Musings about language and literacy and learning

The Common Core: An Opportunity Squandered

*Back in 2013, I wrote a series of posts for the Core Knowledge Foundation blog that were titled, “Promethean Plan: A Teacher on Fulfilling the Intent of the Common Core.” Unfortunately, they don’t appear to be available there anymore, so I thought it could be fun to re-post them collected here as one post, both to archive it and also to see whether the mistakes I outlined were indeed part of the squandering of the opportunity presented by the CCSS.

My 2013 classroom self, as you will see, was a bit more grandiose, but methinks I made a few good points. I’ll leave the rest to your consideration.*

Promethean Plan: A Teacher on Fulfilling the Intent of the Common Core

Originally published as a series of three posts on the Core Knowledge Foundation blog in August, 2013

As a special education teacher in the Bronx, I have worked in self-contained and inclusive settings, first in an elementary, and now, at a middle school. I have welcomed Common Core Standards as beneficial to transforming practice in my schools and classrooms, and have worked to interpret them as a NYC Common Core ELA Fellow, as well as create curriculum and materials aligned to them within my own school and with other teachers across the nation as part of the 2013 LearnZillion Dream Team.

I believe that the adoption of the Common Core standards has provided us with a golden window of opportunity for engaging and challenging our students with rich content, empowering teachers as scholars and content experts, and establishing a modicum of academic coherency in classrooms across our nation.

Here’s how we can all too easily squander this great opportunity:

If we perpetuate those three practices, then Common Core Standards will do little to transform much of anything.

Right now the Common Core Standards stand at a pivotal moment, as they move from grand vision into the classroom and from rhetoric into curriculum. I would like to examine the three missteps outlined above in greater depth, and consider how we can correct them before it is too late.

Mistake #1: Allow skills-based teaching to remain predominant

By political necessity, Common Core generally avoids specifying what content should be taught in literacy, beyond providing a general directive to teach “classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare.” However, the great shift that the standards make is that they put a strong focus on what they term “text complexity.”

Appendix A of the Common Core literacy standards is integral to understanding this shift in the standards, and well worth analyzing. In an outline of research supporting a call for complex text, for example, the authors note that “what chiefly distinguished the performance of those students who [scored well on ACT tests] from those who had not was not their relative ability in making inferences while reading or answering questions related to particular cognitive processes, such as determining main ideas or determining the meaning of words and phrases in context. Instead, the clearest differentiator was students’ ability to answer questions associated with complex texts.”

So, big surprise: skills—such as inferencing, using context clues, or finding the main idea—are secondary to a student’s ability to deeply comprehend the content of what is read.

Where does such deep comprehension of complex texts arise? Again, let’s turn to Appendix A on this:

A turning away from complex texts is likely to lead to a general impoverishment of knowledge, which, because knowledge is intimately linked with reading comprehension ability, will accelerate the decline in the ability to comprehend complex texts and the decline in the richness of text itself. This bodes ill for the ability of Americans to meet the demands placed upon them by citizenship in a democratic republic and the challenges of a highly competitive global marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

Eloquently put. Deep comprehension of complex texts arises from knowledge. What is powerful about such a focus on knowledge-rich complex texts is that it represents a major shift in current teaching practice. In elementary schools across our nation, teachers generally train their students to select “just right” books for independent reading. A “just right” book is a book that a child can read on their own with relative ease. When a book is selected by the teacher for sharing with the whole class, it is often simply as a prop for the demonstration and modeling of a given skill, such as finding the main idea or using context clues to figure out word meaning. Students are mostly expected to utilize class time reading books at their independent reading level.

While the idea that students are picking books that match their interest and skill sounds like great classroom practice, in reality, what is lost is the cultivation of a coherent body of knowledge, in addition to academic discipline. Given the great weight of ELA in elementary school, and the time thus allotted to skills-based reading, students end up getting passed from grade to grade without any sort of cumulative web of knowledge. Unsurprisingly, students arrive at middle schools and high schools and colleges with little understanding of literature, their nation and its place in the world, nor the historical context of scientific discovery.

That the Common Core standards are now asking teachers to make more careful and rigorous text selections based on complexity and knowledge is therefore momentous. That this is even momentous, however, is disheartening, as this shift remains a mere half-measure.

Appendix A outlines factors that must be considered in the selection of a complex text for a given grade level: qualitative factors, quantitative factors, and reader and task considerations. The reality, however, is that texts which will build student knowledge and understanding of literature and of the world are more than a set of qualitative and quantitative factors.

It should be obvious, however, that for the Common Core standards to specify what texts or authors should be foundational, beyond its already vague gestures at classic myths and Shakespeare, would be political suicide. It is therefore up to teachers and curriculum designers to select texts which they believe will cumulatively build student understanding of literary history and domain-specific knowledge.

This is where effective implementation of the Common Core is in most danger, however. Teachers, schools, and the consultants who come in to support them are accustomed to skills-based teaching. Furthermore, the development or adoption of a coherent, thoughtfully sequenced curriculum is unfortunately not a priority in American public schools. The creators of Common Core acknowledged the need for a strong curriculum when they state that the Standards “do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.”

They furthermore note that a foundation of knowledge across different domains is required to become strong readers, and that “students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Such a curricular foundation is not haphazard. “Building knowledge systematically in English language arts is like giving children various pieces of a puzzle in each grade that, over time, will form one big picture. At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.

This careful selection of texts that will systematically build student knowledge within specific domains thus requires a momentous shift in practice for classroom teachers and their schools.

Here is one simple short-term measure we could take to ensure that skills-based teaching does not retain its dominance in the classroom:

Common Core aligned assessments should select texts that explicitly demand knowledge of literature and of the world.

Test makers could then broadcast the pool of texts that might be selected for that purpose a year before the tests would be administered. For example, if a 6th grade teacher knew that students might be tested on passages from Twain’s “Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” the United States Constitution, “The Iliad and the Odyssey,” Walter Lord’s “A Night to Remember,” Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” or Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” then chances are probably much greater that the teacher will spend time studying those works, the historical epochs in which they were written, and the authors who wrote them, as opposed to teaching isolated skills such as how to find the main idea or how to make an inference.

One long-term measure we can take to ensure that skills-based teaching does not maintain its dominance:

Assess curriculum and consultancy programs by how well they build domain-specific knowledge both horizontally (across content areas by grade level) and vertically (sequentially by grade).

Curriculum programs and consultants to schools have been given a free pass in this area for far too long. If we know that “knowledge is intimately linked with reading comprehension ability,” then it is unconscionable that we should allow knowledge to continue to be treated haphazardly, or as a consideration of secondary importance, by school curriculum.

Mistake #2: Place the burden for the teaching of literacy entirely on ELA

Another potentially transformative shift of the Common Core standards is the acknowledgment that literacy extends across all content areas. This is explicitly recognized by the standards in two ways: 1) the inclusion of literacy standards for social studies, science, and technical subjects in grades 6-12; and 2) the demand for an increase in informational texts.

Under key design considerations in the introduction to the literacy standards, Common Core’s authors state that the inclusion of social studies, science, and technical subjects “reflects the unique, time-honored place of ELA teachers in developing students’ literacy skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well” (bold added).

They furthermore point out that “because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes” (bold added).

Yet within schools, these points are all too easily ignored or misunderstood. ELA teachers are evaluated by the literacy tests which their students are required to take. One of the greatest frustrations of being an ELA teacher, in fact, is that we are tested on factors that are often beyond our control, such as our students’ domain-specific knowledge. It’s no wonder, then, that many ELA teachers resort to skills-based teaching, grimly attempting to boost test scores by bolstering superficial, isolated skills.

That domain-specific knowledge is essential to literacy is a point that has been already been made much more cogently by others. In my personal experience, I frequently teach students who are quite familiar with the skill of “inferencing,” yet display little ability to make an accurate inference.

At my former elementary school during my first years of teaching, we had noted from literacy assessment data that inferencing was a skill that was deficient across the board for our students. All of us then set about diligently teaching the skill. After going through a cycle or two of grade level team “inquiry” on this, something quickly became apparent to me: our students couldn’t make accurate inferences because they didn’t understand what they were reading due to gaps in their knowledge. This is when I first realized the fact that my school was failing our students because we didn’t have a coherent curriculum. Forget inferencing. Before we could do inquiry on anything, we had to have a curriculum to refer to so that we could align what we were teaching across our classrooms and grades.

In an elementary school, ELA is given heavy prominence, often to the detriment of music, arts, social studies, and science, as ELA test scores weigh heavily on a school’s performance. Yet this establishes a sad catch-22, in that the domain-specific knowledge necessary for reading comprehension is then unable to be acquired.

If this intent of the Common Core—that knowledge is essential to literacy—remains unrecognized, then a simple and devastating misunderstanding of Common Core’s emphasis on “informational” texts will occur: ELA will avoid most literature altogether and focus on disparate expository texts instead.

The burden for literacy cannot remain on ELA alone. Literature and literary nonfiction is essential for gaining an understanding of the world, but it must be backed by domain-specific knowledge in other content areas.

In an elementary school, this means that administrators need to shift their focus from ELA to social studies, science, arts, and music, and ensure that 90 minute literacy blocks are used to build knowledge, not simply to conduct independent reading and writing. This can be done most strategically by selecting a coherent body of texts for read alouds and whole class exploration. In a middle and high school, this means that social studies, science, and technical content area teachers need to be on board with also being teachers of literacy, and must be trained on the selection and teaching of texts that will build content-specific knowledge.

At my middle school, my grade level team began developing this understanding by exploring the Common Core Standards. We found that the expectation that students would be able to cite evidence, read and comprehend complex grade level texts, and write arguments that exhibit logical reasoning and address counterclaims extended across ELA, social studies, and science. Not only that, we discovered that argumentative standards in literacy furthermore closely aligned with expectations for mathematical practice, in that students were expected to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. Here is the document my team created to compare these standards.

Such an exploration, however, is only a foot in the door. Now we must consider how we can share strategies of close reading, what qualitative and quantitative methods we can use to select grade level complex texts, and align these strategies across departments and grades. Furthermore, this also requires a shift on the part of us ELA teachers: we must be now be willing to consider how the texts and content we teach will align and build on the content taught in other classrooms.

While such an undertaking may appear daunting at first, the opportunity to collaborate on interdisciplinary papers, projects, and tasks is invigorating both for teachers and for students. At the end of last school year, my ELA department began working with the social studies department to consider how we could align our poetry units with their last units. We discovered that all social studies units shared the common theme of warfare, so we began selecting poems on warfare that would build on this theme and extend and enrich student understanding of multiple perspectives on war. This ability to strategically build on student knowledge strengthened student engagement, as they were able dive deeper into poems such as “Night in Blue” by Brian Turner and “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen by drawing upon their knowledge of the experience of soldiers in traumatic modern wars.

Here’s one short-term measure we could take to ensure that the burden for teaching literacy does not simply fall on the shoulders of ELA teachers:

Common Core aligned literacy assessments should hold all the teachers for a grade level accountable.

Wait, what? You heard that right. Make all the teachers on a grade level accountable for student performance on literacy tests. It might sound crazy, and I’m sure it will complicate the pristine “value-added” formulas that have been cooked up to evaluate individual teachers, but it’s the most effective means to ensure that schools realize the teaching of knowledge as the key to literacy. So long as the burden of accountability for literacy tests falls solely to the domain of ELA, then the teaching of literacy will solely fall on ELA teachers, and the other content areas will continue to be deemed as secondary as testing hysteria arises during the year.

In the schools I have worked in, this hysteria is the inevitable accompaniment of high stakes testing. Teachers, despite themselves, begin referencing “the test” as a raison d’être of lessons. During this run up to testing, roughly December through May, a school’s frenetic focus is on ELA and math, with extra weekend and afterschool sessions piled on to reinforce all those isolated skills for good measure. But now imagine if literacy were acknowledged as a grade level-wide concern. All hands would be on deck to ensure that content—across all domains—is systematically taught and reinforced. In other words, we’d be doing what we should have been doing all along.

Longer term measures we could take to ensure that teaching literacy extends across content areas:

Mistake #3: Infantilize teachers

Teaching is an incredibly dynamic and complex endeavor. Yet the manner in which we treat teachers here in the United States seems to suggest that we expect them to be barely literate, merely to perform to compliance a given set of regimented directives, like workers in a fast food chain.

Calls for increasing standards for hiring and training teachers, thankfully, are now in ascendance. Yet we continue to treat teachers in the field like children who aren’t capable of independent thought. This is brutally evident in the manner in which Common Core is being rolled out in schools across our nation.

Rather than allowing professional teachers to conduct the essential work of diving deep into the standards, we have consultants, pundits, and organizations attempting to do the thinking for us, transmogrifying the rich ideas of the standards into checklists. The end result of this is that schools and districts will look over a quick reference sheet, check off a few boxes from the list, and determine that their curriculum and practices are “aligned” to the Common Core. It’s easy to pretend that something is aligned to the Common Core. Look, we have nonfiction texts! Look, we write essays that require online research! Of course, such simplistic renderings declaw the Standards of any of the transformative power that we’ve been discussing above.

Let’s be honest for a second here: no one really knows exactly what the Common Core will look like in a given classroom or curriculum. There are models, exemplars, and plentiful suggestions, many of them quite good, but much of that is based on an isolated standard or text, as opposed to a fully contextualized curriculum or scope and sequence. And those curricula which are being developed can be vastly different, dependent on a given author’s pedagogical and theoretical standpoint.

So who are the “experts” here? Must we wait for the major textbook publishing companies to figure it out for us?

I have a revolutionary suggestion: how about we put our chips down on the scholarship of our nation’s teachers, and provide them with the space and time to immerse themselves deeply in the analysis and interpretation of the Common Core?

If our teachers haven’t fully contextualized the Common Core standards into their own understanding, then how else are they supposed to actualize them in their classrooms?

There’s one answer to that question, and that is the answer that most districts seem to have unthinkingly adopted: hand teachers a packaged curriculum and expect them to deliver it with unquestioned fidelity.

This is the wrong answer. Classroom practice will not be transformed if teachers are not treated as professionals and scholars. It takes professionalism to deeply engage with one’s colleagues on curriculum and pedagogy. It takes scholarship to carefully select and study complex texts that will build students’ domain-specific knowledge and understanding of literary history. It takes a systematic, school-wide effort to then integrate and align practices, texts and content across all grade levels in a manner that builds knowledge sequentially and coherently. It then takes a systematic, district-wide or state-wide effort to integrate and align different school curricula such that core content is consistent, such that if a student transfers from one school to another, large gaps in knowledge will not persist.

Or alternately, it may require disrupting location based integration altogether, and seeking to harness online collaborative resources to establish some modicum of coherency.

If we are to actualize the Common Core with the true transformative intent and spirit that the authors envisioned, then we need to give teachers the time and space to plunge deep into the Common Core and struggle with how they would teach to the standards in their classrooms. Then allow them to share, discuss, and modify their materials with one another.

The AFT has invested in TES’ Share My Lesson platform, and the NEA went with BetterLesson. I like to just use Google Drive. There’s great potential for harnessing online platforms to more coherently build a collective repository of understanding of the Common Core in how it is to be manifested in curriculum. Personally, I believe (and have argued elsewhere) that since we have a system of public education, our curriculum should also be transparent and accessible to the public.

Common Core must be interpreted by each teacher who is to teach to them. They must be contextualized. They must be studied and challenged and debated by grade level and content department teams. Only in this way will the difficult transition from rhetoric into practice be successfully enacted.

Otherwise, Common Core will remain little but a grand vision ossified in text.

Here’s one short-term measure we can take to ensure that we do not continue to infantilize our nation’s teachers:

Provide scheduled and paid time for teachers to explore, interpret, and actualize the Common Core into either their own curriculum and materials, or self-selected curriculum and materials.

For longer-term measures, we need to continue to focus on raising the expectations and standards for the teaching profession, such as by requiring a national bar exam, as Randi Weingarten and Joel Klein have suggested, and raising standards for schools of education, as NCTQ has suggested.

The pitfalls for effective implementation of Common Core are legion, and we can already witness states and districts plunging straightaway into them. That’s OK. As any teacher could tell you, it’s part of the learning process. The question is not whether we will make these mistakes, but whether we will modify our choices and adapt our behavior as a result.

I can assure you of one thing. If we continue to perpetuate skills-based teaching, place the entire burden of teaching literacy on ELA, and ignore the need for teacher scholarship and professionalism, then Common Core’s transformative power and potential will not be realized.

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