A math question for eighth-grade graduation in 1888 in Indiana was: If you want a horse to graze on one-half acre of grass, how long must the rope be? But is this question too difficult for today’s eighth-grade student or even relevant for success in the 21st century?

Defining what students are expected to learn — for graduation, for testing student competence, evaluating teacher skill and as a goal of instruction — is a complex and important task that has typically been developed by each state, school district or teacher.

Today, however, some 45 states and four territories have developed a set of uniform standards for math and English, called the Common Core Standards for Education. Surprisingly they were not mandated top down or pushed by the U.S. Department of Education. In fact, some educators cite the “bottom-up” development as a key to broad acceptance. These Common Core Standards were developed cooperatively by the states and localities. And since they are uniform across most states, curriculum materials can be aligned with those standards and then traded, shared and improved by teachers, districts and states regardless of location.

Michigan Takes the Lead

Michigan was one of the first states to recognize the Common Core as an opportunity. “We had been working on our M.O.R.E.  [Michigan Online Resources for Educators] portal since 2007-2008,” said Michigan eLibrary and Outreach Coordinator Deb Biggs Thomas. “These were pre-CommonCore days, and we were just working on our content expectations, our Michigan standards, providing resources that were aligned to those standards for K-12 teachers, that they could use in their classrooms.”

When the Common Core arrived, said Biggs Thomas, the state began holding workshops to align those standards to curriculum materials, following experience from aligning Michigan state standards. Content resources included materials from the Michigan Teacher Network, Verizon’s Thinkfinity, the Smithsonian, ReadWriteThink and Illuminations. Content also was added by Michigan eLibrary partners such as Gale Cengage, Proquest and Khan Academy.

“Currently we have about 20,000 resources that are aligned to the Common Core Standards and to the Michigan content expectations, but we have nearly 70,000 in the portal,” said Biggs Thomas. “So we’re working on getting those aligned and developing partnerships to produce those alignments.”

Biggs Thomas said teachers can use the M.O.R.E. portal to find content that they can use in their classrooms “because of the alignment piece that has been made to many of the resources. And they can search by standard or browse, look for particular topics, narrow it, etc., with a great advanced search, with very specific parameters. It’s quite robust, and we’ve been able to do this using open source software so it hasn’t been hugely expensive for us.” The site also hosts useful tools such as a resource locker for each user and a lesson-plan builder.

Since the Common Core Standards are the same across most of the country, Michigan decided to give away the store. The website code is available to other states and most of the digital content is free for the asking. But according to M.O.R.E. site manager Karen Hairston, educational technology consultant for the Michigan Department of Education, about 4,000 of the 70,000 resources on the site are available by paid subscription and thus are restricted to Michigan teachers.

The site itself was built using CWIS open source software from the University of Wisconsin and the Scout Portal Toolkit, which is also used for the Michigan eLibrary, the host of M.O.R.E.

South Dakota Follows Suit

South Dakota took Michigan up on its offer and duplicated the M.O.R.E. site and most content with a minimal amount of customization, although the name of the site was changed to My Open Education Resources.

“Michigan was willing to make the code available to anyone free of charge,” said Julie Mathiesen, director of Technology and Innovation in Education in South Dakota. “So we copied that source code and took some of the sources their teachers had aligned within that. We reskinned the site to get a unique look for us, and then last July, we brought 80 teachers together for a week for math and a week for language arts. They curated … thousands of resources that are now available to any teachers anywhere.”

Mathiesen also wants to pass along the benefits to other jurisdictions. “There are about a dozen states categorized as rural and I was hoping we could work collaboratively so that all the states could use the site. With the Common Core Standards, it doesn’t matter if you are in South Dakota or North Dakota, if you’re addressing ‘8.1.1 whatever standard’ of the Common Core, you should be able to use those same resources. So I wish there were some ways to collaborate better across state lines. Unfortunately it’s difficult to put funding together and figure out how you’re going to do that because of the way that education’s organized.”

Consequently both Mathiesen and Biggs Thomas are eager to get the word out so other states and districts can use these free resources. They said it would be futile for each of the 45 states and four territories to duplicate the websites, when they can freely borrow and use one another’s right now.

Seeking Alignment

Common Core is basically very simple: A majority of states have agreed upon standards for what K-12 students should learn in math and language arts. Several states have begun aligning curriculum materials with those standards so if a teacher, for example, has a student who’s having difficulty meeting a particular standard, he or she can quickly locate materials, lesson plans and other materials to help the student. Most of the resources are freely available on the Internet, and the entire system is built on an unprecedented level of cooperation.

But Common Core Standards and the alignment of curriculum materials have some snags as well. First is that these standards will be used to evaluate teachers and schools, so there are consequences behind them. That’s not necessarily new, but it does put more weight and importance on them.

The other snag has to do with the actual alignment of standards with content. Michigan’s Education Technology Director Bruce Umpstead is concerned about what system of alignment is used. “Part of the national conversation is around what metatagging standard will be used to categorize and align that content,” he said. “And then, the debate under that is can you use machine alignment to recommend resources more effectively than having teachers align the content? That’s a big debate whether you are using open education resources or using premium content that you pay for.”

A metatag, said Umpstead, is like a Dewey Decimal System for digital assets. Some 200 companies are contributing to a proposed proprietary metatagging system being developed by Academic Benchmarks. Thinkfinity has its own proprietary codes, while most resources on M.O.R.E. and teacher-created videos and screencasts on MI Learning on iTunes U are open and freely available.

“Right now in some of our instructional data systems, we can recommend premium resources — meaning for-cost resources — to students based on their test assessments because they are using proprietary codes,” Umpstead said. “I can’t do that out of the M.O.R.E. portal or the MI Learning on iTunes U, because those systems don’t use those proprietary codes. That’s what we are wrestling with: How do you make recommendations on the fly?”

If data shows that a student is falling short on a specific math standard, he added, the system should be able to automatically recommend resources to help him or her. Thus, code sets should be driven by efficiency rather than around being open. “It has to be some kind of a balance,” Umpstead said.

Several organizations are working on the metatag problem. The federal government has the Learning Registry, which Umpstead said is meant to capture usable data on metatags. “But it doesn’t accept proprietary metatags, it only accepts open metatags, and some systems read that, some don’t,” he said.

M.O.R.E. website manager Hairston said that Jes and Co., which is mostly grant funded, provides identifiers for all the Common Core Standards and the Michigan state standards. She said they are free and the company keeps them updated. “That’s another way we minimize our cost. People think that they have to license the code, or use vendors that have collections of resources that are aligned, and that they have to charge because they are charged to license these codes. Jes and Co.’s stuff is free. It used to be free only to school districts and nonprofits, but now it’s free to anyone.”

Another organization tackling the metatag problem is the State Educational Technology Directors Association. Executive Director Douglas A. Levin is intent on resolving the metatag situation, although he takes a slightly different approach than Umpstead. “Instructional materials, textbooks and increasingly digital content can’t be ‘just sort of aligned,’ it has to be tightly aligned. In fact, Louisiana just announced that it is delaying adoption of any new textbooks in the state for Common Core subjects because they simply were not aligned.”

He provided textbooks as an example: Schools purchase textbooks but don’t analyze how useful they were for a class. “But we will start to do that and then based on how well students perform on the test, we’ll be able to target professional development to teachers. It’s one thing if Johnny can’t divide by fractions, but it’s another thing if half the class of a specific teacher can’t divide by fractions. The first issue is a Johnny issue, the other issue is a teaching issue and a target for professional development. And the reason we are able to do that is the content standards.”

And Levin seems to lean a bit more toward open alignment standards. “In the black box world using proprietary solutions … you’re setting yourself up for paying a licensing and consulting fee forever and always. If that is done in an open and transparent way, it may be that you still need to have consultants come in and help you, because this is technical work and states or districts don’t have the capacity to do it.” But once that’s done, it usually costs much less to maintain the system. In addition, being open and transparent allows smaller companies and startups to enter the marketplace, increasing competition among vendors.

Above all, said Levin, the chosen standards must work. “So when a teacher does a search for ‘divide by fractions’ — and this is standard 12.4.3 — the system needs to return relevant results. Those codes need to work, and they need to be at a grain size that is specific enough for the kinds of questions that teachers have, and that will affect instruction.”

Levin said districts can provide translation between standards, but that increases cost and “internal friction.” So he recommends transparent, open standards developed by the same people who publish the standards. Currently, he said, the standards are like a Google Map view from 10,000 feet, and the next step is to get the materials aligned down to the “Street View” level and thus more useful for teachers and the various assessments that will flow from these.

Main image from Shutterstock

Wayne Hanson  |  Staff Writer and Editor of Digital Communities

Wayne E. Hanson has been a writer and editor with e.Republic since 1989, and has worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and is currently editor and writer for Digital Communities specializing in local government. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education. He self-published three books of fiction and lives in Sacramento with his wife, Jeannie.