Curriculum materials a sticking point in Common Core implementation

November 18, 2015

Students at Westlake Middle School in Oakland work on scale ratios in their Common Core math class.

During the five years since California adopted the Common Core State Standards for mathematics and English language arts, the search for high-quality textbooks and curriculum materials has been a sticking point, in some cases a major one, in effectively and speedily implementing the new standards.

That’s according to leaders in several school districts where EdSource is tracking Common Core implementation. School districts are making progress in finding and selecting the right materials, but the complicated effort is still underway in these districts and many others across the state.

“Preparation and timing of available resources has been the most difficult aspect of this rollout,” said Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson when the state released scores from the Smarter Balanced tests, which were based on the Common Core standards and administered last spring. After going through a months-long process of piloting new materials with 350 teachers, Hanson said, “we’re only now using appropriate math materials.”

Hanson is not alone. In four of six districts being tracked by EdSource (Fresno, Elk Grove, Garden Grove and San Jose Unified) as they implement the Common Core, district leaders said that finding appropriate instructional materials has been a significant obstacle to teaching classes aligned with the new standards.

“The biggest challenge has been the lack of textbooks and materials,” said Gabriela Mafi, superintendent of Garden Grove Unified in Orange County.

The root of the problem, argued Phil Daro, a principal author of the Common Core math standards, is that “districts tried to switch to the Common Core before there were any books aligned with them.”

That, however, was not the fault of districts. The state adopted the Common Core in 2010, but the State Board of Education only approved a recommended list of K-8 math textbooks and materials in January 2014 – and only did so two weeks ago for K-8 materials in English language arts. During that five-year period, students took new Smarter Balanced tests aligned with the standards.

Textbook publishers were slow to come up with materials that were fully aligned to the Common Core standards. In many cases, materials that were purportedly aligned with them were just hastily updated versions of older materials.

“In some situations I think publishers have taken a sticker and put it on the old set of standards and called it a Common Core book,” said Superintendent Chris Hoffman of Elk Grove Unified near Sacramento, in an interview with EdSource  last spring.

By now, however, major textbook publishers have had time to develop materials that are more directly aligned to the Common Core standards. That is reflected in the fact that most of the materials on the state’s recommended lists for both English and math were produced by publishing giants like Pearson, Houghton Mifflin and McGraw-Hill.

Adding to the complexity of the  textbook adoption process, California is ceding more authority to districts to pick their own materials, as are several other states.  According to the American Association of Publishers, California is one of only 19 “adoption states” that “adopts” textbooks and instructional materials. But while State Board of Education still reviews and recommends materials for math and English in kindergarten through 8th grade, it doesn’t require districts to buy or use them.

As a result of the passage of AB 1246 in 2012, districts can choose their own materials for those grades, as long as they are aligned with the state’s academic content standards and involve teachers in the review process. Some other “adoption states” are moving in a similar direction, representing what an EdWeek report characterized as “a sea change in K-12 policy.”

At the high school level, California districts are free to adopt whatever curriculum materials they chose, as has always been the case. This is because the state constitution requires the State Board of Education to adopt instructional materials for grades K-8, but not for high school.

The challenges in finding appropriate textbooks and other instructional materials has affected districts’ abilities to implement the Common Core, according to some education leaders.

Garden Grove’s Mafi said her district chose not to introduce the Common Core ahead of what she described as “the state requirement” to implement the standards last yearin part because it didn’t have materials it needed to do so sooner. Mafi said the district also wanted more time to prepare teachers “and provide extensive professional development.”

The district “piloted” math textbooks from a list of materials recommended by the state for kindergarten through 8th grade from September 2014 through January 2015. The pilot consisted of teachers trying out the materials, then reviewing data as to their effectiveness, before recommending them to the district’s elected board of trustees for formal adoption.

Officials in other districts worried that the dearth of adequate materials affected classroom instruction – and added to the anxiety levels of teachers asked to take on yet another major reform. “Our biggest concern is that when teachers are frustrated and don’t have tools they need, they’re less effective,” said Jackie Zeller, San Jose Unified’s director of secondary curriculum, instruction and EL services in an interview earlier this year.

In many districts, teachers have been integrally involved in trying out new materials, adapting existing ones or creating their own, instead of waiting for the state to lead the way. They piloted textbooks and online resources, pored over existing materials to figure out which units were aligned to the new standards and collaborated with each other to discuss the best options to meet their students’ needs.

This represents a change from what often occurred under No Child Left Behind and other top-down reforms in which districts typically selected textbooks from state-adopted lists. These included materials like McGraw Hill’s Open Court Reading series, which laid out highly structured lesson plans, and which were very unpopular among many teachers who sought more creativity in their classrooms.

In Visalia Unified, the Common Core materials review process included setting up a large committee with teacher representatives from every school in the district. “This took many months and much discussion about the standards, the quality of the materials, and how to approach instruction,”  Superintendent Craig Wheaton said.  The materials his Central Valley district adopted, he said, “are designed to support teachers as they develop lessons. They are not meant to be all that they use.”

Discontent with curriculum materials emerged as a top issue among thousands of educators who attended the July 31 “Better Together” teachers summit held at 33 locations throughout the state. Kitty Dixon, senior vice president at the Santa Cruz-based New Teacher Center and one of the summit organizers, said many teachers who attended were frustrated by the lack of appropriate materials on the market – and consequently by the time and effort they spent pulling their own materials from the Internet.

Marci Gould, who teaches 4th grade at Buena Vista Elementary in Walnut Creek, said at the time her district had not yet adopted Common Core-aligned instructional materials. “My biggest concern is not having a set curriculum or text as a basis,” she said. “I spend a lot of personal time developing my own curriculum based off the Common Core standards.”

There are both pros and cons to these home-grown efforts. “Some of it is brilliant, some of it is goofy,” Daro said. But he said on the plus side these materials “will get better over time” and the process has had the benefit of deeply immersing more teachers both in mathematics and the Common Core standards to guide their instruction.

As districts sorted through materials that publishers claimed were aligned with the Common Core, some delayed adopting new materials and continued to use old textbooks.

“We’ve had to do some bridge work trying to use the existing texts with the new standards,” Elk Grove’s Hoffman said. “We made changes in mathematics this past year and did an English language arts adoption at the elementary level, so we’re still really early in this process of trying to put all these resources in place.”

Contrary to some other district leaders, Santa Ana Unified Superintendent Rick Miller said he was not overly concerned about the challenge of finding curriculum materials. In Miller’s opinion, more important than the materials is the quality of teaching going on in the classroom. “I think the primary instructional tool in the classroom is the teacher,” he said.

That view was similar to the opinion expressed by Aspire’s chief academic officer, Elise Darwish. “I’m pretty agnostic about materials,” she said. “I actually think it’s so much more about the teacher, the instruction and the assessments. I don’t want to say I don’t care about materials, but I think you can upgrade instruction, no matter what your materials.”

Ed Winchester, Santa Ana’s executive director of secondary curriculum and instruction, said the district initially decided in 2013 to refrain from adopting new mathematics materials. After spending a couple of months looking over what the market had to offer, he said, the district reviewers decided that those published materials were mostly “hastily adapted from…current programs.” “We just decided we were going to write a lot of our own curriculum and find materials that matched our needs,” he said.

Santa Ana ended up supplementing existing textbooks with four new, free online resources, which offer a range of support including downloadable K-12 lesson plans in mathematics and English language arts. These are: EngageNY, developed by New York’s Department of Education; materials from the Georgia Department of Education; and resources from the Silicon Valley Math Initiative and the Irvine Math Project.

This spring, Santa Ana will pilot Houghton Mifflin’s “Go Math” at seven elementary schools. At the same time, the district will continue to use open source and other digital materials.

For many districts, the state’s adoption of recommended lists for both the math and English language arts materials came too late to be useful – and left district staff members doing a lot of the heavy lifting themselves.

Hanson said Fresno Unified spent nearly $7.5 million on its K-8 math materials adoption and trained teachers last summer to implement the new instruction in 2015-16.

Adam Ebrahim, a literacy consultant with the Fresno County Office of Education, praised the way Fresno Unified found or created instructional materials. Teachers were allowed time to collaborate and search for resources that responded to their students’ needs, he said.

“If we want to really ramp up our classrooms, we have to empower teachers to design their own curriculum,” he said. “I understand the grumbling, but if teachers aren’t getting the time they need to do that, they should take it up in bargaining sessions.”

In theory at least, the process going forward for adopting math and English language arts textbooks should be easier, since the state has now adopted curriculum frameworks in both subjects, along with recommended lists of instructional materials. (The California Department of Education defines frameworks as “blueprints for implementing the content standards.”)

EdSource Photo

Common Core math textbook for 8th grade

But that does not mean the process for finding the right materials, and its outcome, is fully resolved. Concerns about the adequacy especially of math materials have been raised, among others,  by William Schmidt, who runs Michigan State University’s Center for the Study of Curriculum, and Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. EdReports, a national nonprofit organization, has also issued a fierce critique of textbooks claiming to be Common Core-aligned, although the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has strongly disputed its conclusions.

School districts are at various stages in trying out and implementing curriculum materials – some drawn from the state lists and some not.

In San Jose Unified, for example, teachers developed their own K-5 English language arts and math units with the support of WestEd, said Jason Willis, the district’s assistant superintendent of community engagement and accountability. The district is using two on-line programs to supplement the K-5 English language arts instruction and is supplementing its math instruction with materials created by TERC, a not-for-profit educational development organization.

The district’s middle schools piloted online English language arts instructional materials last year that were implemented this fall for intervention, long-term English learners and special needs students, Willis said. Middle school math teachers have been trying out College Board’s “Springboard” math curriculum which is on the state’s recommended list, and are  going to recommend to the school board that it be adopted for use going forward.  At the high school level Algebra 1, geometry and Algebra 2 classes have began using the “Springboard” curriculum as well. 

What impact this patchwork of curriculum materials will have on student performance and instruction is as yet unknown. But State Board of Education member Patricia Rucker, a former teacher who is a legislative advocate for the California Teachers Association, said she believes progress has been made. The state, she says, now has  high-quality math and English curriculum “frameworks,” as well as recommended materials to go with them.

At the state board’s most recent meeting in Sacramento  this month, she acknowledged that getting to this point has taken longer to accomplish than many teachers anticipated and that students were assessed on the Common Core standards before the curriculum was fully implemented. “We did a lot of that work out of order,” she said. “And we didn’t really take time to really appreciate the work that had to be done at each stage.”

Katherine Ellison contributed reporting for this story.


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