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Foundations Creating Online Common-Standards Coursework

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Pearson Foundation announced today that they're working together to craft complete, online curricula for the common standards in math and English/language arts for elementary, middle, and most of high school.

The Pearson Foundation's work is being supported by a $3 million grant from the Gates Foundation. It's part of a $20 million suite of Gates grants that are aimed at developing a range of teaching-and-learning tools for the common standards. They capitalize on new technologies such as gaming and social networking.

The Gates Foundation has been making significant investments in curriculum tools for the common standards, as we have told you before, as well as supporting the common-standards initiative itself. (The foundation also provides support to Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.)

Major publishers have been busy adapting or creating materials for the common standards, which have been adopted in all but six states. Pearson's plan represents a big step toward producing brand-new curriculum and encompasses more grade levels, and more of the school year, than do most of the industry's more narrowly targeted projects.

In a conference call with reporters, officials from Gates and the Pearson Foundations said the project will create 24 courses: 11 in math, grades K-10; and 13 in English/language arts, grades K-12. Four of those courses will be available for free online through the Gates Foundation.

Each course will serve as a 150-day curriculum and use technology intended to better engage and motivate students, such as animations and interactive games, said Judy Codding, the former chief executive officer of America's Choice who is now helping lead the curriculum effort at the Pearson Foundation. The systems will include additional tools and supports for teachers, including assessments for the courses and professional development focusing on the quality of student work that's necessary to meet the new standards, she said.

Two of the courses in English and two in math will be available for free online, but the rest would be part of a system that will be marketed, most likely, by Pearson, the for-profit company that operates the nonprofit Pearson Foundation, said Mark Nieker, the Pearson Foundation's president. The company will charge for professional development on the full-course system, but provide such support for the four free courses online at no charge, Codding said.

Secondary-level courses in math and elementary-school-level courses in English/language arts are scheduled to be available for the 2013-14 school year, with the entire suite of courses and accompanying supports available for the 2014-15 school year, Codding said. She didn't provide a date for when the four free courses would be available, but said they'll be posted as soon as they're complete.

Phil Daro and Sally Hampton, senior officials at America's Choice who helped draft the common-core math and English/language arts standards, respectively, are "on assignment" to oversee course development and design, Codding said. You might recall that Pearson bought America's Choice last summer (see our blog post and our story about that).

Early news of the partnership drew some interesting reaction. Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, the former director of the U.S. Department of Education's research arm and now director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said the arrangement represented an "interesting intertwining" of nonprofit and for-profit motives, and will undoubtedly prompt questions about "who profits from the common core."

Linking adoption of the common standards to winning federal Race to the Top money, and funding assessments for the standards with federal dollars, "creates a market" for the work, he said. "The question will be, and it's a reasonable one to ask: Who profits from this? People will have to profit from it; you can't deliver education products into the marketplace for free. But it will be interesting to follow the money and see who manages to monetize the nation's investment in common-core standards and assessments."

Nevertheless, Whitehurst said, it's good to "see someone tackle" a curriculum spanning so many grades, so one grade can build effectively upon another. And done well, the work could serve as a valuable lever in the industry to prompt more curriculum development—a hope the Gates Foundation's Vicki Phillips expressed herself in the conference call with reporters.

Even still, Whitehurst said, it will be a daunting task to complete the curriculum systems in three years.

"They've set out some ambitious goals if they expect [the curricula] to be truly innovative and groundbreaking," he said. "It's easier to have good-sounding rhetoric about new materials, thinking, approaches, technology, than it is to do it. Ultimately, we have to see what it looks like."

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