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.