Will the Market Embrace Publishers’ Criteria for Math Standards?

By Erik W. Robelen — July 31, 2012 5 min read
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A big question with the set of “publishers’ criteria” recently issued for the Common Core State Standards in mathematics is how the market will respond.

To be clear, this is not some official instruction manual adopted by all 45 states (and the District of Columbia) that have embraced the common-core math standards. Rather, it’s guidance provided by the three lead writers of the math standards in collaboration with several national organizations that were given multiple opportunities to provide feedback. Those groups are: the National Governors Association, National Association of State Boards of Education, Council of Chief State School Officers, Council of the Great City Schools, and Achieve (a Washington-based nonprofit formed by governors and business leaders that managed the process of developing the common-core standards).

As I noted in a previous blog post, I’ve heard some complaints that the criteria should have been subject to public comment before publication, to ensure broad input and gain more widespread buy-in. Jason Zimba, a co-author of the criteria and one of the common core’s lead writers, told me that feedback from across the field will be reflected in an updated version of the document expected out early next year. (At that time, a set of criteria for high school also is expected.)

The new document, which covers grades K-8, makes clear that the intended audience is not simply educational publishers but also those who select and purchase instructional materials (and even those who provide professional development pegged to the common core).

“These criteria were developed from the perspective that publishers and purchasers are equally responsible for fixing the materials market,” the document says. “Publishers cannot deliver focus to buyers who only ever complain about what has been left out, yet never complain about what has crept in. More generally, publishers cannot invest in quality if the market doesn’t demand it of them nor reward them for producing it.”

As you might imagine, this nod to the role and responsibility of “purchasers” was welcomed by several representatives from the publishing industry I’ve heard from.

“Obviously, it provides guidance to content providers, but it also helps set expectations for states and districts,” said Jay Diskey, the executive director of the schools division at the American Association of Publishers, addressing “both sides of the market.”

Stewart Wood, the editorial chief for mathematics at Pearson, echoed this point.

“As a publisher, we respond to market demands. After years of building support for 50 different sets of state standards and literally thousands of district curriculum guides, we now have an opportunity to produce focused, coherent, and rigorous materials for the mass market.”

Diskey said the fact that the document has some high-profile endorsements is helping to get the attention of publishers.

“The groups signing on and endorsing it are key groups,” he said. “It seems to have some ... political heft behind it.”

One reason the document may get serious attention is the fact that more than 30 urban school districts, all members of the Council of the Great City Schools, recently signaled that they would only select materials that meet the criteria spelled out in the document, as well as a companion guide for English/language arts. That list includes the nation’s three most populous school districts, in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the council, called this an unprecedented collaboration made possible by having shared standards across states for the first time.

“We have never done anything like this before,” he said. “The fact that the common core is now in place in so many states, it allows the cities to jointly flex their buying muscles.”

He added: “We saw both the need for materials to be consistent with the common core and we understood what our role and potential power was in helping that along.”

Gary Martin, a professor of mathematics education at Auburn University, said he’s not convinced yet how far educational publishers are prepared to go in rethinking their textbooks and related materials to faithfully reflect the common core.

“How are the publishers really going to use this? Are they actually going to redo their materials in light of these materials or simply retrofit a bit?” he said. “I think people have to go back and stop shuffling pages and rethink what they’re doing.”

Brad Findell, the associate director of mathematics teacher education programs at Ohio State University, worries that the publishers’ criteria are sure to be misinterpreted at times, whether because of genuine misunderstanding or because of pressure on the bottom line.

“What will be interesting is how these criteria are interpreted and used over the next few months and years, as they will surely be misinterpreted and misused by both some publishers and some purchasers,” he said. “Effective use of these criteria will require knowing the standards deeply, and we are not there yet at any significant scale.”

He added: “Other misinterpretations are going to be business decisions by the publishers. We can’t do that. That’s going to cost us $450,000.”

Robert Calfee, a professor emeritus at Stanford University’s school of education, suggests that purchasers hold a great deal of responsibility through what they demand.

“Publishers spend a lot of time with [state] adoption committees, spend a lot of time talking to state groups, go to very large districts, all along the way. As they develop revisions or begin to develop a new series, they are just really plugged into their customers,” he said. “They have to be.”

Calfee said the criteria document is likely to get a lot of attention, since there doesn’t appear to be anything else quite like it available, but the document is not necessarily going to drive decisions.

“The publishers’ guide will be talked about because there is nothing else to be talked about right now,” he said. “Will it prove influential with publishers? Not until there is greater clarity with what is going to be on the tests and what the state [adoption] committees are going to pull out.”

He added that many publishers will also be cautious since a revised version of the publishers’ criteria is scheduled to come out next year.

Pearson’s Wood emphasized that a number of developments over time will influence the shape of instructional materials.

“I expect a series of events that will change expectations of common-core materials: these criteria, their final version in early 2013, assessment items released in the spring of 2013, actual tests released in 2014,” he said. “Each of these events will place new demands on common-core materials. Pearson will continue to revise and improve its common-core programs as consensus builds around what such changes should be.”

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