Curriculum

Text-Review Group Shares First Look at Its Process

By Liana Loewus — November 04, 2014 6 min read
Eric Hirsch, far right, the executive director of EdReports.org, talks with educators who are working with his organization to review texts on how well they align with the common standards. The group aims to post its review online this winter.

Praise, for many teachers, comes more naturally than criticism.

That dynamic was on full display throughout the weekend training held here by EdReports.org, a nonprofit organization that will begin publishing Consumer Reports-style reviews of curricula and textbooks early next year. The Oct. 25 session offered an early, behind-the-scenes glimpse of the teacher-driven review process, which could eventually have far-reaching consequences for classrooms, district purchasers, and publishers.

Nearly 40 teachers and instructional leaders from across the country gathered for guidance on how to evaluate classroom mathematics materials that claim to be aligned to the Common Core State Standards. One group of reviewers, which has been scrutinizing instructional materials for EdReports.org in small teams since August, participated in “cross-team calibration,” presenting its initial ratings and offering each other feedback. A floor below, a second group—new to the process—learned to use the EdReports.org evaluation tool.

Educators work on evaluating K-8 mathematics materials for their alignment with the Common Core State Standards during a weekend training session last month that was organized by EdReports.org in New York City.

The very-preliminary results shared by the veteran group were variable, to say the least. Some texts they’d reviewed sailed through the first “gateway,” which looks at whether the materials are on grade level and follow the standards’ learning progressions, with high scores. Other curricula received barely a single point on the scoring guide, giving the teachers, despite their best efforts, little to praise. (Education Week has agreed not to disclose preliminary results by publisher.)

“That’s what we struggle with,” said Jennifer Abler, a reviewer and a high school math teacher from Livonia, Mich. “We all want to call out the strengths.”

When the first set of reviews from EdReports.org are made public in February or March, they will look at 21 instructional series for K-8 mathematics from widely used publishers, including Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, as well as a few smaller publishers that were recommended through state review processes. The reviews will be free and easily accessible online.

The group has about $3 million in grant funding, most of which comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. (The Gates and Hewlett foundations also help, respectively, to support news coverage of college- and career-ready standards and deeper learning in Education Week.)

EdReports.org officially launched in August with 19 curriculum reviewers, about half of whom are classroom teachers. (Not everyone from this group was invited to the New York City training partly because of budget constraints.) It recently added a second cohort with 28 more reviewers, again mostly practicing teachers but also academic coaches and school and district leaders, selected from a larger pool of more than 100 applicants. The reviewers, more than a dozen of whom are National Board-certified, have on average about 14 years of teaching experience. They are paid $2,000 for completing reviews of two instructional series.

Eric Hirsch, the executive director of EdReports.org and its only full-time employee so far, said the group pegged its initial reviews for late winter “to be relevant for purchasing decisions for next year.” The organization also plans to add up to 150 more reviewers in 2015, when it will begin examining high school math and K-12 English/language arts curricula.

Process Up Close

Educators scrutinized a set of mathematics textbooks during one of EdReports.org’s training and evaluation sessions.

Working in teams of four, with one person designated as facilitator, the reviewers evaluate two instructional series, either for grades K-5 or 6-8, over several months. They spend about three or four hours a week looking over the texts on their own, then meet in a weekly video conference to discuss their findings with the rest of the team.

Most of the reviewers also participate in a webinar at some point—keeping their identities hidden—with the publishing companies they’re evaluating to learn more about the print or digital curricula’s features.

Each curriculum is measured against three benchmarks, known as gateways. The first gateway, which a text must pass to move along in the process, determines if it meets the common core’s expectations for focus and coherence—in other words, if it sticks mainly to grade-level content and follows a logical sequence for math learning. The second gateway looks at rigor; the third focuses on usability.

At the recent training, the veteran cohort talked mainly about curricular focus. For example, what if just one or two questions in a textbook were off grade level? Should it get zero credit for that measure?

“It seems very harsh that if one question is off, they get a zero,” Ms. Abler of Michigan said to a small group. Another reviewer chimed in that she wouldn’t fail a student for getting only a single question wrong.

“One thing we’re trying to do is put pressure on the publishers to do better,” replied Melissa Hurt, a curriculum coordinator for the Germantown Municipal district in Shelby County, Tenn. “If the grand purpose is to make a better product, then we need to be harsh.”

Some of the teachers clearly struggled with the process.

“At some point, you feel very bad” when a text continually receives poor scores, said Cassandra Joss, a suburban Detroit kindergarten teacher who works with BetterLesson’s Master Teacher Project, a partnership with the National Education Association. That said, she was steadfast that the scores were justified, for instance, when a team found 6th grade material embedded in 3rd grade lessons.

The highest-scoring materials seemed to warrant the least discussion, though the reviewers did remind each other to steer clear of words like “great” in favor of offering hard evidence for their decisions.

Views From Publishers

What makes this work particularly thorny is that the field hasn’t agreed on what curriculum alignment looks like.

“The more one talks to various education researchers, the more they begin to feel that alignment is to some degree in the eyes of the beholder,” said Jay A. Diskey, the executive director of the Washington-based Association of American Publishers’ P-12 learning group. “We’ve seen cases where certain education researchers look at material and say it’s not aligned, then we see the same materials looked at by states, and they say it is aligned.”

Overall, publishers are eager to see the results of the EdReports.org reviews, said Mr. Diskey, but also feel some anxiety about them.

Comments from some of those publishers varied. While Lynne Munson, the president and executive director of Common Core, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that publishes the Eureka Math curricula, has said she is “extremely excited” about the EdReports.org reviews, a spokesperson from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt declined to comment “on a process we have yet to experience.” Pearson and McGraw-Hill chose not to offer comments.

The reviewers are eager as well—mainly to ensure their efforts will lead to better classroom materials.

“Every educator in my state is constantly asking, ‘What should I be using and how do I know if it’s good?’ ” said Dana Cartier, a math-content specialist at the Illinois Center for School Improvement in Chicago and Naperville, which supports school-improvement efforts across the state. “I think a lot of publishers are going to be fairly unhappy with the results. But that’s why it’s so necessary.”

“The reason I wanted to do this in the first place is the resources we have [in Tennessee] are very shallow, and they don’t reach the depth where we’re supposed to take students,” said Ms. Hurt. “We can help the publishers see that everything they print has an impact. If we are strategic in the way we’re going to present this to companies, they’re more likely to change for the better.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as Group Offers Peek at Text-Review Process

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