Is There a Place for Commercial Reading Programs in Common Core?

  • curriculum materials Common Core State Standards
  • 29 September, 2013

My district has decided not to purchase a core reading program since we are now teaching Common Core. Does CCSS really prohibit the use of commercial instructional materials?

  No, CCSS neither requires the use of commercial programs nor does it prohibit such use. That is strictly a local decision.

So should we use a program?

  I’ve long argued that teachers need programs. The development of extensive lesson plans and tracking down appropriate materials each day is overwhelming for most teachers, and it introduces great variability into classroom instruction. One of the things I learned as director of reading in Chicago was that having everybody teaching something different makes it well nigh impossible for any kind of systemic improvement. I don’t believe that programs are necessarily better than the lessons good teachers create, but I do believe that all instruction is limited and it is essential for school systems to improve widely rather than a teacher at a time

But if it is okay for us to develop our lessons then why shouldn’t we?

  Again, research certainly does not show that commercial programs generally do any better than teacher made lessons. Nor does it reveal such programs to be inferior to teacher lessons. I would rather have teachers adjusting shared lessons and then using the saved time to focus on the learning needs of the children. No one can teach all day, design lessons as extensive as those in typical commercial programs, and focus on children’s needs and problems. Of course, programs can have problems, but in a good system these problems will be identified over time and the schools can respond system wide rather than individually.

Our district is making model lessons and we are supposed to then come up with our own lessons based on the models?

  Many states, school systems, unions, and publishers are designing such lessons. This approach suggests that it is possible to formulate worthwhile lessons that can be used on scale. In other words, these groups are using their money and teacher sweat equity to create lessons to be used by others. That’s the same thing that publishers do.

You seem to think developing such lessons is a waste of time?

  I generally do think such efforts tend to be expensive and expect too much of teachers. And, yet, I have worked on many of these CCSS lesson design efforts around the country, and engaging students in such lesson development can be great professional development. (And research bears this out; designing and redesigning lessons with feedback—that’s usually my role—can teach a teacher a lot). It is once those very expensive prototypes have been developed and the process is turned over to teachers to do that day in and day out on their own that I get skeptical. That’s the benefit of commercial programs; they give teachers a base to work from and it locates the materials for the lessons, etc.

What is the biggest problem that you are seeing in these kinds of lessons?

  One of the big problems that I have seen is the designs that try to break the standards down into parts. Thus, if a standard asks for kids to do two or three things in combination, they reduce this to doing each of those things separately—which is not the same thing. Teachers tell me that it is easier to understand and teach the parts, which I don’t doubt at all; but doing it that way tends to miss out on what the standard actually means. It is harder to carry out three actions in concert while reading a challenging text; that’s the point. You can simplify it, of course, but then you aren’t actually teaching the same standard.

My state has done that for us.

  It doesn’t really matter who makes the mistake, it is still a mistake if your goal was higher achievement.

You said you have seen lots of groups developing units and lesson prototypes. Are any of them better than the others?

  Not in terms of who is developing these. I see both good and bad examples across the board.

It sounds like you believe teachers should be using commercial programs. But we are seeing lots of materials with Common Core stickers that don’t look very Common Core.

  Me, too. This is a case of “buyer beware.” It is more efficient to use commercial programs and it is fairer for kids since it equalizes the playing field a bit (“my teacher couldn’t/didn’t find as good a story as the teacher next door”). But just because it is commercial it will not necessarily be any good. It is clearly up to the teachers to determine quality of the overall program and then to monitor the program for weak spots during use (which is easier than everyone spending hours designing all lessons themselves). Take a good careful look at the materials that foks are trying to sell you and be critical; if you think they have just relabeled their old lessons to make them look Common Core-ish, then ask them to show you both the program they are selling you and the previous edition of the program. That will uncover some of the chicanery that sometimes takes place.

Aren’t textbooks for lazy teachers?

No, they are not, and I think that can even be a dangerous claim. I’ve seen teachers over the years (including myself early on) defining quality in terms of whether the teacher uses a textbook or not. Not using a textbook won’t make you a good teacher by definition. You can be a good teacher with our without a textbook program, which means good teachers have to plan instruction even when they have a textbook. That is more efficient and it will give kids a fairer shot at success, but it won’t guarantee quality; only teachers and principals can do that.


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Is There a Place for Commercial Reading Programs in Common Core?


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