Wouldn’t it be nice if all teachers had verifiably excellent instructional materials at their disposal and if every school and school district had a reliable guide as to which instructional materials are effective, before adopting—and paying for—such?

Clearly, it would be nice. And it might actually help improve children’s education—were such labeling true and based on evidence. Yet the people who brought you the mediocre Common Core are now engaged in convincing everyone that textbooks, simply by virtue of being aligned with Common Core, are necessarily also “high quality” and “effective.” They do it without any empirical evidence of them actually being of high quality or effective, while disparaging the quality and effectiveness of textbooks that were proven as truly effective by successful widespread use.

Before 2010, when every state had its own educational standards, some states attempted to provide such guidance by reviewing and creating a list of approved textbooks from which schools and school districts were encouraged—and sometimes forced—to select. Other states left such decisions to schools and school districts. Neither system worked very well. Textbook publishers had significant financial sway over state and local selections, too often overriding the textbooks’ academic merit. Further, the review committees, particularly local ones, often lacked competent content reviewers and input from parents. Publishers added to the confusion by having multiple versions of essentially identical textbooks customized in a minor way for different states. All in all, not a very good situation, even though some highly effective, even if not fashionable, textbooks such as Saxon Math, Singapore Math, or Open Court Reading managed to survive.

The situation has changed since the adoption in 2010 of Common Core standards by almost all of the country. Now most states have kind-of the same standards so, suddenly, rather than competing with each other over each of the 50 states, textbook publishers could focus on competing at a single national level.

In theory this could have been a boon for improving the quality of textbooks and other instructional material. After all, there are only so many textbooks on the market addressing essentially the same educational standards—Common Core—so seriously reviewing them all should have been doable.

And, indeed, an organization called EdReports was established in 2014 to do precisely that: review textbooks. EdReports is a nonprofit, a major chunk of whose support comes from key promoters of the original Common Core. EdReports is dedicated to reviewing the alignment of textbooks with Common Core, yet its ratings are based only on “paper review,” not on any studies of the textbooks’ actual effectiveness.

Then, in 2017, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the originator of Common Core, established the High-Quality Instructional Materials and Professional Development (IMPD) Network dedicated to promoting materials rated well by EdReports as “High Quality” to member states. The key financing of this effort has been by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funded its creation, and promoters that lend it credibility, such as the Fordham Institute.

All this would be fine if the Common Core standards were actually improving American education. But the standards are mediocre at best, and they have caused a clear deterioration of American student achievement in math and reading as visible on the 2017 and 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP—the first declines in more than two decades. Here is what Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) had to say about the 2020 Long-Term Trend (LTT) NAEP, taken just weeks before the pandemic:

“The reading and mathematics scores of 13-year-old students fell between 2012 and 2020—the first time in the almost 50-year history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term trend (LTT) assessment. ... The mathematics scores for the lower-performing students (students at the 10th and 25th percentile) declined among students from both [9 & 13] age groups from the previous assessment in 2012. Scores also declined in mathematics for 13-year-olds at the 50th percentile. Scores for higher-performing students (at the 75th and 90th percentiles) did not change. ... Mathematics scores at age 9 declined for females but did not change significantly for males since 2012.”

If it was not bad enough that EdReports rates textbooks on how well they are aligned with mediocre academic standards, it also verifies that textbooks do not stray from the Common Core standards’ scope and sequence (e.g., move standards to different grades) or spend a significant amount of time on additional standards. In other words, much of EdReports “quality” is embodied in checking whether textbooks closely follow Common Core rather than whether they present meaningful math or effectively teach it.

Then the Instructional Materials Network elevates those evaluations and promotes them as “High Quality” to states without any research to back it up.

You can see this with Singapore Math, which gained its fame because of its proven efficacy as demonstrated in Singapore’s high achievement on international mathematics tests. Yet, of the five textbooks based on Singapore Math, four of them receive EdReports’ lowest possible score, and one gets the second worst. And sure enough, the effectiveness of the texts in teaching math is not even checked by EdReports, which prefers a narrow and formalistic evaluation of effectiveness rather than actual empirical evidence. Similarly, Open Court Reading, which was responsible for improving the reading skills for millions of early grade students in California is deemed not worthy of evaluating its usability by EdReports as it doesn’t align with Common Core standards.

Perhaps in the future when parents are given a significant voice in their children’s choice of schools, such maverick textbooks will have a chance. Meanwhile, the Council of Chief State School Officers peddles untested textbooks hewing to mediocre standards on our teachers, giving them fake “High Quality” seals of approval and eliminating the chance to penetrate the wall of mediocrity.