Common Core State Standards: Instructional Materials

William H. Young

To realize the efficacy of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), states and local school districts must formulate implementing curricula and academic content (which I described in The Knowledge Curriculum) and select instructional materials for each grade from K‒12. In educational parlance, curricula and instructional materials must be “aligned” with the CCSS.

Opponents of the CCSS charge that local communities have wrongly been cut out of the process for improving their schools. To the contrary, the CCSS provide localities with the first genuine alternative they have had in fifty years to supplant the Blob’s progressive and postmodern multicultural academic content and instructional materials that have undermined the life prospects for now generations of children. States and local school districts have both the opportunity and responsibility to choose the aligned instructional materials that will determine the success or failure of the CCSS reforms.

Opponents also cite a February 2012 Brookings Institution paper which concluded that “the Common Core will have little effect on American students’ achievement.”[1] An October 2009 Brookings paper had similarly found that standards alone cannot improve performance, but reached an entirely different conclusion about the curriculum that actualizes standards.

There is virtually no evidence that setting high standards for content and quality leads to high achievement of its students. But curriculum effects are large compared to most popular policy levers.[2]

Moreover, an April 2012 Brookings report highlights the importance and benefits of selecting the right instructional materials.

There is strong evidence that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning—effects that rival in size those that are associated with differences in teacher effectiveness.

But the same study also forewarned that:

Publishers of instructional materials are lining up to declare the alignment of their materials with the Common Core using the most superficial of definitions. The Common Core standards will only have a chance of raising student achievement if they are implemented with high-quality materials….Efforts to improve teacher effectiveness will also fall short if they focus solely on the selection and retention of teachers and ignore the instructional tools that teachers are given to practice their craft.[3]

Children who do not learn from aligned instructional materials will be more likely to perform poorly on the oncoming student assessments that are aligned to the CCSS. Teachers without the necessary instructional materials can hardly be held accountable for results.

States and localities adopt instructional materials in different ways. Many have long-standing relationships with textbook publishers and have traditionally accepted their claims of alignment to standards. Standard guidance is needed—and is available—for identifying instructional materials truly aligned with the CCSS learning benchmarks.

The organizations responsible for developing the CCSS—the National Governors Association (NGA), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and Achieve—have furnished states and local school districts as well as publishers with the tools to evaluate and select high-quality instructional materials. Over the past two years, drafts for comment and final versions of Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards have been issued to guide publishers of instructional materials and texts on how to align their offerings with the CCSS. For English Language Arts (ELA) and Literacy, initial criteria for Grades K‒2 and Grades 3‒12 were issued in 2011. Revised criteria were issued in May 2012.[4] For Mathematics, initial criteria for Grades K‒8 and High School were issued in 2012. Revised criteria were issued in April 2013.[5]

In July 2013, the CCSSO and Achieve, along with Student Achievement Partners, who prepared the final CCSS, issued a freely available Toolkit for Evaluating the Alignment of Instructional and Assessment Materials to the Common Core State Standards, saying

Each tool in the Toolkit supports the expectations in the CCSS and derives from the Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards.[6]

These criteria can and should be utilized by states and local school districts to properly appraise the many instructional materials being offered by vendors. No state lacks the means to do so.

In Nonfiction Versus Fiction and Mathematics Proficiency, I provided examples of how the Blob is passing off its old and failed instructional materials as aligned with the CCSS. Let’s further consider the all-important CCSS requirement to improve reading proficiency, which depends on the texts available from publishers. One of the principal changes required in literary and informational texts is their content and complexity. And the Blob’s failed “reader response” pedagogy is to be superseded by close reading of texts to obtain information.

A November 2012 article in Education Week noted that:

In the 2013 version of its Reading Street series, Pearson officials have excised “reader response” questions and replaced them with prompts asking students to “use examples from the text to justify your answer.”…

But if you look really closely, you’ll find that it’s a shallower interpretation of that standard than what the [standards] writers intended.”[7]

The reader response pedagogy and its use of dumbed-down contemporary fiction is epitomized by an approach called “balanced literacy” or “leveled literacy.” It was developed by Columbia Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins, and is now in widespread use in school systems across America, notes Kathleen Porter-Magee, a standards expert at the Fordham Institute. Calkins’s reading and writing program disdains content knowledge and any prescribed curriculum.[8]

Her famed Reading and Writing Workshop focuses “on assessing students’ reading levels and giving them “just right” books (those whose difficulty matches their independent or instructional reading level),” explains Porter-Magee. Books are leveled “based on sentence length and word rarity” and do not take into account the content of the book or the background knowledge of the reader.

Unfortunately, such “complexity” measures ignore the two most important elements of what makes a text easy or hard: the context and the content being discussed.…These are the wrongs that the Common Core seeks to right. The standards put the focus squarely on text complexity and a “content-rich curriculum” exactly because the CCSS drafters understood the critical link between prior knowledge and reading comprehension.[9]

In February 2013, Porter-Magee discerned perhaps the ultimate CCSS irony:

Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at Heineman [a publisher that calls itself “today the leading name in professional development books and resources for teachers”] are working overtime to convince teachers that the CCSS is compatible with “just right” books…The reality is that leveled literacy programs…fail to measure up to what the CCSS demands…[10]

As Porter-Magee had warned in August 2012:

Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman—together with their colleagues at the Heinemann publishing house—have just released a new book entitled Pathways to the Common Core. The book sounds like a useful resource that ELA teachers can use to figure out how to align their instruction to the new standards. Unfortunately, it misses the mark. Part ideological co-opting of the Common Core (CCSS) and part defense of the existing—and poorly aligned—materials produced by Heinemann, the book is the leading edge of an all-out effort to ensure that adoption of the new standards requires very few changes on the part of some of the leading voices—and biggest publishing houses—in education….

Heinemann’s promotional material states the following:

Pathways to the Common Core is written for teachers, literacy coaches, and school leaders who want to grasp what the standards say and imply—as well as what they do not say—deeply enough that they can join in the work of interpreting the standards for the classroom and in questioning interpretations others may make. [emphases added]

Porter-Magee then evinces the irony:

And question the “interpretations” others propose, they do, as they often contradict not only the guidance released by the lead authors of the Standards (including that found in the “publishers’ criteria” for ELA, something the authors outright dismiss), but also the guidance included within the four corners of the CCSS document itself. Of course with any set of expectations there is room for debate on some of the finer points. But the lengths that the authors go to explain away the parts of the standards with which they are least comfortable is breathtaking.[11]

The authors of the CCSS for ELA, Susan Pimental and David Coleman, support those conclusions:

Ms. Porter-Magee has the intent of the…[CCSS] exactly right….Both Appendices (as well as the Publishers’ Criteria for the…[CCSS for ELA] make it abundantly clear that reaching the new, higher levels of reading requires regular, repeated practice with complex texts throughout the year. It would be foolhardy to interpret Standard 10 as students reading at “just right” low levels all year long and suddenly expected to read at levels at which they have never practiced and practiced a lot.[12]

Unfortunately, there are likely to be, at every turn, inadequate and inappropriate instructional materials that the Blob claims are aligned with the CCSS. If past is prologue, opponents of the CCSS, now including the Tea Party, are likely to misconstrue such materials as representative of the CCSS and reason for local communities to abandon the CCSS. But states and local school districts should not be fooled and should demand instructional materials that replace the education monopoly’s inferior academic content, not acquiesce in the Blob’s attempts to evade the CCSS requirements and preserve its hegemony.

NAS members are particularly well qualified to play an important role in monitoring and providing technical assistance to states and localities in their difficult task of determining instructional materials actually aligned with the CCSS, to meet the needs of both students and teachers. On this battlefield, the war to regenerate the academic content of American public education will be won or lost.

The next article will examine the nature and status of student assessments aligned to the CCSS.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).


[1] Tom Loveless, How Well Are American Students Learning? Brown Center, Brookings Institution, February 2012.

[2] Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, Don’t Forget Curriculum, Brown Center, Brookings Institution, October 2009.

[3] Matthew M. Chingos and Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core, Brown Center, Brookings Institution, April 2012.

[6] Council of Chief State School Officers, Achieve, Inc., and Student Achievement Partners, Toolkit for Evaluating the Alignment of Instructional and Assessment Materials to the Common Core State Standards, July 2013.

[7] Stephen Sawchuk, “Retooled Textbooks Aid to Capture Common Core,” Education Week, 14 November 2012.

[8] Kathleen Porter-Magee, “Will Common Core usher in a return to content-driven information?” Fordham Institute,, 25 July 2012.

[9] Kathleen Porter-Magee, “Common Core v. the false promise of leveled literacy programs,” Fordham Institute,, 8 February 2013.

[10] Porter-Magee, “Common Core v. the false promise of leveled literacy programs.”

[11] Kathleen Porter-Magee, “Misdirection and self-interest: How Heinemann and Lucy Calkins are rewriting the common core,” Fordham Institute,, 6 August 2012.

[12] Susan Pimental and David Coleman, Posted Comment to “Common Core Opens the Second Front in The Reading Wars, 15 August 2012.

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