Are Children Learning

State board of education poised to approve list of Common Core-aligned math textbooks

PHOTO: Creative Commons

The state board of education will most likely approve a new list of math textbooks for the state of Tennessee next week — and unlike books available in the past, they will be aligned with the Common Core State Standards, according to members of the textbook commission that approved them.

That would provide teachers with an extra set of tools to help students meet the standards on high-stakes assessment at the end of the year.

The state approves a new list of textbooks for each subject about every six years. In recent years, though, changes in standards have been swift, with Tennessee adopting new math standards in 2008, and again in 2010, with the introduction of the Common Core.

That means that textbooks have quickly fallen out of date. Experts say that even math books marketed as Common Core-aligned are often far from it. And now, open-source, online and customizable curricular materials are more widely available than ever.

The Tennessee textbook commission, which includes three math teachers from across the state as well as two superintendents and a principal, approved the list of more than 400 books and workbooks earlier this month. The textbooks were evaluated by 38 math teachers from across the state, all of whom had been trained on the state standards for math.

The commission then made recommendations based on the evaluators’ reviews, followed by  a period of public review before the commission finalized it. The reviewers’ focus was on making sure the books were focused on material related to the standards, and making sure the books were rigorous.

Although the state provides the list of approved textbooks, it is up to the discretion of each district to decide which books it will buy, or if it will buy a set of textbooks at all.

Monty Wilson, the head of the textbook commission and a former teacher, said that the aim is to cut the workload for local districts seeking quality materials, because they can focus their search on the materials right for their district on a list of books already screened by the state, rather than every book published in the country.

“A large proportion of work is complete for districts, because we ensure that (the textbooks on the list) meet a certain level of rigor,” he said.

Cory Concus, a math teacher at Covington High School in Tipton County,  served on the math textbook commission this year. Like other Tennessee teachers, he had been underwhelmed by past textbooks because they often covered material that had been taught in earlier grades, while lacking grade-level content. 

He said he was surprised at how rigorous the adoption cycle was, and how much attention was paid to ensure that the approved books were aligned with the standards teachers need to use. The rubric evaluators used (embedded below) stresses the importance of books reflecting Tennessee’s standards, and begins with a notice to evaluators of the importance of standards alignment.

This might be the first year that books aligned with the Common Core even exist, said Morgan Polikoff, a researcher from the University of Southern California.

After most states in the country adopted Common Core State Standards, textbook companies rushed to adapt their textbooks to the new standards — but studies by Polikoff and  William Schmidt at Michigan State University  show that the majority of those books were almost unchanged from pre-Common Core iterations.

“It is a sham,” Schmidt said at the Education Writers Association conference in Nashville in May. “These snake-oil salesmen run over the country and tell all these poor districts and teachers that the books line up. The yellow stamp on the front has nothing to do with the substance within the book.”

Schmidt said books that are Common Core-aligned should cover fewer topics, but more in-depth.

“If we keep teaching—fractions, for example—to very little depth, kids aren’t going to get it and Common Core will be blamed,” he said in May.

Polikoff said that it was possible the books Tennessee approved will be aligned, since they were all published this year. His past studies of books published by Houghton-Mifflin, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill showed that even books the publishers claimed to be core-aligned were missing content related to the standards, or had content that was unrelated to the standards. But he said he had not yet studied the books approved by Tennessee, which were published this year.

Teachers who have been relying on online materials, or creating their own, would welcome better texts, said Mary Ashlock, a math teacher in Henry County.

“If I had a textbook that was worth a flip, I would probably use it,” she said.

Here’s the rubric reviewers used:

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.

Cap and gown

Graduation rates in Michigan – and Detroit’s main district — are up, but are most students ready for college?

The state superintendent had some good news to share Wednesday about last year’s four-year graduation rates: They are at their highest level in years.

What’s not clear is whether new graduates are being adequately prepared for college.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the state’s high school students graduated last year, an increase of about half a percentage point from the previous year. It was news state education leaders cheered.

“An 80 percent statewide graduation rate is a new watermark for our schools. They’ve worked hard to steadily improve,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

“This is another important step in helping Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years. We aren’t there yet, so we need to keep working and moving forward,” he said.

But statewide, the number of students ready for college based on their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was about 35 percent, underscoring the fact that graduation rate is not necessarily a great measure of school success. Schools looking to raise graduation rates can find ways to make it easier for students to earn credits toward graduation and, unlike some states, Michigan does not require students to pass graduation exams.

The result is that more students are graduating from high school — but might not be ready to do college work.

In Detroit, graduation rates in the city’s main district remained largely steady, with a little more than three-quarters of its students graduating after four years. But the number of students who were ready for college dropped almost a point to 12.3 percent last year. While most students take the SAT in 11th grade as part of the state’s school testing program, that’s an indication students graduating from high school may not have been adequately prepared for college.

The state dropout rate remained largely unchanged at almost nine percent.

Detroit’s main district had the highest four-year graduation rates compared to other large districts, but more district students dropped out of school than in the previous year. More than 10 percent of Detroit students dropped out of high school in the 2016-17 school year, a slight increase from last year, according to state data.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s school chief, said the report should motivate the district to ensure students are graduating at higher numbers, and are college ready when they leave high school.

“We are focused on creating a college going culture in our high schools by expanding accelerating programs, such as IB, dual enrollment, AP, and Early College,” he said. “We have already expanded SAT preparation during the school day and intend to offer classes within the schedule for this focus with 10th graders next year.”

Focusing on strengthening basic skills among elementary and middle school students also will better prepare them for college after graduation, Vitti said.

“Most importantly, if we teach the Common Core standards with fidelity and a stronger aligned curriculum, which we will next year at the K-8 level for reading and math, our students will be exposed to college ready skills and knowledge,” he added. “We look forward to demonstrating the true and untapped talent of our students in the years to come.”

But in spite of steady dropout rates and relatively low college readiness numbers, state officials were upbeat about the graduation results.

“This is the first time the statewide four-year graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent since we started calculating rates by cohorts eleven years ago,” said Tom Howell, director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which tracks school data. “This increase is in line with how the statewide graduation rate has been trending gradually upward.”

Search below to see the four-year graduation rates and college readiness rates for all Michigan high schools.