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Common-Core Materials Continue to Vary in Quality, According to Textbook Review

The newest batch of K-12 textbook reviews from nonprofit EdReports.org has some bad news for major publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The reviews, released yesterday, look at a mix of math and English/language arts texts from four different publishers. EdReports.org has been posting reviews of curriculum materials that claim to be aligned to the Common Core State Standards since 2015, and the free website now has about 200 reports for different grades and course levels. The effort is funded by grantors, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 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.)

EdReports art chart 2.23.17.jpg

In the inaugural round of ratings two years ago, which included 20 math series, nearly all publishers performed poorly. (Some of those scores have since been modified.) Eureka Math, published by Great Minds, was the only program found to be aligned at all grade levels. 

EdReports.org is now rolling out its reviews, which are conducted by small teams that include practicing teachers, as they are completed. In this round of reviews, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt fared the worst, with two different series—the English/language arts curriculum, Journeys, and the HMH Integrated high school math curriculum—failing to meet expectations for common-core alignment at all grade levels analyzed. 

Bianca Olson, a senior vice president for corporate affairs for the company, responded in an email, "Our position on EdReports remains consistent ... We believe the EdReports.org methodology continues to show weakness and inaccuracy in its understanding of standards and instructional methodologies. It fails to recognize instances of standards progression over a series of lessons and misses key program features that support standards teaching and learning in their entirety."

Not all Houghton Mifflin Harcourt materials have done quite so poorly—HMH Collections 2015 for grades 6-8, which was reviewed previously, partially met expectations for alignment.

Some Better Ratings 

Yesterday's release also included a positive assessment of Core Knowledge Language Arts for grades 3-5, published by Amplify. That curriculum met all the measures for both alignment and usability.

The McGraw-Hill Education program that was analyzed—Reading Wonders for grades 3-6—partially met the criteria for common-core alignment. Interestingly, in its response (posted on the website) the publisher included letters from two of its best-known authors—Timothy Shanahan, a distinguished professor emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Doug Fisher, a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University.

Shanahan, who also helped write the common core, noted that review was "a bit uneven."

"This I attribute to the fact that some of the criteria are more objective and measurable, while others tend to be more dependent on reviewers' subjective opinions," he wrote.

EdReports.org has been the target of some criticism over the last couple of years, with publishers and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics claiming the reviews were incomplete and used shoddy methodology. The group did tweak its review process in the months after its initial release, but some publishers have continued to argue that the EdReports.org results conflict with state review panels' results and should not be trusted. 

EdReports.org also re-reviewed the Big Ideas Math 6th—8th grade programs for the recent release. As Eric Hirsch, the executive director of EdReports.org, explained in an interview, the publisher pointed out that the initial review did not include online components that are critical to the program. EdReports.org agreed to look over the program again in its entirety. The program received several more points but its overall designation did not change (6th and 7th grades did not meet expectations for alignment, and 8th grade partially met them). 

When asked whether EdReports.org plans to re-review other programs, Hirsch said his teams will gladly re-analyze materials if the publisher makes substantive changes to them. 

"Our goal is to help ensure that curricular products really help teachers help students reach the depth of college- and career-ready standards," he said. "Nothing would excite us more than for publishers to want us to re-review because they've made changes they think would impact their score in a positive way."

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