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.

Stumping STEM Growth

by Linda Bevilacqua
February 8th, 2013

Like many others, I’ve had high hopes for the Next Generation Science Standards. Right now I’m struggling to keep my spirits up. Having just finished reading the review of the second draft (NGSS 2.0) prepared for the Fordham Institute by nine impressive scientists and mathematicians (who, collectively, have teaching experience at all grade levels), I see more problems than can be fixed between now and March—the arbitrary deadline set for releasing the final draft of these standards.

For a quick take on the many serious problems, see the review’s Forward by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Kathleen Porter-Magee. Or, for an even faster look at the main issues, see Finn and Porter-Magee’s recent blog post. In both, they raise eight “critical problems.” While I agree that all eight are truly critical, I’d like to draw attention to three (the following are quotes from the blog post):

  • In an effort to draft “fewer and clearer” standards to guide curriculum and instruction, NGSS 2.0 (like NGSS 1.0) omits quite a lot of essential content. Among the most egregious omissions are most of chemistry; thermodynamics; electrical circuits; physiology; minerals and rocks; the layered Earth; the essentials of biological chemistry and biochemical genetics; and at least the descriptive elements of developmental biology.
  • As in version 1.0, some content that is never explicitly stated for the earlier grades seems to be taken for granted in the standards for later grades—where it won’t likely be found in students’ heads if the early-grade teachers aren’t prompted by the standards to teach it.
  • A number of key scientific terms (e.g., “model” and “design”) are ill defined and/or inconsistently used.

As E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and the Core Knowledge Foundation have been arguing for the past three decades, students have to build an enormous store of broad background knowledge and vocabulary in order to become literate adults—adults capable of reading about and voting on science-based issues like nuclear power, genetic research, land use, etc. The amount of knowledge to be acquired is so extensive that it must be efficiently and coherently packaged, grade-by-grade, if we are to have any hope of sending young adults into the world ready to make sense of, and dive deeper into, the many issues they will face.

As worrisome as Finn and Porter-Magee’s summative statements are, the review itself may give me nightmares. Take, for example, these quotes from pages 17 – 19:

Using the assertion that it is not a curriculum, the NGSS authors omit most of the chemistry content traditionally found in K–12 classrooms. Missing are topics like gas-law relationships, the chemistry of carbon and its compounds, the mole concept, empirical and molecular formulas, solution preparation, concentration, and dilution, and acid/base neutralization reactions and the pH scale, to mention just a few. When topics are included, they often are somewhat advanced, like bond energy or chemical equilibrium. However, their inclusion is problematic because of insufficient background preparation in lower grade standards, use of low-level vocabulary, or content limits specified in the Assessment Boundaries. And unfortunately, if a topic is not required by the NGSS, it is not likely to be taught.

Numerous concepts that will be developed more thoroughly in high school should first be introduced in middle school. “Ion,” for example, is used in HS PS1-c without explanation, but the testing of “polyatomic ions” was excluded. Then why is the polyatomic “ammonium” ion used in “ammonium chloride” as a recommended reactant in MS PS1-g?

Another example of weak preparation from page 1 of DCI PS.4.B:

Some materials allow light to pass through them, others allow only some light through and others block all the light and create a dark shadow on any surface beyond them (i.e., on the other side from the light source), where the light cannot reach. (1-PS4-d)

Here is a typical missed opportunity to use the appropriate vocabulary: transparent, translucent, opaque.

And here are a couple examples from Appendix A of the review, which covers individual standards (see page 45):

PS3.C: Faster speeds during a collision can cause a bigger change in shape of the colliding objects. (secondary to 2-PS2-a)

“Faster speeds” … is a barbarism. When an object goes faster, we say that it has a higher speed…. In science standards, using scientifically appropriate language is critical.

Similarly, standard (3-PS2-a) indicates: “A system can appear to be unchanging when processes within the system are going on at opposite but equal rates.”

Why not use the proper technical terms, dynamical equilibrium or steady-state equilibrium?

The second draft of the NGSS was anything but slim. Why have so much content and vocabulary been left out? It appears to have been crowded out by a fixation on “practices.” Here’s how Finn and Porter-Magee summed up this critical problem in their blog post: “Real science invariably blends content knowledge with core ideas, ‘crosscutting’ concepts, and various practices, activities, or applications. Well and good. But NGSS 2.0 imposes so rigid a format on its standards that the recommended ‘practices’ dominate them. The authors have forced practices on every expectation, even when they confuse more than clarify.” Here is an example from the review (see page 20):

In the life sciences, … and as elsewhere in NGSS, the central problem resides in the language employed, and it follows from the standards’ preoccupation with “Practices”…. Every standard to focus upon performance expectations that are behaviors (or activities) as opposed to demonstrations of knowledge. Behaviors and activities are legitimate performance expectations; but when all the expectations take that form, a system of standards, which is in principle about knowledge as well as skills, becomes ostentatiously one-sided. The resulting standards statements may not relate in a compelling way to the knowledge that is supposed to be the directing content dimension.

Knowledge, vocabulary, and skills are all necessary, but this draft of the NGSS emphasizes skills to the detriment of knowledge and vocabulary. Ultimately, this constant pushing on “practices” seems to be an effort to force teachers to take an extremely hands-on, project-focused approach to science instruction. While no one would believe that a science classroom without labs, experiments, observations, etc. is offering a strong science education, no one should believe that a science classroom in which activities crowd out content is strong either.

Heeding two of the review’s recommendations (see page 33) would allow for knowledge, vocabulary, and skills to all be pursued together, without any one detracting from the others:

Ban the use of the term “model,” except in familiar scientific contexts such as molecular models or Copernican model or computer modeling (better identified as simulation).

Reduce the insistent “Practices” language in the standards. Science practices certainly need to be taught and learned, but there is no justification for converting all expected science performances to “practices,” and making their substrate, scientific knowledge (including substantive, mathematical, analytical, and vocabulary knowledge) secondary.

One of the great strengths of the Common Core State Standards is that they are goal statements as to what students need to know and be able to do, not dictates as to how teachers should teach. The NGSS should follow that lead by focusing on the science content and vocabulary, and integrating related skills as needed. In effect, this would require stripping away the “practices” language that has more to do with current fads in pedagogy than with developing students’ ability to comprehend science and/or become scientists or engineers.

In their Forward, Finn and Porter-Magee concluded that “if draft 2.0 were to become the final version of NGSS, only states with exceptionally weak science standards of their own would likely benefit from replacing them with these ‘next-generation’ standards.” I hope that the organizations developing with NGSS will drop their March deadline and heed the many cautions raised so that, like the Common Core State Standards, the NGSS can be strongly recommended to all states.

Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Dolls

by Linda Bevilacqua
January 22nd, 2013

Many years ago, when my now-grown daughter was in fifth grade, I had a brief exchange with her teacher that left me very concerned. I am sad to say those concerns are still with me. It was the zenith—or nadir—of whole language in that particular public school, but my daughter had already overcome that barrier to learning to read. She was in a “gifted” class and, like me, was a voracious reader. At a parent-teacher conference in the fall, the teacher told me that her approach to teaching reading was to let the kids select whatever they wanted to read in class, including Archie and Superman comic books. I tried (as diplomatically as I could) suggesting that perhaps it would be worthwhile for her to offer some challenging literature for classroom instruction. I knew all was lost when she firmly shook her head “no” and told me she had never liked to read until she discovered Valley of the Dolls as an adult. (While this book about barbiturates has been wildly popular, I feel confident saying it will never enter the canon.)

I was reminded of this exchange while reading Michael Shaughnessy’s interview of Carol Jago, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English and current associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She was explaining the brilliant 6/6/41 plan she and Will Fitzhugh, founder of the Concord Review, have come up with: Since youth ages 8 to 18 average 53 hours a week on entertainment media, they could devote 6 hours a week to literature, 6 hours to history, and still have 41 hours for their entertainment. Jago points out that not only would students’ knowledge and vocabulary grow, their writing would improve (since they would have something of substance to write about) and current debates among educators about whether students should be reading fiction or nonfiction would be moot. Just take a small fraction of those entertainment hours, and you’ve got plenty of time for reading fiction and nonfiction.

All true, but what really had me cheering, and brought me back to Valley of the Dolls, was this:

Voracious readers will read anything an adult they respect and trust recommends. It is a teacher’s responsibility to talk about books of history and classic literature with enthusiasm and verve. It is also our responsibility to design curriculum that includes important books and offer instruction that helps scaffold the reading for less-than-voracious readers. Much can be accomplished by pairing books and by using excerpts to tempt students to read the whole work….

One of the biggest obstacles to revising school reading lists is finding books that enough teachers have read in common to make wise decisions. Teachers who read and love reading history and literature will instinctively put the books they love in student’s hands. America’s children deserve no less.

Jago makes a crucial point here. Teachers’ personal preferences often do have an impact on students. In many cases that impact is positive—but not in all. My daughter, without my strong influence at home, could have spent the year reading comics and ended up not having the ability to read anything more complex or enlightening than Valley of the Dolls. How can schools create environments where those who do “talk about books of history and classic literature with enthusiasm and verve” have some influence in the classrooms of those who do not? Revising school reading lists is critical, but there are signs that the first challenge is to keep existing lists from being tossed out.

According to J. Martin Rochester, a professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, many educators (in our schools and colleges of education) are getting swept up in a “voice-and-choice” movement that is grounded in “the student-centered, active, discovery-learning paradigm—that goes back to Rousseau, Dewey, and Piaget and that was more recently promoted by disciples of Lucy Calkins’s Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College.” He goes on to question such thinking:

What is the likelihood that the voice-and-choice movement in K–12 will produce an increase in academic standards rather than further erosion? After all, as Diane Ravitch once framed the issue, “What child is going to pick up Moby Dick?” Where all this “choice” leads can be seen in the recent case of an Honors English course at my local high school where at least one student, entrusted with selecting a “great book” to read as the basis for a semester project, opted for Paris Hilton’s autobiography…. Have we carried the idea of empowering students with “choices” a bit too far? You be the judge.

Yes, we have carried the idea too far. But I’m not going to advocate for no choices. There really is a time and a place for (almost) everything. The time and place for Moby Dick is school (including homework). And students who really need to know more about Paris Hilton can find a time and place for that outside of school, after their homework is done. Such reading will fit nicely into the 41 hours per week Jago and Fitzhugh allowed for entertainment.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying teachers should not try to inspire a love of reading. They should. Like Jago, I remain convinced that such a love comes from great teaching with great works of fiction, literary nonfiction, and nonfiction. Here’s how Jago put it a couple of weeks ago in a blog post about the Common Core State Standards: “I’m not talking about force-feeding students but rather inviting them to partake of the richest fare literature has to offer. One thing I know for sure. The teenagers I taught were always hungry.”

At the same time, everyone knows that not all books, even books that are widely acclaimed as great literature, will resonate with all students. So with extensive planning, many well-read, knowledgeable teachers may come up with some limited selections for their students. I could imagine a unit on Shakespeare, for example, in which four plays are discussed in class, but students are required to select two plays to read in full and are only required to read essential (teacher-selected) passages from the other two.

In developing reading lists, deciding what works are required, and creating controlled-choice options, I hope educators will keep in mind that reading isn’t just for pleasure, and reading isn’t a skill that is indifferent to what is being read. Reading is vital to vocabulary and knowledge development. As E. D. Hirsch reminded us just last week, vocabulary—and the knowledge it represents—is predictive of future income.

When students, especially young students with so little knowledge to draw on, get to choose their own books, their vocabulary and knowledge acquisition will almost certainly slow down, and their future reading ability will be in jeopardy. One of the chief responsibilities of school districts, schools, and teachers is to ensure that students are rapidly acquiring new vocabulary and knowledge. At the Core Knowledge Foundation, we see only one way of doing that: through a specific, grade-by-grade curriculum that efficiently provides broad knowledge and prevents children from either repeating content (e.g., Charlotte’s Web in second and third grades) or missing content (e.g., never studying a nonfiction book about spiders).

Core Knowledge Reading Program Pilot Video

by Linda Bevilacqua
March 19th, 2008


The Core Knowledge Foundation is presently engaged in the development of a comprehensive reading program for the elementary grades. The program is based on the insight that, in order to become a truly proficient reader who is able to derive meaning from what is read, an individual must develop mastery of systematic decoding skills and possess the background knowledge, vocabulary and “cultural literacy” needed to understand what is decoded.

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