common core 1 photo

English teacher Lisa Rothbard leads a discussion about how to write a strong thesis statement in her classroom at Skyline High in Oakland.Pat Wingert/The Hechinger Report

Making the new national Common Core standards a reality in classrooms is a complicated and expensive business. Unusually for California, the money is there. But the tricky part is how to spend it.

“The thing about this work is that no one here has done it before, so we don’t know exactly what we’ll need” to spend for Common Core, said David Christiansen, Fresno’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “Frankly, every district is trying to figure it out. We want to make the right investment around our goals.”

Making good choices is complicated by the sheer volume of new products that claim to be aligned to the Common Core, the ambitious national goals adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia that aim to encourage critical thinking and deeper learning. A multibillion-dollar industry of competing vendors is promoting a dizzying array of new products – textbooks, curriculum, teacher-training workshops, software, laptops, iPads, nonfiction kids’ magazines, games, even Lego blocks – all meant to help students develop skills such as “evidence-based writing” and mastering fractions.

“A lot of publishers and companies view it as an economic imperative for survival to say they’re aligned to Common Core,” said Theodor Rebarber, founder and CEO of AccountabilityWorks, a Maryland-based advocacy group, and author of a 2012 study that estimated implementation nationally could cost as much as $15.8 billion. However, he says, there has been little objective assessment of how aligned to the Common Core most of these products really are.

In addition, said Jeannette LaFors of Education TrustWest, an advocacy group, few school districts have enough experts on staff to review and compare the products. “There just is not enough direction for educators to choose what’s best,” she said. “It’s like trying to drink from a water hydrant at this point.”

The last time California rolled out new spent is up to the districts, he said, as long as they restrict themselves to professional development, instructional materials or technology that will help them implement the Common Core, and they’re “public about what they spend it on.”

Having a pot of money to spend on Common Core didn’t seem like much of a possibility even a year ago. Common Core proponents have complained that implementation statewide has been slow and uneven since the state adopted the new standards in 2010. The recession and its aftermath have gotten a lot of the blame. But late last year, just as a report was being readied that placed the state at 49th on national rankings of per-pupil spending, things started to turn around for Common Core spending. In November, 55.4 percent of voters approved Proposition 30, a seven-year tax hike to raise state education funding. Then, in the spring, Gov. Jerry Brown announced that every district in the state would get a proportional slice of $1.25 billion in new tax money this fall with the caveat that it can only be used to implement the Common Core.

This influx of funding isn’t coming a minute too soon, particularly since the state this spring is expected to field-test new online assessments that are pegged to the Common Core standards.

To help districts make smart choices, the state education department and Education Trust-West recently posted Common Core implementation guides on their websites. School districts that are part of California Office to Reform Education meet regularly to exchange ideas on how best to transition to the Common Core standards. 

Patrick Murphy, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco who recently completed a study on the cost of implementing the Common Core, funded by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, estimates that the cost of transitioning to the Common Core could be as low as $3 billion nationally if districts forgo traditional options and instead choose digital textbooks (that can more easily be updated), tailored teacher-training videos and free curricula available online. The key, he said, is for districts to avoid a “business as usual” approach.

“It’s silly to buy a lot of stuff off the shelf for hundreds of dollars, when there will be better and cheaper stuff coming online or even available for free,” Murphy said. “Professional development created by large districts can be shared with small districts.” Ideally, he said, educators will create the equivalent of Yelp sites to share reviews of different products, vendors and training programs.

In the meantime, California districts are comparing notes, not just with other California educators, but with those in other states. “There are 45 states that have adopted the Common Core, and cities like New York are forerunners,” said Olivine Roberts, chief academic officer of Sacramento City Unified School District. “We’re using that information to shape our work. We can inform ourselves about what’s working and what resources are out there nationally, not just what’s being used in Sacramento city.”

Gerardo Loera, executive director of Los Angeles Unified School District’s curriculum office, agreed, adding, “Whenever we are faced with a dilemma of how to tackle specific challenges, we don’t forget the ‘common’ in Common Core. Likely, it’s a problem that’s been faced by others elsewhere. There’s a lot of open-source information that people have put together, and we hope to leverage the collective brainpower of people working along similar paths.”

Big changes are already evident in some Common Core states. New York required companies and nonprofits bidding to create its Common Core curriculum to agree to post the final product online, where it could be reviewed for free. Florida recently passed a law that requires districts to spend half of their textbook budgets on digital materials. Meanwhile, publishers and other education-industry companies are responding to an evolving marketplace. Pearson, an international publishing behemoth, recently disclosed that half of the company’s revenues now come from digital products. “We don’t even want to be called a textbook company anymore,” said Kate Miller, a company spokeswoman.

With all this in mind, districts are rethinking their priorities and talking to their school boards about where to make their initial investments. For some, the choices are clear.

“Most of our schools are limping along from a technical standpoint,” said Rich DuVarney, superintendent of Lassen County schools in the far northeastern corner of California. “Tech is where the majority of our money is going,” he said, noting that schools need to prepare for online assessments planned for the spring. “Most of our schools don’t have wireless technology. We don’t have enough bandwidth in remote areas. If this is one-time money, we need to spend it on what’s important. We’re looking at it with a real critical eye.”

Julian Union Elementary School District, outside San Diego, has an adequate amount of technology “so the bulk of the money will be spent on professional development, so our teachers learn different approaches to instruction as they implement the Common Core standards,” said Kevin Ogden, the superintendent.

Sacramento’s Roberts said her district is focused mostly on new instructional materials. Some of its textbooks are now 12 years old, and up until now, the district had little money in the budget to buy Common Core-aligned materials to supplement the resources it already has. “Now we can really be more robust in our augmentation.”

The one thing they all agree upon is that smart choices will ultimately make their jobs easier and increase the chances that Common Core reaches its potential.

“These new standards have the chance to change things,” said Murphy of the University of San Francisco, “and I would hate to see a missed opportunity.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

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Pat Wingert

Pat Wingert, a recent Spencer Fellow at Columbia University Journalism School, has spent most of her career as a reporter at Newsweek magazine, specializing in education, health and investigative stories. Prior to moving to Washington, D.C., for Newsweek, Wingert worked for both the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune. Most recently, she has written for Scientific American.