There’s a new sheriff in town: Louisiana judges Common Core alignment

As followers of the Common Core debate know all too well, when it comes to the veracity of publishers’ claims of “Common Core alignment,” the most we supporters have been able to offer in the way of advice is: “buyer beware.” You need only know that publishers slapped “Common Core Aligned!” stickers on previously published materials—almost before the standards themselves were finalized and definitely before any serious curriculum reviewing and rewriting could have been done—to realize that teachers were going to be faced with the unenviable task of wading through a morass of materials of varying degrees of quality and alignment in their attempt to find quality, well-aligned materials for their classrooms.

Because there is no agency tasked with trademark enforcement, any company can say its books and resources are Common Core aligned. And publishers seem determined to take advantage of this Wild West environment. Against this backdrop, someone needs to step in as sheriff—a role state departments of education are well suited to fill.

On March 5, the Louisiana Department of Education did just that with their release of a suite of tools aimed at supporting teachers as they align curriculum and instruction to the Common Core. Among those tools is a series of rubrics that leaders and teachers can use to evaluate ELA and math curricula, and tiered ratings of a number of the most popular and widely used CCSS-aligned English and math curricula.

While there are a number of other “alignment” tools teachers can use—including Achieve’s EQuIP rubric and the Tennessee state alignment tool—Louisiana is, I believe, the first state to review and provide summary judgments on the quality and alignment of curricula. State officials reviewed materials according to the appropriate rubric, provided detailed, annotated analyses of the resources, and rated each resource as Tier 1 (exemplifies quality), Tier 2 (approaching quality), or Tier 3 (not representing quality).

What’s perhaps most impressive is that state officials didn’t pull any punches. Some of the biggest names publishers—including McGraw Hill, Glencoe, and Pearson—were listed as Tier 3 resources.

This is a bold and important step forward and shows how state leaders can send powerful signals to the marketplace about what teachers and students in their states need to meet the demands of state standards.

That said, this work should be seen not as an end product but as an important first step. The rubrics and ratings, for instance, focus on curricular alignment rather than effectiveness. That is an appropriate starting point, but eventually teachers will need states to provide good information about curricular effectiveness in addition to standards alignment.

And in grades 3–12 ELA, the Louisiana rubric minimizes one of the most important shifts embedded in the CCSS ELA standards—an oversight that should be corrected if and when these resources are updated.

Virtues

Despite a few shortcomings, discussed in greater detail below, the Louisiana Department of Education deserves praise for their efforts. Their curricular and CCSS-implementation guidance is emerging as a model that other states would be wise to follow. By both developing curricula and reviewing and rating externally created resources, Louisiana is providing educators with a range of options while leaving decisions over curriculum and instruction to local leaders and teachers. This is as it should be.

Most critically, the ELA rubrics clearly show that state officials understood critical ELA shifts and that publishers needed to demonstrate alignment to those shifts to earn top marks.

The rubric for grades 3–12 includes four “non-negotiable” criteria—all of which had to be met to earn a Tier 1 or Tier 2 rating:

  1. Text complexity: Materials had to fall within grade-level complexity bands, and texts needed to increase in complexity across grade bands.
  2. Text quality: The rubric requires that “Texts are of sufficient scope and quality to provide text-centered and integrated learning that is sequenced and scaffolded to advance students toward independent reading of grade level texts and build content knowledge (ELA, social studies, science and technical subjects, and the arts). The quality of texts is high—they support multiple readings for various purposes and exhibit exceptional craft and thought and/or provide useful information.”
  3. Foundational reading skills: “Materials provide instruction and diagnostic support in concepts of print, phonics, vocabulary, development, syntax, and fluency in a logical and transparent progression.”
  4. Text-dependent questions: “Text-dependent questions and tasks reflect the requirements of Reading Standard 1 by requiring use of textual evidence in support of meeting other grade-specific standards.”

These are important indicators of alignment and do clearly reflect the requirements of the Common Core literacy standards.

Shortcomings

That said, there are at least two drawbacks to the Louisiana classroom support toolkit for ELA.

First, the Louisiana rubric judges the alignment of reviewed material to the Common Core but claims to provide information on the quality of the programs themselves. There is a critical difference, and judging the quality or effectiveness of a curriculum requires more than a subjective rubric—even a good one.

Second, the rubric gives only a brief head nod to the importance of building content and vocabulary to improving reading comprehension. Robert Pondiscio has argued that the Common Core literacy standards include the “57 most important words written in education reform. Ever.” Those are as follows:

By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.

This issue is important for a number of reasons, chiefly that one of the most significant lessons about reading instruction in the NCLB era is that we, perhaps unintentionally, focused elementary reading instruction on skills-heavy, content-light curricula that forced systematic content development in literature, history, science, and the arts to the take a back seat to instruction and practice of isolated reading skills.

In the Common Core era, it’s critical that we signal to educators and to publishers that CCSS alignment means not that we are focusing on different skills but rather that we are refocusing our attention on systematically building content knowledge through the grades.

There are some references to content in the ELA rubric—for instance, the requirement for “quality texts” asks that those texts help “build content knowledge.” But such references are insufficient. It would be better to include a separate “non-negotiable” for grades K–5 (or K–8) that specifically requires coherent text selection aimed at building content and vocabulary. (One wonders how many of the Tier 1 and 2 curriculum would remain if coherent content building were explicitly required under a separate criterion?)

Moving Forward

While Louisiana isn’t the first state to offer CCSS-aligned curriculum materials, or to develop rubrics that help educators wade through the morass of CCSS-aligned materials, they are the first to call out—clearly and unambiguously—publishers whose alignment claims do not match the reality of the material they offer. As the first into the breech, John White will no doubt get pushback from publishers whose bottom lines will suffer when word gets out that they have more work to do to meet the content and rigor demands of the Core. State leaders across the country would do well to share the work Louisiana has already done, to learn from it, and to build on it in the years and months to come.

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