AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. This time next year, millions of schoolkids in the U.S. will sit down for their first Common Core test. The stakes are high for kids, for teachers and for communities. If the new Core benchmarks in reading and math work then students will be better prepared for college and for the workforce.
CORNISH: That's the goal. But the challenges are huge. For one, the new standards are higher than many of the state standards they're replacing. And as we heard today, on Morning Edition, standards as rigorous as the Core require other changes too - changes to textbooks, lesson plans, homework assignments. From the NPR education team, Cory Turner reports school districts are racing to build all those teaching materials.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Many teachers right now are in a bind. They're being asked to implement these tough new standards without being given better materials or, in some cases, any new materials at all. So, what to do? Districts have three options when it comes to helping their teachers teach to the Common Core Standards. One - do nothing. Just use the old books, the old stuff and hope students don't bomb next year's Core test. Two - they can try to buy new materials. But publishers have done an uneven job so far of making sure their classroom products line up with the Core, so sorting the good from the bad is hard and expensive.
JACKIE LAIN: I kept thinking to myself, why is every district spending money and taking teachers out of classrooms, reviewing essentially the same instructional materials?
TURNER: Jackie Lain started a company, Learning List, to help schools with option two. Districts pay a subscription fee. And in return, they get access to the private database, which includes reviews of products that may or may not line up with the Core Standards. Here she is walking me through it.
LAIN: I have a product here that's 88 percent aligned. Another product that's 63 percent aligned. And a supplemental product here - I have to look at the alignment on the alignment report - the supplemental product is aligned to 59 percent of the standards.
TURNER: But trying to buy new materials doesn't work for a lot of districts. Either because they don't have the money or they just don't know who to trust anymore. That leaves option three - make new stuff.
KATE GERSON: We have a comprehensive set of ELA and mathematics curriculum.
TURNER: Kate Gerson is a senior fellow with the Regents Research Fund in New York and she's a leader of that state's do-it-yourself approach to the Common Core. They built a website called EngageNY and stocked it with new teaching materials. By the end of summer, any teacher from any grade can go to the site and find just about everything he or she needs to prepare kids for the Core Standards.
GERSON: Which includes lesson plans, curriculum maps, handouts, PowerPoints, videos.
TURNER: The list goes on. All vetted and better yet, all free, which explains why the materials have been downloaded some 6.7 million times. Not just in New York, but across the country. But rebuilding curricula in the Common Core era isn't as simple as waiting for a download.
While lots of districts are using EngageNY, many are also trying to salvage parts of their old textbooks. They're also using lots of new material from other states and nonprofits who have swooped in to help. Even Achieve, a group that helped develop the Core Standards, has issued guidelines to help teachers vet all of this stuff. For teachers, that means a lot of piecing together and plenty of writing from scratch.
TURNER: I'm standing outside C.E. MacDonald Middle School in East Lansing, Michigan and what's happening here today - lots of teachers from all over the district have gathered together to hash through curriculum materials, old and new, to answer one question - is this Common Core?
TURNER: School's in session. Kids hurry through the halls. But upstairs, in a handful of rooms, there are no kids. Teachers occupy the tables.
MICHELLE SCOTT: Read and write decimals to thousands using base 10 numerals, number names, and expanded form. Compare two decimals to thousands - oh we have to remember to compare to the thousands...
TURNER: Michelle Scott is reading from the Common Core math standards for fifth-graders. She'll be teaching fifth next year, along with John Gries. And together, they're writing - and re-writing - lessons they'll need come September.
SCOTT: Am I oversimplifying? Where I feel, like, OK we've done one, three, and...
JOHN GRIES: No, I think this is it. I think this is like a very bare-bones map, yeah.
SCOTT: I think that's our six core lessons.
TURNER: Michelle Scott is a veteran teacher. And she remembers what life was like long before the Core.
SCOTT: My first year teaching, I was placed in a classroom and I said here's your book, you're going to teach earth science. Go teach.
TURNER: She's not nostalgic for those days, but Scott and fellow teacher Katie Ballard are both honest about the challenges they face now.
KATIE BALLARD: It's a huge task.
SCOTT: Huge task.
BALLARD: It's a huge task.
SCOTT: We will not have the year ready.
TURNER: Which, Scott says, theoretically means next year...
SCOTT: If we're teaching unit one, we'll also be writing unit three - continuing what we're doing as we're trying to teach this and figure out what's working and what's not.
TURNER: That makes me nervous.
SCOTT: Me too.
TURNER: Teachers are used to improvising, but this - this is different. Tammy Baumann is Director of Educational Services for East Lansing Public. She's in charge of curriculum and of making sure that teachers, like Scott and Ballard, have the tools they need to meet the Common Core Standards. She's done this before, two years ago, for the public schools in Erie, Pennsylvania. And what she did there perfectly captures the story of the Common Core.
TAMMY BAUMANN: What we did initially is we created what we call the Wall.
TURNER: The problem was the district had already paid for a workbook that wasn't aligned to the Common Core. And they couldn't afford to replace it. Which meant...
BAUMANN: Pulling it apart, literally pulling it apart.
TURNER: Then, Baumann and her team went through every lesson, every page, every line and figured out what parts of that old workbook corresponded to the new standards. Some sections worked but they were in the wrong order or assigned to the wrong grade. The pages that matched up with the Core were then color-coded based on appropriate grade level and taped to a giant 14 foot high wall.
BAUMANN: So now if you can picture in your head, you have a wall that's multicolored and coded - that is your curriculum map, if you will, that allows you to see it aligned to Common Core.
TURNER: Just imagine, Baughmann and her team of exhausted teachers staring back at those pages on the wall, arms crossed like novelists plotting a masterpiece with index cards. Now to be clear, some districts are fully ready for the Common Core. All this scrambling is done, but plenty of other districts are still working hard to get there.
Plenty of teachers are still building workbook walls, or something like it, in classrooms all over the country. When they finish, those old materials made new will be handed out. All the other teachers will need to be trained up, school bells will eventually ring and the story of the Common Core will turn a page. But the ending, that one's not on the wall yet. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.
CORNISH: If you have questions about the Common Core, about the standards and how they work, the NPR ed. team has answers. They put together a Common Core FAQ. You can find it at npr.org/commoncore.
SIEGEL: This is NPR News.