How well are you incorporating the Common Core into your curriculum? Does the standards present opportunities, challenges or both for student development? In Education Week, two districts find different ways to take on the common core:
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.
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.”
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If you have anything to share about how your school has adjusted to the Common Core, please feel free to email Media Specialist Tiffany Richards at Trichards@schoolsthatcan.org.