Common Core-aligned curriculum: It’s time to empower our teachers

While plenty of folks seem to think that getting rid of Common Core would be good for schools, the standards remain largely intact in most states across the nation, including here in Ohio. Before supporters start congratulating each other on victory, however, they would be wise to recognize that the real battle for Common Core has just begun. As my colleague Robert Pondiscio points out, “far too little attention has been paid to the heavy lift being asked of America’s teachers—and the conditions under which they are being asked to change familiar, well-established teaching methods.”

This heavy lifting includes selecting curricula to teach the standards (because the standards aren't a curriculum—districts choose their own). The lift gets Atlas-like when one considers the poor alignment of the curricula from which districts and teachers can choose. Since last summer, researchers have called out textbook publishers’ misleading claims of alignment with words like “sham,” “buyer beware,” “disgrace,” and “snake oil.” Slapping “shiny new stickers on the same books they’ve been selling for years” has probably lined some pockets, but it’s also left teachers high and dry—and still hefting the weight of ensuring that students master more rigorous standards. 

Ohio teachers are no exception. In early September, the Columbus Dispatch wrote about how difficult it’s been for Ohio districts to find high-quality, Common Core-aligned textbooks. An instructional coach from Hilliard City Schools told the Dispatch that a “consultant from the state” recommended that they create their own materials instead of purchasing textbooks. If you think creating material from scratch sounds like a lot of extra work for teachers, you’re right. But even though the phrase “create their own materials” brings to mind the terms do it yourself, teachers don’t actually have to start from scratch. There are plenty of good jumping-off points. EngageNY already has a complete, free curriculum from pre-K through twelfth grade in both ELA and Math.[1] The Open Educational Resources Commons has an extensive library of free teaching and learning materials, also from pre-K through twelfth grade (and beyond). Sites like Teachers Pay Teachers, Share My Lesson, and Better Lesson feature Common Core-aligned lessons written and rated by other teachers. Though some lessons and units on these sites must be purchased, the price is far lower than that of many traditional supplemental materials. Teacher collaboration is also a valuable, if underused, resource. When teachers are given the chance to share their strengths and ideas, everybody wins. Most importantly, though, all these resources can be mixed and matched to create an adapted, customized curriculum that’s better than an off-the-shelf one.

Although personnel costs make up the lion’s share of school budgets, textbooks are expensive. McGraw-Hill lists one of its biology textbooks at $116 and one of its Algebra I textbooks at $108. Prentice Hall’s tenth-grade literature textbook is $90 per student edition, and an additional $143 for the teacher’s edition. Its American government textbook rings in around $80 per student edition and $115 per teacher’s edition. When districts consider how many students they have, how many classes—and thus textbooks—they’ll need, and the additional cost of teachers editions, they end up with sticker shock—and that’s before they realize that textbooks in subjects like history and science can get dated pretty fast and need replacing. Similarly, many teachers find that one textbook won’t cover all that their students need to know; workbooks, supplemental materials, and other resources help get the job done, but bring additional costs. For the record, this isn’t a new, Common Core-related problem. Teachers and schools have coughed up money for additional materials for decades. But while Common Core didn’t create this problem, it may have created the solution. Teacher-created materials are a powerfully disruptive innovation because when curriculum is designed instead of purchased, costs can drop.

But money isn’t the only reason why investing in teacher-created materials might be better than investing in textbooks. When teachers use their expertise and experience to design curricula, local control becomes a reality instead of an empty mantra. Teachers are empowered to put not only their content knowledge to work, but also their knowledge of their students’ strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Instead of racing to get through a predesigned curriculum, teachers can adjust the pace as they go. Instead of giving pre-made tests that don’t return meaningful data, teachers can design assessments that test multiple things in multiple ways. A 2014 Fordham study found that districts that utilize homegrown materials enjoy more buy-in and ownership from teachers—which is crucial to making any set of standards, not just the Common Core, successful.

Despite these positive elements, the fact remains that creating a curriculum is a whole lot of work. Time is limited for teachers—how can we justify putting more on their plates simply because publishing companies decided to make money instead of high-quality materials? There’s also the additional worry that not all teachers are up to the task of creating high quality, homegrown materials. This is where schools must step up and declare their commitment to investing in teachers. If leaders want locally adapted curricula that will help their students meet the high bar of the standards and aligned assessments, they must require two things: First, they must put highly effective teachers with proven track records in charge of creating materials, and second, they must give these teachers time and training.

The highly successful charter network YES Prep does this extraordinarily well and could serve as a model for any school interested in homegrown curricular materials. One of the many ways they develop teacher leadership is by selecting highly effective[2] teachers to become content specialists and course leaders. These teachers are assigned a reduced course load in order to create exemplary lesson plans, materials, and assessments that are used by other teachers in their content area. YES Prep’s extraordinary results should speak to how successful this model is, but I can also offer anecdotal evidence: This is the model I experienced as part of the Achievement School District. As a course leader, I was a hybrid teacher who was given the freedom to teach. For the first time, I was able to ditch the expensive (and useless) textbooks that I’d been asked (read: forced by my previous district) to teach to my students who were grade levels behind and needed way more than that particular textbook could offer. I was given extra time to make it happen and extra pay to compensate my hard work, but it was the freedom that mattered. I was empowered to use Common Core and dozens of open educational resources to revolutionize English class for my kids. But the most revolutionary aspect of my time as a course leader wasn’t the extra time and extra pay or even the freedom; it was actually the professional development (PD) I received. Course leaders like me received dozens of hours of professional development that focused on how Common Core was different from previous standards, how to write long-term and short-term plans, how to break a standard into objectives, how to select a text, how to craft a good assessment—the list goes on. For the first time in my career, I got personalized development and immediate feedback, and it made all the difference.

If Ohio districts want to tap into the potential of teacher-created materials, they’ll need to do more than provide time—they’ll also need to provide quality professional development. Teacher PD is notoriously bad; now, with higher expectations and better accountability, the need for high-quality PD is even greater. The money districts will save by opting for homegrown materials should go toward training teachers in how to create, adapt, and improve curricula. Just like schools should stop throwing money at the same old publishers offering the same old textbooks, they should also stop throwing money at the same old PD. Ongoing support is the key, and teacher coaching is a good place to start.

While the lack of quality Common Core-aligned textbooks is frustrating, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Hundreds of highly effective teachers across the state have the content knowledge that can be used to create homegrown materials. But they need the time, training, and empowerment to make this solution a reality. It’s time for districts to stop looking for one textbook to rule them all—and to start investigating how highly effective teachers might adapt and create materials to make an even better curriculum.

[1] Check out Fordham’s review of EngageNY’s ELA curriculum here.

[2] According to their website, YES Prep defines a highly effective teacher as one with “extensive classroom experience and a track record of success.” 


Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.