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Top 10 Questions to Ask Common Core Vendors

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Their Answers Will Help Separate the Genuine from the Disingenuous

The implementation of Common Core State Standards is intended to create change in our nation's public education system ... not put change in the pockets of the American publishing industry.

However, there's no denying that the "world-as-we-know-it-altering" initiative known as Common Core State Standards has generated a tremendous amount of interest from the corporate sector. Most of this interest is founded in the true spirit of Common Core: improving our students' overall academic performance, ensuring all American high school students graduate college and career ready, fortifying our workforce, and perpetuating our place as a global academic and economic leader.

Certainly, education vendors are responsible for developing quality products for the marketplace. But, the ultimate burden falls on education leaders to thoroughly evaluate vendors and appraise the deluge of instructional materials flooding the market claiming to be Common Core-aligned. Beware of suppliers who simply retrofit existing materials and professional development processes, then claim100 percent alignment with Common Core State Standards. Instead, look for proven partners who can articulate a clear understanding of the instructional shifts coming with Common Core, and who can demonstrate how their products have changed to align with the new standards and assessments currently under development. Quality vendors will be able to show concrete evidence of the investments being made in their products to align in these two areas.

To help you distinguish the partners from the pretenders, Compass Learning has compiled a list of 10 questions you should be asking prospective Common Core vendors, along with key language and concepts you should hear back in their responses. Your efforts will help you better recognize alignment and misalignment, inform your purchases, guide your professional development efforts, and ultimately ensure your students, teachers, and schools achieve success with the new Common Core State Standards and assessments.

Q1. The new English/language arts (ELA) standards focus on building knowledge through content-rich, cross-curricular nonfiction texts and on text evidence and complexity. How is your product changing to support these shifts?

The instructional shift in Common Core moves from what has been a predominant focus on narrative text to increased emphasis on expository text across the curriculum, with passages selected for their sophisticated sentence structure and ability to introduce and develop new vocabulary. Quality vendors, first and foremost, should assure you they're focused on adding this type of nonfiction text to their products. The informational text should be complex; contain challenging, academic vocabulary; and provide an emphasis on real-world and career-related content.

The focus on text evidence and complexity will require readers to actually use the text. That may sound elementary, but today, many ELA passages don't require students to read thoughtfully and intentionally then apply what they've read to answer questions related to specific elements of that content. Instead, students are asked questions like: How did the story make you feel? Or, what did you think about the central character? The Common Core shift necessitates that quality programs feature questions that are open-ended and require students to carefully analyze and draw conclusions from the text, compare and contrast different passages, make their own judgments, and defend their personal points of view.

Q2. The new math standards focus on key knowledge and skills; coherence across grade levels; and conceptual understanding. How is your product changing to support these shifts?

In answering this question, vendors need to articulate their understanding that focus and coherence mean a shift toward teaching less math breadth and more math depth. Focus requires that we significantly narrow the scope of content at each grade level so students more deeply experience and understand the content that remains. This differs greatly from the current mile-wide/inch-deep approach to teaching math. Vendors should be developing content that is reflective of this major shift.

Additionally, vendors should understand the emphasis on conceptual understanding. For example, when you're teaching addition you would build on the foundational concept of place value, versus memorizing an algorithm, so that three years down the road students still have that conceptual understanding on which to build. Online vendors' products need to support this kind of instruction through virtual manipulatives like algebra tiles, fraction strips, and geo-boards, enabling students to illustrate their conceptual understanding by showing the approach they used to problem solve, rather than simply providing the answer to the problem.

Q3. How does your product's assessment system compare to the Common Core assessment systems currently in development?

Vendors should be moving away from traditional fill-in-the-oval multiple choice assessments and toward developing more open-ended and performance-based questions that support college and career readiness. Additionally, vendors should be closely following the work of the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessment consortiums currently funded to develop K-12 Common Core assessments in ELA/literacy and math. As information is forthcoming from each consortium, quality companies are building similar item types into their products that mirror those being developed by PARCC and Smarter Balanced.

Q4. How will using your technology enhance my instruction and improve my students' learning experience?

Educators should be wary of vendors who are simply placing worksheets online in the name of technology. Old content converted to browser-based content is still old content.

Done right, digital materials can offer incredible opportunities to personalize and differentiate learning to individual student's abilities, interests, and learning and expression styles. Furthermore, technology can immerse students in a rich, multimedia interactive environment in which lessons are presented in new, captivating, engaging ways. Today's students don't want to power off just because they're in school. We're talking about the M2 Generation here - tech-savvy children whose lives revolve around multimedia.

And, perhaps the most profound way technology enhances instruction is through the advantage of immediate, real-time assessment and data reporting. Vendors should offer a variety of online formative and summative tools that provide diagnostic and prescriptive initial placement, ongoing progress monitoring, and summative assessment feedback. This data can help teachers assess students' strengths and needs, determine ability levels, pinpoint foundational skill gaps, and challenge advanced learners. The automaticity with which data can be managed and organized, makes instructional planning more efficient and effective for classroom teachers and administrators. A strong Common Core partner should offer all of these technology-enabled features.

Q5. How are you preparing teachers to implement Common Core in their classrooms?

Well-trained teachers are absolutely essential to achieving Common Core success. Classroom instruction within the Common Core will necessitate a new way of thinking about teaching and learning.

The good news for educators is the current "teach to the test" method of instruction, which devalues teachers and focuses on a more algorithmic approach to learning, will become a thing of the past. With the introduction of Common Core, teachers will have the freedom to focus on conceptual learning. They'll have to determine how best to teach students to think for themselves; how to raise their levels of reading comprehension; and apply, extend, and articulate their knowledge.

Quality vendors understand that this new way of teaching will require educators to make a significant investment of time and reflective practice. They should be prepared to support leadership in planning, goal setting, sustained, job-embedded professional development, and fidelity of program implementation. Support should be ongoing - a partnership endeavor with the school district.

Q6. Who is developing your Common Core products and what are their credentials?

At the very least, you want a vendor who is employing "real people" with deep understanding and extensive expertise to develop its products. You don't want a computer responsible for "aligning" content. And, find out if the vendor is outsourcing overseas, which is surprisingly commonplace. If so, will these overseas contractors be able to design curriculum that's relevant, entertaining, and meaningful to your students?

Above all, we encourage you to partner with a vendor whose product designers are degreed professionals and credentialed educators with real classroom experience. Another hint: The very best educational product developers either struggled in school, or have worked with students who have had learning challenges. Because these professionals understand the challenges and empathize with hard-to-reach students, they are masters at developing instructional content.

Q7. How does your product address 21st century skills?

Vendors' products should help students hone life and career skills. They should enable students to learn in relevant, real-world, 21st century contexts, for example through project-based learning and other applied work. Their products should give students ample opportunities to communicate, collaborate, think critically, be creative, and use the technology in the variety of ways necessary to succeed in college, careers, and life.

More specifically, products should help students develop skills necessary for research and essay writing, including organization, analysis, synthesis, and communication. They should give students practice with the entire writing process, including prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. They should facilitate the creation of mini-communities that mirror social relationships and activities of the larger society through applications that enable discussion and collaboration. Problems and tasks should require higher-order, critical thinking skills. Finally, vendors need to work with you to allow equitable access to quality learning tools, technologies, and resources, fostering learning tailored to the needs and wants of individual students. And importantly, this type of learning must occur anytime and anyplace - whenever and wherever learners desire.

Q8. Explain how all students, regardless of skill and ability level, can be successful using your product?

A key criterion for Common Core materials and tools is that they provide supports for special populations such as students with disabilities, English language learners, and gifted and talented students. Products should provide "just what students need" - that is, the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills through learning strategies that are personalized and differentiated to their unique abilities, learning styles, and preferences.

For struggling learners, products should employ clear examples and focused activities that move from the simple to the complex and from the concrete to the abstract in a manner that provides scaffolded support. Intervention activities should be delivered through engaging, highly interactive, and individualized learning paths that provide targeted instruction on specific skills and concepts. Instant feedback and repetitive skill development can ensure students are mastering critical objectives before moving on to more complex materials.

On-grade and accelerated learners should be given opportunities to work at their own pace on projects that encourage them to apply, deepen, and extend their learning.

Q9. How much are you investing in the Common Core initiative?

The shifts that are coming with Common Core are so major that vendors' primary focus and curriculum development budgets should be devoted to Common Core alignment. They are likely making substantial investments in the effort and should convey a tremendous sense of urgency to obtain and maintain alignment with these new rigorous standards and their related next-generation assessments.

Q10. How does your product help students make the transition to the Common Core State Standards?

There's a real concern for the middle or high school student who's suddenly accountable for the rigorous high standards of Common Core, without the foundational knowledge required to succeed.

No doubt, there will be knowledge gaps, particularly in the beginning. Vendors need to be sensitive to this and prepared to help students through the transition. Product offerings should include fully-integrated systems of learning and assessments. This evidence-based approach to understanding what students know and don't know should yield the necessary formative data for teachers to assign differentiated learning paths and continually adjust instruction in response to student performance. This will go a long way toward closing gaps and keeping learners on track to meet college- and career-ready standards.

About the Author

Ann Henson oversees the development of curriculum and instruction materials for all Compass Learning courseware and assessment solutions. Ann offers a wealth of curriculum and instruction knowledge developed throughout her 25 year tenure at Compass Learning and her prior experience in public education.

At Compass Learning, she has worked in the area of Professional Development as an Education Consultant, supported Sales activities as a Senior Curriculum and Instruction Specialist, and managed and worked a Sales territory as an Account Executive. As Vice President of Sales Operations, she led a Sales Support team responsible for pre-sales support activities, development of sales tools, and sales training, and served as primary liaison for Sales to other departments within Compass Learning.

Prior to joining Compass Learning, Ann was a high school math and computer science teacher and worked at a district level on curriculum development. Her final role in public education was Director of Instructional Technology for a K-12 school district where she not only was responsible for a district-wide technology plan but also experienced Compass Learning from a customer viewpoint.

Ann holds a bachelor's degree in secondary mathematics education from Oklahoma State University and has completed graduate work in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis on elementary mathematics.

Compass Learning is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

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