NPR Ed
10:30 am
Tue June 3, 2014

The Common Core Curriculum Void

Originally published on Thu June 5, 2014 6:29 am

Right now, America's schools are in a sprint. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core State Standards. That means new learning benchmarks for the vast majority of the nation's young students — millions of kids from kindergarten through high school. And, for many of them, the Core Standards will feel tougher than what they're used to. Because they are tougher.

It's a seismic shift in education meant to better prepare kids for college, career and the global economy. But new 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.

Before we get further into the problem, let's be clear: The Common Core is a set of standards, not curriculum. There's a difference. Standards are goals we set for kids. For example, one Common Core math standard says fifth-graders should be able to use place value understanding to round decimals to any place.

Curriculum is what teachers do every day in the classroom to achieve that goal. Again, different. But, if you change standards, you've got to change curriculum too. And that's the challenge right now with the Common Core. Because most states have made big changes to their standards, forcing districts and schools to do the same to their curricula.

"There's been no time in American history where this number of school districts wanted to swap out all their reading and math materials at all grades for new things," says Jay Diskey, with the Association of American Publishers.

This race to update and upgrade all that stuff ends next year, when those millions of kids take their first Common Core test — a test that, for some, will come with consequences.

"We can no longer just pick something up and hand it to teachers and say, 'Go with it,' " says Kate Gerson, a senior fellow with the USNY Regents Research Fund.

How did we get here? If states adopted the Core in 2010, why do some teachers still not have good teaching materials?

A Quick History Lesson

Back then, as states rushed to adopt, educational publishers — big and small, established and new — saw an opportunity.

"The marketplace was flooded," says Alissa Peltzman at Achieve, which helped develop the Core Standards. She says districts and schools were inundated with sample products — some new, some revised, much of it claiming to be in sync with the new standards.

"If you put yourself in the place of an educator, a district administrator, someone responsible for making decisions about material," Peltzman says, "it's really hard to step back and know which materials really are high quality, and which materials are going to lead to increases in student achievement."

"I think anybody you talk to will say it was a disgrace," says Amber Northern, vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that supports the Common Core. "Some of this stuff is kind of snake-oil salesman, you know? Developing good materials takes time, and I don't think they trusted when these materials came out that they were Common Core-aligned despite the sticker."

Despite The Sticker

At the center of this story is a little gold sticker or stamp — or so it was described to me by administrators, educators and experts: Peltzman, Gerson, Northern, half a dozen teachers in Michigan, an associate state superintendent of schools in West Virginia — the list goes on. They all tell the same story. When publishers tried to cash in on the Core, many of their books had these stickers on them. Usually gold, with the words "Common Core" or "CCSS" in big letters. The message to schools and to teachers was clear: This will help you teach the Core. Here's the problem, says Amber Northern:

"That sticker appeared quickly, right after the adoption. There's no way they could have gone back and actually re-evaluated, re-assessed their materials, and truly made a good-faith effort to align those materials that quickly. It just was simply impossible."

How bad were they?

The Storage Room

One answer lies in a storage room on the campus of Michigan State University, in the College of Education's Erickson Hall. It's a little dark, like a bear's cave — only, instead of bones everywhere, there are math books, on shelves, tables and rising from the floor like stalagmites. This is the domain of professor William Schmidt. He runs Michigan State's Center for the Study of Curriculum. And his team has analyzed some 700 math books — many with that gold seal — to see just how well they line up with the Common Core Standards.

Schmidt says he'll often review a book that's chock-full of material that has nothing to do with the Core: "Maybe as much as half or more of the book. And so, in effect, if [teachers] follow the book from page one to page whatever, they're going to be led astray, and they're not going to cover the central material."

Of the many books his team reviewed, Schmidt says, "virtually none of them" line up "straight on to the Common Core."

Professor Schmidt says his team has reviewed several brand new textbooks, and they're much better. But the landscape, in general, is still pretty bad.

Blaming The Core

As messy as this sounds, it's easy to blame the Core. But that's like a hitter in baseball blaming his bat when he strikes out. This isn't about the standards. It's about how they've been implemented. Some critics compare it to the botched rollout of Obamacare, hoping "ObamaCORE" hurts the president and Democrats in the coming midterm elections.

But there's one problem with that argument, and it's in the name itself: the Common Core State Standards. They aren't federal. Washington's not on the hook here. States are. Governors signed on — Democrats and Republicans alike — because they saw something necessary and ambitious. And implementing ambitious is never easy.

"We should not be surprised that this is hard, but that doesn't mean we should walk away from it," says Mary Cullinane, the chief content officer for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt — one of the top educational publishers.

She disagrees that publishers were just trying to cash in on the Core. The truth is more complicated. The problem, Cullinane insists, is that building good textbooks takes time.

"This isn't like building a song for 99 cents and then you put it out there, and if somebody doesn't like it they just don't listen to it anymore," she says. "Teachers are being held accountable. Kids are being held accountable. Communities are being held accountable."

This time next year, kids across the country will take a new generation of standardized test. And Cullinane is right: In some cases, students, teachers and schools will be judged on the results.

These tests — everyone promises — will be aligned to the Common Core. The same cannot be said for the tools teachers and kids have to prepare for them.

This story is Part One of a two-part series on Common Core implementation. In Part Two: how teachers, districts and states are working together to build new Common Core classroom materials from the ground up.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

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America's school boards are sprinting. Forty-four states in the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core State Standards. And that means new learning benchmarks for the vast majority of the nation's young students - millions of kids from kindergarten through high school.

For many, the Core will feel tougher than what they're used to. It's a shift in education meant to better prepare kids for college and careers and the global economy. But new standards require lots of other changes to textbooks, to lesson plans, to homework assignments. And curriculum and materials are needed to teach that. Here's the problem - much of it just isn't ready. NPR's Cory Turner explains.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: First, let me be clear. Standards are not curriculum. Standards are goals we set for kids. For example, one Common Core math standard says fifth graders should be able to use place value understanding to round decimals to any place.

Now, curriculum is what teachers do every day in the classroom to achieve that goal. They're different. But if you change standards, you've got to change curriculum, too. And that's the challenge right now with the Common Core.

JAY DISKEY: There's been no time in American history where this number of school districts wanted to swap out all their reading and math materials in all grades for new things.

TURNER: That's Jay Diskey with the Association of American Publishers. And this race to update and upgrade all of that stuff - it ends next year when all those millions of kids take their first Common Core test, a test with consequences. Kate Gerson is a senior fellow with the Region's Research Fund in New York.

KATE GERSON: We can no longer just pick something up and hand it to teachers and say go with it.

TURNER: So how did we get here? If states adopted the Core in 2010, why do some teachers still not have good teaching materials? Well, here's a quick history lesson. Back then, educational publishers, big and small, established and new, they saw an opportunity in the Core.

ALISSA PELTZMAN: The marketplace was flooded.

TURNER: That's Alissa Peltzman at Achieve, which helped develop the Core Standards. She says districts and schools were inundated with sample books - some new, some revised. Buy this, publishers said, often claiming it was aligned to the new standards.

PELTZMAN: If you put yourself in the place of an educator, a district administrator, someone responsible for making decisions about material, it's really hard to step back and know which materials really are high-quality and which materials are going to lead to increases in student achievement.

AMBER NORTHERN: I think anybody you'll talk to say it was a disgrace.

TURNER: Amber Northern is the Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that supports the Common Core.

NORTHERN: Some of this stuff is kind of snake oil salesman. You know, you - developing good materials takes time. And I don't think they trusted, when these materials came out, that there were Common Core aligned, despite the sticker.

TURNER: Despite the sticker. See, at the center of this story is a little gold sticker or stamp - or so it was described to me.

ROBERT HALL: Everything that I look at has a sticker on it that says aligned with the Common Core.

GERSON: That golden sticker does not necessarily represent real rigor.

PELTZMAN: There were shiny stickers being placed on materials saying these materials are high-quality and aligned. And it didn't take long to realize that that wasn't necessarily the case.

TURNER: Again, that was Alissa Peltzman at Achieve, Kate Gerson in New York and Robert Hall, Associate State Superintendent of Schools in West Virginia. They all tell the same story. When publishers tried to cash in on the Core, many of their books had these stickers on them, gold, often with the words Common Core in big letters.

The message to schools was this will help your teachers teach the Core. Here's the problem, says Amber Northern.

NORTHERN: That sticker appeared quickly- right? - after the adoption. So there's no way that they could have gone back and actually re-evaluated, re-assessed their materials and truly made a good faith effort to align those materials that quickly. It just was simply impossible.

TURNER: How bad were they?

So I'm standing in a resource slash storage room in Erickson Hall, which is the big Department of Education building on the campus of Michigan State University. I am 6 foot 5, and the shelves go above my head. And, on either side are shelves full of math textbooks.

I have a pen in my hand. This is how many books we're talking about - (sound of tapping) I'm running it across the spines. This is the domain of Professor William Schmidt. It's a little dark like a bear's cave. Only, instead of bones everywhere, there are math books on shelves, on tables, rising from the floor like stalagmites - from the floor all the way up.

And then, they go way up. I got to reach there. OK.

Schmidt runs Michigan State's Center for the Study of Curriculum. And his team has analyzed some 700 math textbooks, many with that gold stamp, to see just how well they line up with the Common Core standards. He says he'll often review a book that's chock full of material that has nothing to do with the Core.

WILLIAM SCHMIDT: Maybe as much as half or more of the book. And so in effect, if they follow the book from page one to page whatever, they're going to be led astray, and they're not going to cover the central material

TURNER: Of the 700-plus books that you reviewed for Core alignment, how many of them passed your test, shall we say?

SCHMIDT: If I were to say that they completely lineup - they're just straight on to the Common Core - virtually none of them.

TURNER: Professor Schmidt says his team has reviewed several brand new textbooks and they're much better. But the landscape in general? Still pretty bad. As messy as this sounds, it's easy to blame the Core. But that's like a hitter in baseball blaming his bat when he strikes out. This isn't about the standards. It's about how they've been implemented.

Some critics compare it to the botched rollout of Obamacare, hoping Obamacare hurts the president and Democrats in the coming midterms. But Common Core isn't a federal program. Washington's not on the hook here. States are. Most signed on, Democrats and Republicans alike, because they saw something necessary and ambitious. And implementing ambitious is never easy.

MARY CULLINANE: We should not be surprised that this is hard. But that doesn't mean we should walk away from it.

TURNER: Mary Cullinane is the chief content officer for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, one of the big educational publishers. She says the problem isn't that publishers were just looking to cash in. The problem is that building good textbooks takes time.

CULLINANE: This isn't like building a song for 99 cents and then you put it out there and if somebody doesn't like it, they just don't listen to it anymore. Teachers are being held accountable. Kids are being held accountable. Communities are being held accountable.

TURNER: This time next year, kids across the country will take a new generation of standardized tests. And in many cases, students, teachers and schools will be judged on the results. These tests, everyone promises, will be aligned to the Common Core. The same cannot be said for the tools teachers and kids have prepare for them. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Now, this afternoon on All Things Considered, Cory reports that teachers, schools and even some entire states are banding together to build their own classroom materials from scratch. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.