are the ones telling everyone else how you’re supposed to comply,” said Walt Chappell, a member of the Kansas state board of education. “What we have is a group of people dictating to everyone else what’s to be taught in every classroom, to every student.”

David Coleman says it would be a betrayal to produce standards without offering direction.

Mr. Coleman said the criteria were an attempt to do the opposite: to “distribute power, to give people the understanding they need to make decisions” about curricular materials.

And what some see as a concentration of influence, others see as welcome guidance from valued sources.

“A lot of people have been looking to the writers for some guidance about how to interpret the standards,” said Mr. Casserly. “A lot of us thought that some loose guidance to the publishers and school districts would be helpful here as they tried to deal with immediate questions about their materials.”

Dane Linn, who helped lead the common-standards initiative for the National Governors Association and worked with Mr. Coleman and Ms. Pimentel on the publishers’ criteria, said the new documents were intended as resources states and districts can use or not, as they wish. They also can serve as a way for publishers to show they have “held themselves to a higher standard” by reflecting the intent of the standards, Mr. Linn said.

One of the most important things such guidelines can do, some say, is to show the education field where it needs to boost its own strength.

“I think [the criteria] help build capacity among the decisionmakers, who are state and local curriculum people,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based group that is tracking states’ efforts to implement the standards. “It helps people figure out what to think about as they design or choose curriculum, and it asks, ‘Do you have people with the expertise and judgment to do this well?’ That’s an important question.”

Library Intern Amy Wickner contributed to this article.

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week as Standards Writers Wade Into Curriculum


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