John Merrow’s Crystal Ball

by Alice Wiggins
January 24th, 2013

Last year, John Merrow showed us what early grades classrooms will look like once teachers become experts in the new Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts. He’s long been known as an insightful journalist, so maybe it should not be a surprise that he so quickly grasped the most essential difference between business as usual and the Common Core.

Unlike ELA practices typically used in the early grades today (which our nation’s hard-working teachers have been taught in their preparation programs and required by their school districts to use), the practices that will become typical in the Common Core era are actually based on cognitive science. The first hint is in the standards’ long title: Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. It’s ridiculously long for a title—but it’s incredibly short as a summary of all the most critical points.

Common: shared, as in shared by enough educators for them to be able to collaborate in developing and refining lesson plans—and shared across schools so those unlucky students who must change schools often are not always lost in class.

Core: essential yet also expandable; states can add a bit (if they must) and teachers will have time to go deeper in response to students’ needs and interests.

State: not federal.

Standards: not curriculum (though for the sake of teacher training, materials development, assessment, and mobile students, states should consider developing curricula too).

English Language Arts: artful use of the English language will become far easier to find once the new writing, speaking, listening, and language standards are honored in spirit and practice.

Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects: broad literacy, true literacy; a literate adult has wide-ranging knowledge of these subjects and is therefore able to read any text intended for the public.

This lengthy title will take on even more meaning with a quick review of two amazing findings from cognitive science. Both relate to literacy, and they really explain why the new standards emphasize literacy in specific subjects. The first finding is that, once students are fluent decoders, reading comprehension strategies do help—but students don’t need to spend much time learning or practicing them. Some research shows that just 6 lessons in comprehension strategies (like answering questions and summarizing) are as effective as 50 such lessons. This is great news: we have something effective to build on and it does not need to take much  instructional time. That means we have plenty of time to devote to something that helps more, which brings me to the second finding: knowledge matters. A lot.

One way to study this that has been replicated several times is to take a topic, say baseball, and then get a group of kids, say 12-year-olds, and assess them to find out (1) who is and is not a strong reader, and (2) who does and does not know much about baseball. Then make four groups: strong reader, high knowledge of baseball; strong reader, low knowledge of baseball; weak reader, high knowledge of baseball; weak reader, low knowledge of baseball. Now we’re ready to find out how much knowledge matters: give the kids a text about a baseball game and give them a miniature replica of the diamond, players, etc. Then see who really understands the text by having them show you what happened in the game. Which group does best? The strong readers with a high knowledge of baseball, of course. But the real question is between the strong readers with low knowledge of baseball and the weak readers with high knowledge of baseball. Okay, I gave away the answer at the beginning: it’s the knowledge that really matters. Weak readers with high knowledge of baseball comprehend the baseball text better than the strong readers with low knowledge of baseball. This is spectacular because it gives us a clear path to high achievement: to increase reading comprehension, we need to increase knowledge—and that can be done orally and visually, as well as through text.

Back to the future. Fortunately, when Merrow looked into his crystal ball he had his camera crew standing by to capture the astounding scene: 6-year-olds talking about their favorite books on the solar system and archeology. Take a look (or read the transcript). The first part of the video captures the reading classroom of today. But then, about 6 minutes in, the future is there for all to see in an elementary school in Queens, NY. This is one of 10 NYC schools that piloted the new Core Knowledge Language Arts program. Grades K–3 of that program will be available—for free—this summer, and samples will be available in February. We’ll be sure to let you know when the future arrives.


  1. So, Mr. Merrow, the Common Core will usher in The Millenium…

    What a charmingly American idea.

    I wonder if he has ever read Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest”?

    Probably. And he probably identifies with the skeptical, hard-bitten journalists out in the audience during the press briefings by the Colonel with the pointer and the flip charts up on stage.

    But I think he flatters himself.

    The way I am experiencing it, as a teacher, the Common Core has no more promise of saving American education than the Strategic Hamlet Program had of saving the Republic of Viet Nam.

    We all know how that turned out. “We had to destroy the village to save it.”

    If there is any hope that that this God-awful-mess can be straightened out, journalists are going to have to learn to recognize the difference between infomercial and reality. They are going to have to go out into the field and get their boots muddy talking to the people at the spearpoint.

    And their view, believe me, is not a happy one. It is decidedly not the fantasy world described above.

    Comment by bill eccleston — January 25, 2013 @ 7:37 am

  2. Mr. Eccleston’s comment is interesting, but I would like to hear what folks at the spearpoint think of Common Core. My boots are plenty muddy and much of what I hear in the slog are complaints from teachers about not having autonomy, which seems as limited a vision on the subject as the one from the ivory tower.

    Comment by Peter Meyer — January 25, 2013 @ 10:24 am

  3. @Bill, not surprised that the common core could be implemented in a completely useless way or succussfuly, but please be detailed. What is the issue? Resources, topics, understanding the issues? As a parent trying to understand what I need to advocate for my children, details matter in understanding what is happening or not happening in the classroom.

    Comment by DC Parent — January 25, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

  4. I must say that thus far the Common Core has not helped any more than the previous standards set for New York State. Teachers need appropriate PD for their grade level and subject matter to be able to provide cohesion and collaboration. Let’s try getting back to basics and teach our students the foundations for math, reading, writing,etc. Parents are confused with the changes too. Does anyone really have the answer?

    Comment by fran615 — January 25, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

  5. DC Parent, and anyone else interested, click this link and read about the deadly confusion over the very core question of the new curriculum: What texts to teach?

    This issue is no tempest in a tea pot. It’s widespread. It’s everywhere. If its it not solved, the Common Core won’t work, will it? Kids must read well chosen texts in each of the content domains and the those texts must be embedded in a logical sequence of courses, year to year, to effectively build background knowledge.

    But it looks like few in power knows this. Here in Rhode Island everyone is clueless on this issue from the classroom to the Department of Education, and what we English teachers are getting is exactly what the Washington Post reporter found elsewhere: you will cut literary content to make way for History, Math, Science, Art, etc. The history teachers, science teachers, others? “Ah, we don’t know what you will do. We suppose there’ll be standards and test for you someday, too.”

    I’m not exaggerating.

    And the equipment and training on the equipment??? No thought is being giving to that. The Pioneer Institute—our friends, they tried to stop Massachusetts from giving Sandra Stotsky and the MCAST system the bums-rush when the new governor took office—they published a paper last fall, (might as well have published on Mars,) estimating the present equipment deficit, (hardware needed to administer the tests,) at 6 billion!

    And what of training to use it? Dr. Wilingham, could you describe the cognitive penalty paid by the test-taker who cannot touch-type? Who must sight-type—hunt and peck?

    Who will train the kids to type and use other word processing features? When? To what level of competence? Those critical questions are not being asked.

    And the validity of the PARCC test and the other one, what-ever-its-called?
    Under the pressure of time can these tests be sufficiently valid that we can use it for the high stakes purposes we’ve set by law where both students and teachers have their futures in the balance?

    Don’t tests need to be tested?

    Dr. Hirsch. You’ll be interested here… Measured Progress, the company that designed the New England Compact “NECAP” testing scheme that is being replaced, has produced an “Interim” Reading assessment giving over three days, three times a year, that Rhode Island kids took for the first time in November. Among the performance highlights, not one 10th grader in the state passed the ELA test. My 7th graders got 31% of the multiple choice questions correct. On the two essays, 23 of my 25 students earned zeros, two—my best and brightest—got “1″s. Normally, on the NECAP writing tests, about 8% of my kids get “1″ in writing, none get zeros, and the average proficiency rate for the past three years was 60%

    Talking to my kids, I learned their biggest problem was that they couldn’t read the multiple texts presented in each day’s session. There were always three, and being on a screen, the kids could only see them one at a time and could not make any sort of notation. Moreover, they could not comprehend much of anything in the texts, either. One, for example, was an excerpt from “A Vindication of the Rights of Women: with Strictures Moral and Cultural” by Mary Wollstonecraft.

    Romantic Literature is your field. What do you think? If you attempted to sort the reading competency of 7th graders, what result would you expect if you assigned them the “Vindication”?

    In fact, if I may ask, when did you assign this text to your students back in the day, and in what course?

    Comment by bill eccleston — January 26, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

  6. @ Bill
    I’ve also been a Common Core skeptic –everything I hear from my colleagues who’ve gone through Common Core “boot camp” sound alarming: they make it sound as if it’s all about skills and critical thinking –every indication is that it’s content-indifferent. And these concerns have been compounded by talk about the new Common Core-aligned tests here in CA –the so-called Smarter, Better Assessments. From what I’ve gathered, these open-ended question, computer-based tests will test SKILLS, not content. So districts are going to go bonkers insisting that every teacher’s lessons elicit some skill –who gives a crap about the content? However I must say I haven’t really studied the Common Core standards. This weekend I’ve landed myself on the California Teachers Association state council curriculum committee, so it’s now my duty to pay closer attention. I hope to discover a plausible path from the Common Core standards to teaching meaty content in actual California classrooms. The fact that E.D. Hirsch and co. seem to see this path gives me some hope, though if you listen to my fellow teacher-delegates here talk about CC, you wouldn’t be optimistic.

    Comment by Ponderosa — January 26, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

  7. From my limited perspective as a teacher implementation of Common Core has been a complete mess. Many staff members have attended multiple trainings on the subject which has only succeeded in increasing their confusion. It appears to me as if Common Core is being used to justify whatever educational fad or philosophy to which the trainer currently ascribes. The teachers are confused and have no clue which conflicting idea they are supposed to follow. Our principal is suggesting that the staff do a book study on Lucy Calkin”s (one of the gurus of Whole Language) book “Pathways to the Common Core” as this will clarify everything for them. Readers of this blog will know that this will not help them to better understand the ideas behind Common Core. I originally loved the idea of Common Core and had high hopes for its effect on education. What I have seen so far has me thinking that this will simply be another passing fancy. I sincerely hope that I am wrong.

    Comment by Mary S. — January 27, 2013 @ 12:49 am

  8. Perhaps we should all take a moment to pause and consider just how new the CCSS are and how little time educators have had to learn about them, much less to adjust their instruction. Sadly, misinformation about the CCSS abounds. But isn’t that to be expected for now and in the months, possibly years, to come? Wouldn’t the wisest approach be to take a few years to focus on writing new curriculum and materials (or adopting a well-aligned program, such as Core Knowledge), and providing job-embedded professional development (which Core Knowledge also provides)? Shouldn’t state and federal accountability policies be temporarily suspended to give educators a chance to learn about the CCSS? I know an accountability hiatus is unlikely to happen, but I still have to say that being held accountable while trying to learn something new is unfair and even counterproductive, especially given the mixed messages everyone is hearing about just what the CCSS call for. The misinformation about what the ELA standards mean by “informational text” is so bad that I heard a commentator on the radio use menus and bus schedules as examples. Having studied the CCSS, I can state with certainty that the type of “informational text” that is intended is engaging content, especially from history and science. And it is not intended to infringe on the fiction, poetry, etc. so valued in ELA. Confusing though it may be, these are not just ELA standards: they are literacy standards that reach across subjects and thus affect the whole school day. The Common Core is just a set of standards. They can be implemented well or poorly; they can have a positive or negative impact on our students. My next blog post will address ways I think they can be implemented well.

    Comment by Alice Wiggins — January 27, 2013 @ 6:17 pm

  9. My district in St. Louis, MO is currently going through the change. After spending two years revamping our communication arts curriculum, we have tossed everything to the side to focus on implementing the CCSS. The cadre that has been selected to train the rest of us is still confused, however, their outlook seems positive. While I must admit that I have not done much research on CCSS at this point, this blog and the comments were shocking to me, as I have not heard a whole lot of negativity.
    I am excited about the fact that we will be using the same standards to teach so when our students do move, they will not be so far off. Am I being too naive? Quite possibly. My concern, based on my slight knowledge of this new program, is text. I keep hearing about the informational texts that we will be using, even though my district is still looking at possibly adopting a new textbook. Has the standard for what our texts will look like been given yet?
    I am sure that like any other newly instated initiative, this will take a long time to get up and going, but are the long term benefits worth our frustrations now?

    Comment by Nicole Weber — January 27, 2013 @ 9:32 pm

  10. Ms Wiggins, I completely agree. You make my point much better than I did. In a rational world the answer to all your questions is “Yes.”

    The danger is that the body politic will become so disgusted with the mess that the forces of reaction will have day, and the Common Core, good as it is in theory, will wind up in the recycling bin.

    Comment by bill eccleston — January 28, 2013 @ 7:35 am

  11. CCSS are in their infancy stage. The proof, for me, will come when the curricula are developed, state by state, perhaps even district by district or school by school.

    How will we know which state, district, or school succeeded? The CCSS assessments are just around the corner. Unfortunately, what this will demonstrate is what the thresholds for proficiency demonstrated with state NCLB proceedings. This difference this time, they’ll be no place for the fraudulent parties to hide.

    CCSS is THE correct path. Now let’s see where states and districts go with it.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 28, 2013 @ 10:12 am

  12. [...] Posts Learning by Listening: Why It’s the Best Way to Do the CCSS in the Early Grades John Merrow’s Crystal Ball Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Dolls An Unclaimed Lottery Ticket Tucker Takes Zhao in Just [...]

    Pingback by Learning by Listening: Why It’s the Best Way to Do the CCSS in the Early Grades « The Core Knowledge Blog — January 29, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

  13. Folks, take the time to watch this panel discussion of the Fordham Foundation’s take on the cost of the shift to the Common Core. Listen carefully, and have a cup of coffee at hand because, until you get to Zev Wurman, you might fall asleep. (I felt like a fly on the wall on Mt. Olympus listening to the Gods talk about their favorite playthings, teac… oops, mortals.) Mr. Wurman, like the Pioneer Institute, begs to differ. Will his dissent be ignored? It can’t be if the Common Core is to succeed.

    Here’s the link

    Meanwhile, I see we have another John Merrow infomercial to watch…

    Comment by bill eccleston — January 30, 2013 @ 7:14 am

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