EngageNY's ELA curriculum is uncommonly engaging

Since we at Fordham began reviewing state academic standards in 1997, we’ve understood—and made clear—that standards alone are insufficient to drive improvements in student achievement. They describe the destination, but they don’t chart the journey for leaders, teachers, or schools. Which means that for standards to have any impact on what students actually learn, they must influence curriculum, assessment, and accountability. It’s far better to have a desirable destination than an unworthy one—better to aspire to reach the mountains than the recycling plant—but standards alone won’t get you there.

Plenty of educators understand this, but they often lack access to suitable vehicles by which to make the journey. The need for standards-aligned curricula is undoubtedly the most cited implementation challenge for states, districts, and schools. It’s also why “access to high-quality, standards-aligned curricular resources” comes up in nearly every discussion of the implementation challenges that teachers, schools, and districts face as they ramp up to meet the content and rigor demands of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

This near-universal need for properly aligned curricula and curricular materials is also why so many publishers rushed to slap shiny “CCSS-aligned!” stickers on their products, regardless of how much those products changed (or didn’t) between the release of the standards and the claims of alignment.

Yet five years into Common Core implementation, teachers still report scrambling to find high-quality, standards-aligned materials. Results from a survey conducted by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) in October 2014 found 45 percent of districts reporting “major problems” finding Common Core-aligned curricular resources and an additional 45 percent experiencing “minor problems.” That means fully 90 percent of surveyed districts were struggling to find the materials they need to teach the new standards. Findings from an Education Week Research Center study echoed the CEP report and showed that fewer than one-third of educators report having access to high-quality textbooks that are well aligned to the new standards.

Take note of the phrase “well aligned.” Despite publishers’ claims, few programs are well and truly aligned to the content and rigor demands of the CCSS. In a forthcoming paper, Morgan Polikoff analyzes the alignment of seven popular mathematics textbooks: three explicitly billed as “Common Core-aligned,” three pre-CCSS editions of those same textbooks aligned to Florida’s previous state standards, and one text not explicitly aligned to any standards. Polikoff found that “for these three textbooks produced by major publishers and marketed as Common Core-aligned, there are substantial alignment problems.” More specifically, the materials generally covered the requisite content, but they focused unevenly on certain areas (overemphasizing some and neglecting others) and often did not reach the desired level of cognitive demand.

EdReports.org, a new organization with a mission to provide educators with information on high-quality, Common Core-aligned instructional materials via free, online, Consumer Reports-style reviews, recently came to a similar conclusion. In March 2015, it released findings from its initial reviews of twenty digital and print-based K–8 math series. Among these, only one met the full criteria set forth by EdReports.org for alignment at all grades: Eureka Math, a program first developed as a free, open-source curriculum for the EngageNY website.

Now that’s an interesting development.

Enter EngageNY

Fixing America’s curriculum problem is no small challenge. Educators and policymakers have complained for decades about the poor quality of most textbook series and the unwillingness of many for-profit publishers to invest the time and money to get it right. Moreover, the Common Core called for significant instructional shifts that would require an overhaul in curricular and instructional materials, such as including more content-rich nonfiction and requiring students to use evidence from texts in English language arts (ELA).

Still, most Common Core advocates hoped that the emerging multi-state marketplace would provide sufficient incentive for the commercial publishers to get their acts together—or, alternatively, would give an opening to new players that might enter the business and deliver better products (Amplify, for example). Another possibility was that teachers themselves would create excellent materials, especially if they had a portal where they could post their best work (such as BetterLesson or the American Federation of Teachers’ Share My Lesson). To ensure quality control, several funders supported a variety of tools to vet new materials, such as the aforementioned EdReports.org, EQuIP, IMET, and the Publishers’ Criteria. (See “Monitoring Quality” sidebar.) And a few states, including Louisiana and Tennessee, developed their own rating systems.

But only one state contemplated a completely different approach: Building a brand-new, Common Core-aligned curriculum from scratch and making it available online, for free, for all to use.

After adopting the Common Core standards and receiving almost $700 million in the second round of Race to the Top in 2010, New York embarked on an ambitious (and unprecedented) effort to develop its own comprehensive, Common Core-aligned ELA and mathematics curricula. The process kicked off in early 2012, when the New York State Education Department (NYSED) issued an RFP to develop “modules of learning” aligned to the new standards. Common Core Inc. (now Great Minds), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit and curriculum developer, was contracted to develop math materials. The Core Knowledge Foundation, Expeditionary Learning, and the Public Consulting Group (PCG) were awarded contracts to develop ELA materials for grades pre-K–2, 3–5, and 6–12 respectively. (PCG later subcontracted the grades 6–8 portion of their contract to Expeditionary Learning and focused on materials for grades 9–12.) Today, EngageNY comprises a nearly complete set of curricular materials for math and ELA. Those materials are freely available online to anyone—not just Empire State educators—at EngageNY.org.

If, however, New York State Superintendent John King and his team were expecting thanks for building a free, open-source curriculum, they were sorely disappointed. EngageNY has been controversial since day one. On the right, it’s seen as a state-imposed curriculum (even though it’s not mandatory) and an anti-competitive governmental intrusion into the textbook market. After all, how can commercial publishers compete with a product funded by $26.6 million in federal dollars?

On the left, and particularly among educators, it was seen as a top-down mandate. While that was not the intention of New York officials (who stress the materials are “optional and supplemental”), reports surfaced of principals and maybe superintendents telling their teachers that they must use it. Not surprisingly, that has contributed to the Common Core backlash within the Empire State.

Ironically, EngageNY may be more popular outside New York than within. When working on our 2014 study, Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers, we found many educators elsewhere using EngageNY as a resource, if not a full curriculum. NYSED staff report that as of April 2015, the math and ELA modules had been downloaded nearly twenty million times.

But how good is this product? Is it well aligned to the Common Core? Teachable? That’s what we wanted to know. When we launched this review, EdReports.org was working on its math analyses, so we decided to concentrate on English language arts. We recruited two of the country’s leading ELA content experts, Elizabeth Haydel and Sheila Byrd Carmichael, each with more than twenty years of solid, relevant experience, to conduct an in-depth review of EngageNY’s alignment to the CCSS ELA standards.

What did we find?

  • Alignment to the Common Core is generally strong.
  • Selected texts are high-quality and appropriately rigorous, and the program allows educators greater flexibility than other scripted programs.
  • Because New York engaged multiple developers to create separate resources for specific grade bands, each set of materials reflects a distinctive approach to curriculum and literacy, meaning that the progression across grade bands is bumpy.
  • While content and foundational skills in the early grades appear thoughtfully developed, the sheer quantity of content across all grade bands can be overwhelming.
  • The high school curriculum (not yet complete) lacks a critical emphasis on literary content, a problem amplified by the fact that students read only excerpts of great books rather than full novels, biographies, and so on.

All that said, EngageNY’s English language arts materials supply educators—both inside and outside New York State—an important alternative to traditional textbooks of questionable quality and alignment.