Teachers a Key Source of Common-Core Curricula, Study Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — October 30, 2014 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As schools and districts struggle to find good-quality curriculum aligned to the common core, they’re turning most often to their own teachers for those instructional materials, a new survey shows.

A report released Thursday by the Center on Education Policy provides one of the first early glimpses of how districts are solving one of the most difficult problems of putting the Common Core State Standards into practice. Overwhelmingly, they’re creating their curricula locally.

More than two-thirds of districts reported that their teachers are designing common-core curricula, and half said that the district is creating it.

Many districts are also turning to their states for curricular help. Four in 10 district leaders reported using materials developed by their states. Fewer than 15 percent said they were drawing on curricular resources from other states. But more than four in 10 district leaders said they were collaborating with their state, or with other districts in their state, to craft common-core instructional resources.

The Center on Education Policy survey echoes other findings, and widespread talk in the field, that finding or developing curriculum materials for the common core is a challenge. Nine in 10 district leaders said so in the new CEP study.

But the new details on local curriculum design offer a notable response to critics who feared that the common core would produce one national curriculum. The survey suggests that big publishers aren’t dominating districts’ common-core curriculum choices. Fewer than four in 10 reported using materials from for-profit organizations. Fewer than 15 percent said they are using materials from private, nonprofit groups.

Elena Balint, the manager of the American Federation of Teachers’ ShareMyLesson, an online storehouse of instructional resources created and uploaded by teachers, said she wasn’t surprised to see teachers heavily involved in creating common-core curriculum in their districts.

“Teachers are really engaged. They do this of their own volition, because they believe in sharing their expertise and because they want to be better teachers,” she said. “Teachers trust teachers. It’s their area of expertise to create materials and lesson plans that work for their classrooms.”

Even as teachers play central roles in their districts’ curricula, however, questions persist about whether they are given adequate support, training, and time to do that work. The research doesn’t tell us, for instance, how many are given time away from class to work with colleagues, and how many are scrambling individually, in the evenings, to cobble together lesson plans.

Homegrown Professional Development

Districts are leaning on their own expertise, too, for common-core professional development. The CEP survey shows that the most popular provider is school districts themselves, with more than nine in 10 respondents reporting this as their source of training. More than seven in 10 reported getting professional development from state education departments or state regional services agencies. Two-thirds reported that teachers had created professional development for the common core. Fewer than half said they got their common-core training from for-profit organizations.

Many districts are lagging, however, in providing professional development for the common core. Only two-thirds of district leaders reported that 90 percent or more of their teachers had participated in some form of professional development for the common core by the 2013-14 school year.

Even as states face publicly reporting scores based on common-core assessments this school year, the survey finds that only two-thirds of teachers are adequately prepared to teach the standards.

Nearly one-third of district leaders said that all of their teachers were adequately prepared to teach the common core in mathematics and English/language arts in the 2013-14 school year. About one-third said their teaching staffs would be adequately prepared to do so this school year. But one-quarter or more said their teachers wouldn’t reach that point until 2015-16 or later.

The report is one of three based on a survey the Center on Education Policy conducted between February and June. The first report, released Oct. 8, found many district leaders scrambling to put in place the curriculum and professional development needed to put the new standards into practice. The other two reports, released Thursday, examine how districts are providing professional development and obtaining curricular materials for the common core, and how they are preparing for PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortium tests.

While many districts are using homegrown expertise to craft common-core curricula, those materials and practices haven’t yet reached all schools, leaving a readiness gap in the teaching corps.

More than eight in 10 district leaders report that their districts had begun teaching common-core-aligned curricula by the 2013-14 school year. But when asked when they expected all schools in their districts to use such curricula, the answer was different: Nearly one-quarter or more said that wouldn’t happen until 2015-16 or later.

District leaders who responded to the survey showed what the CEP called “a wait-and-see attitude” toward the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments. While more than four in 10 said the new tests would provide information that would inform instruction in math and English/languge arts, just as many said it was “too soon to tell.” Half or more said it was too soon to tell whether the new assessments would be better than their states’ current tests, drive instruction in positive ways, or produce information that would be useful to students, teachers or parents.

Having the right technology to give the computer-based tests is also still a big challenge. Forty percent of the respondents said their districts wouldn’t have sufficient technological infrastructure until 2015-16 or later. PARCC and Smarter Balanced make their debut in 2014-15.

Few Plan Cutbacks in Testing

New common-core tests are leading many districts to revise the other tests they administer. Many report plans to revise formative, interim, and end-of-course tests, though few plan to eliminate them in light of the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests, possibly because they are uncertain whether the consortium tests will meet all their needs, the CEP report said.

The fact that few districts plan to reduce their testing regimens is notable in light of an increasing policy push to reevaluate and streamline assessment. Earlier this month, big-city districts and state schools chiefs banded together and promised to take a hard look at the tests they give, with an eye toward eliminating unnecessary tests while maintaining annual summative assessments. The plege to reexamine testing drew support from President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

In a report earlier this month, the Center on American Progress found that students spend more time taking district-required tests than they do on the annual summative tests required by their states.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.