Textbook Diversity May Be Increasing Under Common Core

By Liana Loewus — February 25, 2016 3 min read
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Los Angeles

Among the many warnings conferred about the Common Core State Standards was that they would narrow and homogenize curriculum.

But according to the early results of a large-scale research study by Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, that may not be happening—at least in California.

Polikoff and a team of Ph.D. students are doing a deep dive into the textbooks being used in the five most-populated states (California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas). He presented some initial findings here at a seminar on the common core organized by the Education Writers Association, focusing on California (analysis of the other states is forthcoming).

In looking at K-8 math materials in California, he found that the 6,000-plus schools for which he could interpret the data were using 261 unique textbooks during the 2013-14 school year. That’s a 17 percent increase in unique books from 2012-13, he found. During that same time, the percentage of schools using common-core textbooks went up from 3 percent to 24 percent.

That means that textbook diversity is increasing, not decreasing, as more schools begin using common-core materials. “This runs counter to what many people think—that common core is standardizing and homogenizing,” said Polikoff.

He pointed out that California has been much slower than some other states to start using common-core materials. The state adopted the standards in 2010.

California Schools Using EngageNY

The major publishers, such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Scott Foresman Addison-Wesley, still dominate the publishing market, Polikoff noted. But interestingly, the fifth most used common-core-aligned curriculum in California is EngageNY—the free, online collection of common-core-aligned materials managed by New York state.

“This is the book of record these schools are listing,” said Polikoff. “That free curriculum is having an impact. I think that’s somewhat remarkable.”

And many more may be using the online resource to supplement their textbooks, he said.

(Image: California’s most used curricula that are aligned to the common core. From Polikoff’s PowerPoint presentation.)

Textbook Data Is Tough to Come By

As it turns out, determining what textbooks schools are using is incredibly hard work. California collects textbook information from districts, but it’s in PDFs so there’s no standard reporting language. About 8 percent of book lists were uninterpretable. The most commonly used book in the state—enVision Math—was reported with more than 100 different names.

Ten percent of California schools did not report which textbooks they’re using at all—despite the requirement to do so.

In Florida, Illinois, and New York, Polikoff sent Freedom of Information Act requests to individual districts to get the information, since there’s no central source. “States have no idea what textbooks are being used in their schools,” said Polikoff. “Oftentimes, districts have no idea what textbooks are being used in their schools.” Many districts did attempt to gather the information for him, though, and about three-quarters of districts have responded.

Texas, though, does have a robust reporting system. “Texas illustrates what you can do if you have nice data,” he said.

Ultimately, Polikoff plans to answer questions about whether instructional materials are distributed equitably—that is, whether low-income students have access to the same curricular materials as more-affluent students—and about how textbooks affect student achievement.

This is all helpful because changing textbooks can be a cheaper and less politically fraught intervention than, say, firing teachers, he said. “Typically, a textbook costs in the range of $100 a kid,” he said. “If one textbook is way better than another textbook and the cost difference is zero, that’s a huge return on investment.”

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