Society and Culture, Education

Can’t anything be called ‘Common Core Aligned?’

Dispatches from a nervous Common Core observer (part 3 of 10)
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

This is the third of a 10 part series, see post #2 here.

In order for students to be able to master the Common Core, teachers are going to need instructional materials — textbooks and supplementary resources like handouts, overheads/power point slides, worksheets, etc. — aligned to the standards. Seems simple enough. Given the fact that the Common Core creates a nationwide market for such goods, where in the past providers had to develop them on a state-by-state basis, this should be solved pretty easily, right?

Welllllllllllll… not so much.

A simple trip over to Amazon to search for “Common Core” yields over 32,000 results, the lion’s share of which are guides or instructional materials for teachers. Almost all say that they are “aligned to the Common Core.” But, what does that mean?

The most popular Common Core resource, Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement by Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins (et al) has been in the Amazon top 1,000 books every time I’ve checked it over the course of the last year. Thinking that it was indicative of the types of materials out there, I went looking for some more information on it. In doing so, I stumbled upon this blog post, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Common Core expert Kathleen Porter-Magee. In it, Porter-Magee refers to the book as:

“Part ideological co-opting of the Common Core (CCSS) and part defense of existing—and poorly aligned—materials produced by Heinemann, the book is the leading edge of an all-out effort to ensure that adoption of the new standards requires very few changes on the part of some of the leading voices—and biggest publishing houses—in education.”

Yikes, that is disheartening. Even the best-selling book on the topic might not be aligned to the Common Core. What about the other 31,999?

Pair that with the story of Louisiana’s Superintendent of Education, John White, whose department rejected every math and reading textbook that they reviewed because they were not aligned to the Common Core, and you’ve got a real problem on your hands.

As it turns out, pretty much anyone can slap a “Common Core Aligned” sticker onto a textbook, professional development module, or supplemental resource. It is incumbent on states, districts, and schools to wade through all of these, but given the enormous volume of resources out there, they’re drinking from a fire hose. Without some meaningful vetting process, all of the benefits of the nationwide market for new tools will be washed away in the flood of misaligned materials.

As USC professor Morgan Polikoff adroitly points out in his AEI paper The Common Core Standards and Teacher Quality Reform, instructional alignment is important, because if teachers aren’t teaching what is going to be on the test, when poor test results come back we can’t tell if it is because (a) the students were taught what they needed to know but didn’t learn it or (b) the students were not taught what they need to know. Each scenario requires a vastly different response. What’s troubling is that as new materials are rolled out, it might take several years to know if the “dip” in proficiency scores that is allegedly coming is due to tests being harder or textbooks and materials not covering Common Core material adequately.

Has anyone (state, district, school, non-profit) created a way to vet these materials that folks can use to wade through all of this stuff? Are people using it? If they have and my worries are unfounded, let me know in the comments below or over on twitter (I’m @mq_mcshane).

*Also, as was pointed out to me yesterday, I incorrectly named the Governor of Michigan “Tom Snyder.” No, the old Late Late Show host is not back from the dead to run the Great Lakes State. It should have read Rick Snyder. My apologies.

8 thoughts on “Can’t anything be called ‘Common Core Aligned?’

  1. I’ve skimmed over this and the previous two posts as they appear in my feed. One overwhelming – and at this point mildly humorous question on all this – what exactly is a “Common Core” and what is the essence of the controversy.

    Admittedly, I mainly subscribe for Mark and Jim’s economic posts, but this seemed interesting, if only I could tell what it was all about.

    • Hey Karl, thanks for wandering over.

      The Common Core standards are a set of math and English language arts standards that 45 states have agreed to align their instruction to.

      The essence of the controversy is two-fold. First, there is debate over having one set of standards for (almost) every state in America. Those for the prospect think that it will prevent states from dumbing down their curricula and promote a national market for education resources. Those opposed think that it might limit innovation in the states or, in its own way, lead to a national dumbing down of standards. Second, and where I come in, is that reorienting the nation’s K-12 education system to a new set of standards is an enormous undertaking, and one whose implementation challenges loom large. We’re already trying to do a whole bunch of other stuff to improve the US education system, and its not clear if these new standards will complement or conflict with those efforts.

      Hope that helps,

  2. I think your worries are very founded. What makes this issue especially complicated is that the materials teachers have traditionally used (e.g., textbooks) no longer even apply in many places. Instead, districts or individuals teachers are increasingly cobbling together materials from all over the web. While we might have a hope of vetting textbooks from major publishers, it gets harder and harder to offer good information about alignment the more decentralized the system gets.

  3. I’m still back on the diet analogy Mike. To me, reading your analysis and the other commentary since Monday, it’s sounding a little bit more like the Atkins diet, and you know what happened to him right? (He allegedly died of a heart attack, after doing what I’m doing right now at my desk as I type — eating only protein!)

    Here’s the skinny, so to speak. The Atkins diet is apparently the worst thing you can do to yourself, according to traditional nutritionists who want us to eat major portions of grain and carb-rich veggies every day. They have attacked the Atkins followers, like me, through Doctors, and health plans, and in their pushing of nutra-this or that in a bottle, can or in an IV. They say if we follow this one approach to dieting we will lack valuable nutrients, increase our cholesterol and unhelpful fats and probably risk the fate of the diet’s author. Meanwhile, millions of us who follow the Atkins diet in whole or in part do very well in keeping our fats down and our tummies tucked.

    Sadly, the same orthodox view we see toward dieting by traditionalists is the attitude I’m seeing from my friends and colleagues toward those who are challenging the conventional wisdom on Common Core State Standards. I’m not sure I know the answer, but what I am confident of is that many reformers and leaders are all too quick to dismiss as heresy, radicalism, libertarianism or stupidity anyone who questions Common Core.

    So I welcome your delving deep into the issues, and presenting differing points of view, like the analysis today that reveals literally thousands of allegedly aligned common core curriculum and lessons and programs that – surprise – all cost money and have no validity per se in fact.

    You know what it reminds me of? I can remember it like it was yesterday. When the “Reading Wars” finally appeared to be finished, those who believed phonemes are essential ingredients to be directly taught through true phonics-based instruction really won the day. Or so it seemed. When California woke up to scores right next to Mississippi, and then former CA Superintendent Bill Honig did a major mea culpa on what he had prescribed, the flood gates opened and suddenly the importance of ensuring reading be taught like the science it is broke through the whole language literacy crowd and took root. New charters cropped up “selling” a return to the basics, and entire states had phonics instruction at the core of their objectives. (What happened to those state standards is a lesson for Common Core, for another time). What’s more is that big districts starting boasting that they were doing phonics, too.

    I’ll never forget the day these huge, 11×14 books arrived at my kids’ school, and the title of that famed publisher’s text was simply PHONICS. I was skeptical that this big, fat book really was filled with phonemes and exercises devoted to helping students learn to read phonetically, which requires more teacher led work than fancy, schmancy, colorful pictorials.

    Sure enough, my skepticism revealed some of the nonsense the phonics movement sought to undo in American schools… pictures of Fishies and Factories and Fun with instructions to use the letter F in different ways in “constructed” sentences filled the book. If you used the letter F enough times, you were deemed, at least the teachers manual seemed to suggest, proficient in the letter and sounds of “F”.

    If it was that easy to make stuff up on reading instruction, it seems it would be just as easy to make up that some book or program is “common core” aligned. And who’s to say it’s not? Who’s the judge and the jury? What’s the consequence for your book or program or technology not being common core when it says so? Who is going to look at the objectives and determine that a particular lesson doesn’t meet its essence. And who ensures that the arbiters are right?

    It didn’t happen for Phonics and despite a temporary few clicks up in reading achievement initially, the nation’s report card began to fall flag again after the initial sense of urgency died down and everyone boasted that their reading instruction was Phonics-aligned! The same happened after Fuzzy math was supposedly killed. And frankly the same happened after the great states of Massachusetts and Virginia, and Colorado and finally California created remarkably high, rigorous evidence-based standards and after a few years the assessments created to determine progress were watered down and the standards themselves were avoided by districts who said they were too high.

    History is a bit like dieting. If we could only remember what we ate that put all this weight on or created that double chin, we might actually not have to try so hard again.

  4. the very same thing happens with the separate non-common-core state standards.

    For instance, in Va the standards are called SOLs – and the “market” provides all manner of so-branded materials.

    It’s not up to the state to wade through them all to determine which are and which are not.

    It’s up to the company to seek approval from the state – AND to provide the funds necessary for staff and consultants to do so.

    The State can certify if the provider seeks state certification and pays for it.

    simple problem.

    we’re making this harder than we need to.

    The Armed Forces uses ONE STANDARD both for entrance testing but also for their own world-wide DOD schools.

    it only makes sense to NOT have 14 different versions.

    there is ONE ACT and ONE SAT – no one for each school or each state.

    are there issues to be solved in adopting a unified standard?


    does it mean that adopting such standards is not worth it.


    Again, we’re not talking about having more diverse or more rigorous programs or electives.

    we’re talking about a CORE upon which other state priorities can be layered.

    we should all be in favor on a common core as our society is more mobile than ever and every time a parent takes a new job – the child has to transfer – essentially like the child of an armed forces parent has to do – and the DOD schools – around the world – are standardized so that when that child moves – he/she picks up where they left off.

    I know the issue personally. My father was in the armed forces. I attended about 12 different state schools (only 2 DOD schools).

    it was not easy. I’d go to schools where they were teaching what I already had been taught and I missed the material that I did not get at the previous school.

    when this happens today – the teacher is held accountable. That teacher has to stop teaching the whole class and tend to the transferred-in kid or get him special – and expensive remedial help.

    it’s not cost effective and it harms the kids… educations in a 21st century global job market.

  5. Covering the common standards for EdWeek for three years now, this issue resonates & keeps hovering. At one point, the NGA was mulling over setting up a vetting panel, but was uneasy about it for a number of reasons that aren’t hard to fathom. This is my blog post from 2010 about it… and the issue has hardly gone away: The tensions in this get at Big Stuff, right? Do we want some centralized panel going thumbs-up or thumbs-down on curriculum? Could there possibly be a panel composition that wouldn’t melt down in controversy/accusations of bias, etc? And if there isn’t such a panel, is the marketplace with all its caveat-emptor-ness sufficient protection against the nasty junk that will float around out there? We’ve written a good deal about all that floating junk, and also about educators’ frustrations finding good stuff in the muck. They’re creating it, more and more, it seems. The beat goes on…

    • Thanks for the links Catherine. And thanks for your continued vigilance. I wish some of the folks implementing these standards attacked the issue with your same vigor!

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