The Empire State straight jacket: Why New York should put the 'voluntary' back in 'voluntary curriculum'

I’ve long argued that there is a meaningful and important difference between standards and curriculum. Pick your metaphor: The standards set the destination; they don’t define the journey. Or they describe the “what” but not the “how.” While a good set of K–12 academic standards can foster tremendous innovation and real choice for teachers and students, instructional flexibility is essential. There is no one “right” way to teach content and skills to all students. The right path depends on the strengths and needs of the students and the teachers as much as it does on the content itself.

It’s exactly because I see the potential—the necessity, even—for classroom-level innovation that I shudder when people argue that Common Core adoption is tantamount to the imposition of a single, national curriculum. In my mind, that is simply not what Common Core is meant to do. (In fact, more than three years ago, when some pushed for a common curriculum to match the common standards, I argued forcefully against it. I wrote that mandating state or national curriculum—either directly or indirectly—was “one of the least effective ways” of driving effective curriculum choices. Teacher buy-in is too important to curriculum implementation, and teachers are unlikely to feel bought into a curriculum that was forced upon them from state bureaucrats, no matter how well intentioned they are.)

But what happens when the lines between setting standards and mandating curriculum are blurred?

That is what I see happening right now in New York—the line between the state-adopted Common Core standards and the supposedly voluntary (but state-sponsored) Common Core curriculum has become so blurry, the distinction between the two is virtually meaningless.

Back in 2010–11, New York leaders hoped to support teachers in their implementation of the CCSS by investing heavily in the development and dissemination of a Common Core–aligned curriculum. That curriculum, which is now nearly complete and freely available to anyone on EngageNY.org, aimed to arm educators with “high-quality curricular and instructional materials” that they could use to help students master the lofty goals outlined in the CCSS ELA and math expectations.

At the time, public reaction was largely positive, and for good reason. After all, teachers need resources, and publishers are slow to make meaningful changes to existing resources. Plus, the commercial publishers are notorious for their low-quality products. Why not have a state step into the breach and build something great?

And the materials being created promised to be great. State leaders demanded excellence from their developers—they had high standards for rigor. In ELA, they demanded students be exposed to authentic texts that are worth reading. In math, they pushed for quality problems that push student thinking and demand fluency and precision.

But as the materials moved from exemplars—mere models of excellence—to fully scripted curricula, the downsides of this approach have become much clearer.

For starters, developing a fully fleshed-out, day-by-day curriculum for all grades from scratch is enormously hard work. It’s an iterative process that is nearly impossible to get perfect the first time. Unlike standards (which merely set the goals), curricula do need to be tried and tested in the classroom so that publishers can integrate ground-level feedback from teachers and leaders about what works, what doesn’t, and why.

New York didn’t have—or didn’t give itself—the benefit of time, due to its questionable decision to rush ahead with a “Common Core–aligned assessment” before other states—and before its Common Core–aligned curriculum was finished. State leaders were, essentially, “building the plane while flying it.”

Of course, building lessons and curriculum materials in real time happens a lot, in schools and classrooms across the country. And on that level, it’s not always a problem. Teachers can, after all, make real-time changes to the materials they create in response to student mastery or misunderstanding, update plans based on formal and informal assessment data, and move quickly to correct problems in the curriculum that may only be clear once students are using it.

But that isn't happening at the pace needed in New York, in part because of the inherent rigidity of the development process.

Considering that, New York leaders deserve praise for underwriting the development of materials that, across nearly every grade, give clear guidance about how to teach the new standards. Few states have provided such clear curricular guidance, and teachers in those states are clamoring for the clarity New York has provided.

What’s more, the content in the math curriculum coherently builds from year to year, many of the problems are excellent, and the materials offer teachers one option for CCSS implementation. (Similarly, the passages in the ELA materials are rigorous and authentic, and the text-dependent questions are very strong and give teachers a clear picture of what evidence-based reading and writing can look like.)

In fact, the math materials created for New York are so strongly aligned to the Common Core that they were the only to earn a top-ranking for alignment in Louisiana’s recent curriculum review. Demonstrating that, in a market where there was once a dearth of materials, we now have another resource that teachers can build on as they work to align their classroom practice to the Core.

At the same time, though, because the Empire State offered only one curricular option for its teachers and because those materials were rolled out concurrently with a brand-new assessment and teacher-evaluation system, the burden was on the developers to create perfect materials. And sadly, perfection is too tall an order for any brand-new curriculum, no matter how well intentioned or well financed. And as a result, the many strengths of the EngageNY curricula have been undermined by a series of challenges.

Challenges in New York

The biggest problem with the EngageNY curriculum roll out is that it is perceived as mandatory, and not optional. The state’s own website suggests that these resources “can be adopted or adapted for local purposes.” While that certainly signals that teachers and leaders have flexibility, it does not make clear that these resources are wholly optional and that there are different curricula altogether that they might consider.

Second, the new materials—fairly or unfairly—cause confusion among teachers, parents, and even students. Take, for instance, the Kindergarten lessons focused on counting “the math way.” In this exemplar video posted on EngageNY.org, the teacher asks students to count both “the regular way” and “the math way.” The purpose of the activity is to help students understand that the numbers 11–19 are actually 10 plus 1, 10 plus 2, and so on.

This is an important math concept, and one that is emphasized in a number of proven curricula, including Singapore Math, Montessori math, and no doubt a host of other commonly used programs.

Unfortunately, the failure to clearly articulate to parents and teachers the purpose and intent of these exercises has led many to take to social media to ask, “Why don’t we just teach our kids how to count?”

There’s a good answer to that question: the idea is to introduce the associative property and to help students learn to compose and decompose numbers. But the EngageNY presentation and related activities are certainly not the only way to teach these concepts, and we don’t yet know if they are the most effective or efficient strategies. Those are questions that good information about implementation and achievement, coupled with the market, should help us decide. (In the days to come, I will be diving deeper into the weeds of the New York curriculum to discuss these important implementation questions.)

Lessons from the Empire State

Of course, none of this is to say that these problems are pervasive—and some are no doubt easily correctable issues that can be adjusted before the next school year. And, again, much of the New York curriculum is very good, and it should certainly be one of the options that schools and districts are encouraged to use.

That said, because the curriculum was developed by the State of New York and because it is the only resource being shared by the state to align to the CCSS, it has become the de facto state Common Core curriculum. (The fact that the math materials are created by an organization coincidentally called Common Core—but not actually related to the Common Core—doesn’t help either.)

And therein lies the problem. New York has blurred the lines between standards and curriculum to the point where the two are, for New York teachers and parents, indistinguishable.

What now?

For state leaders across the country looking to learn from what has happened in New York, one of the biggest lessons is to avoid repeating the error of trying to pick one curriculum winner, particularly so early in the game. The experience in the Empire State reinforces that the best way to guide effective curriculum choices is to give clear guidance about what the standards demand, to allow teachers and principals the flexibility to meet those expectations in a way that best meets the needs of their students, to use data to help identify effective teachers and elevate their practices and curricula as models from which others can learn.

For New York officials, this is also an opportunity to take a step back and, while reinforcing their commitment to the content of Common Core State Standards, clarify that EngageNY is not meant to be a one-size-fits-all curriculum solution. In other words, they should put the “voluntary” back in “voluntary curriculum” and encourage a dynamic marketplace of options from which teachers can choose.

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