From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record],
Friday, July 20, 2012. See
Common-Core Writers Issue Math 'Publishers'
By Erik Robelen
The lead writers of the Common Core State Standards in mathematics
have finalized a set of guidelines for curricular materials that seek
to promote "faithful" implementation of the new standards at
grades K-8. The 24-page document, to be published online today, is
intended to guide the work of educational publishers in developing
textbooks and other instructional materials, as well as states and
school districts as they evaluate and select materials or revise
The so-called "publishers' criteria" document (attached
above) homes in on the issues of focus, coherence, and rigor, and gets
pretty specific at times. It suggests, for instance, that elementary
math textbooks should be fewer than 200 pages in length, and that at
any given grade level, approximately three-fourths of instructional
time should be devoted to the "major work of each grade."
(To illustrate, in grades K-5 the "major work" generally
consists of arithmetic and the aspects of measurement that support it,
one of the authors explained.)
In addition, the criteria spell out when it is appropriate for certain
topics to be assessed in curricular materials, such as through chapter
tests or unit tests. Probability should not be assessed until grade 7,
for instance, the document says, and statistical distributions should
not be assessed by materials until grade 6. The document notes that
this timing is pegged to when those topics are first introduced in the
If the new criteria are widely embraced by publishers and educators,
they could have a profound influence on teaching the common math
standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of
Columbia. As we've noted on this blog, similar publishers' criteria
for English/language arts (recently revised) are indeed being taken to
heart by publishers.
In a sign that the new math document will be taken seriously, it has
the endorsement of several prominent organizations in the education
sphere, including the National Governors Association, the Council of
Chief State School Officers, the Council of the Great City Schools,
the National Association of State Boards of Education, and Achieve, a
national nonprofit that managed the process to develop the common
standards. Both the NGA and CCSSO spearheaded that undertaking.
In fact, a group of 20 big-city districts, led by the Council of the
Great City Schools, served notice to publishers last month that any
materials they purchase must reflect the priorities of the publishers'
That said, the criteria are likely to provoke a lively debate, and
perhaps some pushback from those who disagree with particulars, or
believe more broadly that the standards writers may be wading too far
In an interview, Jason Zimba, a co-author of the document and one of
the three lead writers of the math standards, said he anticipates some
"There will be pushback on some of these things, because shifts
are not shifts if they're painless," said Zimba, a co-founder of
Student Achievement Partners, a New York City-based nonprofit
organization working to help states and districts with common-core
implementation. "It's going to take a culture shift to achieve
the focus and coherence of the standards."
The other two co-authors of the criteria (and lead writers of the math
standards) are William McCallum, a math professor at the University of
Arizona, and Philip Daro, an education consultant to states and
districts. Both McCallum and Daro also are advisers to Student
Some readers may recall that the companion document for
English/language arts caused quite a stir, especially for its criteria
for reading aloud to students and cutting back on the practice of
To be clear, this is not the final word from the standards writers. An
"updated" version of the publishers' criteria for math,
taking into account feedback, is expected out early next year. In
addition, a separate document for high school math will be issued
around the same time.
Zimba argues that the single most important element to ensuring the
common core's success in improving math education is the emphasis on
focus-essentially the idea of covering fewer math topics, but in
"If we don't get to focus, the rest of the promise of the
standards is a fantasy," he said.
The criteria document acknowledges upfront that it may be hard for
math educators and experts to let go of some topics.
"During the writing of the standards, the writing team often
received feedback along these lines: 'I love the focus of these
standards! Now if we could just add one or two more things,' " it
says. "But focus compromised is no longer focus at all. ...
'Teaching less, learning more' can seem like hard medicine for an
educational system addicted to coverage."
The authors emphasize that the criteria are intended both for
publishers and those who select their wares.
"These criteria were developed from the perspective that
publishers and purchasers are equally responsible for fixing the
materials market," the document says. "Publishers cannot
deliver focus to buyers who only ever complain about what has been
left out, yet never complain about what has crept in. More generally,
publishers cannot invest in quality if the market doesn't demand it of
them nor reward them for producing it."
This point calls to mind a recent book I blogged about, Tyranny of the
Textbook. It was a broad indictment of the textbook market, suggesting
that blame can be shared by a variety of actors for what the author
suggests is the generally poor quality of many textbooks and related
In addition, the new criteria are also aimed at helping to shape
professional development pegged to the common-core standards.
The goal of the criteria, the authors say, is not to dictate
acceptable forms of instructional resources, suggesting that
"materials and tools of very different forms" can be deemed
acceptable, including digital and online media.
Carrie Health Phillips, a program director at the Council of Chief
State School Officers, said she believes the new document is on target
and will be an important resource to educators.
"We've heard a lot of need for this type of guidance," she
said. "It's something people will take or not, but we've heard
loud and clear, especially from district-level curriculum specialists
or supervisors, that they need that guidance on how do we make these
That said, she was quick to note that the guidelines are not
"Ultimately, it's still up to people at the local level. We think
it's better to have something to react to than to have nothing out
there, ... with people guessing on what they're supposed to
Zimba said wading into the particulars of curricular decisions rather
than being vague was a deliberate and important strategy in writing
"Some of these specifics are going to attract comment," he
said. "But if we weasel out of limits and specifics, then we're
actually not pushing things forward. ... So you have to be
quantitative in order to be understood."
Beyond the push for focus, the criteria spend a lot of time exploring
the issue of "coherence" and what that should look like in
curricular materials. And here, the document emphasizes that coherence
is about making connections not simply across topics but across grade
levels, to examine the progressions spelled out in the standards and
how major content is developed over time.
"Materials cannot match the contours of the standards by
approaching each individual content standard as a separate event,"
the document says. "Nor can materials align to the standards by
approaching each individual grade as a separate event."
Meanwhile, the publishers' criteria emphasize three aspects of
"rigor" in the major work at each grade level: conceptual
understanding, procedural skill and fluency, and applications.
"To date, curricula have not always been balanced in their
approach to these three aspects of rigor," the document says.
"Some curricula stress fluency in computation, without
acknowledging the role of conceptual understanding in attaining
fluency. Some stress conceptual understanding without acknowledging
that fluency requires separate classroom work of a different
There is far more covered in the publishers' criteria than I can
possibly address in this blog post. So, take a look for yourself, Dear
Reader. I expect to be back with more analysis and feedback later,
once folks out in the field have a chance to digest this. And if you
have opinions pro or con about the document that you wish to share, by
all means post a comment here.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244