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Watchdog Gives a Scarlet Letter to Some High School Literature Curricula

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It's the best of times and the worst of times for a few of the largest literature series used in America's high school classrooms.

EdReports.org, a nonprofit that aims to serve a Consumer Reports-style role in the crowded K-12 materials marketplace, just issued ratings of how well six major literature curricula align to the academic goals known as the Common Core State Standards, which were adopted in 37 states.

Three of the series—Pearson's MyPerspective, Odell Education's Developing Core Literacy Proficiencies, and the College Board's Springboard—got good marks across the board. But the other three series— two from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and one from Pearson—only partially met the criteria. And each of those had at least one grade level in the 9-12 range where the materials didn't align.

Lisa Potts, EdReport's director of English/language arts reviews, noted that the series tended to falter when it came to putting in a comprehensive structure to support writing, the development of research skills, and students' ability to read complex material independently.

"We know that teaching students how to look at different kinds of information, to synthesize information, and to understand what it means and actually be able to defend an opinion or talk about what they're studying is critical to post-K-12 work. And it's something that is tremendously difficult to put into a program," she said.

Mixed Reviews Show Variability Within the Curriculum Marketplace

The release is also a bit of a landmark for EdReports, which launched in 2015. Now with high school English/language-arts texts covered, it has completed a review of curriculum in all K-12 grades in reading and math. (See our coverage of the group's ratings in K-8 math, K-2 ELA, 3-8 ELA, and a mix of updates for more details.)

As you may know, EdReports uses a series of gateways to review each series. For secondary ELA, the curriculum has to at least a "partially meet" criteria for text quality and alignment, which deals with the selection of interesting and complex texts, to go to the second gateway, which concerns how the text helps build students' knowledge via vocabulary and coherent theming. On that second gateway, they have to score a "meets" standards to go on to the third gateway, which looks at the curriculum's built-in instructional tools and the supports designed to help teachers use it effectively.

Overall, a curriculum has to fully meet expectations for the first two gateways to get a final alignment score of meets expectations; the usability score (if a curriculum gets that far) is separate.

Publishers have, in the past, pushed back on the group's methodology, particularly on its first math reviews and more generally, on the concept of the gateways. EdReports has tweaked its process since then. 

Each of the series was examined by a team of five teachers. And the high school literature submissions were by far the most extensive offerings EdReports.org has looked at thus far: Some of the textbooks spanned nearly 3,000 pages.

What's most illuminating about the findings is that they show that just because two curricula were put together by the same publishing house doesn't necessarily mean they're of the same quality. Nor can one assume that a single series' quality is consistent from grade to grade. Take a look at the chart below, which separates scores out for the three series that had some problems. 

ELA_mixed.jpg

Pearson had one of the top series, but its Literature texts got relatively poor marks. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Collections did well at choosing great stuff for students to read with a range of text complexity, but failed to scaffold activities to build students' knowledge coherently. And none of these series got the same alignment score at every grade level. 

EdReports.org allowed publishers to submit feedback and comments on their review, but neither Pearson nor Houghton Mifflin Harcourt did, nor were they immediately available for comment. (I'll update this if they weigh in. I've also asked some literature experts to look at the reviews, too.) 

The group will release updates on a rolling basis now as new curricula come out and as publishers revise the old ones. And EdReports is also planning to turn to science—clearly a subject where teachers, advocates, and publishers are wrestling with questions of curricular alignment and quality.

The nonprofit is funded primarily by philanthropies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was a major financial backer of the common core's development. (The Gates Foundation also supports some coverage of the assessment and implementation of college- and career-ready standards in Education Week and edweek.org.)

Bottom Image: Courtesy of EdReports.org 


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