Money hits schools this week to help in the transition to new the Common Core learning standards. The California legislature appropriated $200 per student to purchase new materials, teacher training and technology.
The list of products emblazoned with Common Core is growing long: there are seminars, tablets, trainers, a library of new books, and, yes, many apps.
The Common Core is a set of new learning standards that emphasizes analytical thinking over rote memorization.
“I probably have 20 or 30 different books over there – samples. I haven’t bought any yet," said Craig Merrill, the principal of Global Education Academy, an elementary charter school near USC.
“There are a lot of people coming out of the woodwork. I get emails everyday from individuals, organizations who are promoting this or that,” he said.
Merrill said most of the ads will end up in the trash can. His school will spend the bulk of its nearly $50,000 allotment on training for teachers.
State funds for the Common Core transition are unique in that they are largely unregulated. Even though California passed the Common Core standards in 2010, it has provided schools little guidance on which of the countless books and other materials out there actually meet those standards. The state typically approves teaching materials.
The California Department of Education says there just hasn’t been time to set guidelines.
Dane Linn worked on the initiative that started Common Core. He now guides education policy for the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs. He thinks Common Core products need more oversight.
"We are not calling for anything national in scope," Linn said. "We are calling attention to the importance of having some external validation that what’s been developed is actually going to help teachers and students.”
When the state falls short in directing education funds, the task falls to local school districts.
L.A. Unified is keeping much of the money in house. For example, it plans to hire 122 full-time instructional coaches to train teachers and 30 administrators to advise the transition.
An allotment of $70 per student will be made available to individual schools to spend as they wish, though principals will have to submit a budget proposal.
Emily Ledterman is marketing her training services to L.A. schools. Her title is Education Solutions Specialist for the company A+ Interactive Technology. She was recently in full pitch mode at the Dearborn Elementary School library.
About 30 teachers from around Northridge packed into the tiny library to try out a new app that A+ Interactive says aligns with the Common Core standards.
The app is called “Extreme Collaboration,” and it’s meant to work with SMART boards, the giant digital, interactive white boards used in many schools. A+ Interactive is California's largest retailer of SMART Boards, which can cost $10,000 apiece. A+ Interactive's website says its sales of the boards are over $150 million.
But, sales of SMART boards have been declining nationwide. So, tying them to apps might revive business.
Ledterman used the app to open a Venn diagram to compare the characters of "Charlotte’s Web" on a SMART board.
“Let’s say we are talking about Charlotte and Wilbur," Ledterman said. She showed teachers that they can tap in character traits from their iPhones or iPads using the app, and they’ll appear on the board.
“You might also notice on your phones or devices, it allows you to add a picture," Ledterman said. A few cartoons of spiders and pigs flash across the SMART Board.
The question is: will this room of iPads, SMART Board and apps improve how students learn to read and do math?
Ledterman wouldn’t talk about how the app improves learning over a traditional chalkboard. And A+ Interactive did not return calls for comment.
But such questions linger on the mind of Atyani Howard, chief academic officer at Camino Nuevo, a Los Angeles charter school network. She said the lack of guidance from the state on Common Core materials is making principals and teachers anxious.
“The adults are learning, and they are not sure," Howard said. "There is a huge tendency to latch on to a resource that is going to provide you some reassurance.”
Howard said she’s avoided much of the marketing noise, in part because her schools have already decided how they’ll spend the Common Core cash. A huge chunk of it is going to laptops, so students can take new digital state tests.
When those tests hit schools this spring, students will have to show they are catching up to Common Core standards – even if the teaching materials their schools buy may not be up to par.