Free, State-Sponsored Common Core Curriculum 'Excellent Alternative'

Five years into Common Core State Standards implementation, educators are still "scrambling" to find high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum. According to an October 2014 report by the Center on Education Policy, a solid 90 percent of districts cited either major or minor challenges in identifying and/or developing the curriculum materials necessary to implement the standards.

Could home-grown content make a difference? While other states relied on publishers to develop curriculum for teaching to the standards, New York state took a unique approach: to build a new standards-aligned curriculum from scratch and make it available online for free. A new Thomas B. Fordham Institute report evaluated that effort and found that while the results are uneven, they provide an "excellent alternative" to other options.

As authors Kathleen Porter-Magee and Victoria Sears reported in "Uncommonly Engaging? A Review of the EngageNY English Language Arts Common Core Curriculum," New York undertook its ambitious endeavor in 2012, when the State Department of Education put out a request for proposal to develop "modules of learning" aligned to the standards, the results of which it would freely distribute through EngageNY. The materials wouldn't be mandated for use by the state; they were made available as "optional and supplemental." On the English language arts (ELA) side, contracts went out to the Core Knowledge Foundation for grades pre-K-2, Expeditionary Learning for grades 3-5 and the Public Consulting Group for grades 6-12.

According to the report, as of April 2015 the math and ELA modules have been downloaded nationally more than 20 million times.

The question the authors wanted to answer was whether the materials developed through the EngageNY process were "high-quality," "well aligned" and "teachable." Fordham enlisted two ELA content experts, Elizabeth Haydel and Sheila Byrd Carmichael, to conduct the review.

The reviewers found much to admire:

  • On the plus side, the report noted, "alignment to the Common Core is generally strong";
  • The reviewers considered "selected texts" to be "high-quality and appropriately rigorous; and
  • The approach taken by the program gives educators greater flexibility than other scripted curriculum programs.
  • They also found areas for improvement:
  • Going with three content providers resulted in distinctive approaches to material that don't cross grade bands smoothly;
  • While content and foundational skills -- and the lesson scripts to guide planning and instruction -- in the early grades are "thoughtfully developed," the amount of content can be "overwhelming" and difficult to navigate; and
  • The high school curriculum is still not complete, and what is done "lacks a critical emphasis on literary content"; in fact, students are guided to read just portions of books rather than full volumes.

Overall, the report's authors concluded, while EngageNY's offerings may be "imperfect," the resources give educators in and out of New York "an important alternative to traditional textbooks of questionable quality and alignment."

The full report is available on the Fordham site.

New York's Common Core curriculum is listed on EngageNY site here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.