Common Core’s First Breakout Hit?

I like the Common Core State Standards just fine, but let me confess a little secret: standards have never interested me very much. As a teacher, I would no sooner reach for state standards to decide what to teach than an architect would look to building codes for inspiration when sketching a skyscraper. Likewise, I suspect chefs never start with safe food handling procedures when planning a tempting menu. Of course, I want my students to be able to “determine two or more central ideas of a text” (that’s a standard). But deciding which texts are worth reading is far more interesting. And that’s not a standards question—it’s a curriculum question.

Much of my enthusiasm for Common Core has been predicated on the assumption that raising our game on teaching and testing can’t be accomplished without taking a long, hard look at curriculum—the course content and class materials we put in front of students. Curriculum is largely beyond the reach of Common Core; it’s strictly (and correctly) a local concern. But it’s been widely hoped the new standards would create a robust nationwide market for innovative new materials—especially in English language arts (ELA), where Common Core explicitly states the standards “must be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.”

In the main, it hasn’t happened. Five years into Common Core implementation, 90 percent of school districts report that they are still struggling to find the materials they need to meet the new standards. On the one hand, this is not entirely surprising. Curriculum has long been the neglected stepchild of education reform, and building new materials takes time. However, not long ago, a study by the Brookings Institution’s Russ Whitehurst demonstrated that curriculum has an even greater effect on student outcomes than most popular policy levers, including charter schools, teacher quality, preschool programs, and even standards themselves.

In short, improving curriculum is almost certainly the last, best, juiciest piece of low-hanging fruit left in our efforts to improve student outcomes.

All is not lost. There are good reasons to think that Common Core may at last be spurring the development of innovative curriculum. Last month, my Fordham Institute colleagues released a report that gives a warm review to EngageNY, a comprehensive, Common Core-aligned curriculum developed by New York State for its seven hundred-odd school districts. “While imperfect, the materials offer educators…an important alternative to traditional textbooks of questionable quality and alignment,” the report notes.

It’s also free. Schools and teachers anywhere can download materials from EngageNY, and they have been doing so with abandon. Though New York was the only state to spend the money it won from the federal Race to the Top competition to build a curriculum, its policymakers seem to have tapped a nerve—and a deep well of demand for Common Core-aligned materials far beyond their borders. I recently obtained data from the New York State Education Department showing that while EngageNY units, lessons, and curriculum modules have been downloaded nearly twenty million times as of early May, more than half of those have been outside of New York. EngageNY may be quietly emerging as Common Core’s first “breakout hit.”

Some disclosure is needed here: I worked for several years for the Core Knowledge Foundation, which won the contract to create the EngageNY ELA curriculum from pre-K to second grade, so I cannot pretend to be a neutral observer. But I was not involved in the Fordham review, which lauded the span of K–12 EngageNY curricula, noting that “in general, alignment to the Common Core State Standards is strong—and the materials go beyond the standards in specifying important content and skills for each year of instruction.”

A closer look at where EngageNY materials are being accessed outside New York shows that the heaviest downloading traffic is in California, Arizona, Louisiana, Illinois, and Washington. Non-Common Core states are at or near the bottom of the list (Alaska, North Dakota) or vastly under-represented, given their size (Texas, Virginia). Downloads of math curricular materials outpace ELA almost precisely two-to-one. And within math, elementary math materials are consistently the most popular, week-to-week.

Indeed, what EngageNY’s widespread usage may reveal is a vein of discontent with math curricula. All of the math materials on EngageNY are produced by Great Minds, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit curriculum developer. The top out-of-state users of EngageNY appear to track almost perfectly with requests for training. “Some of the earliest adopters who called on us for professional development services were in California, Arizona, and in the state of Louisiana,” says Lynne Munson, Great Minds’ president and executive director.

Great Minds is also field-testing another Common Core-aligned English language arts curriculum, which should be freely available by the 2016–2017 school year. Meanwhile, a handful of states have begun promoting the use of “open educational resources” (OER), online public domain materials including full courses, textbooks, software, or other materials that schools, teachers, and students can take freely and re-purpose. Language in the Senate version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) would promote the use of OERs through state grants. A similar amendment has been proposed for the House bill. In sum, there are encouraging signs that Common Core may yet usher in an era of curricular dynamism.

Reliable, neutral evaluations are another obstacle to curriculum coming into its own as a true reform lever, but there’s encouraging news here, too: A new, independent organization called has begun reviewing instructional materials for alignment to the Common Core, providing something akin to a free Consumer Reports of curriculum. (They are fans of EngageNY too.)

In sum, the stars may be aligning for some long-overdue attention to curriculum as a means of improving student achievement. Those of us who were hoping for that day may yet see our faith rewarded.

– Robert Pondiscio

This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at U.S. News & World Report.

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