The politically controversial standards curriculum standards known as the Common Core have been in the headlines for months, in Louisiana and across the country. But for most teachers and educators the standards have been quietly transforming classroom instruction for years. And for textbook publishers and other vendors, the new standards add up to new business. Sarah Carr reports on the dizzying array of new education products that claim to be Common Core aligned.

When thousands of math teachers descended on New Orleans earlier this year, two words proved more seductive than chocolate. Or sex. Or even quadratic equations.

Common Core.

The teachers were in town to attend the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual conference. The exhibit hall featured endless booths stocked with Common Core textbooks, Common Core legos, Common Core geometry sets, Common Core MOOCs (which stands for massive open online courses). There were even flying robots that vendors said could help children learn the Common Core.

“We sometimes laugh and say that Staples is going to make a lot of money on a rubber stamp that says ‘100 percent Common Core-aligned,’” said Linda Gojak, the council’s former president.

Greta Anderson, a 5th grade math teacher at New Orleans' Dibert elementary school, has helped her peers adjust to the new Common Core curricular standards. (Photo: FirstLine schools)

Greta Anderson, a 5th grade math teacher at New Orleans’ Dibert elementary school, has helped her peers adjust to the new Common Core curricular standards. (Photo: FirstLine schools)

Gojak chuckles when I ask her if vendors feel pressured to put the Common Core stamp on their products.

“If they want to sell it,” she says.

A few companies are using the Common Core craze as a reason to sell more stuff and make more money. Stacy Monsman, a math coach in an Ohio school district, noticed a glut of products almost immediately.

“When Common Core comes out, literally within a few weeks you saw materials with that sticker on it and there’s no way, the Common Core just came out,” she said. “There’s no way that a good thorough job could have been done to truly incorporate everything into some kind of material.”

But Gojak and others say most vendors really want to align their products with the Common Core — whether they are textbook publishers who are rewriting lesson plans, or the creators of MOOCs aimed at explaining the standards to teachers. But all this change takes time.

So in the short term, at least, teachers need to be cautious consumers, said Greta Anderson, the chair of the math department at New Orleans’ Dibert elementary school.

“Everything is saying right now that they are ‘Common Core-aligned’ and some things are really top notch and others aren’t,” Anderson said. “It takes deeply knowing the standards. It takes looking at the whole package and not just the best sample unit that’s out there.”

One red flag that Anderson and Monsman have spotted? Math programs with too many gimmicks and shortcuts. The Common Core calls for students to grapple with challenging math on their own, writing out the steps. So a math program that promises to teach students math by having them memorize simple rhymes? It’s probably about as legit as…diet deep fried ice cream.

“We don’t want shortcuts,” says Anderson. “We don’t want gimmicks to get kids through a year of standardized testing. We want them to deeply understand the math.”

In Louisiana, state officials are trying to help schools and districts sift through all the new curricula and textbooks. Two years ago, the state was hoping to purchase new textbooks aligned with the Common Core. Officials conducted an extensive review of existing materials. The results were discouraging, says Rebecca Kockler, the assistant superintendent of academic content at the Louisiana Department of Education.

“We didn’t feel as if there were any programs that were submitted to us that were fully aligned to the standards or would support a teacher to teach the standards,” she says.

Kockler helped create a team to assess curriculum materials as they come out, ranking them based largely on how well they align with the standards. A few are in “Tier 1,” which signifies the best alignment and quality, but most do not meet that bar. They might use those inappropriate math gimmicks, for instance, or include reading samples that are too easy.

Districts have been making these decisions for a very long time,” says Kockler. “We’re just trying to help give them the information they need to make the most informed decision.”

Not surprisingly, Louisiana districts have flocked to the few Tier 1 vendors. But Kockler says the department, which has been focused on grading textbook and curriculum programs, is just starting to grade other products. That means schools are largely on their own when deciding what legos to buy or which MOOCs to sign up for.

“It’s like going on the Internet,” says Gojak. “There’s some cool stuff you pull down and there’s some junk you pull down. And you have to know what you are looking for.”

Louisiana officials are not only ones to start ranking curriculum materials. Just last month, an organization comparing itself to “Consumer Reports” said it would begin posting free reviews written mostly by teachers of textbooks and other materials.

The exhibition hall at the math teacher conference was, as Gojak put it, like Toys ‘R’ Us for teachers.

“These are very popular,” one vendor told me. “They currently sell for $13.95. These are usually used in pocket charts in front of the classroom. We have a lot of teachers looking to grab these.”

The vendor sold laminated placards with Common Core standards written on the front, and the words “I can” written on the back. That way, students can keep track of which standards they have mastered. But before that happens, their teachers must master the standards and become savvy shoppers. Otherwise, they might find themselves stuck with a whole lot of useless gadgets and a bad case of buyer’s remorse.

Technical production was provided by Mallory Falk.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Sarah Carr is a senior editor for The Hechinger Report. She has written about education for the last 13 years, reporting on battles over school vouchers, efforts to educate China’s massive population of migrant children, and the explosion of charter schools in post-Katrina New Orleans. She is the author of Hope Against Hope, a nonfiction account of New Orleans schools post Hurricane-Katrina, which she reported with the support of a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University. Carr has contributed to the New York Times, the Daily Beast, Time, the Miami Herald, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, New Orleans public radio and numerous other media outlets. She has won several national awards, including from the Education Writers Association for her work at Hechinger. Carr is a graduate of Williams College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.