Textbooks Out of Synch with Common Core

Aug 29, 2014

Just some of the more than 700 math books that have been reviewed for Common Core alignment by professor William Schmidt and his team at Michigan State's Center for the Study of Curriculum.
Credit Cory Turner/NPR

School districts nationwide are struggling to find textbooks that are aligned with the rigorous Common Core standards for math and English Language Arts. Some critics say that’s because the controversial standards have outpaced resources.

According to a recent study by the Education Week Research Center, fewer than one-third of teachers nationwide say their textbooks are aligned with the Common Core standards. But Richard Weisenhoff, Baltimore County's executive director of academics, says publishers tell a different story.

“A lot of the textbook publishers started to put little seals on their books saying they were Common Core aligned, even before the standards had been approved,” he said.

Jay Diskey, executive director of the Association of American Publishers, said he’s heard this complaint but does not think it is widespread.

“I'm not disputing the claims of Maryland officials, but everyone should approach this with an open mind,” Diskey said. “There are going to be some claims that may not be the claims we want to see, but I see an education publishing industry working very hard to get this right…But this is a major curriculum change and it does take a while to get it right.

Several national education groups conducted studies to determine the quality of textbooks school districts used last year.

“We found that they don't line up well with the Common Core,” said Dr. William Schmidt, director of Michigan State's Center for the Study of Curriculum. Schmidt led a study that analyzed more than 700 books used in grades K through eight. He said the books he reviewed were used by 60 percent of students nationwide and they came up short.

“Many of the standards that should be in the book for a grade level are not there and there's a great deal of space in those textbooks given to standards from other grade levels,” Schmidt said. “In other words, a large portion of the book is about other things than what should be covered at that particular grade level.”

In Baltimore County, a committee of school staffers and residents invites publishers in to make presentations to ensure that the books they purchase are Common Core aligned.

“We'll use our own rules that what they're saying is what we see and it does support the Common Core. This is a lot of money we're talking about so we're judicious in the process to make sure the books meet our needs and Common Core,” Weisenkoff said.

The county’s textbook committee evaluates the books, tests them in some classrooms and seeks community feedback before submitting its choices to the school board for final approval. Weisenhoff said the county spent $6.9 million last year on new elementary school English Language Arts books.

Edie House, a Baltimore city schools spokeswoman, said the district made no major textbook purchases last year. She said individual principals decide when to buy new books.

Emily Hunter, Arlington Elementary Middle's principal said her school is getting away from textbooks and using Common Core guides in teaching the new curriculum.

“Most of it is district created materials because Common Core gets away from the textbook driven education system,” Hunter said. “Kids are talking, engaging in hands on learning.”

She added that students use actual novels in English Language Arts classes and for grammar lessons.

Michigan State’s Schmidt advises who do use textbooks to use Common Core supplements as well and to wait a year as newer books, which he says are getting better, are released.

“At this point, the jury is out on whether we have any good, well aligned books, so I'm hesitant to suggest buying something new at this point,” he said.

EdReports.org, a new national organization is taking on the task of vetting textbooks to determine if they are Common Core aligned. The group will start this year by analyzing 21 math textbook series for grades K through 8. Maryland School Superintendent Dr. Lillian Lowery sits on the organization's board.