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Common Core’s unintended consequence? More teachers write their own curricula

Last year Melody Arabo had the hardest year of her 13-year teaching career. The program she and her colleagues had been given to teach third-grade math at Keith Elementary just outside of Detroit was supposed to match the new Common Core standards that students will be tested on this coming spring. But the workbooks still covered some of the old standards, and the daily lessons all but ignored some of the new standards, such as how to measure to the nearest half-inch.

“I had to supplement a lot,” said Arabo, who is Michigan’s 2014-2015 Teacher of the Year. “It was a lot of searching and finding and printing and trying. My team worked together because we were all struggling. One of us would take a unit, the other one would take another unit and we would share our stuff together.”

According to many teachers, experts and advocates of the Common Core, traditional curriculum sources haven’t been meeting the demands of the new set of math and English standards that have been rolled out in more than 40 states in the past few years. More and more teachers are scrapping off-the-shelf lessons and searching for replacements on the Internet or writing new curriculum materials themselves.

The Center on Education Policy (CEP), a nonpartisan research group, reports that in roughly two-thirds of districts in Common Core states, teachers have developed or are developing their own curricular materials in math (66 percent) and English Language Arts (65 percent). In more than 80 percent of districts, the CEP found that at least one source for curriculum materials was local — from teachers, the district itself or other districts in the state.

Soon-to-be-published research conducted by William Schmidt and the Center for the Study of Curriculum at Michigan State University seems to confirm teachers’ predicament. “We looked at 35 of the most commonly used [math] series that are out there in the field right now, used by about half of the kids in the country,” said Schmidt, University Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Education Policy Center. “Most of these materials don’t line up, and when you look at an individual set of materials, as much as half of the book might not be relevant to the standards at that grade level.”

However, Jay Diskey, executive director of the PreK-12 Learning Group of the Association of American Publishers, said publishers are pulling their weight. “We have more than 150 members in our PreK-12 Learning Group. And the ones I’ve seen over the past several years or more have tried very hard to align with Common Core standards in reading and math.”

Related: Does Common Core really mean teachers should teach differently?

And yet, according to the CEP, 90 percent of districts in Common Core states said that developing or identifying Common Core curricular materials has posed a challenge.

Some teachers and districts are viewing the dearth of materials as an opportunity, but experts and even some educators say putting the job of creating curriculum materials into the hands of teachers may not necessarily be a good thing.

“It’s a wonderful thing that teachers are digging in and learning the materials that are expected in the Common Core at the different grade levels,” said Diane Rentner, deputy director of CEP. “What we don’t know is how effective that will be.”

Schmidt is among those who are leery of teachers taking on the task of building entire curricula themselves. “It’s a rather elaborate and extensive endeavor to write instructional materials for a whole year, and I think that no one should expect that teachers have the time nor the professional background to do that.”

Frustrated teachers, many faced with the added pressure of evaluations linked to their students’ test scores, are either finding the time to make up their own materials or turning to websites where other teachers have posted homemade lessons.

The sites include Betterlesson.com; ShareMylesson.com, developed by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a union; and the “open marketplace” site Teachers Pay Teachers. According to Alex Grodd, founder and CEO of BetterLesson, the site gets 400,000 unique visitors per month and has seen a 33 percent increase in traffic since launching a project to recruit “master teachers” to create Common Core materials for the site.

Since Share My Lesson launched in July of 2012, there have been 8.2 million downloads; as of Feb. 9, there are more than 700,000 registered users and more than 300,000 posted resources, of which nearly 28,000 are matched to the Common Core. Teachers Pay Teachers allows teachers to buy and sell lessons for an average price of under $5. In 2013, according to company figures, users bought and sold about $44 million of content on Teachers Pay Teachers; last year that figure went up to $78 million. CEO Adam Freed believes the Common Core is partly responsible for the uptick.

Related: New York school beats the odds by “going rogue” on Common Core

Amber Chandler, an English Language Arts teacher at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, New York, for the past 12 years and a high school teacher before that, has been working with Share My Lesson since its beginning. She said she first got involved in looking for a Common Core curriculum as chair of her department. “That was a good time for companies to come out and say ‘Common Core aligned,’ but anyone could say that at that point,” she remembered. “There had never been a test.”

The materials on Share My Lesson, on the other hand, had the imprimatur of teachers. “You know another teacher has sat, looked at this, taken the time to share it and then it has been vetted by other teachers,” said Chandler.

She and her fellow teachers also wrote their own materials. They created a unit with multicultural authors and replaced an exercise in writing cover letters with one on inserting links into documents. They also experimented, largely unhappily, with some off-the-shelf alternatives.

So far, Chandler herself has uploaded 253 resources to Share My Lesson and plans to add another 100 by the end of the year. She has also begun blogging for the site. “It’s given me a chance to be a leader from the classroom,” she said.

But she admits that taking on the responsibility of figuring out what content to teach is nerve-wracking. “That great ability to create and experience and do things with our kids and collaborate all feels good until you are nervous about your job,” she said. “And then you think, you know what, I wish they would just tell me what’s on the test.”

Principal Shelley Ritz led her staff through a similar process when the Common Core arrived at the Belle Chasse Primary School in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish. Teachers were not happy about the new standards, but it wasn’t necessarily the new expectations. “Who doesn’t want their child to read grade-level appropriate texts? Answer questions taking evidence from the text? That’s awesome. But how to help that evolve into a curriculum? We’re not curriculum writers. There are companies that are paid millions and millions of dollars to do the research.”

But Ritz went about the process anyway and says there have been silver linings. Teachers are smarter about what the standards require of students, and test scores have risen. “I really believe the scores are as a result of the implementation of the Common Core standards,” she said.

Related: What makes a good Common Core math question?

Michigan State’s Schmidt worries that some districts might simply be better prepared for the challenge of making curriculum than others. “I worry about a lot of places where they just don’t have the right set of people that are able to do this,” he said.

And he said there’s no guarantee that the homemade materials teachers are finding on the websites will be any better than the off-the-shelf lesson books they’re using them to replace. “There’s nobody saying, like Consumer Reports, this is a good set of materials, this is a bad set of materials, and that’s a worry to me because I wonder about the quality,” he said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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