The Hawaii Department of Education has spent $26 million since 2013 on new Common Core materials that have some teachers worried about instructional flexibility and others nervous about the hasty implementation of a new learning model.

Department officials say the materials, which are primarily digital, are critical to the state’s adoption of the new English language arts and math standards. The Common Core standards went into effect this school year, and students are slated to take new rigorous tests aligned to the learning benchmarks next spring. Results will be factored into teachers’ evaluations and affect their pay starting next school year.

While some educators are relieved, saying the materials will give structure to Common Core, others wonder whether the materials will actually ease educators’ and students’ transition into the new standards while leaving instructors enough wiggle room to teach using their own style.

Teachers workspace for Common Core Reading Wonders curriculum

A screenshot of the online “workspace” teachers use in conjunction with McGraw Hill’s “Reading Wonders,” which the Hawaii DOE is using in elementary schools.

McGraw-Hill Education via YouTube

“I’m not a fan,” said Liane Voss, a longtime English teacher at Moanalua High School, which still hasn’t purchased the new high school language arts materials. “There’s no teacher freedom at all. It’s all about this lesson, this prompt, this reading passage.”

The materials are expensive — the $26 million only covers the schools that have already opted to use them — and grounded in digitally focused instructional models that many teachers are still getting the hang of. All schools are required to adopt the Common Core standards, but the DOE is letting them choose when to implement the materials.

And they’re only in English, meaning the state’s 20 Hawaiian immersion schools — which are also required to adopt Common Core — can’t use them. 

The digital format also raises questions about equity for students who don’t have access to a computer or the Internet at home. The materials all come with physical textbook components, but they’re catered to online learning.

Just eight public schools actually provide every student with a digital device as part of a DOE pilot program that was originally intended to be implemented statewide

Back when the DOE first proposed the larger-scale 1:1 digital initiative, officials said the devices were critical to schools’ adoption of Common Core. The district’s failure to convince the Legislature to fund the full-blown initiative means that most schools are still without the devices — even though they’re already implementing the materials largely meant to be taught on those devices.

At a recent Board of Education meeting, member Nancy Budd, who represents Kauai, said she worried about homeless students who don’t have digital access.

Leila Hayashida, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and student support, acknowledged that online access is a concern and said the DOE is working to ensure students and parents are aware of places with public Internet availability.

Hayashida also stressed that the programs include varied strategies and lesson plans to differentiate instruction for students with special learning needs, such as those who speak English as a second language. For example, the English language arts materials allow for guided or choral reading and text manipulation to enhance literacy, Hayashida told Civil Beat.

The New Materials

All but one of the new programs were developed by large for-profit education publishers such as McGraw Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The DOE opted to develop its own high school math curriculum in collaboration with the University of Hawaii because it felt that the existing publishers’ programs don’t fulfill Common Core objectives.

As of this year, about two-thirds of schools are using the new English language arts materials: “Wonders” by McGraw Hill for the elementary grades and “SpringBoard” by College Board for secondary grades. About the same percentage is using the new math materials: Origo Education’s “Stepping Stones” for elementary schools, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “Go Math” for middle schools and the UH-DOE curriculum for high schools. 

“While there is a degree of standardization, it’s in no way a script.” —Petra Schatz, DOE language arts specialist

Schools get to decide when they want to implement the materials, but they also have to rely largely on their own school-level funds to pay for them. This year, the district helped cover the costs of the materials through $20 million in federal Impact Aid — money from the federal government to compensate the state for educating federally connected students such as military dependents — and $6 million in additional per-pupil allocations. 

But schools are ultimately expected to foot the bill for the materials. Schools that haven’t yet chosen to use the materials have until the 2016-17 school year for the English language arts programs and until the 2017-18 school year for the math programs. 

The Common Core curriculum ensures equal access to high-quality materials for all teachers and students, the DOE says. It also encourages collaboration among schools and “has the potential to strengthen learning communities and to enhance best practices.”

The new digital materials, officials say, bring coherence to what was once an uneven patchwork of curricula across the state. In 2012, Hawaii’s 250 public schools were using 288 different math curricula and 287 different English language arts programs, according to DOE data. 

Flexibility for Teachers Stressed

DOE officials stress that the materials afford teachers flexibility.

“We’re not trying to micromanage (teachers’) everyday moves,” said DOE language arts specialist Petra Schatz in a recent meeting with Board of Education members. “We communicate to them that we rely on them, that we still expect them to use their professional judgement … they know their kids better than us, and we know them.”

“While there is a degree of standardization, it’s in no way a script,” she continued.

Still, Voss said giving teachers’ freedom to adjust the instructional materials as much as they want could end up defeating the purpose of having a universal curriculum.

“At some point you kind of lose the whole power of the product if you keep telling teachers they don’t have to use it,” she said, adding that she’s still unclear as to how much wiggle room she’ll have in the classroom. 

The Common Core curriculum ensures equal access to high-quality materials for all teachers and students, the DOE says.

Christopher Martin, a veteran English teacher at McKinley High School, said he’s still unsure of how he’ll incorporate the new materials into his classes — even though the school got the items this year. The price tag for the English materials at McKinley, according to Martin, was roughly $64,000 — or about $38 per student.

Martin said he has yet to closely review the materials, in part because the school got them late, but also because he prefers to develop his own curriculum.

He believes his existing curriculum would largely satisfy the Common Core standards, but is under the impression that the new digital materials give teachers little flexibility.

“I’ve seen Common Core for a long time now,” Martin said, adding that he’s consistently revisiting and updating his lesson plans. “The stuff that I (already) have, if it doesn’t directly meet it, it’s easy to manipulate a little … I can develop a lot of things myself that meets the needs of the students, our student population.”

Martin said he appreciates the Springboard materials’ organization and convenience, in part because they help save time that he would normally put into photocopying readings and provide useful guidance for new teachers. He also highlighted the materials’ use of multimedia, which for the most part was absent from previous DOE texts.

The DOE contracted with a national research firm — the Baker Evaluation, Research and Consulting Group — to help identify and evaluate curricula.  The materials were ultimately selected by a review committee made up of about 120 classroom teachers and other educators. 

Asked about the materials’ relevancy to Hawaii, Schatz noted that all the review committee members were “Hawaii people.”

“The stories aren’t all going to be based in Hawaii — there will be squirrels and snow and other things — but teachers will have the opportunity to make changes,” she said.

The district has provided professional development and other training to help teachers acclimate to the new materials. About a fourth of the state’s 13,000 public school teachers were training this summer, according to the DOE. Surveys show the training was well-received, though many teachers say they need more time to figure out how the materials work in their classrooms.

A recent national survey of about 500 teachers from the Education Week Research Center suggests that most teachers are unhappy with the lack of alignment between their instructional materials and the Common Core. Nearly six in 10 teachers said their main curricular materials weren’t aligned to the new standards. 

About the Author