Blog: The Educated Reporter

Is Common Core a Recipe for National Curriculum? Survey Says ‘No’

Every time a new Common Core poll is released, a lot of people rush to find out what’s the state of public opinion on the standards. Or maybe to find out if teachers like the standards more or less than last year.

One recent survey, however, didn’t even pose the “popularity” question. Instead, it focused on wonky-sounding topics: “Curriculum and professional development.” But stay with me for a moment. This stuff matters — a lot.

A key finding offers a reality check to those who say the standards for math and English will lead to a national curriculum. In four out of five districts surveyed that are implementing the Common Core, instructional materials aligned with the standards are being developed locally, often by teachers or the district itself, respondents said.

“[M]any districts are taking a ‘localized’ approach to developing curriculum aligned to the [standards],” notes the survey report, released last month by the Center on Education Policy.

For an excellent overview of this report, plus another survey issued in October by the Center on Education Policy, check out this post by Education Week reporter Catherine Gewertz for the Curriculum Matters blog.

Of course, developing or identifying good instructional materials that are faithful to the standards can be pretty time-consuming. (And some experts question how well-suited many teachers are to the task.) In all, 45 percent of the districts CEP surveyed said developing or identifying such materials was a “major challenge”; another 45 percent called it a “minor challenge.”

The report breaks down the sources of instructional materials into three categories: districts, state agencies, and for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

Here’s a rundown of district sources of curricular materials.

Meanwhile, 43 percent of districts surveyed reported drawing on math materials developed by the state education agency, and 40 percent for English/language arts. What I find striking, however is, that a minority of districts turned to for-profit companies (presumably educational publishers) for their materials. Here’s the chart:

For those trying to figure out what implementation at the local level looks like, it’s worth asking local districts, principals, and individual teachers what materials (including textbooks) they are using, where they got them, and whether those materials are much different from what they used before the Common Core. To take it even a step further, it’s worth asking how they decided that these materials were a good match for the Common Core. Beyond that, how — if at all — has their instruction changed? And does their district’s implementation encourage what they see as good teaching?

The CEP report also offers some compelling findings when it comes to preparing teachers for the new standards that are worth a closer look. One striking finding is that as of last school year, only one-third of districts surveyed said they had adequately prepared their teachers for standards.

‘Consumer Reports’ for Textbooks

To turn back to the question of instructional materials, this issue has gotten some attention over time, especially as some researchers (and many educators) have complained that they see poor alignment in textbooks despite all the “Common Core aligned” labels from educational publishers. (One publishing representative argues that these criticisms are often overblown.)

In any case, a recent Education Week story by reporter Liana Heitin takes a closer look at a new initiative that aims to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the alignment question. The new organization has assembled teams of educators to review and publicly report on alignment and quality. (The effort is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.)

For the story, following up on an earlier one, Heitin traveled up to New York City to observe a weekend training event for educators. A former teacher herself, Heitin’s lede highlights one of the challenges of this exercise: “Praise, for many teachers, comes more naturally than criticism.” (Note: I worked at Education Week until recently.)

Other journalists also have been exploring the issue of textbooks and instructional materials recently. In June, Cory Turner of NPR turned his attention to the topic in a report: The Common Core Curriculum Void. In that piece, he notes: “[N]ew standards as rigorous as the Core require lots of other changes — to textbooks, lesson plans, homework assignments. In short: curriculum and the materials needed to teach it. And that’s the problem. Right now, much of that stuff just isn’t ready.”

Also, in September, The Hechinger Report published an item on what it calls the “dizzying array of new education products that claim to be ‘Common Core aligned.’ ” Reporter Sarah Carr’s piece draws from her visit to the exhibit hall at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (At NCTM’s 2013 annual conference, I strolled a similar hall for this Education Week blog post: All Is Common-Core Aligned at Math Education Exhibit Hall, or Is It?

The Education Writers Association will explore the issue of instructional materials and many other questions related to implementation of the Common Core standards and tests at a trio of journalist-only regional seminars in coming months, the first in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 15.

Also, be sure to visit our Topics page on the Common Core for more background.