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Schools chiefs give publishers ultimatum about new standards

Calling for a “buyers’ cartel” against the publishing industry, more than 30 large urban school districts have formed an agreement to purchase only instructional material that meets new learning standards’ high bar of rigor.

“I think through our collective efforts we want to make sure that the publishing industry understands the power of all of us working together,” New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said today.

Walcott was among more than two dozen superintendents and chief academic officers who convened at the New York City Public Library to announce the pact. The leaders said they were affirming their commitment to ensuring the ambitious Common Core standards aren’t watered down by publishers seeking easy profits.

The event was organized by the city Department of Education; the Council of Great City Schools; and Student Achievement Partners, the nonprofit that developed the Common Core.

New York City alone spends $100 million a year on materials produced by publishers, Walcott said today. And together, the council’s 67 member districts spend more $2 billion annually on instructional materials, including textbooks, supplemental reading text, and online resources.

The education publishing industry is dominated by multinational conglomerates including Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Scholastic, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In a 40-minute presentation today, Jason Zimba and Susan Pimentel, founders of Student Achievement Partners, indicted the industry for creating low-quality materials that they said contributed to lagging student achievement.

“Part of the purpose of this event is to say loudly and clearly that the major cities in this country are really quite serious about this and we’re going to pull together and signal to you what it is that we need and let the marketplace respond,”said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools.

The Common Core promotes “deeper learning” through curriculum and assignments that deal with authentic, real-world questions. In English, it emphasizes complex, informational texts and shifts away from narrative reading and writing. In math, the standards center on word problems and problem-solving.

Virtually none of the instructional materials on the market up to now share the Common Core’s emphases, and districts anticipate going on spending sprees to replace outmoded materials with ones that are Common Core-aligned.

Just under half of the council’s districts have signed on to the pact, but those that have include many large cities, including seven of the country’s 10 largest districts. Superintendents from Newark; Chicago; Newark; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Washington, D.C., were on hand today.

The push to form a unified front on instructional content comes as many publishing companies are lining up to market their new materials. School officials across the country said today that they had received materials claiming to be approved or accredited as Common Core-ready.

“We actually even saw it happen before the Common Core Standards were finished,” Casserly said. “People were actually putting Common Core-compatible … stickers on their materials.”

Efforts are underway to develop tools to help districts assess whether materials are aligned to the new standards. A handful of states are already using one rubric, and another, the “tri-state rubric,” has been adopted in New York State, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Eighteen other states are in the process of adopting the tri-state rubric, Pimental said.

Officials and principals in New York City could in some ways be saved the hassle of vetting material developed by the publishing industry. That’s because the city is creating its own materials through the Common Core fellowship program. This year, the program hired 60 experienced teachers to design and refine Common Core-aligned curriculum materials and act as emissaries for the new standards in their schools. Next year, the city wants to offer fellowships to 200 teachers.

All of the materials the fellows are producing are being posted on a public-facing website, the Common Core Library. Department of Education officials say the site is being used by educators outside of New York City, many of whom work in districts with less capacity to produce materials.

New York City principals have the final buying power for schools’ instructional needs, but Walcott stressed that the Department of Education would work to influence their purchasing decisions by providing professional development to make sure they understand what to look for when they go shopping.

“Principals have discretion as far as in their budgets, using the money to purchase books as well, but we set the tone,” Walcott said.

Casserly said the publishing industry has been receptive to the changes so far but ”jittery” about how it might affect the bottom line. The change will force publishers to overhaul many of their textbook editions.

“The pressure on us is not one-way,” Casserly said. “We need the companies who supply our goods and services to up their game as we are now elevating ours.”

Some representatives of the publishers attended the event. Greg Worrell, a top executive at Scholastic, said the Common Core is “great for publishers” because it will cut down on the inefficiencies created by having different sets of learning standards in each state.

“Publishers have been working in a paradigm that says we have to serve 50 different masters,” Worrell said.

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