Study: Despite claims, many textbooks not aligned to Common Core

A study led by Morgan Polikoff of the University of Southern California disproved claims by the publisher of Go Math!.
A study led by Morgan Polikoff of the University of Southern California disproved claims by the publisher of Go Math!.
Published March 10, 2014

To sell children on math, textbooks sometimes have colorful fictions on their covers. Iguanas look through kaleidoscopes. Skunks swing baseball bats. Rabbits float away after clutching a few too many balloons.

Now, there's concern that a darker unreality is on the cover of textbooks in order to sell the books to adults: seals that say the texts are aligned to the new Common Core standards.

According to a study by a University of Southern California researcher, textbooks marketed as being in step with the Common Core and currently used in Tampa Bay classrooms fail to capture key concepts of the higher-level standards that have been adopted by Florida and most other states.

Florida education officials defended their adoption process for the books, including the Common Core edition of Go Math!, a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt text used in Pinellas and Pasco's fourth-grade classrooms. Hillsborough plans to begin using this edition in the fall.

The study, by USC assistant professor of education Morgan Polikoff, found that Go Math! is about 38 percent aligned to the Common Core standards. He also says the book does not cover 16 percent of the fourth-grade Common Core content.

The previous version, aligned to Florida's old standards, wasn't much more on the ball, he says: The book was about 45 percent aligned to the Next Generation Sunshine State standards. In fact, the two versions of the book are quite similar.

Because of the time and money involved in overhauling a textbook, there are few incentives for publishers to make significant changes from one edition to the next, Polikoff says. "One of my inclinations is they don't want to make big revisions. This is what a typical textbook has looked like for a long time."

In all, he analyzed four textbooks approved by the Florida Department of Education to teach the Common Core math standards to fourth-grade students.

He found that Common Core content is left out of textbooks, the books spend pages on the wrong content, and they fail to reach the higher levels of cognitive demand that separate the new standards from the old.

For instance, the Common Core calls for 40 percent of a fourth-grader's time to be spent on advanced problem-solving such as demonstrating, generalizing and analyzing. But the textbooks require students to do so only 7 to 12 percent of the time, instead requiring them to memorize or do rote drills.

"The simple fact is that, for a lot of teachers, particularly elementary teachers, if something isn't in a textbook, it doesn't get taught," Polikoff says.

William Schmidt, the co-director of the education policy center at Michigan State University, conducted his own analysis of dozens of textbooks covering first through ninth grades and used by about 60 percent of students nationwide.

At a recent seminar hosted by the Education Writers Association in Los Angeles, Schmidt said that "page by page, paragraph by paragraph," many textbooks were identical to previous editions.

"It is a shame that all these snake-oil salesmen" say textbooks are aligned with the Common Core, Schmidt said of publishers.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt did not return calls seeking comment. Polikoff also analyzed enVisionMATH, published by Pearson, and Math Connects, from MacMillan/McGraw Hill.

Brian Belardi, a spokesman for MacMillan/McGraw Hill, said of the research, "In some sense, it's not terribly surprising."

When the Common Core was pitched in 2010, Belardi says they worked quickly to put out a book, resulting in Math Connects. They've since developed another book that Belardi says is fully aligned. He said he was not aware why Math Connects was marketed as such.

"We did the best we could under the time frame."

Richard Heater, Pearson's vice president of product for elementary math and literacy, pushed back against the research's findings that certain standards aren't well-represented in the textbook.

"Not all standards are created equal, and we should be spending the majority of the time on major clusters," Heater says.

He also questioned why Polikoff did not look at teacher's editions of the textbooks, which may contain resources to elevate instruction beyond the text.

Mary Jane Tappen, the state Education Department's vice chancellor for K-12 standards and instructional support, says the state was careful when approving these books. The department employs experts in elementary mathematics, and has local district officials and trained teachers review the books before they're considered, Tappen says.

She also thought it made sense that the textbooks were not much different from those aligned to Florida's old standards, which she says were as rigorous as the Common Core.

"We've actually gotten a lot of feedback from parents, regarding how difficult the K-5 math is," Tappen says.

In Pinellas, where Go Math! is in full swing, officials are mindful to identify gaps in the book and help teachers cover those concepts, says Pam Moore, associate superintendent for teaching and learning services.

Her staff sat down over the summer and "mapped that out so (teachers) can see where the gaps are," she says. They'll do it again this summer after conferring with teachers about what worked.

"I can't overemphasize that the book does not represent the (math) program," Moore says. "Books don't teach kids; teachers teach kids. We ensure that, because we know there are gaps."

Contact Lisa Gartner at Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.