Six Traps that Could Snare the Common Core Standards

by Linda Bevilacqua
February 28th, 2013

This blog is based on remarks I made this morning at “Curriculum Counts: Fulfilling the Promise of the Common Core State Standards,” a forum hosted by the Manhattan Institute and the Fordham Institute. A video of the event is available here.

In thought, word, and deed, the efforts of the Core Knowledge Foundation over the past 25 years, led by E. D. Hirsch, have been devoted to making the case that curriculum counts. So I am excited about the promise offered by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)—particularly the English language arts standards, which clearly state that, “The Standards must … be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.” As promising as the standards are, however, in the end, it is the manner in which the standards are interpreted and then implemented by state departments of education, school districts, and classroom teachers that really matters. And it is here that I must confess to a certain level of concern.

Let me be specific. Hopefully everyone is familiar with—or has at least heard of—the “six shifts” (identified by the New York State Education Department and Student Achievement Partners) that the implementation of the Common Core language arts standards will require. The identification of these shifts is helpful; they have become the intense focus of professional development in schools across the country. But they are not enough; we need to take another step.

In the interest of providing further clarity about how the language arts standards must be implemented if they are in fact to realize their potential, I’d like to propose that we focus attention as well on what I call the “six traps,” or obstacles, to effective implementation of the language arts standards. The first five traps are within the reach and influence of every teacher, principal, and district-level administrator. The sixth trap will require the attention of state-level policymakers.

1)  The failure to see the forest for the trees – In states and schools around this country, educators are intently engaged right now in reviewing language arts materials to determine whether or not they are aligned to the CCSS. I come across a new rubric or template for this purpose on nearly a daily basis. My concern is that too many educators are approaching this task with a severe case of myopia—attempting to literally align individual standards from the CCSS document to particular goals and objectives in given curricular materials, while failing to fully understand the “big picture” or true intent of the standards.

Think about the implications of this approach. While the CCSS for ELA consistently call for “a well-developed content-rich curriculum designed to build disciplinary knowledge,” nowhere is this stated in any of the individual standards. Therefore, to focus only on aligning to individual standards leads us into the failing-to-see-the-forest-for-the-trees trap. To avoid this trap, educators must align not just to the letter of the standards but to their spirit. The Core Knowledge Foundation has created a more comprehensive rubric to guide educators in using this approach.

2) The failure to go beyond simply balancing the percentage of fiction and nonfiction texts – After years of E. D. Hirsch writing about the importance of content knowledge for literacy, I am happy to report that I see educators and publishers alike uniformly talking about the importance of informational texts. Actually, many of the large publishing companies began including nonfiction selections in their materials and programs several years ago. The problem, however, is that educators and publishers have only gotten half of the message. An examination of those programs and materials that include nonfiction text reveals a haphazard, random approach to the selection of texts. One single nonfiction text selection on dinosaurs in one unit, Aztecs in the next unit, and Mozart in perhaps the following unit is not an effective way to build knowledge. Children, especially those who are behind, need a coherent, sequenced approach to building knowledge. This can be efficiently and quite easily accomplished by grouping text selections on a single topic and sequencing them to build knowledge and give repeated exposures to key vocabulary.

Here’s a novel idea: Why not expect both publishers and educators to include content-based objectives in all of their lesson plans? Doesn’t it make sense to ask, beyond the language arts skills: What do we want students to walk away with at the end of a lesson? What is the knowledge that we expect students to gain having read a particular selection?

3) The failure to understand the nature of vocabulary growth – E. D. Hirsch has written eloquently about vocabulary growth in detail in the winter 2013 issue of City Journal, so I will just touch on this. So long as vocabulary is not understood as representative of bodies of knowledge, and so long as literacy is seen as a general skill that does not depend on prior knowledge, schools will continue to teach isolated reading comprehension strategies and isolated vocabulary terms. The top researchers in word acquisition agree that most word learning is acquired incidentally in the course of gaining knowledge. Hence, the best way to develop vocabulary is through a systematic approach to gaining knowledge, staying on a single domain for at least two weeks, with repeated opportunities to learn and use new words.

4) The failure to recognize the importance of implementation of the CCSS in the early grades – All of us recognize and want strong reading and language comprehension for all students when they graduate, but few seem to recognize that the knowledge and vocabulary needed are so extensive that we must begin systematically building this knowledge and vocabulary—as well as skills—as early as possible. Children with well-educated parents learn academic content from birth. Research has shown that the achievement gap is already large on the first day of kindergarten. Schools that wait until the upper elementary grades to get serious about academic content are making it virtually impossible to close the gap.

5) The failure to recognize the importance of oral language—listening and speaking—in literacy competency – The Common Core language arts standards recognize that to ensure students achieve college- and career-level literacy by the time they leave school, the schools must stress all facets of language development, including listening and speaking. Unfortunately, many educators continue to think and act as if literacy were comprised only of reading and writing, which is why we continue to hear stories and read newspaper articles about kindergarteners, for example, who are asked to write compositions in various genres. And then we hear stories of the frustrations of those kindergarten teachers, with everyone blaming the CCSS for imposing this practice. Let me be very clear: Nothing could be further from the truth. Such practice represents a complete misinterpretation of the CCSS and a failure to carefully read the progression of anchor standards as they evolve from the earliest grade levels. The CCSS promote the use of read-alouds in the early grades as the only way to address the paradox of the need to expose children to rich, complex text to build coherent knowledge.

6) The failure to recognize the need for curriculum-based assessments – This requires attention at the state level and by our best thinkers. In a typical school, what gets tested is what gets taught. Even a content-rich curriculum is rendered powerless in the absence of curriculum-based tests. Early samples from both consortia reveal a perpetuation of a skills-based approach to assessing reading comprehension. I realize that states are not going to run out and adopt a common curriculum for all schools in their state so that curriculum-based tests can be developed. But there is a middle ground.

Whether they are state or the new consortia tests, reading comprehension is assessed by asking students to read various passages on different topics. But the topics addressed by those passages are never revealed to teachers. These are, in essence, random-content tests. The middle ground would be domain-based tests. The state or the consortia could specify domains that ought to be studied in each grade level, without dictating which texts must be used or how to teach them. The state or consortia would then ensure that the passages assessing reading comprehension for a given grade level are exclusively drawn from those domains. Specifying the domains for each grade would counteract the tendency to narrow the curriculum and focus on comprehension skills as test prep. It would ensure that all students are systematically building knowledge and vocabulary and, as a result, would ensure that no child is knocked off the path to college or career readiness through well-intentioned, but misguided, instruction.


  1. Among several problems you suggest, I’m most concerned that you imply equivalence between assessment and testing. Tests can sometimes provide assessment information – to the student and to the teacher – if and when their answers are available and discussed. When they are not discussed, and when the test is all there is except a final number, often months later as in most states, tests only offer evaluation to the student (and NOT assessment or instruction), and they suggest – but hardly suffice – an assessment of the school, the class, the teacher, or the curriculum. Tests, in other words, can be extremely valuable, if and when they are intrinsic to instruction. When they are separate from discussion, feedback and direct instructional activity, they appear – quite correctly to teachers and students – a barrier, a challenge which has less to do with learning and more to do with measurement of recall. That is certainly an element of instruction, but there’s a lot more than remembering which should be the result of hours of discussion, illustration, coaching and dialog.

    My sense is that this is not opposed to the point you’re trying to make – that assessment is a worthy and critical part of Common Core activity, and that feedback and systematic sequences of data, analysis, comparisons, and vocabulary are critical to scaffolding understanding. But understanding itself is undermined by tests that lack relevant and concrete, timely and applicable feedback, and is certainly less relevant when metrics and measurements grow more and more separate from direct interaction with facts, fiction, and writing.

    The current vogue of formative assessments through online tests moves toward that more productive measurement of actual learning, but, unless – in the language of the late David Jonasson – some questions are more “open ended and unstructured” the test won’t begin to measure how a student’s thinking was effected by engaging instructional activities.

    Comment by Joseph Beckmann — February 28, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

  2. Excellent analysis. I think your concerns are more than warranted. I am particularly concerned about the first potential “snare” you referenced above.

    In my experience as a high school teacher and now at the college level (where I am a member of a college readiness committee), I haven’t seen anyone take the “forest” approach and try to modify their curricula in accordance with the spirit of the CCSS. Instead, what I’ve seen across the board is an attempt to align to just the standards themselves. In the Social Sciences, for example, what I’ve seen is an attempt to align the curriculum to the Social Sciences literacy standards from the CCSS.

    As I’ve said before, my fear is that without rigorous content standards to compliment the CCSS, schools will just attempt to bolster their existing skills-based curricula. That will especially prove true if states do not test content, but instead make their existing skills-based tests more rigorous. Just as students will learn what’s graded (hat tip to Linda Suskie), schools will teach what’s tested.

    The question in my mind is this: what good are more rigorous skills standards if we don’t have content-rich curricula?

    Comment by Anthony Guzzaldo — March 1, 2013 @ 11:17 am

  3. Excellent analysis. I was struck particularly by your last point about “random content” testing (which ties in to Mr. Guzzaldo’s comments above). Much food for thought, here!

    Comment by Celia Wagner — March 1, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

  4. Nobody would like to see CCSSI implemented in the way you are describing Linda more than me. But it is inconsistent with aspects of Common Core that LEGALLY bind how CCSSI comes to the classroom. The accreditation standards are one example not being adequately looked at.

    You envision content standards and Pearson does not. Their documents which I have downloaded says they are assessing 21st century skills using content as a means and are interested in ill-structured problems that force collaboration. Both PARCC and SBAC say they are using Norman Webb’s Depth Of Knowledge. That is still not being covered in the Common Core implementation analysis.

    Likewise the fact that Student Growth as the measuring factor under CCSSI includes affective changes and is not grounded in knowledge. In fact Learning itself is being defined as changes in values, attitudes, beliefs, feelings, or behavior.

    We will never get the Common Core implementation grounded in high levels of knowledge if we just ignore all the legally binding regulations and documents that affect a different kind of implementation than the one the CK Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, or I wish were coming. Our Intentions are simply not what drives classroom implementation. But they my well divert scrutiny from what is really about to transpire. And once the curricula and assessments are all digital or in clouds, we may discover what Texans have recently with C Scope. It is not what we hoped for and the precise nature is impossible to discern.

    And do know though what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe are saying about the content vision of CCSSI. And also how many school districts are using them and the UbD template to implement CCSSI.

    Comment by Student of History — March 1, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

  5. The process of building out standards and writing lesson plans has a lot in common with writing a research paper. They both require lots of time and there is a logical process to follow. Students just want to write the paper and skip all the work that doesn’t literally show up in the paper. If appropriate time is applied, most would find it not that hard.

    Like students creating note cards from sources, teachers need to define the teachable and measureable content intended by the CCSS. The standards aren’t in teaching sequence, so like laying out the sections of a research paper for reader comprehension, the content needs to be put into a cohesive learning sequence. Once this content is divided into units and lesson, the forest has been mapped. Now working on the lesson plans, the trees, makes sense.

    My concern is that teachers don’t have sufficient time to follow the logical process for writing lesson plans for CCSS implementation. And the growing mountain of material offering support is more of a drain because they take time to evaluate and most are partial solutions.

    If teachers had enough time available, writing lesson plans from standards wouldn’t be that bad. But teachers are strapped for time while under pressures from new accountability measures. This makes shortcuts attractive, but choosing the right material from the available mountain if choices could eat up all the available time.

    The result of these issues is often direct writing of unit and lesson plans from the standards, bypassing all the derivation, analysis and sequencing that would ensure accurate alignment. In the end, unit and lesson plans are completed, classes are taught and student outcomes recorded. All without knowing if the curriculum is truly aligned to the standards.

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — March 1, 2013 @ 4:22 pm

  6. @Tom Sundstrom

    I don’t disagree, but even if the curriculum truly was aligned to the standards, what good does that do if the standards do not contain discipline-specific content?

    Whether or not you’re aligned matters, but it’s moot if what you’re aligning to is a more rigorous skills-based curriculum.

    Comment by Anthony Guzzaldo — March 1, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

  7. By far the best feature of Common Core Standards is their transparency. Were I still teaching, I would do as I did in graduate courses I once taught: distribute the final exam on the first day an explore what I expected to see by the end. And encourage any student to take the test whenever they thought they could meet those standards.

    Since the Common Core is available online, there’s no reason whatsoever that any bright student couldn’t do precisely the same thing and … teach the course to the teacher. That is, not coincidentally, precisely the theme of Sugarta Mitra’s TED Prize victory for $1,000,000, (at which does give the strategy a little more credibility than this retired college, high school, and grad teacher might deliver to the same argument.

    Comment by Joseph Beckmann — March 1, 2013 @ 4:33 pm

  8. I don’t think we’re close to winning the Skills Vs. Knowledge War. HuffingtonPost’s education section is rife with anti-knowledge charlatans. Today I find several pieces glorifying a Sugata Mitra, winner of the TEDPrize for education, who proclaims that “knowledge is obsolete” and that we should “give children a problem to solve with no assistance”. The assault on traditional academic education on HuffPost and at the TED conferences seems relentless: check out John Eger, Dr. Idit Harel Caperton, John Danner, and my favorite TEDCharlatan of all, the pompous Sir Ken Robertson. I’d love to see Mr. Hirsch do a TED talk.

    Comment by Ponderosa — March 2, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

  9. I fully support CK’s emphasis on listening in the early grades. Unfortunately, the CCSS are weak on listening; there’s hardly a reference to listening at all (in any of the grades).

    The Speaking and Listening standards place overwhelming emphasis on speaking. Granted, such speaking is often supposed to be a response to something that was said or presented. All the same, many students need practice in listening, yet the standards don’t address it explicitly.

    Listening is now a dying and beleaguered practice. You hear even college professors declaring that lectures “don’t work” and that all courses should switch to interactive methods. The problem is that if students don’t develop the capacity to listen to a lecture (or a read-aloud, or presentation), the very subject matter will be shortchanged, and so, by extension, will the discussions and other activities.

    Yes, one’s mind can wander even during a good lecture. So what? Let it wander, and then bring it back. I find, when listening to something compelling, that my mind takes this or that tangent (about what the speaker is saying)–not a bad thing at all. I have learned to recognize when my mind has gone too far and bring my attention back to the speaker. There is great liberty in this; no one is demanding that I “turn and talk” or instantly respond to what I have heard.

    But young people have been taught (explicitly or by example) that lectures foster passivity and that they themselves should be talking, talking, talking. Too bad the standards don’t address this problem.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — March 3, 2013 @ 6:59 pm

  10. @Student So, when are you going public with all your findings? Your post above reads somewhat like a mystery novel. Tell us what you’ve downloaded, and from where?

    Focusing on the affective, not grounded on knowledge is cause for real concern.

    If you’re uncomfortable posting it here, would you send it to my email as listed here?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 3, 2013 @ 8:24 pm

  11. I found this topic interesting and agree with Linda on the possible short comings of the Common Core. This almost is like nationalizing education. I think it is important to have something in place, and I believe this is something, however beyond the basic CCSS individual districts must have some freedom to meet their own individual needs. I worry that many will teach to these generic standards that someone has stated should apply to everyone.

    If you are teaching in the inner city, your goals should not be restricted to the same goals in a very high income suburban area. This is simply a reality. Is it drawing the focusing off of what students with no parenting at home, those that live in group homes, and those that have mental issues should learn? At the same time is the CCSS inhibiting those high level students who will be taking 5 AP classes and are past generic standards?

    From what I have seen so far, the CCSS are too rigid, and I hope some flexibility will take form over the next few years to allow districts to address more of their own needs as they need appropriate for the students that they teach. Having a nationalized CCSS of sorts may help some districts by giving them a very clear focus, is may slow down the learning of others.

    Comment by joel — March 17, 2013 @ 10:27 am

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