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Feature                                                  Pages 32-35

 

Curricula for the Common Core

How does your school district find materials to meet the new instructional demands?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

If I were a superintendent today trying to make high-stakes decisions about Common Core-aligned curricula, I’m afraid I might feel like the narrator in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us … .”

Amid all the enthusiasm about a new world of curricular options represented by the convergence of common standards and technology is the reality there’s an awful lot of noise out there. One has only to walk through the exhibit halls at any education conference or glance at the pages of any instructional materials catalog to experience one’s own “winter of despair.” How do you sort through the claims about CCSS alignment or fidelity? And what of the many bells and whistles do you really need?

One of the more perplexing decisions facing school system leaders is how much curriculum material to produce in-house (from scratch) and how much to purchase off the shelf. I’m a huge fan of the powerful professional development teachers can experience through curriculum-creation exercises. But as one who has managed a major curriculum-writing effort involving more than 100 of the most talented mathematicians and teachers one could hope to find, working night and day for two years to create a comprehensive K-12 curriculum based on the Common Core State Standards, I’d suggest there’s an equally powerful opportunity that won’t be quite as costly in terms of teacher burnout. More on this later.

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Scott Baldridge, lead mathematician and creator of Eureka Math, addresses secondary school administrators at a seminar in Albany, N.Y. 

Worthwhile Content
Perhaps the most exciting side benefit of the Common Core State Standards is that this single set of standards offers the opportunity for a new breed of nontraditional curriculum sources — nimble nonprofit organizations that employ smart, innovative curriculum writers — to bring the fruits of their labors to a broad marketplace. Previously, only the big publishing companies could afford to create curricula that were customized to the standards in each and every state. But now, scores of flexible, smarter, mission-driven organizations are producing great content, thereby giving schools and districts many, many more options. In fact, there are some amazing curriculum options out there now, certainly more than ever before the CCSS.

But with everyone claiming to be “CCSS-aligned,” how do we separate the strong from the weak — those that are truly CCSS-based and those that aren’t? Fortunately, because the stakes are so high, a number of well-regarded organizations have begun thoughtful work in this area.

Reliable tools that evaluate CCSS alignment now exist. I recommend consulting the Toolkit for Evaluating Alignment of Instructional and Assessment Materials to the Common Core State Standards, developed by Achieve, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Student Achievement Partners (the authors of the CCSS). Deeply rooted in the standards and the publishers’ criteria (seminally important resources for anyone serious about this work), the toolkit contains different instruments currently being used to evaluate materials and to showcase exemplary curriculum.

The Louisiana Department of Education is using one of these tools to review and rate curricula. Our organization’s Eureka Math curricula is fortunate to have received a Tier I rating by the state agency. And both Achieve and Student Achievement Partners have posted Eureka Math modules as exemplars on their websites, using one of the other tools making up the EQuIP Rubric tool-kit (formerly known as the Tri-State Rubric) as their guide.

Favorable Qualities
So why did Eureka Math and other curricula such as Core Knowledge get so favorably reviewed? What is it about these curricula that sets them apart? I believe it comes down to four things:

  • The instructional shifts, articulated by the authors of the standards, are woven into every single page of the materials.
  • The knowledge contained in the curricula is presented in a logical sequence.
  • The goal of the curriculum is the same as that of the standards — to provide students with a deep, conceptual understanding (not mere procedural literacy) of the subject.
  • The curriculum rewards careful study by providing a platform for a profoundly beneficial professional development experience.

The Common Core State Standards are a breakthrough for standards-based practice not just because of what’s identified as the expectations for mastery at each grade but also because the authors were so clear about what it was going to take to achieve them. Guidance was given (in the standards and other related documents) about everything from increasing the use of informational text, the need for all students to be working with grade-level texts, the fact that not all texts can stand up to close reading, the understanding that there’s a coherent progression in mathematics that a sound curriculum should follow, an acknowledgment that both conceptual mathematical understanding and procedural fluency are important, and an acknowledgment that rigor does not exist if students are not able to apply their math knowledge to real-world problems.

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Curricula that ignore these deeply important design features will not pass the muster with the new rating systems.

The most distinguishing feature of an exemplary curriculum is that it not only stands up to study but that it invites it. I earlier indicated my ambivalence about sacrificing the professional development opportunities inherent in curriculum development because of the reality of how difficult and time-consuming it is.

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Lynne Munson leads a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit providing content-rich programs that build on the Common Core State Standards.

But what if instead of writing curricula, those same teachers were given the opportunity to study a juried, exemplary curriculum? What if that curriculum included sample student dialogue and text-dependent questions that supported the scaffolding of grade-level texts and invited professional collaboration and discussion? What if all the hard work of standards-alignment, embedding of instructional shifts, decisions about content sequencing and building in opportunities (in the case of mathematics) for applying the mathematical practices were all done and presented in a way that would engage both teacher and student?

Seize Opportunities
While I don’t envy school district leaders facing the myriad decisions the Common Core State Standards present in a time of tight budgets, I do believe the strength of the standards and the high quality of the work that is taking place in the field are cause for hope. Teachers are embracing the standards because they make sense. They want the best for their students, and, in many cases, they are learning for the first time what standards-based instruction really means.

Under the Common Core State Standards, teachers also are enjoying the opportunity to teach real content again — great poetry and literature instead of leveled readers, deep understanding of math topics rather than merely memorizing a process. If I were a superintendent today, I’d give my teachers every opportunity to learn what CCSS-based instruction means — and to do so from masters, not by asking them to become masters themselves overnight.

Capitalize on the resources out there and study the good work that’s available. There will be more and more of it every day. n

Lynne Munson is president and executive director of Common Core in Washington, D.C. E-mail: lynne@commoncore.org. Twitter: @common_core. Common Core’s deputy director, Barbara Davidson, contributed to this article.

 

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