Should We Bother with Other People’s Reviews?

As instructional materials reviews are made public, how should states and districts use that information?

Instructional materials are a huge investment for schools, districts, and states. They have high costs and big consequences for teachers and students. So as the outcomes of instructional materials reviews increasingly are made public, many decision-makers – particularly those who have already made purchases – may wonder what should be done with this new information. If a review finds that your textbook series isn’t aligned to the Common Core, can you trust the findings? What can you do now that you’ve already invested in the materials?

Should I bother reading reviews?

If you’re looking to purchase, reading reviews makes perfect sense, but if you’ve already purchased or adapted your materials, you might think it’s too late to gain anything from reading the outcomes of recent reviews. We don’t think so.

Good reviews can point out important gaps and weaknesses which you might not have uncovered. Instead of starting your own review from scratch, you can zero-in on areas where existing reviews have shown that your materials need improvement. Schools and districts that authored, adjusted, or purchased materials after the adoption of the Common Core did so with the best information and tools they had at the time, but we now have more experience with the Standards to apply to this process.

As practitioners, we are all still learning what it means to be aligned to the Common Core, and, as we learn, we recognize our previous mistakes and misunderstandings; reading reviews can help with this reflection process. Additionally, rubrics – like the Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool (IMET) – were not available when the Standards were adopted; tools like this are helpful in clarifying what alignment means.

What should you look for in a helpful review?

Your time is precious; focus on the reviews that put the Standards and the Shifts at the center as they will give you the clearest reflection of alignment to the Common Core. The most helpful reviews provide transparency about the rubric and the review process. Where reviews have been made public, make sure you know what tool they used to do the evaluation and who designed it. It’s also important to understand who participated in the reviews, how they were trained, and, if possible, how they approached scoring. Good review teams contain diverse participants, with strong pedagogical backgrounds.

What should you do if a review finds your materials aren’t aligned?

Falling short of complete Common Core alignment does not mean your instructional materials require immediate replacement. It means that there’s additional work that may need to be done to ensure that teachers and students have access to the resources they’ll need.

If the review is trustworthy and points to gaps in alignment in your materials, consider conducting your own review – one focused specifically on Standards alignment. We recognize this is not a small undertaking, but this approach has two notable benefits. First, it allows you to confirm, with much more specificity, what needs you will want to address and how you will want to prioritize them. Second, it allows you to build and train a team of people who can then help with the creation of, or search for, supplemental materials to use in classrooms.

It is already common practice for teachers to supplement the materials they use for instruction. You may choose to start by investigating the supplemental resources already in use to determine if they can help you address the gaps in alignment. It is also worth exploring the growing number of high-quality open educational resources (OER) that are freely available.

Bottom line: instructional materials reviews can, and should, help you make good decisions for your district,  but they are not an end unto themselves. If your textbook doesn’t pass a particular review, it doesn’t mean you should throw that textbook away, but you also shouldn’t ignore findings from a reliable review. We encourage you to use these findings to help you take focused next steps, including your own investigation of alignment and the selection of materials that meet the needs of your teachers and students.

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About the Author: Lisa Goldschmidt is the Director of the Student Achievement Partners Digital team, which builds free, powerful digital tools which help educators align practice with the Common Core State Standards. Before joining Student Achievement Partners, Lisa was the Executive Director of Assessment Technology at the New York City Department of Education. Lisa also worked at Kaplan K12 Learning Services in both operations and marketing roles. Lisa holds a bachelor’s from Brown University and a master’s in public administration with a focus in education policy from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.