Content in Context

Context is fundamental to understanding.  Core standards and objectives in all subject areas require contextual learning.  Students must be able to examine and clearly identify an author’s intent and meaning as they study instructional materials. Next to addressing the needs of the individual student, content in context is the most important consideration in teaching and learning.

Increased emphasis on accountability in our nation’s schools has led to a concentrated effort to help students carefully examine content for in-depth understanding.  They must be able to analyze and document an author’s point of view and recite text based evidence in argumentation.  The content itself must provide clear examples that can be used by students in this process.  It must not only be informative, but focused and relevant as much as it is engaging.  It must provide the very best pathways to stretch student capabilities and foster learning, while encouraging new ideas that lead to student research and experimentation.  As instruction and learning become more and more measurable and accountable, there is no room for materials that are out of context.

Recent surveys have revealed that much of the content in current textbooks is not directed to the priorities of core standards and objectives[i].  It is often focused on issues of convenience and provocative interest, rather than carefully structured courseware leading to demonstrable student mastery of curriculum objectives.  Materials are provided that are enhanced with glitz and technological appeal, often at the expense of rich content that leads to in-depth understanding and contemplative problem-solving.  If these materials are not carefully put together, they can become distractions to learning.

The unstoppable advance of technological innovation in newly produced materials for instruction is largely directed to scintillate and attract, rather than to deepen understanding.   New methodologies and gizmos greatly outsell materials that are designed for deep thinking.  Advances in computer hardware and software continue to entice users to commit or subscribe to particular brands.  Schools become pledged to exclusive arrangements for their supply of delivery systems and curriculum.  This significantly hampers the educational community in the acquisition of the best instructional materials as they become locked in to proprietary platforms.

In South Ogden, Utah, there is a half mile stretch of road that is Utah’s only toll road.  It connects Interstate 84 up a steep hill to a commercial/residential area.  Traveling up the hill, you will come to a toll booth where an attendant will take your $1 fee, allowing you to pass through for immediate access to the Ogden Regional Hospital, the Weber School District Office, a couple of retirement communities and a small business district.  While users are not required to use this road, the time savings because of the immediate access from the freeway are significant.  Ambulances traveling to the hospital and several employees of the Weber School District pay subscription fees to gain quick passage through the toll gates.  Revenues generated from the road tally between 1 and 2.5 million annually, which is shared with the 10 to 19 employees who work there.

Such an arrangement parallels that of many creators of digital instructional offerings.  They provide a single access point to the educational community to services they need, and secure long time subscription arrangements that guarantee them a steady stream of revenue.  Educational institutions, public and private, continue to be targeted patrons of proprietary commitments to the publishing industry.

It is the function of educational institutions to clearly identify the desired outcomes of instruction, which they do by stating standards and objectives for each of the core subject areas.  Attempts to enhance the accomplishment of these objectives have led to the development of Student Learning Outcomes, Teacher Performance Indicators, Leadership Performance Standards, Adaptive Assessment Instruments, and even School Evaluation Instruments.  These standards are immensely important in directing instruction a meaningful and accountable way.

Publishers are tasked with creating and organizing content that ably assists teachers as they encourage and guide students to learn what they need to in order to demonstrate mastery of the objectives.  They often have the task of putting the content in context – the context prescribed by the core standards and objectives.  They must ever be aware of changes in the standards and must always be striving to develop curriculum that provides the most desirable and efficient way for students to learn them.

Hence, educators and publishers work closely together to create the best curriculum for students.  The “what” identified by educators must be married to the “how” designed by publishers to enable students to discover the “why” of the learning process.  Collaboration with organizations founded to facilitate this process is the goal of numerous educational organizations organized at national and local levels.

SIMRA, the State Instructional Materials Review Association (http://simra.us/wp/) is an alliance of representatives from 22 states that are dedicated to the process of thorough and ongoing review of instructional materials that assures alignment of content to core standards, accessibility for use by all students, and promotes quality pedagogy as determined by established criteria.

Members of the Association collaborate and share resources frequently to continually improve the review process and provide for fair and systematic reviews of materials. The organization has a long history of maintaining high standards and specifications for the manufacturing and distribution of quality instructional materials.

SIMRA vets instructional materials to:

  • Insure that content is aligned to core      standards and objectives that lead to college and career readiness and is      structured to ensure that all students meet grade-specific expectations as      they develop literacy skills.
  • Promote universally accessible instructional      resources, guaranteeing that materials are free from bias in their      portrayal of ethnic groups, gender, age, disabilities, cultures, religion,      etc., and contain accommodations for students with multiple learning      styles, exceptionalities, and language and cultural differences.  Resources      should be durable and of high quality in physical structure, and designed      to promote optimal learning experiences for all students.
  • Encourage Pedagogical Design so that materials      provide tools for a balanced approach to assessment including both formative      and summative assessments in multiple formats, not only to guide      instruction but also to identify student mastery of content.       Information is organized logically and presented clearly using multiple      methods and modes for delivering instruction that motivates and increases      literacy as students engage in high interest, authentic activities.       Instruction is designed to utilize research-based instructional      strategies, offer suggestions for appropriate scaffolding, emphasize the      importance of vocabulary acquisition, and provide opportunities to engage      in high interest, age-appropriate activities that mirror real-life      situations, and make cross-curricular, global connections.

States are vigilant in their efforts to insure that students are studying high quality instructional resources.  Some mandate resources that may be used, some recommend lists that instructors may select from, and some leave the process to local districts and schools.  All have standards and objectives for each individual course, and these guide the selection process.  Several states have come together in agreement regarding standards for mathematics and language arts through the Common Core initiative.  In language arts these standards emphasize:

  • Text complexity, to elevate vocabulary and deepen understanding at each grade level
  • Range and quality of texts, to provide readings from the very bests materials, both in fiction and non-fiction
  • Text dependent questions to encourage careful reading
  • Scaffolding and support for individual as they read complex texts independently
  • The use of academic vocabulary in reading, writing, listening, and speaking instruction
  • Emphasis on writing to sources as a key task in informative and argumentative writing
  • Multimedia and technology to deepen attention to evidence and texts and embrace significant grammar and language conventions[ii]

In mathematics, the standards emphasize[iii]:

  • Focus, coherence and Rigor in instruction with fewer skills, but more depth in each grade
    • Students and teachers spending approximately 75% of their time on the major work of each grade
    • Spending time on specific topics in particular grades, and not before, to increase student understanding.  Examples are probability in grade 7, statistical distribution in grade 6, similarity and geometric transformations at grade 8, and symmetry of shapes at grade 4
    • Supporting content that does not detract from the engagement of students in the major work of the grade
    • Reflection on the balance in the standards and help for students to meet the standards’ rigorous expectations for conceptual understanding and fluency, while spending sufficient time with engaging applications.
    • Consistent progression through
      • A close match between standards and strategies for learning in each grade
      • Extensive work with grade-level problems
      • Relating concepts explicitly to prior knowledge from earlier grades
      • Coherent connections at a single grade, where appropriate and where required by the Standards, by
        • Including learning objectives that are shaped by cluster headings, with meaningful consequences for associated problems and activities
        • Including problems and activities that serve to connect two or more clusters in a domain, or two or more domains in a grade, in cases where these connections are natural in important
        • Connections between content standards and practice standards
        • Promotion of focus and coherence by connecting practice standards with content that is emphasized in the standards
        • Careful attention to each practice standard
        • Emphasis on mathematical reasoning through
          • Prompting students to construct viable arguments and critique the arguments of others concerning the key  grade-level mathematics that is detailed in the content standards
          • Engaging students in problem solving as a form or argument
          • Explicitly attending to the specialized language of mathematics

Trends

Core Standards

The foundation of core standards is the firm structure upon which education rests.  Every state has standards for curriculum, and every state is interested in adherence to those standards in the teaching and learning experience.  Some, like Texas, mandate that curriculum be 100% aligned to the standards in order to be adopted by districts and schools.  Others recommend materials to districts that may not be fully aligned.  Still others rely on individual schools and districts to conduct reviews and select materials that strongly support their standards.  Many states have agreed upon standards and objectives that reflect their mutual priorities for instruction and student achievement.  Improvements in technology and transportation have greatly facilitated collaboration between the states, and given state representatives resources which they can use to compare standards and select those they deem most appropriate for their localities[iv].  Local control has become a personal mantra of the citizens in each state as communications have educated them about the procedures in their peer states.

Local Control

Parents are better informed today about the education of their children, and many have opted to customize instruction through home education, charter schools, private schools, and online instruction.  Choice is the revered value in the decision to participate in alternative schooling.

School choice is certainly not a retreat from standards, nor is local control meant to avoid adherence to standards.  All students need to be prepared for careers and college.  Certainly there are various approaches to this preparation, but the stated goal to help students become ready for careers and higher education is a target that requires the acquisition of higher order thinking skills and adept problem solving.  It would be well for all educational institutions to participate in collaborative sharing to provide resources to achieve these goals.  SIMRA members provide published recommendations about materials that are freely available to all.   SIMRA has connected with many local control states to engage representatives of districts and schools in dialogue about instructional materials review procedures.  “Local” has been defined in numerous ways – from homeschool to state departments of education.  It is a delicate balance to preserve local autonomy while at the same time enjoying the advantages of collaborative endeavor.  What is most important is to continually keep lines of communication open.

Adoption States

An “adoption state” in the past has been a state that mandates purchasing instructional materials from a list provided through a state evaluation process.  Many SIMRA states have now taken a softer approach and produced a “recommended list” that districts and schools may or may not select from.  Review processes at the state and local level seek to involve professional teachers and subject area specialists who carefully evaluate materials as they compare them to core standards and objectives.  The service provided through these reviews is widely valued and utilized by those concerned about materials, be they school or district personnel looking for purchases, parents wanting to know about school curriculum, or publishers seeking to improve their offerings.  Increased sharing is a desirable outcome for all, but is limited by technology accessibility and political concerns.  SIMRA applauds the development of the learning registry and other instruments that assist in the sharing process from state to state.  “Adoption states” today are any states that have local or statewide review procedures that assist teachers in acquiring the best instructional materials.

Supplementary Resources

Today’s educators are less interested in basal textbooks than they have been in the past.  Comprehensive courses of study for particular subject areas are more and more becoming reference oriented to take advantage of our resource rich environment.  Because of this huge array of materials, many publishers have opted to create curriculum that is more focused and rich, and which addresses fewer standards in greater depth.  Smaller editions are being designed to cover segments of courses with a more thorough treatment of selected topics.  This is consistent with new core math standards that are designed to teach students by covering less material with greater depth.  Evaluation procedures in many states are inclusive of these materials in the review process, even referencing reviews from other source in order to give the teacher as much information as possible about them.

New discussions about core objectives have shaped professional development training.   Teachers are instructed to help students master higher order thinking skills by carefully analyzing content, and then composing well documented arguments.  Numerous source documents and resources are drawn upon in the process.  Textbooks and other instructional materials are resources rather than guides for instruction.  Teachers do not “follow the textbook” to insure that core objectives are taught, but instead draw from resources to facilitate the best learning experience for each student.  Supplementary resources are becoming more and more important to provide experiences in in-depth student learning.

Digital Materials

SIMRA recognizes the tremendous potential and power of digital resources to house and deliver highly engaging and rich content, while noting that traditional textbooks and other print based learning materials can also provide rich learning experiences in the hands of skilled teachers and motivated learners.  Teachers and students should have access to a wide variety of resources that best meet the needs of the learner.

Various forms of digital content are carefully evaluated in state review procedures.  Some states are engaging in review procedures that are accomplished entirely online.  Many, if not all, states are evaluating digital materials that are stored on digital media (cds, dvds, etc.) as well as online.  Product specifications are mandated in numerous states, and some currently require that all publisher samples be submitted in digital format for review.   Many state education agencies have “one-on-one” initiatives in process which are requiring each student to have access to a digital device.   Review processes are in place and are being developed to evaluate materials developed to fulfill this need.  Publishers are encouraged to submit samples of digital materials for review.

SIMRA recommends that digital resources be cataloged with ISBN numbers and appropriate metadata to allow them to be easily located [v].  Publishers of online courseware are encouraged to submit materials for evaluation so that the educational community may become better acquainted with their products and that their companies may benefit from being listed as a recommended resource.  Reasonable licensing agreements are imperative so that the educational community may benefit from the cost savings that should accompany the development of digital materials.  Instructional materials in digital format must conform to established criteria for content, accessibility, and pedagogy as do other instructional materials.  A listing of technical specifications, including platforms, hardware requirements, and licensing provisions is extremely helpful in the review process.

Open Education Resources

Textbooks are expensive.  They are difficult to customize and adapt to unique teaching situations.   Open Education Resources have provided a way to resolve both these issues[vi] .  Stored online, they are freely available to anyone, and most can be modified to accommodate individual teaching styles.  Many of them have been developed to fill the need for materials aligned with the common core.  They are developed by teachers and subject matter experts in order to provide quality, economical resources for instruction.  They are evaluated in most states through the same process as any other submitted materials.    They are reviewed to see that they align with standards, and that they meet accessibility and pedagogical concerns.

Current professional development workshops are structured to help teachers become independent from a single, comprehensive text.   They are now trained to locate materials from a variety of resources, and develop their own unique approaches with selected materials.  Open Education Resources allow them this flexibility, even to the point of adding to, deleting from, or altering to text for their own uses.  Published reviews of these resources will allow teachers to more quickly determine their value for the instruction they design.

 

Summary

The instructional materials review process is a vital part of support for quality education.  The rapidly increasing numbers of resources make it more and more valuable to already overburdened teachers and administrators.  Residing within states and localities, it is imperative that it remain independent and uninfluenced by commercial marketing efforts.  It rightly belongs within government educational institutions in states, as conflict of interest regulations prevent it from being influenced by private industry.

Collaboration between state and local review organizations is imperative to accomplish this.  Certainly advances in technology can make this process more efficient as organizations become skilled in the use of metadata.  Discussion amongst review organizations leads to better practices, and more thorough and precise reviews.

Publishers provide a great service to education through the excellent materials they provide.  The resources they supply, including texts, study guides, teacher’s guides, digital and online resources clearly exhibit their commitment to education.    Accurate alignments to core objectives are extremely useful to reviewers to make their review procedures more efficient.   The involvement of publishers provides resources that allow reviewers to quickly locate aligned content, find material that guarantees accessibility, and that assists teachers as they design the pedagogy of effective instruction.

-Alan Griffin
SIMRA President
May 23, 2014

Resources:


[i] “Improving Mathematics Instruction and Learning Through Curriculum Coherence.” Michigan State University’s Center for the Study of Curriculum: Strategies for Achieving Curriculum Coherence (n.d.): n. pag. 20 Jan. 2014. Web. 23 May 2014.

[ii] Coleman, David, and Susan Pimental. “A Summary of ELA and Literacy Curricula, Grades K-2.” Revised Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades K–2 (2013): n. pag. 2 Apr. 2013. Web. 23 May 2014.

[iii] National Governors Association, Achieve, Council of Great City Schools, and NASBE. “K-8 Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics.” Ed. CCSSO. (2012): 1-24. 19 July 2012. Web. 23 May 2014.

[iv] “Indiana Academic Standards for English/Language Arts and Mathematics (2014).” Indiana Academic Standards for English/Language Arts and Mathematics (2014). Indiana Department of Education, 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 23 May 2014. <http://www.doe.in.gov/standards/indiana-academic-standards-englishlanguage-arts-and-mathematics-2014>.

[v] Book Industry Communication. “Code of Practice for the Identification of E-Books and Digital Content.” (2009): n. pag. Book Industry Communication. Book Industry Communication, Dec. 2009. Web. 23 May 2014. <http://www.isbn.org/sites/default/files/images/BIC_Code_of_Conduct_e-books.pdf>

[vi] Petty, Kate. “Open Education Resources and the OER Summit.” CUE/Blog. CUE, n.d. Web. 23 May 2014