5 questions I ask before buying into any “Common-Core aligned” product

You’d think this would be old news by now, right? I can’t think of an education company out there that doesn’t purport to have CCSS-aligned products. And yet just last month, EdWeek reported that 17 out of 20 math series that claimed to be aligned to Common Core still fail to live up to their claims.

Despite the years of practice most of us have had with studying and implementing the CCSS, it’s just not an easy thing to sort out: the entire concept of being CCSS-aligned is very, very subjective. 

how to tell if a product is ccss-aligned

I thought it might be helpful to share with you some of the questions that I personally consider when choosing materials to recommend to teachers and use with students in my instructional coaching.

This is by no means a definitive guide or checklist, just a common sense I approach I use when encountering a resource for the first time and deciding whether to use it with kids:

1.  Who developed the material and how did they align it?

Any solid CCSS product will have been developed with a team of classroom teachers and experienced educators, and the development process should be clearly explained online. An example of this is SNAP! Learning (a company that sells digital reading resources). They have a detailed page on their site explaining how they used a team of highly trained educators to determine the level of their reading passages and tasks based on a rubric developed around Fleish-Kincaid and an estimated Lexile. 

When choosing materials, I try to avoid using products that were not hand-aligned (meaning aligned by real people) and were instead done by computers (via programs that look for specific keywords and automatically tag an activity or resource with a standard that appears to be related.) I don’t believe that a truly CCSS-aligned product can be created apart from the standards and simply “tagged” with standards a computer says are relevant. Which leads us to point #2…

2.   Was the product created for CCSS or retro-fitted to it?

Many educational companies that were well-established before Common Core simply slapped a few CCSS on their existing products and called that aligned. Don’t be fooled! There is difference between creating a product FOR the standards and simply retro-fitting something that was already in use. If possible, compare the post-CCSS version of the product with the pre-CCSS version: if you don’t see substantial changes OR strong evidence of the other criteria listed here, chances are the product isn’t fully aligned. 

Although a retro-fitted product can be as good as a product that was designed for the Common Core (especially if it was high quality and rigorous to begin with), my preference as an educator is always for products that are created specifically for CCSS. 

I love teaching math through game play and had a really tough time a few years ago finding games that went beyond simple matching and sorting. I spent months studying the standards one by one and asking myself, “What is the best possible way for kids to explore this concept through hands-on game play?” I developed my own Common Core math games that were naturally open-ended and differentiated, and that allowed kids to actively construct their knowledge. It was incredibly time-consuming, but it was the only way I could be certain that every standard was being practiced in what I believed was an optimal way.

3.  Is the material rigorous, challenging, and engaging?

True CCSS products won’t look like the stuff you probably did when you were a student. You shouldn’t see page after page of recall questions or rote practice. Question types should be varied, challenging, and includes lots of critical thinking. I look for materials that take a holistic approach to the standards whenever possible.

4.  Is the material fully differentiated in a way that’s easy to implement?

CCSS-aligned products shouldn’t be teacher-centric with all students learning the same thing in the same way at the same time. You should see self-paced and self-driven components and clear, manageable ways for the teacher to meet students at their individual levels. Differentiation is incredibly important and a lot of work for the teacher, so I don’t typically recommend any product that leaves teachers to flounder around and figure it out on their own.

5.   How would this material fit into the larger scope of how I’m helping students meet standards?

If a product doesn’t meet the criteria above, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad product that should be thrown out. I use tons of teaching materials that claim no CCSS-alignment at all, many of which were developed pre-Common Core many years ago. 

You can’t rely on one product to help students meet the Common Core or any other set of standards. 15 years ago, my reading series was supposedly aligned to the Florida State Standards, but careful examination made it obvious that following the teacher’s guide blindly was NOT going to prepare my students adequately. Teachers and schools have always and probably will always need to use professional judgment to pick and choose from a variety of resources that help their kids learn. 

What considerations do you make when trying to determine whether to use a Common Core-aligne product?

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lauralee April 25, 2015 at 7:23 pm

This is a good list. I agree- products that are computer aligned do not have the same integrations human aligned products do.

Do you think some products (from say, ten years ago), could meet common core standards without being retro-fitted? That is, were they already such strong products that they were helping students in the same manner standards are meant to work today?

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2 Angela Watson April 27, 2015 at 3:04 pm

Great question. I do think there are older products that were designed to promote higher-level thinking, problem solving, etc. that could work well with CCSS. There aren’t ANY products–new or old–that I think address 100% of the CCSS in a super comprehensive way to the point where teachers don’t need anything else. It’s always about picking and choosing things to meet kids’ needs…and older products and systems can definitely fit into the mix.

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