By Rachel Levy
According to its advocates, the Common Core Standards will usher in an era of equal opportunity to higher quality education via better, richer, and more career and college relevant standards. But if the account presented in this post on Education Sector’s The Quick & The Ed is any indication, I fear the Common Core ELA standards will keep us in the same era we’ve been in.
I first came across Susan Headden’s post, “Getting Complicated With Texts: Understanding the New ELA Standards,” describing a hands-on workshop she attended on the Common Core ELA standards, via a John Thompson post “Does Common Core Have It Backwards?” in This Week in Education. The idea that most struck Thompson (who is no Common Core hater) as concerning was:
“The group was left with the overarching message that mastering text complexity is the secret to reading success.” . . . .Teachers were told that “the problem with questions based on experience is that they exclude students who haven’t had those experiences. ‘Text … is the great equalizer.’”
Thompson says that’s wrong:
The key to teaching anything for mastery is understanding the human complexity within our kids. The logic underlaying that conclusion was even worse. Even if the assessment experts who conducted the professional development have never stepped foot in the inner city, they should know that the opposite applies in high-challenge schools. Our path to success is building on the students’ strengths, based on their real-life learning.
I don’t disagree with Thompson but I would go much further. Vital to teaching anything (okay, vital to teaching reading) for mastery to any students, is background knowledge. The Common Core is supposed to go further than just asking students to learn from text by relating the general themes in the text it to their own personal experiences. As it should, but that doesn’t mean we should limit what they are learning to the content of the texts they are studying. From Headden’s post:
As we did our reading, we kept the hallmarks of complexity in mind. On the high end of the scale, they include: structure that is unconventional rather than expected, ideas that are implicit rather than explicit, and language that is figurative rather than literal, archaic rather than contemporary, and vague rather than clear. Sentences in very complex texts tend to be complicated rather than straightforward, and vocabulary is academic rather than plain. Informational text that is defined as complex might require specialized knowledge, have multiple meanings, and an obscure purpose. Complex literary texts tend to include references to other texts, demand cultural knowledge, and carry sophisticated, multiple perspectives. (More than one participant noted that such texts might well meet the standard of complexity, but that they might also fit the definition of bad writing.)
The group engaged in a lively discussion about how much context a teacher should supply with a reading selection. “Are you helping [students] understand the more background you give him?” Liben asked. Yes, he said. “But are you making them better readers?” No. “If you call attention to the ‘hard parts’ are you helping them comprehend?” Yes, he said. “But you are depriving them of the opportunity to find key turning points on their own.” In short, he asked his audience, “Do you measure success by how much you smooth the road for your teachers, or by how bumpy the road is?” The Common Core clearly leans toward the bumps.
According to this account, teachers and being told that reading comprehension is a transferable skill, that the Common Core will improve reading comprehension by virtue of giving students more complex texts to work through.
Although I’ve been critical of the Common Core Standards, that they focus on reading strategies was not one of my criticisms; to the contrary, that they emphasized content knowledge, a greater study of literature, and more and more complex writing were selling points. But this account makes the Common Core ELA Standards sound as if they are skill-heavy, or at least that teachers are being guided to implement them as if they were. The problem is you can’t really teach something like “text complexity” any more than you can teach something like the “main idea.” Just because the texts are more “complex” doesn’t make using them in the place of simpler texts a superior approach or any different from the reading strategies approach. Apart from the acknowledgement that all teachers have to teach vocabulary (agreed), there’s no nod to background knowledge or context in Headden’s post. And even teaching vocabulary doesn’t do much good if it’s taught in isolation, though certainly explicitly teaching the meaning of morphemes can help students to build and make meaning of vocabulary.
Finally, while the practice of “quality over quantity” in education resonates with me, “reading success” with complex texts even with a lot of content knowledge won’t happen without practice. Besides the fact that it will pretty quickly bore or frustrate the bejesus out of them, you can’t just have students study the patterns and codes of complex text and then imagine they’ll apply those to future complex texts and viola! they’ll be better readers. No, students have to practice. They have to read lots and lots—fiction and non-fiction books, literature, magazines, newspapers, poetry, short stories, blogs—until the patterns and structures in each genre become predictable and recognizable.
The key to reading success is a vocabulary and knowledge-rich curriculum and a lot of practice reading. If the Common Core ELA Standards don’t include this, then they won’t be much of an improvement or change from current ELA standards. However, even if the Common Core Standards result in more content-rich ELA classrooms, which means students with more background knowledge and possibly more productive focus on text complexity, for now, as Thompson points out, text is not the great equalizer. Its divides students rather starkly not based on complexity or structure but according to schema, or what they already know. If teachers don’t or aren’t able to take this into account and scaffold appropriately, students will flounder and the CCSS will fail to help them.
Rachel Levy is a parent, teacher, and writer who lives in Central Virginia, with her husband and three children. She normally blogs at All Things Education.