Teaching to CCSS: Making Bricks Without Straw?

by Robert Pondiscio
October 17th, 2012

The following post originally appeared on Schoolbook, the education blog of WNYC, New York City’s public radio station.  It appears here with the permission of the author.  – rp

Bricks Without Straw
By Matthew Levey

A decade into the education reform movement in New York, we have doubled our school budget to $24 billion. We’ve focused on teacher quality, and how to measure it. We’ve created many new, often smaller, schools.  Unfortunately our students’ scores on the key tests like the SAT and NAEP haven’t budged.

Frustrated reformers have pinned their hopes on new Common Core State Standards (CCSS ) that make explicit what a college-ready student should be able to do in math, reading and writing. The CCSS say content matters, but the authors didn’t dictate which content to teach or how to deliver it.

Under CCSS, third graders “develop an understanding of fractions, beginning with unit fractions” but the CCSS do not say how. Eighth graders should be able to “produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience” but the CCSS don’t pick the topic.

How we implement the CCSS will determine whether we improve student outcomes or not.. What I have observed so far, as a parent of three children in public schools and the husband of a teacher, suggests our approach to implementing the CCSS is not off to a great start. In selecting content and teaching children how to respond thoughtfully to it, we seem to think whatever we were doing before was good enough to meet the new standards.  Our schools, and our teachers, need to invest meaningfully in training and curriculum redesign; on the front lines that doesn’t appear to be happening.

Where’s the Content?

Non-fiction matters more than ever before, according to the CCSS. So how does my tested-above-proficient 8th grader come to believe that the Confederacy was winning the Civil War prior to the Battle of Gettysburg?  Perhaps it starts with history textbook with too many empty graphics, organized around themes rather than time. Maybe it starts by asking them to write about the battle before they were assigned the right chapters in the book? If content is king children don’t seem to be getting enough.

When my 5th grader’s teacher told us about the social studies curriculum, she practically apologized that she had to teach about government for two months, “because the kids find it boring.” The good news, she said, was that she too was learning a lot about the topic as she prepared her lessons. When a parent asked whether the current election campaign would be incorporated into the unit, the teacher said, “Oh that’s a good idea, maybe we could have them make ads for a candidate.”

Structure Matters too

Getting the content right is just part of the challenge.  Our children also need much more explicit instruction in how to put that content in context.

My daughter’s first written assignment this year was to imagine herself as a delegate in 1787, and explain whether she would vote for the Constitution if the Bill or Rights wasn’t included. Since my daughter hadn’t learned anything about the small states vs. big states debate, or any of the other big ideas that roiled Philadelphia that summer, all she could express was her feelings.  Like a true New York City resident, she didn’t feel the 2nd amendment made a lot of sense, but it was hard to say why.

Asked to write about the inevitability (or not) of the Civil War, my son struggled.  He knew about slavery and industrialization, but years of the Teacher’s College writing model used in our local schools left him ill-prepared to organize his knowledge effectively. Judith Hochman, whose program is credited, in part, for helping save New Dorp High School correctly observes that  “much writing instruction prior to ninth grade … is based around journals, free writing, memoirs, poems and fiction.”

The result, Hochman notes, is that students don’t know “how to communicate effectively to an audience. Students are given little or no preparation for the types of expository writing required in high school, college, and the workplace.”

Following her advice I pushed my son to think about using words like “although,” “unless” and ‘if” to build more complex thoughts. After a few hours of work, he turned to me and asked, “Why don’t they teach this in my school?”

In Exodus, when the Israelites asked to leave Egypt, Pharaoh forced them to make the same quantity of bricks, but without straw.  This ancient story has become a metaphor for an absurdly hard task.

Parents rightly expect our schools will improve if we use higher standards. But to do so, district and school leaders must look closely at the content they’ve selected and how it is delivered. Repurposing our existing approach and declaring it ‘new and improved’ simply will not do. It’s like asking schools to make bricks without straw, and that’s a recipe for trouble.  Just ask the Pharaoh.

Matthew Levey is the father of three New York City public school students. He is the co-founder of Bright Track, an educational advisory service, and a former Community Education Council president.


  1. Matthew,

    You raise a number of valid points, not least of which is the random approach states/districts are incorporating, or not, toward the CCSS.

    What should prove most interesting will be viewing the results when accompanying CCSS assessments are instituted. My fear, as with NCLB state assessments, the differences between states could be significant. This is particularly disturbing noting the amount of time, energy, and money that have gone into the CCSS effort. When, I repeat, WHEN, if ever, will education become the “great equalizer” in our society?

    This could be states’ attempts to demonstrate their purported sovereignty or yet another cavalier approach toward the (in)significance of reforming our public schools. Or, it could also be a masked attempt by a number of states of throwing their hands up in frustration at the impossible task of actually improving their schools.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — October 18, 2012 @ 7:14 am

  2. I am seeing this first hand in my kids classrooms. There are textbooks in the corner gathering dust and teachers are putting together piecemeal their own worksheets, stuff they pull from the internet.. but it does feel very homemade if you will. I am of two minds here. It is not like the American textbook industry has distinguished itself by their high-quality insight. Techonlogy has made it a lot easier for good teachers to assemble high quality materials at lower costs than many text books.

    What I am also seeing in the presentations to parents from teachers is a struggle to realign what kids should know if they had always been within this rubric of standards. This is where I think effective collaborative teachers and schools will distinguish themselves, but schools that are struggling and already short on resources are going to find this very difficult.

    Comment by DC Parent — October 18, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

  3. I am of the opinion that what you teach is far less important than what you ask students to do with the material they study. If you focus on surface-level comprehension and evaluate students using methods that reward recall of facts, the result will be students who have a shallow grasp on that material.

    The CCSS, more than offering a new curriculum, embodies a different way of thinking about our curriculum. I agree with the second part of Mr. Levey’s suggestion that, “…district and school leaders must look closely at the content they’ve selected and how it is delivered.” Most reform efforts result in teachers making a token effort to make what they’ve always done look like what the reform is asking for. CCSS will be no different. Content is the easy part; implementing a radically new delivery of instruction will be the challenge.

    The overwhelming majority of materials produced for teachers to use in their classrooms are essentially worksheets of one form or another. This is the barrier past which CCSS must go. It will be difficult, because asking students to think is an extremely challenging job, not the least because it also requires the teacher to think deeply, an activity they have not been trusted to engage in much.

    The nature of the assessments at school, district, state, and national levels. Will be the key driver in the success or failure of this effort. Multiple-choice tests may play a part, but if we think students should learn to think deeply and critically about what they read, we must commit to including assessments that require students to write. It’s the only way to truly find out how well they are thinking.


    Comment by Marshall Doris — October 18, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

  4. The Common Core rollout won’t change a thing, not only because of the vagueness of the standards themselves but also because the education bureaucracy hasn’t changed. The people who evaluate teachers and curricula, and who therefore control the context in which the CCSS will debut, are rarely experts in content. They’re technocrats, obsessed with process, productivity, and learning by objective, and they’re the reason most state standards were so bland to begin with.

    If the point of Common Core is mere standardization, then we can all safely assume the CCSS will “succeed” in the same way that McDonald’s succeeded in standardizing its menu. Just as a Big Mac tastes the same in Portland, Maine and Buckteeth, New Mexico, so the new McLearnings will be the same in every state. Worry not, Paul Hoss. The CCSS will “succeed” in the technocratic sense. They just won’t do anything good for America’s kids. Kind of like fast food.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — October 18, 2012 @ 10:14 pm

  5. In the current urban vernacular I’ll share some ‘realtalk’:
    Teachers don’t teach content well because they don’t know it.
    How can you expect elementary school teachers to teach American History when they themselves are unfamiliar with our founding and the Constitution?
    I have said previously that my relative depth & breadth of math knowledge allows me to adapt my instruction to CCSS, but ultimately it’s my CONTENT KNOWLEDGE that allows me to do so. How many teachers either don’t know or can’t explain what you’re doing when you long divide? One of my long complaints of language arts teachers is their lack of ‘boy books’ they read in class. No Ben Bova? Steven Barnes? Peter David? Boys don’t like English because you’re not reading about explosions, chaos and speed, and most English teachers I’ve known, elementary through secondary, are clueless about these Sci-Fi authors.
    Most teacher credentialing programs focus on process, and assume that your degree grants you content knowledge, or in California you can pass the dreaded California Subject Examination for Teachers (CSET).
    CCSS will not succeed as it should unless teachers know more of their content. From 17 years of anecdotal comments from my students, this issue is worse, as always, in our urban areas than anywhere else.

    Comment by Peter Ford — October 19, 2012 @ 7:40 am

  6. Once again Peter (comment 5) makes a politically incorrect but factually accurate statement: far too many teachers are unqualified to teach content because they’ve never studied it well enough themselves.

    Last year I came across one of the most dismaying articles I’ve ever read about education. The article cited a study showing that among occupations classified as “professional”, the group whose members on average read the fewest serious books per year is…K-12 teachers (sorry, I lost the link to that article). My personal conversations with many teachers over the last thirty years regrettably confirm that statistical survey. I’m always gratified to meet teachers who are lifelong learners, and take education seriously in their personal lives – they’re the exceptions.

    Think of all the smart young people who apply to law schools every year, and who wind up not practicing law or hating it if they do. Wouldn’t it improve K-12 education if many more higher caliber people were attracted to teaching? There are, of course, may hundreds of thousands of very bright teachers who willingly sacrifice income to work in a profession they’re passionate about. Most conspicuous are the religious school teachers (Catholic, etc.) who earn low salaries but teach out of conviction.

    There are also accountants, engineers, physicians, and other highly educated professionals who voluntarily accept much lower pay to work in positions they love and believe in. But in all those fields, only a small percentage of qualified professionals will take such low-paid jobs.

    Compensation is an area where education really should be operated more like a business. For-profit business executives know that they need to pay market rate to hire and retain first-rate talent. Likewise for K-12 teachers, taken as a group.

    I appreciate the rhetorical support that many political conservatives give to improving academic standards in K-12; sadly, too many liberals only care about gaining the votes and campaign cash from the K-12 world, with the welfare of kids a very secondary concern.

    But I emphatically part company with many conservatives whose primary goal for education is to minimize spending by not paying teachers well enough to attract and retain a higher quality teaching corps. These pro-business conservatives should know better – you get what you pay for.

    Comment by John Webster — October 19, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

  7. “Teachers don’t teach content well because they don’t know it.”


    When a teacher says that the Constitution is boring “for kids,” what it really means is that it is boring for her, the teacher.

    The problem is (and I speak from experience here) that education schools don’t focus on the content that we need to be able to teach. It’s all theory–meaning constructivism, of course. We are not even exposed to alternate points of view, unless it is to dismiss those ideas as outdated.

    If you are a teacher who cares about teaching content, you have to go out and learn about it yourself. Unfortunately, teachers are not pushed in this direction. We are told that the most important thing is to teach the strategies, not the content. We should act more like psychotherapists than teachers, encouraging our students to write about personal “small moments” in their lives, counseling them one-on-one as they write their memoirs. What this is supposed to prepare them for is not clear. It is supposed to make kids love reading and writing. The irony is (again, I speak from experience) that this content-free approach is what leads to boredom.

    Children need us to introduce them to world and how it works. And when we introduce them to ideas that are new, they are usually extremely interested. I just bought the Core Knowledge Listening & Learning set this summer and started using it with my kids this fall. I wish someone would get a video of full lesson using CK Listening & Learning and juxtapose that with a lesson using Balanced Literacy. Then we could have a more honest discussion about which approach is considered more boring for students.

    Comment by alamo — October 20, 2012 @ 7:14 pm

  8. “…what it really means is that it is boring for her, the teacher.”

    Hope that was just a Freudian slip.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — October 21, 2012 @ 7:37 am

  9. No, that’s what I meant to say. When Lucy Calkins and her followers say that content is boring, what they mean is that they themselves have a preference reading for memoirs and so forth, rather than reading history and science texts.

    Comment by alamo — October 21, 2012 @ 9:02 am

  10. Easy on the teacher-bashing, people. Please remember that it’s the leadership who drives and defines “best practice,” not the teacher-peasantry. Most teachers are at the mercy of not only their administrative leadership, but also that of the aristocratic guru-class to which Dr. Calkins and her ilk belong. The Calkins program is itself a case-study in how the aristocracy proliferates and maintains its power over teachers, as this Education Next article shows: http://educationnext.org/the-lucy-calkins-project/.

    Give the peasants a break, already.

    Comment by James OKeeffe — October 21, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

  11. Enjoying the feedback here from among the converts. Agree with James that teacher bashing is not useful.

    I empathize with my daughter’s 5th grade teacher – who indeed seems to specialize in finding worksheets on the Internet and handing them to the kids as homework. When the school leadership made her the social studies teacher this year, I only wish they had committed to assessing her content knowledge honestly and remediating the gaps – like buying her a book to read over the summer. Instead of ignoring the issue and pretending she’d figure it out on her own.

    Related issue is the quantity of standards – in 8th grade my son’s class is expected to cover 7 units of study from the Civil war to CIvil rights. I’d be happier if they picked 4 units they could do well, and in depth, and trust that having modeled real primary source research and inquiry based learning, that the kids could apply that model to future studies. But as it stands they’re trying to get the kids to drink from a fire hose. Hard work.

    Comment by Matthew — October 22, 2012 @ 8:43 am

  12. I don’t think I was teacher bashing. Or at least that wasn’t my intent. We go to teacher colleges because we want to learn how to teach, and we are told content isn’t important. We get jobs and are told by our principals that content doesn’t matter; what’s most important is that kids are having fun and get to choose what to read. It is clearly the responsibility of education schools and school admin to steer teachers in the right direction. In the absence of this, unfortunately we are left to figure it out for ourselves.

    @Matthew, you should tell your daughter’s 5th grade teacher to look into the Pearson Core Knowledge History and Geography curriculum. The teacher’s set is not very expensive and it’s a great program.

    Comment by alamo — October 22, 2012 @ 9:25 am

  13. thanks Alamo. funny to think Pearson has a program of value, but I’ll take a look.

    Comment by Matthew — October 22, 2012 @ 9:36 pm

  14. The Story of US by Joy Hakim is really one of the best for getting a managable fire hose on American history through Middle School. I have used it to fill in holes I have seen in my kids education. I wish they would buy a set for any teacher from 4th through high school to fill in those shortages.

    Comment by DC Parent — October 23, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

  15. @ DC Parent – funny it was Joy Hakim’s Civil War book – used by my son’s teacher – that I found terrible. Organized thematically and not chronologically. Too many graphics and pictures. beauty is apparently in the eye of the beholder.

    Comment by Matthew — October 23, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

  16. @Matthew,

    The Pearson teacher’s guide is a great framework. It’s well organized and emphasizes important content. But I do think it needs to be supplemented. For example, there are read-aloud scripts for each lesson, and I read the scripts (and sometimes modify them) while showing PowerPoint presentations that I create to illustrate what I read. If the teacher just stood up their and read the script I am sure the kids would be bored. But because of how well the lessons are organized it is easy for teachers to add and subtract what they need to meet their students’ needs.

    Comment by alamo — October 24, 2012 @ 1:17 am

  17. @Matthew you know what attracted me to the Hakim text was the thematic connections. I think I was in my 20′s before I realized that the French-Indian War and War of 1812 were actually connected to wars happening in Europe. For me we have taught too much of American education as chronology of events and not enough to the connection of what was happening. Most likely those are the connections a teacher needs to make, but I cannot remember it being made clear through both European and American AP history. I scored top scores on those tests so I could reguritate quite a bit.

    Comment by DC Parent — October 25, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

  18. [...] Core Knowledge, where Robert Pondiscio has started a squishiness watch on the upcoming common social studies [...]

    Pingback by New standards, old content-lite teaching — Joanne Jacobs — October 25, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

  19. @DC Parent,

    I’ll need to keep an open mind about Joy. Indeed we do our kids a disservice if they don;t learn the connected nature of our history to that of Europe. I suppose as always, there’s a balance between thematic and chronological. the risk is when we go too far one way or the other.

    Comment by Matthew — October 25, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

  20. I can definitely relate to this. My state, Louisiana, is currently in transition from our Grade Level Expectations to Common Core. This year we are mixing both, but we really do not know what we are doing. The state assessment has changed its writing and reading to more align with the Common Core. The push for us this year is to add more nonfiction and arugmentative writing. I am curious to see how this affects our test scores.

    Comment by Judy Johnson — November 16, 2012 @ 10:48 am

  21. You raise several good points in your description of the common core standards. As teachers are faced with the new curriculum, it is crucial that they become familiar with the content and new methods of teaching. I feel that teachers will need more training on the standards as well as methods for instruction. I attended a STEM meeting a few days ago and we were given many great ideas on incorporating the new Common Core into our Career and Technical Education classes. I think that principals and teacher leaders will be instrumental in implementing ideas for quality instruction. I too am curious to see test scores and student feedback to see how effective the new standards will be.

    Comment by Amanda Blackstock — November 18, 2012 @ 10:34 pm

  22. Common Core standards are in fact a positive step to improving education and the performance of students. Consistency is a crucial component with the 21st century student and when the same common instructiona goals are implemented across the curriculum, student achievement will result.

    On the contrary, because of the technology-dependant generation, students (from my experirence) lack to ability and capacity to use problem solving, critical thinking, and comprehension skills to solve tasks that teachers incorporate into the curriculum. Without relevance,a student sees no need to engage in a mind-challenging task when the internet can produce the same result in a matter of seconds.

    As a Career Tech teacher, every assignment and task is directly correlated to real-world application and is most likely connected to a work place setting. I have seen a drastic improvement in my students’ performance in the areas of higher order thinking, reading/comprehension, speaking and writing ability.

    Teachers do need more strategies and training on relevant ways to incorporate the CC standards into curriculum. Sadly, with the already overwhelmingly amount of added demands for teachers, not everyone will be on board to enhancing and improving their practice.

    Comment by Katie — November 20, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

  23. Well written Katie. I am hopeful that the Common Core standards will be positive innovations in teaching. The number of transient students that we teach has increased over the past five years, I feel that common standards will be helpful for these students to succeed. I have heard many positive comments about the book, The Iy Generation, by Tim Elmore. This book describes the changes in the students that we teach now, from students prior to 1990. As the students change, teachers will need to strategies to teach. In my opinion, master teachers are teacher learners, which in turn, become teacher leaders.

    Comment by Amanda Blackstock — November 20, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

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