What Is Educational Publishers’ Role in Developing Common Core?

With the new school year approaching, the Common Core State Standards adopted by 46 states (and the District of Columbia) are moving further from concept and closer to a reality. That means changes for schools, but also for the textbook and assessment publishers that must adapt their products to the new standards.

Some recent developments provide a glimpse of how that is playing out. As my colleague and common core expert Catherine Gewertz reports, the two state consortia working on the standards released the first glimpses of sample test questions based on the standards. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) is working with test-makers ETS and Measured Progress on sample test items that, based on early glimpses, will focus more on critical thinking and building arguments in English/language arts, and conceptual understanding in math. (Note: SBAC has contracted with CTB/McGraw Hill on developing the test items themselves.)

But, as with anything related to the common core, logistics must be taken into account as much as concepts. Test companies are a big part of that equation. As Robert L. Linn, an assessment expert and professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told Catherine: “It will be a challenge for vendors to come up with items that meet these specifications. They are used to writing items for state tests that do not get at this depth of knowledge.”

Additionally, the tests must be administered digitally, piling on a whole other set of readiness concerns. Schools will be using different devices with different operating systems and giving tests to students with a wide range of technological competency. In June I spoke with Bryan Bleil, a vice president of online and technology implementation at Pearson, who laid out a few technology-related testing concerns—multiple choice answers can be cut off certain screens, slow-typing students are at a disadvantage on short answer and essay questions, scrolling through questions may be take longer on certain devices.

Besides testing issues, many of these companies are tasked with adapting published course materials to the new common standards. The lead writers of the common standards issued the first “publishers’ criteria” in summer 2011, but recently released a revised version for English/language arts and an original one for math. They aren’t a mandate, but the criteria are supported by many major coalitions of state and district officials, including the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation’s urban districts (New York City among them) that spends $2 to $4 billion each year on instructional resources. It’s these guidelines (and those dollar figures) that could start to affect how actual course materials are designed and distributed.

You can read a detailed analysis of the ELA criteria here, and the math criteria here, but in both cases publishers are given a range of suggestions, from making 40 percent of high school writing exercises argumentative vs. 30 percent for elementary school textbooks, to keeping elementary math textbooks less than 200 pages long. (If you’re trying to get real nerdy with it, you can read the actual documents here.)

(A Pearson executive questioned the page-length issue, noting that an increasing amount of the company’s content will be delivered on-demand and digitally.)

Notably, the criteria are meant for consumers (teachers and curriculum developers) as much as publishers. Even though every new education company or product claims to be aligned with the common core, school districts are having problems finding materials they can use, or at least knowing how closely they resemble the common standards. So once educators accept the criteria—and there have been complaints about the lack of public input in creating them—they are asked to hold vendors accountable.

“Publishers cannot deliver focus to buyers who only ever complain about what has been left out, yet never complain about what has crept in,” the math document said, as cited by my colleague Erik Robelen. “More generally, publishers cannot invest in quality if the market doesn’t demand it of them nor reward them for producing it.”

Erik recently reported that vendors are receptive to the criteria, but there’s also some doubt from educators that they will change much in what they offer.

Ultimately, it’s clear there is a delicate push-and-pull between the private sector and those creating/promoting the common standards. Publishers have roles as both leaders and followers on issues like how curriculum is delivered, what it looks like, and how professional development is provided to schools that use it.

That’s how you end up with the kind of sentiments recently relayed to me from Dan Caton, president of school education for McGraw-Hill, who questioned the longevity of the common core at a conference in early June, and reiterated to me the company’s dedication to providing common core-aligned products and services later that month. It doesn’t seem like a flip-flop as much as a hedging of bets amid uncertainty.

Whether or not the common core is successful, the publishers will follow the demands of schools. As Stewart Wood, the editorial chief for mathematics at Pearson, told Erik Robelen:

“After years of building support for 50 different sets of state standards and literally thousands of district curriculum guides, we now have an opportunity to produce focused, coherent, and rigorous materials for the mass market.”

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