By Mark Anderson
Mark Anderson, who became a NYC Teaching Fellow after working in retail and hospitality management, now teaches at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx. His writing on educational improvement has appeared in Gotham Schools, the Times Union, VIVA Teachers, and other venues. Anderson also creates educational videos, including one that summarizes this blog post on fulfilling the intent of the Common Core.
Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind, by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger, c. 1817
As a special education teacher in the Bronx, I have worked in self-contained and inclusive settings, first in an elementary, and now, in a middle school. I welcome the Common Core standards as beneficial to transforming practice in my school and classroom, 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:
- Allowing skills-based teaching to remain predominant.
- Placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA.
- Infantilizing teachers.
If we perpetuate these three practices, then the Common Core 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. In this and two blog posts to follow, let’s examine the three missteps noted above in greater depth, and consider how we can correct them before it is too late.
Mistake #1: Allowing skills-based teaching to remain predominant
By political necessity, the Common Core generally avoid 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, 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 a complex text 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. (Bold added)
Eloquently put. Deep comprehension of complex texts arises from knowledge. What is powerful about such a focus on knowledge-rich complex texts is that this represents a major shift in current teaching practice. In many elementary schools across our nation, teachers train their students to select “just right” books for independent reading each day. A “just right” book is a book that a child can read on his or her 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. Students are mostly expected to utilize class time reading books at their independent reading level.
While the idea that students pick and read books that match their interest and ability sounds like good practice, in reality, what is lost over the long-term is the cultivation of a coherent body of knowledge, in addition to academic discipline. Given the great weight of English Language Arts (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 base of knowledge. Unsurprisingly, too many students arrive at our middle schools, high schools, and colleges with little understanding of literature, their nation and its place in the world, or 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 even this shift remains a 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 that will build student knowledge and understanding of literature and of the world are more than a set of qualitative and quantitative factors. A literary text should be selected with an eye toward its place in literary history.
It should be obvious, however, that for the Common Core standards to specify what texts or authors should be foundational or essential to a given literary or historical epoch, beyond its already vague gestures at classic myths and Shakespeare, would be political suicide. The writers of Common Core acknowledged this limitation when they cautioned that the standards “do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn.” It is therefore up to teachers and curriculum designers to select texts that 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. Most teachers, schools, and the consultants who 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 most American public schools.
The writers of the standards made it clear that curriculum is the key to effective implementation when they stated that the standards must “be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document” (bold added).
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” (bold added).
Such a curricular foundation is not haphazard. According to the standards, “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” (bold added).
This careful selection of rich 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 broadcast the pool of texts that might be selected for a given test 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 remain predominant:
- 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 the cultivation of knowledge to continue to be treated haphazardly, or as a consideration of secondary importance, by any school curriculum.
In my next two posts, I’ll suggest ways to avoid the two other mistakes—placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA and infantilizing teachers.