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Front-End Alignment: New Curriculum Tools for Common Core State Standards

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March 05, 2015 10:00 am

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Two new reports have provided evidence to confirm what many teachers have suspected: most curriculum materials, at least in elementary and middle school mathematics, do not match the expectations in the Common Core State Standards. One analysis, by a new organization, EdReports, found that only one of twenty textbook series studied are aligned to the Standards. The other, by William Schmidt, the director of the Center for the Study of Curriculum at Michigan State University, found that none of the 34 textbook series studied covered 100 percent of the grade-level standards in the Common Core.

The issue is a critical one. Despite the charges of critics, the Common Core is not a curriculum. It outlines the learning that students need to demonstrate at the end of each grade level. How teachers guide students to those outcomes is the curriculum. Individual teachers, schools, and districts retain their authority to determine the curriculum that is best for their students. So the curriculum that teachers and schools develop is crucial to the success of the Common Core Standards.

The materials that commercial publishers (for-profit and non-profit) provide are important tools for supporting curriculum. However, as good teachers have always known, a textbook is just that—a tool for curriculum, not the curriculum itself. It offers a structure and sample lessons, along with assessments and supporting materials, but teachers have always added to textbooks and omitted parts that were not relevant to them or their students.

Nevertheless, the headline findings of the two new reports are concerning. If the textbooks do not match the Standards, then teachers might not be teaching all that the Standards expect students to learn, and may be teaching things that are extraneous.

But a look below the surface of the two reports offers a helpful finding. The reports do not just give the textbooks a thumbs up or a thumbs down; rather, they provide detailed information about the extent to which the books match Standards and where they do not. In that way, these reports are invaluable tools to help teachers and curriculum specialists understand how to supplement their materials with additional materials that will ensure that their curriculum leads students to the Standards.

In the case of EdReports, the organization’s web site provides an in-depth description of the findings, along with publishers’ comments. Teachers and curriculum specialists can use these to understand what the ratings mean and what they can do to make necessary adjustments.

Schmidt, meanwhile, has created a web-based tool, called the Textbook Navigator/Journal, which makes that process easier. Using the Navigator, a third grade teacher, say, can enter the name of the textbook she is using and see which topics she needs supplemental materials for, and where to find them. In some cases, these supplementary materials might be in the fourth grade version of the textbook. In other cases, the Navigator points teachers to open-source materials they can use.

In the long run, these reports can also lead to stronger materials. Publishers can use this information in making revisions to their textbooks. And for the publishers that offer their materials in digital form (most of them), these revisions can happen quickly.

Advocates of the Common Core State Standards have insisted from the outset that the standards themselves would not transform instruction and lead to better student outcomes. Curriculum is a vital piece of the puzzle. With the new reports from EdReports and Schmidt and his center, schools are closer to filling in that piece.

Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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