From the Editor
Working on Content
Anne Wujcik — Friday, May 11, 2012
Lot's happening with content. The Council of the Great City Schools and Student Achievement Partners, whose founders led the writing of the Common Core English/language arts standards, sponsored the first in a series of workshops for teachers and literacy specialists from across the country. Recognizing that in many classrooms the existing store of textbooks will continue to be the major instructional resource, the goal of the workshop was to develop a set of materials that teachers can use in conjunction with their basal textbooks to better address the Common Core's emphasis on text-dependent analysis and interpretation. Students will be expected to understand and analyze a variety of texts and teachers will need to help them read text more closely. The questions in current basal readers tend to ask students to reflect on their feelings or experiences without having to consult the reading passage for an answer. So the 70 educators at the workshop spent their time devising new, more text-dependent questions.
The new Basal Alignment Project aims to build a free, online repository that will include a bank of teacher-written questions and tasks that are more "text-dependent" than those currently in use. By August, organizers hope the workshops will have produced new questions for at least a few of the reading passages in each of the most popular grade 3-5 basals. Project leaders hope to complete questions for all passages from those basals by spring 2013
CGCS and Student Achievement Partners and trying to help teachers attain "a shared understanding" of the intent of the standards.
Meanwhile, Russ Whitehurst and co-author Matt Chingos from Brookings's Brown Center on Education Policy, want to see more attention focused on instructional materials, arguing that the choice of instructional materials (textbooks, workbooks, instructional software, web-based content, homework, projects, quizzes, and tests) has effects on student learning as large as those "associated with differences in student effectiveness." The authors point out that not only do schools lack evidence on the effectiveness of the materials currently in use (here the arguments are familiar from Whitehurst's days as director of the What Works Clearinghouse), they also lack a systematic was of discovering and sharing information on which materials are being used in which schools. I know how often I have been frustrated when trying to gather information about materials in use in even one given state, a project that could well mean having to call districts directly to enquire about what they are using in their classrooms.
"Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core" goes on to argue that this lack of systemic information becomes even more problematic in light of the Common Core standards. "The Common Core standards will only have a chance of raising student achievement if they are implemented with high-quality materials," the report says, "but there is currently no basis to measure the quality of materials. Efforts to improve teacher effectiveness will also fall short if they focus solely on the selection and retention of teachers and ignore the instructional tools that teachers are given to practice their craft."
The authors make a number of recommendations designed to remedy the lack of information about what materials are being used, including:
- State education agencies should collect data from districts on the instructional materials in use in their schools. This would include collecting information from district purchasing departments about the instructional materials ordered each school year, surveying districts about the materials used in their schools and periodically surveying teachers on the instructional materials they actually use.
- The National Center for Education Statistics should develop data collection templates for states to use through its Common Education Data Standards (CEDS), and provide guidance on how states can use and share data on instructional materials.
- The National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) should put their considerable weight behind the effort to improve the collection of information on instructional materials.
- The Data Quality Campaign (DQC) should use its influence in this area to encourage states to collect information on the use of instructional materials and support them in their efforts to gather these data.
- Major philanthropic organizations could help by providing the start-up funding needed to collect data on instructional materials and supporting the research that would put those data to use.
I was fascinated by this report. It describes very practical research and some thought needs to go into developing incentives that would encourage schools and districts to report in sufficient detail on their use of instructional materials. But too often we are all focused on developing some high level solution to school reform or improving teaching and learning without any real idea of the "on the ground" situation. It seems to me that you can't change practice very effectively unless you have at least some understanding of what current practice is.
Taking a different tack, Common Sense Media has launched a new learning ratings initiative that will evaluate the learning potential of websites, video games, and mobile apps. Supported through a partnership with SCE, a foundation created by Susan Crown, the ratings and reviews provide parents, teachers, teens, and kids with a guide to find the games, sites, and apps that can extend learning time, make learning fun, and build 21ST century skills.
The ratings include a new rating for learning at the top of each mobile app, video game, and website review, along with Common Sense's standard rating for age appropriateness and quality. Under the tab "Learning Potential," users see summary reviews of what kids can learn, what the product is about, how kids can learn, and how parents can help. Along with the summaries, a section called "Subjects and Skills" lays out both the core subjects and the 21st-century skills that the product addresses. The entire review culminates in an overall learning rating, ranging from "Not Meant for Learning" to "Best for Learning." Common Sense will rate and review both products that were intentionally designed to be educational as well as conventional entertainment media.
Common Sense Media's learning ratings are based on comprehensive research and a rigorous evaluation framework. The framework was developed after conducting interviews with academic experts, a literature review of key 21st-century learning skills, and research with national samples of parents and teachers, who voiced a real need for learning ratings like these. Learning ratings and reviews are available now for more than 150 mobile apps, games, and websites, with more than 800 expected by the end of 2012.