“We’re Where We Need to Be Right Now”

by Robert Pondiscio
May 15th, 2012

John Merrow of Learning Matters filed an important ten-minute piece for the PBS Newshour last night, looking at elementary reading programs.  Merrow and his producer Cat McGrath visited three different schools in and around New York City: one that teaches with basal readers, another with “balanced literacy,” and one of the New York City schools that is piloting the Core  Knowledge Language Arts curriculum.

The piece is well worth the ten-minutes it takes to watch it (a transcript is available here) and it nicely underscores a the differences between the Core Knowledge approach and the others, particularly in the over-reliance on reading strategies in balanced literacy and basals.  That could pose a problem as reading instruction shifts to comply with Common Core State Standards:

AMANDA BLATTER, principal, Public School 109: We now have level libraries that are nonfiction in all of our classrooms. So the curriculum in reading and writing is now aligning to the Common Core standards.

JOHN MERROW: Just like the students using basal textbooks, these first-graders are learning reading strategies.

AMANDA BLATTER: We’re teaching comprehension strategies such as main idea, author’s purpose, inferencing, cause and effect.

JOHN MERROW: In balanced literacy, comprehension is a skill, something to be practiced, like a jump-shot or dance steps.

It’s unfair to harp on a single soundbite in a TV interview, but the idea that you can be “aligned to Common Core standards” simply by adding nonfiction to a strategies-driven, read-what-you-like approach to literacy is a broad misinterpretation of what CCSS is all about.   The Standards are largely silent on the works of literature and knowledge domains children are expected to learn, but quite clear that there “must be a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.”

“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. Within a grade level, there should be an adequate number of titles on a single topic that would allow children to study that topic for a sustained period. The knowledge children have learned about particular topics in early grade levels should then be expanded and developed in subsequent grade levels to ensure an increasingly deeper understanding of these topics. Children in the upper elementary grades will generally be expected to read these texts independently and reflect on them in writing. However, children in the early grades (particularly K–2) should participate in rich, structured conversations with an adult in response to the written texts that are read aloud, orally comparing and contrasting as well as analyzing and synthesizing, in the manner called for by the Standards.”  (p. 23 CCSS ELA Standards)

“When I look at what the expectations are coming in with the Common Core learning standards,” says Joyce Barrett-Walker, the principal of PS 96, the Core Knowledge school featured in the piece. “It seems that we’re where we need to be right now.”

Basals and balanced literacy?  Not so much “What is clear is that basal readers used in three-quarters of our elementary schools will have to make significant adjustments to comply with the emerging Core standards,” Merrow concludes.



    Comment by Brad Miller — May 15, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

  2. I caught the last half of this report on public radio out here in Northern California yesterday afternoon (KQED radio broadcasts the PBS News Hour at 3 pm). It’s heartening to hear the words “Core Knowledge” spoken to a national audience.

    Comment by Anonymous — May 15, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

  3. Bravo for CK and the CCSS.

    The irony, which you know well Robert, is that for the most part, in high SES neighborhoods in Gotham, they’re still using balanced literacy.

    Those principals are not worried about Common Core either, but that’s ’cause they can coast along on the background knowledge most of their kids bring to school with them.

    Brings to mind Sooners/Cowboys coach Barry Switzer’s observation: “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”

    Comment by Matthew — May 15, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

  4. I bring much of my ‘previous life’ into my 8th grade classroom: acquiring aircraft engines and rocket motors for the USAF. My students sometimes complain about “doing so much with airplanes,” yet recently a former student shared with me how when taking the SAT there was a question involving wingspan, and she felt so confident answering it because of her experiences in my classroom.
    Nothing, nothing beats background knowledge when engaging and learning new knowledge.

    Comment by Peter Ford — May 16, 2012 @ 12:25 am

  5. This PBS segment is well-deserved recognition for Core Knowledge. But forgive me for viewing the larger picture as negative.

    Here are the salient statistics from this report: of all American elementary schools, 75% use basal readers and 15% use balanced literacy. The goal is to develop all-purpose reading comprehension skills, which CKB readers know don’t exist. Just over 1% of elementary schools use Core Knowledge, and who knows what the other 9% use.

    I came to my support for CK as an adult layman who has read a lot of serious books over the last 30 years. I know, for example, that my reading comprehension of American history is vastly superior to what it was 10 years ago, when I started reading presidential biographies in chronological order (I’m through Eisenhower)and dozens of other analytical narratives (Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Joseph Ellis, etc.). I understand U.S. history much better these days because my knowledge base is so much greater. The same thing could be said by any other serious adult readers for whatever topics they explore.

    The books by E.D. Hirsch have been around for 25 years, and his ideas have been talked about in the ed. world during that time. Both cognitive science and common sense are clear that background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. Why do I, a mere layman, grasp this while 90% of the K-12 world doesn’t?

    As much as I’d like to see the CK-type philosophy become widespread, I’m deeply pessimistic that will happen in my lifetime. I’ll be happy if other CKB readers cam convince me otherwise.

    Comment by John Webster — May 16, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

  6. Most of the instructional materials I have seen for Common Core are in fact designed around the Fountas & Pinnell Literacy Collaborative/Guided Reading/Balanced Literacy approach.

    Common Core is also pushing the distinction between spoken English and academic English in the classroom. Very troubling. Very, here are the words we want you to know. Then they add back in a strategy called Accountable Talk later. It is critical enough to Common Core that U-Pittsburgh has trademarked it.

    It looks like they only want students to be able to read designated words and they want all reading limited by purpose. Not a fluent I can read anything in print even if I haven’t seen it before. Then Accountable Talk comes along in middle and high school and says “Here are words you must recognize so you can grasp concepts we have designated and it will be less apparent how weakly you read.”

    Over and over again in NCLB waivers and applications and collateral practices that are being incorporated into Common Core through side vehicles like the Stimulus Act or a mandate from the National Center for Learning Disabilities I keep coming across a concentrated emphasis to make it OK not to be able to read well. That an inability to read should no longer hold anyone back.

    There also then doesn’t seem to be an impetus to tell student or parents how weak the student actually is. Very frustrated by Common Core’s deemphasis on print accuracy. Overall meaning derived from a group discussion of print will do.

    My blog is now up. This is today’s post:


    Have fun with the various posts. Please do not miss the post where I say I see things differently than most people because I read the reports and regulations and track down side documents and follow through on footnotes. I am literally acting off a different set of facts. But I would not say it if I could not prove it.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — May 16, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

  7. What I took from the video is the need for a lot more training and investment into teachers. I think the reason CK has not and may not spread is that we don’t have a teaching corps capable of implementing it. I know from speaking to my children’s teachers they are concerned that they are not prepared to teach the level of informational text that is needed.

    Comment by DC Parent — May 16, 2012 @ 10:44 pm

  8. I’m a teacher at an elementary school that uses a balanced literacy program to teach reading. Over the years I’ve become increasingly disenchanted by balanced literacy and have tried to infuse as much content into my curriculum as possible. Watching this video made me wish that I taught the core knowledge curriculum. I do have one question about the program and how it works. What are the students reading independently? I agree that the focus of instruction should be content and that the class should be following a prescribed sequence to learn this content. However, students do need to learn to read independently and I’m wondering what this looks like in the core knowledge program. Assuming that in every elementary classroom students are reading at a variety of levels, are all of the independent books connected to the content being taught? Or are all students reading the same text? Please clarify for me. Thanks.

    Comment by Sal — May 17, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

  9. This news story is a step in the right direction — the report was too timid to draw the obvious conclusion that the so-call Common Core is a scam. But alert viewers will be able to draw the inference!

    I wish promising test results would come in for older grades using Core Knowledge (and I wish it could change its name).

    Comment by Harold — May 18, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

  10. Here are a couple of interesting quotes:

    “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.”


    “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

    These come verbatim from the Common Core State Standards, and they set the expectations for elementary curriculum.

    So….this is a “scam” why exactly?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 18, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

  11. Why is it a scam? It is the same old same old, at twice the expense. Not a conscious scam, perhaps, and it probably works, but I believe attention to content would work better.

    Comment by Harold — May 18, 2012 @ 8:45 pm

  12. Sal, to answer your question most Core Knowledge teachers allow some time for independent self selected reading. The big difference is that the bulk of their reading instruction is not devoted to this type of reading. The emphasis remains on content. There are certain novels at each grade level that the whole class will read and discuss. One of the criticisms of Core Knowledge is that students who read far below grade level can’t read these texts. A creative teacher can get around that in a variety of ways. When you limit a child to “just right” books you do a grave injustice to the child reading well below grade level who will only be exposed to simple picture books in spite of the fact that they are capable of understanding far more complex subject matter.

    Comment by Mary S. — May 19, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

  13. Robert-

    I now take the position it is a scam because the planned implementation from the documents I have read looks very little like the CCSS standards. I have an advantage in that I have tracked through the previous attempts and can spot by function even with a new name and multiple parts spread out between feds and states and coming in through special ed etc. Some of it makes me angry because it is not a reasonable place to look. Which I suppose is very helpful in keeping controversy to a minimum.

    Would you believe that quite a bit of the documents surrounding the planned learning progression and how to implement are found on govt servers in other countries? I track through footnotes in part and following the implementation terms here quickly takes you out of the US. Same terms. Same function. Ahead of the US because the political fight over Goals 2000 and School to Work coupled with Gore’s loss in 2000 meant that the US only got a partial implementation of Outcomes Based Education. Other parts of the world went ahead.

    The closest any of us may get to having a crystal ball is to look at those countries that went ahead with the Transformational OBE push. That’s when the primary function of the school is to alter and then reenforce desired values and practice life roles. You can see what is going on in higher ed and secondary in those places. You can see the linking economic policies being pursued.

    In reading, for example, some of the most pertinent materials for the US common core (as Wash Monthly calls it) are sitting on servers in New Zealand.

    I just got done with a graduation where one of the gypsy supers (you know they change jobs every couple of years and move for more money and everybody gets more aggressive change) was ecstatic over the new vision of the “learning community” being put into place that would ensure “quality learning” for all children. All those are defined terms and I have the dictionary. That’s a big part of the scam. Ordinary, common sense terms like quality, learning, excellence, rigor just to name a few have particular, largely unappreciated meanings that govern implementation. I listen and feel ill. On occasion there will be a term I don’t know. Usually I just put the unknown term along with the acronym McREL into a search engine. Out pops some recent document or an anthology telling me not only what it means but how all the notorious components of Tr OBE are back with new names.

    Oh. Deception. Duplicity. Scam. Coordinated Effort to Mislead. It fits with what the interest groups are putting out. It’s what the Gypsy administrators eager for that next job title and nice pay raise are ready or eager to implement. The better to make the accreditors and other power players happy so more raises and lucrative job titles are available.

    Like the Euro, education seems to quickly be coming to a head on what we are doing and where we are going.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — May 19, 2012 @ 10:13 pm

  14. Thanks Mary,

    That’s what I would like to have in my classroom–some time for self-selected independent reading and other time to read “meatier” texts.


    Comment by Sal — May 20, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

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