Lament of a Review Team Member

Conducting a review was harder than expected, but it illuminated how critical this information is for publishers

Covering the table in front of us are stacks and stacks and stacks of paper. Workbooks, guidebooks, teacher’s guides, flip books, Standards documents…paper. We have been at this for hours and there are hours yet to come. And when those are finished, we will pack up our paper, carry it home with us, and then start again. This is the work of materials alignment. And it is hard.

We were a motley crew of literacy specialists, heads of curriculum, and classroom teachers. The specific materials alignment task in front of us was theoretically simple. Review a K-5 literacy curriculum (in this case, Core Knowledge) for alignment to the Common Core, using the Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool (IMET). The tool is pretty straightforward, starting with a number of pass/fail non-negotiables and then progressing to points-scoring indicators of more subjective alignment criteria. But while the steps were relatively simple, the task of reviewing was not.

The first challenge was volume. How do you decide if the texts in a curriculum are high-quality and of sufficient complexity? You have to first wade through a sea of materials that typically compose the curriculum for a grade to just find them. (This step really gave a new meaning to the words “curriculum map.”) And then you have to read enough of them to get a sense of the complexity and quality. It would be a lot easier if the publisher had done both a quantitative and qualitative complexity analysis for us, and provided it in a user-friendly fashion. Some have. Many haven’t, and here we were left to fend for ourselves.

After a few minutes of reading, it was clear to me that these texts were plenty complex for their grade level –but was this gut feeling of mine evidence? Probably not. Did I need to type these texts into an online tool to get an RMM score and then use a rubric to write up a qualitative analysis of my own? How long would that take me?

Silas's Review Pic

Mountains of paper cover the table during the review session

The discouraging thing was that this was only the first step, and honestly the most clear-cut in the entire process. When I got further into the review and started trying to answer questions like whether there was sufficient support for speaking and listening, or differentiation for all levels of learners, I didn’t really even know where to begin. We had set aside a full day of work time and had a room full of experts with decades of classroom experience between us, but still I felt overwhelmed and underprepared. I can only imagine that  district curriculum decision-makers all across the country would also be trying to make these evaluations on their own, pressed for time, and facing financial, political, and curricular cross-pressures. For a moment as I sat there buried in paper, I questioned whether this level of review is feasible and whether the impact would be worth the effort.

This work is hard, and there are no two ways about it. Though we were all experienced in the field of ELA/literacy, we found that we weren’t immediately experts at reviewing materials. Developing expertise in this area takes practice and time.  While the pressure to deliver results now can create the feeling that we don’t even have time to actually complete the review, let alone invest time and training in learning how to do it properly, we can not give up on this important work! Our students will use the materials we give them and their learning will be influenced by the quality of those materials.  If we aren’t satisfied with the options we have now, we must learn how to identify what’s good and what’s not in order to see a meaningful change in publishers’ products.

Without us, as discerning consumers, demanding better quality curricula, there will be little incentive for the publishers to spend the time and money to make curricula that meet that higher standard. They will keep cranking out the same mediocre materials with new window-dressing until we learn to consistently tell the difference. If we are going to create the demand that will change the supply, we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves, invest the time to train ourselves, and start talking about our work. And that will mean wading through some large stacks of paper.”

Continue to follow the Aligned blog for advice, tools, and strategies to help you overcome the challenges you encounter in the review process. Can others learn from your experience? Share your advice and suggestions for future posts using #CCSSmaterials or by emailing us at CCSSmaterials@studentsachieve.net.

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About the Author: Silas Kulkarni works on the ELA/literacy team at Student Achievement Partners. Previously he taught in Washington, DC and Harlem, NY.