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Choose an Aligned Math Curriculum, Get Better Common-Core Teaching?

Teachers who reported using at least one textbook aligned to the Common Core State Standards were more likely to report engaging students in key mathematical practices that those who didn't, according to a new study.

Despite the positive correlation, only a small fraction of teachers surveyed reported using materials with a high alignment rating, concludes the study from the RAND Corporation. It's the latest research project to probe how curriculum alignment does—and doesn't—change teachers' understanding of what they're expected to teach.

RAND's analysis is based on a nationally representative sample of teachers from its American Teacher Panel. Of the more than 1,700 teachers who responded to the survey, 625 were math teachers. It was administered in 2016 (I'll come back to this point in a minute.)

There are a few important caveats to keep in mind as we dig into the findings.

Caveat number one: These days it's harder and harder to come up with a definitive list of how many states, and how many math teachers in each state, are expected to teach to the common core. Due to political pressures that came to a head around 2013, many states rebranded the common core with a new name. A few states reversed their adoptions of the common core, even though some still held onto major tenets of the standards. For a sense of how complicated this can get, take a look at New York, which recently replaced the standards but kept many aspects of them in place.

For its analysis, RAND stuck with the initial number of common core states that adopted the common core, 45, despite the many changes within them. Of the sample it studied, about 76 percent of teachers taught in one of those states.

Here's caveat number two. RAND used the Consumer Reports-style reviews rolled out by the nonprofit EdReports to judge alignment. But EdReports didn't start issuing ratings until early 2015, just a year before the survey was administered. And because teachers aren't typically the ones who make purchasing decisions, it's possible that some of these findings reflect the time lag that accompanies the provision and distribution of new curricula.

And finally, caveat number three: Alignment is hardly a science. It's a judgment, plain and simple. If you disagree with EdReport's definition of "aligned," you could well take issue with this report.

With the caveats out of the way, let's look at the results. RAND found that only a fraction of teachers were using one of the four curricula  that met EdReports' alignment bar. (It is worth pointing out that the free materials fromEngage NY were by far the most-used aligned material.) Many were using a mix of textbooks and resources of varying levels of alignment, as defined by EdReports.

Capture_alignment_math_rand.PNG

Second, the report found that even teachers using the most highly aligned materials didn't have any better a grasp of which topics they were expected to teach at their grade level than teachers using non-aligned materials. The simple provision of better books, in other words, does not itself appear to deepen understanding of how the standards build upon themselves each year or on the emphasis particular to each grade level.

But (and here's some good news): Using one of the aligned materials was correlated with engaging students more frequently in some key ways. Serious readers of this blog and Education Week know that the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice underpin much of the common core. And RAND finds that teachers who used at least one of the aligned materials were also statistically more likely to report engaging students in these practices. Here's how this looks in each of the eight practices, and note that it's not consistent across each and every one. (Click to enlarge.)

Capture_math_practices_textbooks.PNG

What's the overall takeaway from this report? I'd argue it's yet another sign that shifting teaching to the degree envisioned by these standards is hard work, and that curriculum selection is one major step, but clearly not sufficient on its own.

Much more in the full report, so make sure to check it out.

Images: RAND Corporation

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