Common Core

Common Core’s unintended consequence?

More teachers write their own curricula

Last year Melody Arabo had the hardest year of her 13-year teaching career. The program she and her colleagues had been given to teach third-grade math at Keith Elementary just outside of Detroit was supposed to match the new Common Core standards that students will be tested on this coming spring. But the workbooks still covered some of the old standards, and the daily lessons all but ignored some of the new standards, such as how to measure to the nearest half-inch.

Chris Maske, third grade teacher at Freeman Elementary, explains an assignment Friday morning, Jan. 10, 2014 in Freeman, S.D. The grammar lesson uses the Common Core standards.

Chris Maske, third grade teacher at Freeman Elementary, explains an assignment Friday morning, Jan. 10, 2014 in Freeman, S.D. The grammar lesson uses the Common Core standards.

“I had to supplement a lot,” said Arabo, who is Michigan’s 2014-2015 Teacher of the Year. “It was a lot of searching and finding and printing and trying. My team worked together because we were all struggling. One of us would take a unit, the other one would take another unit and we would share our stuff together.”

According to many teachers, experts and advocates of the Common Core, traditional curriculum sources haven’t been meeting the demands of the new set of math and English standards that have been rolled out in more than 40 states in the past few years. More and more teachers are scrapping off-the-shelf lessons and searching for replacements on the Internet or writing new curriculum materials themselves.

The Center on Education Policy (CEP), a nonpartisan research group, reports that in roughly two-thirds of districts in Common Core states, teachers have developed or are developing their own curricular materials in math (66 percent) and English Language Arts (65 percent). In more than 80 percent of districts, the CEP found that at least one source for curriculum materials was local — from teachers, the district itself or other districts in the state.

Soon-to-be-published research conducted by William Schmidt and the Center for the Study of Curriculum at Michigan State University seems to confirm teachers’ predicament. “We looked at 35 of the most commonly used [math] series that are out there in the field right now, used by about half of the kids in the country,” said Schmidt, University Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Education Policy Center. “Most of these materials don’t line up, and when you look at an individual set of materials, as much as half of the book might not be relevant to the standards at that grade level.”

However, Jay Diskey, executive director of the PreK-12 Learning Group of the Association of American Publishers, said publishers are pulling their weight. “We have more than 150 members in our PreK-12 Learning Group. And the ones I’ve seen over the past several years or more have tried very hard to align with Common Core standards in reading and math.”

Related: Does Common Core really mean teachers should teach differently?

And yet, according to the CEP, 90 percent of districts in Common Core states said that developing or identifying Common Core curricular materials has posed a challenge.

Some teachers and districts are viewing the dearth of materials as an opportunity, but experts and even some educators say putting the job of creating curriculum materials into the hands of teachers may not necessarily be a good thing.

“It’s a wonderful thing that teachers are digging in and learning the materials that are expected in the Common Core at the different grade levels,” said Diane Rentner, deputy director of CEP. “What we don’t know is how effective that will be.”

Schmidt is among those who are leery of teachers taking on the task of building entire curricula themselves. “It’s a rather elaborate and extensive endeavor to write instructional materials for a whole year, and I think that no one should expect that teachers have the time nor the professional background to do that.”

Frustrated teachers, many faced with the added pressure of evaluations linked to their students’ test scores, are either finding the time to make up their own materials or turning to websites where other teachers have posted homemade lessons.

The sites include Betterlesson.com; ShareMylesson.com, developed by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a union; and the “open marketplace” site Teachers Pay Teachers. According to Alex Grodd, founder and CEO of BetterLesson, the site gets 400,000 unique visitors per month and has seen a 33 percent increase in traffic since launching a project to recruit “master teachers” to create Common Core materials for the site.

Since Share My Lesson launched in July of 2012, there have been 8.2 million downloads; as of February 9, there are over 700,000 registered users and more than 300,000 posted resources, of which nearly 28,000 are matched to the Common Core. Teachers Pay Teachers allows teachers to buy and sell lessons for an average price of under $5. In 2013, according to company figures, users bought and sold about $44 million of content on Teachers Pay Teachers; last year that figure went up to $78 million. CEO Adam Freed believes the Common Core is partly responsible for the uptick.

Related: New York school beats the odds by “going rogue” on Common Core

Amber Chandler, an English Language Arts teacher at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, New York, for the past 12 years and a high school teacher before that, has been working with Share My Lesson since its beginning. She said she first got involved in looking for a Common Core curriculum as chair of her department. “That was a good time for companies to come out and say ‘Common Core aligned,’ but anyone could say that at that point,” she remembered. “There had never been a test.”

The materials on Share My Lesson, on the other hand, had the imprimatur of teachers. “You know another teacher has sat, looked at this, taken the time to share it and then it has been vetted by other teachers,” said Chandler.

She and her fellow teachers also wrote their own materials. They created a unit with multicultural authors and replaced an exercise in writing cover letters with one on inserting links into documents. They also experimented, largely unhappily, with some off-the-shelf alternatives.

So far, Chandler herself has uploaded 253 resources to Share My Lesson and plans to add another 100 by the end of the year. She has also begun blogging for the site. “It’s given me a chance to be a leader from the classroom,” she said.

But she admits that taking on the responsibility of figuring out what content to teach is nerve-wracking. “That great ability to create and experience and do things with our kids and collaborate all feels good until you are nervous about your job,” she said. “And then you think, you know what, I wish they would just tell me what’s on the test.”

According to Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, the idea behind Share My Lesson is to provide teachers a virtual community in which to share lessons to help not only with the Common Core but also with the daily need to find fresh ways to teach. Teachers Pay Teachers’ Freed said the site’s mission is to “connect and empower teachers.” And BetterLesson’s Grodd said the Common Core could make a site like his the perfect vehicle for sharing on a national scale.

Amanda Pecsi oversees curriculum for Center City Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C. When she took the job in June 2013, her first step was to evaluate the charter network’s curriculum and to shop for replacement materials connected to the new standards. “We found that nothing was a complete package.” So she assembled a team of 30 or so teachers plus a few administrators to build their own. “We had some mixed implementation in the first year,” she said. “My motto was: ‘Here’s the materials, here’s the resources, play with it, give me some feedback and we’ll make it better for next year.’”

The next year, they did as promised and made revisions based mostly on teacher feedback and guidelines for what will be on the new tests. “I think that’s the beautiful thing of writing your own curriculum,” she said. “Once you’re tied to a textbook, you’re kind of tied to a textbook.”

Related: What makes a good Common Core math question?

Principal Shelley Ritz led her staff through a similar process when the Common Core arrived at the Belle Chasse Primary School in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish. Teachers were not happy about the new standards, but it wasn’t necessarily the new expectations. “Who doesn’t want their child to read grade-level appropriate texts? Answer questions taking evidence from the text? That’s awesome. But how to help that evolve into a curriculum? We’re not curriculum writers. There are companies that are paid millions and millions of dollars to do the research.”

But Ritz went about the process anyway, because “there was nothing approved by the state that was totally aligned.”

It was frustrating, she said. “There was limited understanding of how to create curriculum, lesson plans and assessments from scratch. And who knew if the final products were correct?”

But Ritz says there have been silver linings. Teachers are smarter about what the standards require of students, and test scores have risen. “I really believe the scores are as a result of the implementation of the Common Core standards,” she said.

Michigan State’s Schmidt worries that some districts might simply be better prepared for the challenge of making curriculum than others. “I worry about a lot of places where they just don’t have the right set of people that are able to do this,” he said.

And he said there’s no guarantee that the homemade materials teachers are finding on the websites will be any better than the off-the-shelf lesson books they’re using them to replace. “There’s nobody saying, like Consumer Reports, this is a good set of materials, this is a bad set of materials, and that’s a worry to me because I wonder about the quality,” he said.

Indeed the variety of sources for curriculum itself may undermine the goal of creating the standards in the first place. “If you have everybody writing all kinds of different things with different levels of quality, you only exacerbate the inequality,” Schmidt said. “You don’t do what the standards are trying to do, which is define a common set of expectations for all kids.”

But Schmidt does see promise in what he calls “the cutting of that umbilical cord” between teachers and textbook makers. And he believes the Internet will add to that independence. “I think that the nature of the digital world implies that you don’t have to be constrained so much by an 800-page book. And so therefore I think it’s a new game. Who knows what products will come out of this?”

One new product is coming from Schmidt and the Center for the Study of Curriculum: The Navigator — a web-based application that Schmidt said can tell teachers where in the math book they’re using (as long as it’s one of the 35 surveyed) they will find material on a particular standard and where else to look if the book doesn’t have it.

Schmidt also said more recent entrants into the textbook market are improving. “Some of the books we’ve seen most recently, just brand-new — they’re probably not even in widespread use yet, are beginning to line up at a much higher level.“

Another resource has been available since 2011: the Basal Alignment Project, co-sponsored by Student Achievement Partners, an organization founded by several writers of the Common Core, and the Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy group. Teachers can sign up with the project to help create questions that focus on Common Core-related skills like deriving evidence from texts. Their questions will replace or augment those in the basic reading textbooks (basals) they may already have on their classroom shelves.

“I think the end result in five years could be a lot more flexibility for teachers to bring different sets of resources together and create from those a curriculum and set of lesson plans that really serve their kids more effectively,” said Nancy Gannon, director of State and District Instructional Materials at Student Achievement Partners.

Arabo has a similar outlook. In 2013, she was chosen to write Common Core English lessons for BetterLesson as part of its master teacher project. As challenging as the work was, she sees writing curricula for herself and other teachers as a way “to expand my reach beyond the four walls of my classroom but without ever having to leave the classroom, and I was very excited about that,” she said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core.

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