By Rachel Leifer and Denis Udall

Finding strong instructional materials is crucial to realizing the promise of the Common Core, and there are tools available to help educators identify them.

M-ELA1409_Leifer_21Ripley Central School in New York began Common Core implementation in 2010 and its teachers quickly realized that strong instructional materials didn’t exist. Lauren Ormsby, principal of the preK-6 school, asked her team to design curriculum units themselves. “They weren’t resistant; they really tried,” said Ormsby. But creating materials for just-released standards without exemplars or targeted professional development proved slow-going.

Then came optional, free curricular materials from the state’s EngageNY initiative. New York invested $28 million from its 2010 $700-million Race to the Top grant to develop new materials for English language arts (ELA) and math that districts — which make curriculum decisions in New York — could adopt, adapt, or decline to use.

These materials have become invaluable for Ormsby and her team, particularly in designing supplements and scaffolding for struggling students. A special education teacher by training, Ormsby finds EngageNY’s curricula more transparent, logical, and consistent than previous materials, making it easier to help all students.

For the first time in years, Ormsby said, test data show that nearly every student at Ripley is making substantial learning gains. The implication is clear: Finding strong instructional materials is crucial to realizing the promise of the Common Core.

Quality textbooks: essential but scarce

As Ripley’s experience highlights, the Common Core standards are not curricula. They do not prescribe textbooks or lessons. They simply set student learning goals. Although the standards have been adopted by states nationwide, in most states — including New York — districts select their own textbooks. And in most districts across the country local school leaders and teachers decide which materials to use.

These decisions will help determine whether Ripley’s academic success is an exception or becomes a trend. As former National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel (2013) emphasized, “The new standards, as strong as they are, will not bring us any closer to improved achievement or quality education [without implementation plans that include instructional materials and supports].” A 2012 Brookings Institution report concluded that the “choice of instructional materials can have an impact as large as or larger than the impact of teacher quality” (Chingos & Whitehurst, 2012). Moreover, William Schmidt and Leland Cogan (2009) found that access to good content correlates more strongly with student performance than socioeconomic status.

Unfortunately, most textbooks come up short. Schmidt reviewed roughly 700 math textbooks used by 60% of U.S. public schoolchildren and found that many claiming Common Core alignment were “page by page, paragraph by paragraph” the same as older versions (Herold & Molna, 2014), resulting in books that reflect the standards minimally, if at all. In some books, less than a quarter of the text matches the standards for the grade in question. “It’s hard to imagine how this could support instruction,” Schmidt said.

As a result, many educators are developing materials from scratch or cobbling together resources from the Internet, some of which are of questionable quality. This approach “wastes valuable time that should be spent evaluating student outcomes and planning next steps,” said Catherine Schmidt, an elementary training coordinator in Reno, Nev. Worse still, others are simply proceeding with textbooks developed before the Common Core — especially because budgets continue to lag prerecession levels (Leachman & Mai, 2014).

Schools need multiple high-quality choices to meet the needs of students and communities. Some might opt for materials from well-known for-profit publishers, which have begun creating Common Core-aligned products after a slow start. Others may choose nontraditional vendors, like the small, nonprofit publishers responding to this new market.

Overall, educators often are simultaneously overwhelmed by the number of options and underwhelmed by their quality. Luckily, there are tools to help educators spot quality and, in turn, encourage publishers to provide it.

Smarter consumers of Common Core materials

Common Core supporters realized early that they would need to prod the marketplace to respond to the standards. Working with educators, the nonprofit organization Student Achievement Partners developed the Publishers’ Criteria to illustrate that “the standards are not intended to be new names for old ways of doing business,” said managing partner Amy Briggs. However, research by Schmidt and others suggests that most materials have yet to meet the criteria.

As a result, standards’ supporters have shifted focus to consumers, developing two tools to help educators choose materials:

  • Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool (IMET). Created by Student Achievement Partners, the IMET is a set of rubrics designed to support educators and administrators tasked with developing, evaluating, or buying full-year or multi-year curricula. The rubrics distill the standards into non-negotiable criteria for alignment with tangible metrics. For example, the first criterion in the grade 3-12 ELA rubric is text complexity. One metric: The curriculum must provide “a collection of texts that build knowledge systematically through reading, writing, listening, and speaking.” Finally, the rubrics list “indicators of superior quality” to differentiate among materials meeting the non-negotiable criteria.
  • Educators Evaluating Quality Instructional Products (EQuIP). This rubric evaluates a lesson or unit on four dimensions: alignment to the depth of the standards, key shifts required by the standards, instructional supports, and assessments. Scores for each dimension classify materials as exemplar, exemplar if improved, revision needed, or not ready. National education organization Achieve, which helped develop the rubric, has trained over 15,000 teachers to use this rubric and assembled a peer-review panel of over 50 educators to apply EQuIP to submitted materials. Achieve posts results on its web site, www.achieve.org. (Student Achievement Partners and many tools, organizations, and efforts mentioned in this article have received funding from the Hewlett Foundation and Helmsley Charitable Trust.)

Rubrics like IMET and EQuIP deliver two significant benefits. First, they help reviewers consistently and efficiently evaluate materials — and, in the process, identify where they may need to create supplements until the market improves. Well-calibrated ratings — if backed up by purchasing decisions — can create smart demand among consumers that sends powerful messages to publishers.

Second, practitioners using the rubrics deepen their understanding of the Common Core. Amy Youngblood, an educational consultant in Missouri, called her participation on the EQuIP panel “one of the best professional development experiences . . . that I’ve ever had.” Terri King-Hunt, a specialist in gifted education in Atlanta, said EQuIP is a powerful tool in building professional development opportunities that have “significantly refined classroom instruction and bolstered teachers’ confidence” (Achieve, 2014).

Several pioneering states show how to make the most of these benefits. Louisiana, for instance, is rating materials and helping others navigate the marketplace, while New York is populating the market with several well-regarded options, such as math units from Common Core, Inc. Efforts like these can spur the innovation and competition leaders need to choose materials with confidence.

Louisiana refuses to purchase

In late 2012, the Louisiana Department of Education was due to complete its once-every-seven-year textbook recommendations for math and ELA. State Superintendent John White, who had been appointed less than a year earlier, faced a tough call: No available textbooks seemed sufficiently aligned with Common Core to warrant a recommendation. Should the state recommend faulty curricula or admit that nothing sufficed, leaving teachers without a clear path forward in a critical transition year?

“Our team said to itself, ‘How can we in good conscience make a recommendation when it would be entirely at odds with the standards that we’re moving toward?’” White recalled. Louisiana rejected every option, sending a message that the state would not compromise on quality and alignment. “We definitely were not going to put a stamp on something just because we had to keep things moving,” said Rebecca Kockler, chief of staff of the department’s content office.

White cast this result as disappointing but not surprising. “There is no logical reason to expect a publisher to be ready for an assessment that is two years from being completed,” he said at the time (Sawchuk, 2012). But the decision created a conundrum for educators. Amy Deslattes, an instructional coach from Lafayette, recalls how “teaching these higher standards with subpar materials made everything that much harder.”

Soon after, White’s team began an intensive review of new materials. It selected 60 teacher leaders from a pool of educators nominated by their schools to participate in working groups, including one devoted to reviewing materials with an adapted version of IMET. The department publishes detailed results on its web site.

Louisiana has rated only one curriculum each in math and ELA as top-quality, both from nontraditional publishers contributing to EngageNY: Common Core Inc.’s Eureka Math and Core Knowledge’s Skills Strand ELA curriculum for grades K-3. This level of rigor led the Thomas B. Fordham Institute to call the state the “new sheriff in town” on Common Core curricula. It praised Louisiana as “the first to call out — clearly and unambiguously — publishers whose alignment claims do not match the reality of the material they offer” (Porter-Magee, 2014).

The group’s goal was not just to name and shame; teachers needed usable materials and needed them quickly. As Kockler explained, “We thought about what we want in teachers’ hands even if it’s not perfect.” The group, she said, also wanted to provide guidance on remedying weaknesses in the materials. Therefore, it divides materials into three tiers. Tier 1 materials meet all the key criteria in the state’s rubric, while Tier 3 materials lack crucial requirements. Tier 2 materials, which include offerings from large, for-profit publishers and smaller nonprofits, could be exemplary with specific improvements. This nuance helps schools using Tier 2 curricula find or create targeted supplements.

White believes his state’s review has nationwide implications. He feels that the close relationships between publishers and purchasers can undermine good decision making. “It strikes me that they are entirely against the market principles that have made education reform successful in Louisiana,” White said. “If you are a good government reformer, you should care that some publishers have sat out this shift because they can just rely on their salespeople’s relationships [with state and district purchasers].”

Other states have pursued similar paths with powerful results. Tennessee, for example, engaged teachers and publishers in productive conversations to improve materials. Emily Barton, the assistant commissioner of curriculum and instruction who leads the state’s review, recognized that publishers “were not getting clear and consistent feedback on why their product does not align with what’s needed.” Her team applies a two-stage process: Publishers receive feedback and then have time to make revisions before resubmitting for a final, public review.

In both cases, the focus is on students. “I have no problem saying who’s doing well and who’s not,” White said, “because every day our students and educators are paying the price [for poorly aligned materials].” Thanks to his team, White noted, “publishers can now be judged transparently.”

New York’s materials challenge the textbook industry

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the Ripley Central School story is that its experience with

EngageNY’s materials is far from an outlier. Take School #4 in Dunkirk, N.Y., where English is a second language for 15% of students (roughly twice the state average, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics). The school, which has struggled recently, has begun a dramatic turnaround that Principal Kimberlee Texter attributes in large part to EngageNY. “I have boxes and boxes of [previously purchased materials] that I’m hoping the publisher will buy back,” she reported.

Superintendent Charles Russo of East Moriches Union Free School District on Long Island relates a similar experience. “We spent several years trying to wrap our arms around the standards,” he said. When the EngageNY materials became available, “We said, finally, ‘Now we get it!’ It was an aha moment.”

This enthusiasm crosses state lines. Free and open-license, the materials have proven extremely popular nationwide. As of July 2014, they had been downloaded more than 7.5 million times, almost a quarter by out-of-state users. Mike Cohen, Achieve’s president, has dubbed EngageNY “Engage America.”

Though few states and districts have $28 million in Race to the Top funding to spend developing new curriculum, New York’s effort holds lessons for reviews like those in Louisiana and Tennessee, as well as for nontraditional publishers looking to take advantage of new opportunities (among the EngageNY vendors are nonprofits such as Expeditionary Learning and Common Core Inc.).

Curriculum experts and the materials’ users cite three factors in EngageNY’s success. First, the authors and reviewers were meticulous about meeting the state’s priorities for alignment. Kate Gerson of the Regents Research Fund, a nonprofit group that, in partnership with the state’s education department, built and populated the EngageNY web site, says she and her team “have so metabolized the EQuIP rubrics that we don’t have to reference them constantly anymore.”

Second, New York provided training for educators and other professionals in reviewing and using the materials. In the past three years, the state convened over 4,000 educators to explore and refine the materials. Gerson said she can “see teachers changing their beliefs about what’s possible for kids.”

Third, the materials facilitate adaptation rather than mandating scripts. Principal Salvador Fernandez of Intermediate School #52 in Manhattan, where teachers are developing new materials for the school’s predominantly English language learner population using EngageNY as an input, believes that adaptation is crucial. “You can’t just take stuff off a web site,” he said. “This work needs to be ongoing.”

Students across the country are already benefiting from these efforts. As Principal Kimberlee Texter of School #4 in Dunkirk, N.Y., said, “When you’re scrambling to gather nonaligned materials to make a unit, you’re focusing on the materials. But when you can focus on the instruction and differentiation, you can really meet students’ needs.”

Lessons learned from smart consumers

So, what will it take to generate and identify a range of high-quality, Common Core-aligned materials? Experiences so far suggest five key steps:

  1. Build on previous efforts and existing resources. Several early implementers have done heavy lifting that can guide others. Each state and district faces a unique context, but overlapping needs exist. Leaders should consider replicating successful processes used in states like Louisiana and Tennessee, including by incorporating IMET or EQuIP-like tools. If the field becomes more consistent and accurate in its assessments, publishers will be more likely to make necessary changes.
  2. Ensure educators are highly involved and well-trained. Educator participation is essential, but teaching experience alone usually is insufficient. Creating and reviewing materials requires specialized skills that take training and practice. Louisiana, Tennessee, and New York all trained their participants, and the EQuIP web site contains further background and e-learning opportunities. As we saw earlier, this training has broader benefits: Reviewing a curriculum closely with a rubric like EQuIP encourages users to engage with the standards in a way that can have lasting impact. Moreover, since many districts now have identical standards, they can pool resources to lighten the training and reviewing burden on each district.
  3. Choose non-negotiable criteria to eliminate unacceptable options quickly. These criteria likely vary by context. However, it is generally best to consider certain criteria as non-negotiable if the costs of fixing a textbook to meet these criteria is prohibitive. For example, the first criterion in the IMET math rubric mandates that curricula focus on the major topics in each grade. Making up for this deficiency could be time-consuming and costly.
  4. Provide detailed feedback, not just thumbs up or down. Aim for three categories: strong materials, unsatisfactory materials that are salvageable with supplements, and those with too many deficiencies to use. Anyone discouraged by the lack of Tier 1 curricula in Louisiana, for instance, can take some solace in the number of Tier 2 options — materials that are acceptable with appropriate adaptation. States and districts also may need to invest in creating or recommending supplements, as Louisiana and Tennessee are doing. Tools like EQuIP can ensure these supplements align to the missing standards.
  5. Empower teachers to supplement and adapt curricula on their own. Many districts have limited resources to buy materials, while others have recently made a binding purchasing decision. As a result, even as states and districts work to identify the best materials for students, teachers can take advantage of resources to create replacement units and other supplementary materials without writing a completely new curriculum. Online libraries of vetted materials — such as EQuIP’s Exemplars, Illustrative Mathematics’ task bank, Student Achievement Partners, and OER Commons — can enhance existing textbooks and guide the creation of new materials.

Conclusion

Teachers and textbooks will be crucial to student success in meeting the new standards. With the right materials and a sound approach, teachers can spend more time focusing on how they teach, not what they teach. Students will be the biggest beneficiaries, said Dunkirk Principal Texter. “I’m watching my students [working with the new materials],” she said, “and I know they’re going to be so much more successful.”

REFERENCES

Achieve. (2014). Integrating EQuIP into your state’s Common Core State Standards implementation strategy (webinar). www.achieve.org/meetings-webinars

Chingos, M. & Whitehurst, G. (2012). Choosing blindly: Instructional materials, teacher effectiveness, and the Common Core. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Herold, B. & Molna, M. (2014, March 3). Research questions Common Core claims by publishers. Education Week. www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/03/05/23textbooks_ep.h33.html

Leachman, M. & Mai, C. (2014, May 20). Most states funding schools less than before the recession. www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=4011

Porter-Magee, K. (2014, March 19). There’s a new sheriff in town: Louisiana judges Common Core alignment. http://edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/common-core-watch/there%E2%80%99s-a-new-sheriff-in-town-louisiana-judges

Sawchuk, S. (2012, November 29). Citing lack of Common Core alignment, Louisiana poised to delay textbook adoption. Education Week. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2012/11/citing_lack_of_common-core_ali.html?cmp=ENL-CM-NEWS2

Schmidt, W.S. & Cogan, L.S. (2009, November). The myth of equal content. Educational Leadership, 67 (3), 44-47.

VanRoekel, D. (2013, May 7). Common Core State Standards: Get it right. Huffington Post. www.huffingtonpost.com/dennis-van-roekel/common-core-state-standards_b_3231085.html

RACHEL LEIFER (rnorman@helmsleytrust.org) is a program officer for the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s Education Program, New York, N.Y. DENIS UDALL (dudall@hewlett.org) is a program officer in the Hewlett Foundation’s Education Program, Menlo Park, Calif.

Originally published in the September 2014 Phi Delta Kappan, 96 (1), 21-27.

Download a PDF of this article.