Special Report

Two Districts, Two Approaches to Common-Core Curriculum

By Catherine Gewertz — April 21, 2014 12 min read
Maria Yepez works with her 4th grade class at Muir Academy in Long Beach, Calif., on exercises pegged to the common core that teach students critical reading and thinking skills.
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Three thousand miles apart, district leaders in Orlando, Fla., and Long Beach, Calif., faced the same problem: They needed to revamp their instructional materials to reflect the Common Core State Standards.

They solved that problem in very different ways. The Florida group scoured the market and chose a suite of materials from a major publisher. Their colleagues across the country, dissatisfied with that same marketplace’s offerings—and limited by their thin pocketbook—wrote their own curriculum.

That tale of two districts reflects a dilemma of the common-core era: How do schools find or craft good curricula that truly reflect the new standards when they have limited time and funds and when the market is overflowing with materials claiming they’re “fully aligned” with the new standards?

Districts are wrestling with those decisions as the instructional-materials market, worth $7 billion to $8 billion annually, is poised to pick up steam.

States and districts have been putting off buying textbooks and other materials in the last five years because of the recession and uncertainty about the transition to the common core and to digital resources, according to Jay Diskey, the executive director of the PreK-12 Learning Group at the Association of American Publishers, based in Washington. That market was up 4.3 percent in 2013, he said, after two years of declines.

Evaluating Options

The Orange County district, which serves 187,000 students in the Orlando area, began its search for new materials in mathematics and English/language arts about a year ago. Working from Florida’s list of approved materials, the district undertook a laborious process of review before deciding on a lineup largely from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Go Math! for K-8, and two series of HMH texts for high school; Journeys for K-5 English/language arts and the Collections series for high school. It chose the College Board’s Springboard curriculum for middle school.

The move came with a hefty price tag: $14 million for the K-5 materials, which teachers are trying for the first time this school year, and $10 million for middle and high school materials, which are scheduled to debut in 2014-15.

Before inviting the state’s approved publishers in to make presentations, Orange County school officials drew up a list of criteria that new materials would have to meet, said Jesus F. Jara, the district’s deputy superintendent. The list was long. Vendors would be rated on the strengths of their products’ digital components, interventions for struggling students, and professional development. The products would have to offer enough support to guide new teachers, yet provide enough flexibility to allow veteran educators to customize them as they wished, said Scott Fritz, the district’s chief academic officer.

But at the top of that list was how well the new materials would capture the spirit and letter of the common standards, which Florida adopted in July 2010. Reviewers would have to see all the central shifts of the new standards reflected. Reading passages would have to include a heavier dose of nonfiction and stepped-up text complexity. Teacher guides would have to pose “text-dependent” questions, which drive students back into their reading for answers, rather than let them simply share their personal feelings about it. And reviewers would want to see writing across the curriculum, as well as rich performance tasks.

“They had to offer the components the common core offers,” said Shana Rafalski, the district’s director of elementary curriculum and instruction.

“Our rubric [of requirements] was very tight, and numbers don’t lie,” added Mr. Fritz. “We knew where some [vendors] were weak.”

Meaning of ‘Aligned’

Teams of district teachers spent several days alongside the central-office review team, poring over vendors’ materials and listening to their presentations. In the end, “there was no one perfect product,” said Ms. Rafalski.

Choosing among the top three vendors was a “close call,” said Mr. Fritz, but Houghton Mifflin’s products stood out for being a stronger reflection of the common core and for having a better digital component and better interventions for students with weak skills, he said.

Maggie H. DeMont, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s senior vice president of product management and strategy, said the materials Florida approved for its districts disprove the claim of some educators and analysts that many publishers’ materials are only barely tweaked versions of their pre-common-core products. Publishers created “companion” materials for the new standards in the first couple of years, she said, but by now, have had time to “build from the bottom up” for the common core.

“We do submit our materials to curriculum experts in a state like Florida, and we have been given the green light that they’re approved and do meet the standards,” she said.

Even with the materials chosen, however, there is still much work to be done as Orange County makes a fundamental shift in the role textbooks play in the classroom. That’s taking a lot of time and professional development, Mr. Jara said.

“We’re trying to move away from just turning pages in the textbook and having that be the curriculum,” he said. “I’m not telling you we’re there yet, but it’s the goal.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt provided several training sessions for teachers and coaches, Mr. Jara said. During the year, Orange County’s four math and English/language arts coaches are working with teachers in its 122 elementary schools to help them get comfortable with using Go Math! and Journeys in creative ways in their classrooms, he said.

District leaders rewrote their scope-and-sequence documents, quarterly listings of the standards that need to be taught at each grade level. They rebuilt their content maps, which lay out instructional units of several days to several weeks in length and are organized around “essential questions.” The new textbooks are listed as one—but not the only one—of the resources teachers can use.

A collection of student essays is displayed on the wall of Ms. Yepez’s classroom.

A 3rd grade unit, for instance, focuses on helping students decode text and use text features to understand what they’re reading. It lists learning goals, such as being able to write words with -ness, -able and -less suffixes, and being able to locate text features like sidebars and diagrams. It describes skills students should be able to show at, above, and below grade level, and explains common misunderstandings students might have about the material.

Leona Jacobsen, a middle school reading teacher who served on the review committee for grades 6-12, said she is glad her elementary-level colleagues have new materials and she is looking forward to trying the secondary-level ones once they’re rolled out.

“It’s good to have new textbooks, but what matters is what the teachers do with them,” she said. “We’re the ones who come up with the strategies and the creativity to get the students where they need to go.”

For opponents of the common standards, however, the district’s entire thrust is worrisome, since it flows from academic expectations they disapprove of.

Cindy Hamilton, an Orange County schools parent and an activist with Opt Out Orlando, which wants to eliminate high-stakes standardized testing, argues that the standards impose a uniformity of thinking on students.

“When all those publishers produced those books with the common-core logos all over them, it makes it hard for the state to purchase anything but common-core curriculum,” said Ms. Hamilton. “You’re not going to write any curriculum I’m going to want my kids to participate in if we are measuring it to these standards.”

Different Journey

The experience of district leaders in Long Beach, Calif., was distinctly different from that of their colleagues in Florida.

It wasn’t just that the district couldn’t afford a new curriculum adoption, which carries a $10 million to $12 million price tag per subject, said Pamela Seki, Long Beach’s director of curriculum, instruction, and professional development. When the 85,000-student district explored the marketplace about a year and half ago, it came away disenchanted.

“We didn’t see that the field was producing the types of materials that we wanted to purchase,” she said.

In English/language arts, Long Beach had been using a 2002 edition of McGraw Hill Education’s Open Court, along with a range of major publishers’ products across the K-12 spectrum, all vintage 2002 to 2004. In math, it had been using five- to 10-year-old textbooks from an assortment of big publishers.

The district’s needs lagged behind the state’s adoption cycle, though, and the trickle-down process is slow. California unveiled its list of approved K-8 materials for math in January, so Long Beach plans to convene its teacher teams and district experts to review and recommend materials from that list for use in the 2015-16 school year, Ms. Seki said. Since the state doesn’t plan to approve new English/language arts materials until November 2015, Long Beach doesn’t anticipate having new literacy texts in place until 2016-17, she said.

Given that schedule, the state of the marketplace, and its own slender budget, the district decided to repurpose its current textbooks and undertake an extensive curriculum-writing process around them. It began in the 2012-13 school year by conducting common-core training sessions for teams of four teachers from each school. Some of those teachers later joined a panel of 15 that became the “common-core development team,” writing curriculum alongside district content leaders and instructional coaches, Ms. Seki said.

By last fall, the district had overhauled its scope and sequence and created new units and course outlines. The units retained the same themes from the old textbooks, such as “the hero’s journey” in middle school, “so teachers would have something to hold onto” amid the shift to the common core, Ms. Seki said.

The new units list the common-core skills and knowledge that teachers must impart, sequenced across the school calendar. Some refer to passages from Open Court, but since that program doesn’t offer much nonfiction, Long Beach added its current science and social studies textbooks as additional references for literacy teachers, so they could draw on those to build students’ skills with “informational text.”

Students in Maria Yepez's 4th grade class take a break for recess. In response to the common-core standards, the Long Beach school district decided to repurpose its existing textbooks and undertake an extensive curriculum-writing process around them.

That takes teachers only partway to the common core, though. Those textbooks’ reading passages are “at a very low level,” said Lisa Worsham, the district’s English/language arts curriculum leader for K-5, who helped lead the rewriting project. So while the textbooks supply informational text, the curriculum team expanded the list of resources in its new instructional units to include texts that are more challenging, she said. The district also bought a set of books that introduces students in grades K-2 to nonfiction.

In the materials the district team wrote for teachers, the emphasis is on tying reading and writing together, as the common standards envision, and making sure that students learn to cite evidence from their readings to support their interpretations.

“Too many questions in our old texts were ‘right there’ questions,” Ms. Worsham said. “Kids didn’t even have to refer to the text to answer them.”

The new instructional units draw on a bank of free questions composed by the Basal Alignment Project, a national collaborative undertaking by teachers across the country to rewrite suggested questions from teachers’ guides to make them text-dependent. The units also include formative strategies to help teachers gauge how well students are learning as they go along.

Math units were reworked to dive more deeply into fewer concepts. To do that, some skills were dropped and some were moved to lower grades or moved earlier in the school year, Ms. Seki said. The math units involve more collaborative discussion and problem-solving and also require more writing, with an emphasis on showing an understanding of math concepts, she said. The district also bought a set of books that help teachers devise strategies to get children to talk about their reasoning.

A New Approach

The difference in the Long Beach district’s instructional units is dramatic. A six-week, English/language arts unit for 4th grade students from 2012-13 is a one-page, bare-bones outline of seven lessons in phonics, word analysis, and grammar.

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A 4th grade unit from 2013-14 runs 23 pages. With the theme of the “mystery of medicine,” it says “students will have academic, collaborative discussions about text” and “learn about the structure and elements of effective opinion writing” as they “learn about the field of medicine, exploring its societal and cultural impacts on modern health practices.” Long lists of suggested texts support three daylong performance tasks, and daily activities are designed to let students show what they know. The common standards that need to be covered, and a suggested sequence for covering them, are included.

Getting that granular about instruction marks a huge change for Long Beach, where Ms. Worsham says the culture has been to “march through Open Court. They were religious about following it.”

District leaders felt that with the common core’s deep shifts in expectation and practice, it was time to make sure teachers were all pulling in the same direction, Ms. Seki said.

“There’s always that push and pull, that you might be telling your teachers too much,” she said. “But we felt this was very new and we were getting feedback from teachers that they needed and wanted this type of support.”

The units, which teachers must follow, have been coordinated with the teacher-observation protocols that principals use to watch their teachers, Ms. Seki said, although she noted that those observations are not used for evaluations this school year.

“This is about experimenting, informing our professional development,” she said.

It’s been a lot for teachers to take on, said Virginia Torres, the president of the Teachers Association of Long Beach, a 3,600-member affiliate of the National Education Association. In August, teachers wanted to see curriculum units for the entire year, and they weren’t all available yet, she said. “I got phone calls. It made some of my teachers uneasy.”

Some teachers have complained that the pacing guides don’t allot enough time for some topics, she said, but overall, the new materials are getting good reviews.

Maria Yepez, who teaches 4th grade at John Muir Academy, is finding the new materials helpful without being too intrusive on her judgment. Still, change comes slowly. At a late February meeting of her grade-level team, she and her fellow teachers were struggling with lesson plans in this less-scripted era.

“My colleagues keep asking if they are doing the right thing,” Ms. Yepez said, “and our principal keeps telling us, ‘You have the flexibility. You are doing the right thing.’ ”

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 www.hewlett.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2014 edition of Education Week as Two Districts, Two Tacks on Curriculum


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