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Common Core State Standards

MBlow0510_iStock000012975998_tortoisehareThroughout my career, I have done extensive research on world folklore. Aesop, the father of fables, has blessed us with an infamous fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” cautioning against hurrying to reach a goal and suggesting that the slow and steady will win the race. I cling to the wisdom of this fable as we begin our journey toward educational reform. 

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.


I admit it. For months I have felt as though there is a big white elephant on our Scholastic blog: Race to the Top (RTTT). I have refrained from commenting on this because so many unresolved issues make an educated evaluation of the impending changes impossible. Furthermore, I serve on committees, which require discretion. The only thing I am sure of at this point is that the uncertainty appears to be creating undue stress. Still, I have decided to face the white elephant and talk about what I do know, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I am by no means an expert, so please feel free to correct me or add your own insights.

Educational Reform

Let me begin by saying that I believe there is a need for educational reform. Our students are not academically competitive on the national or global scene. However, my pedagogical style is based on the best practices identified through research. Consequently, I am somewhat reluctant to let go of what is working for my students. 

Last year, my students did very well on the state tests despite the amended cut-off scores sprung on us after the tests were implemented. I have learned that this higher score is now my new benchmark: my 2011–2012 incoming 6th grade students will have to score 11 points higher than the classes who went before. In the meantime, the assessments have changed. The new test is considerably longer with less time. It is a no win situation.

With the current guidelines, it's possible that I will be labeled an ineffective teacher and eventually lose my teaching position. It causes me concern; however, I also know that the New York State Education Department (NYSED) still struggles with how to measure teacher effectiveness and student growth. So what do we do? How do we meet the needs of future generations? I am putting my effort into what I know, the Common Core State Standards. Last I checked, 48 states have adopted these national standards.

Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

Edu reform

New York State has adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English language arts, history/social studies, science, technical subjects, and math. On April 28, 2011, NYSED sponsored a Webinar, "Bringing the Common Core to Life," explaining the shifts in education that have resulted. According to David Coleman, coauthor of the CCSS, there is a triad of reform:

  1. Raise learning standards and base them on learning experiences that better prepare students for careers and colleges. I learned that career literacy is equivalent to freshman-level college reading and writing. Even if our students are not college bound, they need literacy skills beyond the high school level to be successful in a career.
  2. New assessments will monitor student growth. Local and state data will be used to evaluate teacher and principal effectiveness. Assessments at national and local levels will help identify student growth and guide instruction. We have a curriculum to teach. It is our job to give students who struggle the extra support and extra time necessary to meet the higher standards, not compromise the rigorous curriculum. The standardized state assessments will permit nationwide data analysis.
  3. Accountability systems for teachers and administrators, in the form of annual reviews, will ensure that effective teachers are in the classrooms. In New York State, 40% of a teacher's evaluation is based on local and state assessment data and 60% on teacher observations. The NYSED will offer a selection of evaluation rubrics from which school districts will choose. Check your state Web site to preview your state guidelines. There are four levels of proficiency: ineffective, developing, effective, highly effective. If a teacher scores ineffective or developing, a teacher improvement plan will be implemented to help the teacher improve. The same is true for principals. 

The Common Core State Standards

  1. 6 shifts Content Area Reading: Grades 6–12 will encompass English language arts, literacy, and content area literacy in science, history/social studies, and technical subjects. However, Coleman did say that English teachers are not responsible for teaching science and history content area reading. This suggests that there will need to be considerable collaboration with teachers across content area subjects. I think there will be a heavy need for professional development in content area reading.
  2. Increase Complexity of Tests: The most significant change throughout K–12 grade levels is the increased complexity in texts. Coleman said that leveled books should not be used. All students, despite diverse reading levels, need exposure to complex level texts at instructional grade level. Otherwise, we are robbing struggling readers of the opportunity to learn how to read the complex text.
  3. Focus on Text-Based Questions: There is a new focus on questions that require students to actually read and respond to the text. Coleman stated that about 80% of the current questions could be answered without actually reading the text, with personal opinions or experiences.
  4. Focus on Writing Arguments: The primary focus in writing is on forming arguments and supporting them with text-based evidence as opposed to creative writing, personal stories, and memoirs. I agree with this; however, I am also aware that we are endangering future novelists.
  5. Academic Vocabulary: Content area vocabulary is always important; however, there is a new shift to focus on academic vocabulary. These would be Tier II type words. In my Chu-Ju’s House post, I discuss Tier II vocabulary words and provide resources for further investigation. This vocabulary crosses content areas and is found over and over in nonfiction and fiction, encompassing words you might see on SAT tests.

Pedagogical Reform

No Prereading Activities: My mouth is still gaping as I write this. Yes, Coleman mentioned that he met with major educational publishers, and they are now concerned about the prereading activities in textbooks. This goes against everything I know as a literacy specialist, dismissing research on how the brain processes information by hooking new knowledge onto prior knowledge. As I understand the new thinking, by offering background information to prepare or introduce content, teachers are telling students how to think. Students stop thinking on their own and respond with what they think the teacher wants to hear. I can see this to a degree; however, I design lessons with anticipatory sets and prereading activities. My kids do very well. Is there room for improvement? Yes. But I don't want to lose progress.

Chunking: Coleman said to chunk complex text. For example, he modeled reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech from the Birmingham jail paragraph by paragraph. Students read the first paragraph on their own first. No background knowledge. No introduction. Simply give them the text and ask them to read it silently. Then the teacher reads it aloud to them as the students read along. This suggests that reading aloud and modeling intonation and navigation of complex sentence structure comes after the students read the text. The goal is to peel back the layers of the text by discussing content, sentences, tone, word choices, etc., section by section. It feels a bit dissected, and there must be a risk of losing student engagement. Coleman explained that the unfolding of the text will hook the students as they solve the mysteries of the text.

MBlow0510iStock2170934_inspector_illusPower Focus: One catchphrase I really liked is “Teach less; learn more.” I am a firm believer in teaching deeper rather than broader. Coleman encourages teachers to teach students to “read like detectives.” For example, it may take six days to teach the six-paragraph speech that he presented. The text is read and reread over the six-day period as fluency in reading complex text develops. With improved fluency comes increased comprehension. The emphasis should be on the different sorts of evidence used in arguments and text. 

Diversifying Instruction: Providing diverse levels of materials is a major concern for many educators who teach in inclusive classrooms. Coleman suggests that all students read the same complex level materials. By differentiating reading levels we are keeping struggling readers out of the game. He stated that in general students across the board will select books at about the 5th grade level, regardless of their reading abilities. Therefore, teachers must expose students to complex texts in the classroom and provide the support and extra time so that they can successfully read and write at career and college levels. He did say that students can select their own independent level books for outside reading. 

Detective image courtesy of iStockphoto.

Holistic Model: Coleman warned against mini lessons targeting the skills outlined by the CCSS. The complexity of the text should drive the lesson. He stated that the best questions emerge from engaging with the text. 

Scaffolding Higher Level Thinking: The ELA and math standards differ. The same literacy standards repeat each year with increasing complexity and higher level thinking. However, in math, there is an in-depth approach to teaching fewer strands of math at a specific grade level. Interestingly, he pointed out that the 6th grade math standards were heavier than other grade levels, even describing them as an impossible amount to cover in 180 days. He said that this was done to prepare the students for 8th grade math.


Bridging the gaps In closing, Coleman suggested that teachers try to create one CCSS-based unit per semester for the 2011–2102 school year. This way we can make the slow and steady progress toward the full implementation of the CCSS in 2014. If you want to get started, K–12 CCSS curriculum maps are available on the Common Core Web site. I want to caution you, these maps are not scripted topics or assigned literature for each grade level. They are suggestions or exemplars of units that you can borrow or use as models. Teachers throughout the U.S. designed them, so they may or may not align with your state curricula. My post “Bridging the Gaps With Multigenre Thematic Units” offers learning experiences very similar to what they are looking for. Feel free to borrow whatever I posted. 

I do not agree with some of the pedagogical approaches suggested during the Webinar. I think there needs to be a balanced approach, a scaffolding of independence, so that we don't create gaps in other areas. I will explore and research the pedagogical approaches and choose what benefits my students. I am so thankful that our school district started integrating the new changes last fall. It gives us time to progress at a slow and steady pace. 





  • #1 Mary Blow

    Monday, May 30, 2011 at 08:55 PM

    Dear Concerned Teacher,

    Thank you for your very insightful comments. I would have to agree that our cultural diversity does put us in a unique position and perhaps a bit of a disadvantage. However, I wouldn't change it for the world. I'd be interested in hearing more of your findings.

    I think you are right. The expedited push for reform is not allowing us the time for research based approach. This may foreshadow some bumpy roads ahead.

    In NYS, many aspects of RTTT are unclear. We are using a growth model based on state testing to demonstrate student achievement. However, there are too many independent variables to be able to establish validity: cultural values, family life, illnesses, teaching styles, cohort of students, attendance, student behavior, student motivation, maturation, etc. It is unclear how these tests can prove that a single variable is responsible.

    Each NYS teacher must demonstrate growth based on a benchmark, which was based on cohort of students from the 2009-2010 students. Immediately the validity of the data is lost. The data measuring growth should follow that cohort of students and the assessments must be consistent. This year, our state tests were changed. We aren't even comparing apples to apples. It would have been nice to know that they changed our 5-point rubric to a 2-point rubric. The method of measurement changed, too. I think many of us are feeling the frustration of the unknown and unexpected. ~Mary

  • #2 Concerned 3rd Grade Teacher

    Monday, May 30, 2011 at 03:47 PM

    I have some concerns too. I have been researching the CCSS and comparing the standards to that of other countries. To be fair, no other country has the racial, ethnic, or religious diversity like the US. When you take our population into account it is near impossible to find another country with a comparing "apples to apples" concept. That said, the Soviet Union and China both went with common systems that limited thinking creatively. Research shows that China's current work force has difficulty working in multinational companies because of their lack of creative thinking skills.
    I am worried that we will be teaching the students what to think and not how to think. I am also worried that the people making these choices are rushing into change without enough research (pros and cons) or information.
    I am hopeful and willing to do what is best for my students.

  • #3 Mary Blow

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 10:06 AM

    Hi, Tim.

    I agree, we have to continue with what works. I like your approach. It would be great if we could expose students to the complex text in one class and provide an additional class where they can be met at their instructional levels. Scheduling and and shortage of teachers may prevent from happening in many schools. I am going to share your experience with our ELA department. Thanks for sharing.

  • #4 Tim Smith

    Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 12:53 PM

    Mary, Thanks for responding. It has been enlightening to listen to other teachers. I agree that a balanced approach is best. In an effort to meet AYP in reading and writing with one of the subgroups within our high school, several LA teachers worked together to provide more intentional intervention for certain students. They used research-based and experience-proven methods to help these low performing readers improve. We just found out that we exceeded our AYP goal by 7% - just goes to show that we need to keep doing the things we know work.

  • #5 Mary Blow

    Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 02:32 AM

    Tim, Thanks for the comments. I like the standards, too. Math is organized different than English. Math focuses on a few standards in depth at each grade level. English standards increase with complexity each year. Still, I like our new standards. I have seen a growing amount of learned helplessness in my students over the years. I truly believe if you set high, but not impossible, expectations, they will rise to the challenge. However, I am concerned about the shift in pedagogical skills for teaching literacy. It would be nice to see a balance. ~Mary

  • #6 Tim Smith

    Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 04:58 PM

    We are one of the 48 states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards. As a high school math teacher, I like the idea of focusing on power standards. The 6 - 12 math curriculum in our district seems to overlap to much. Also, it seems that our students are experimenting with a too many concepts, rather than mastering appropriate grade-level skills that they will need to proceed. We are slowly beginning the process of examining how to incorporate these new standards, especially in the algebra and geometry classes. The CCSS has identified standards in various categories - it is up to us to be integrate these into our courses. Overall, I think that the CCSS is on the right track.

  • #7 Mary Blow

    Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 07:57 PM

    Welcome. We are glad you liked the resources. ~Mary

  • #8 Jamie

    Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 12:52 PM

    ah thanks for posting shannon!

  • #9 Mary Blow

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 07:19 PM


    Thank you for such a wonderful resource to support teachers. Have a great day! ~Mary

  • #10 Shannon

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 06:06 PM

    I have put all of the CCSS on Facebook. Not only have I put the standards on there (just as they appear in the CCSS document), I have also put links to free lesson plans, curriculum maps, videos, and cool websites to help us teach the standards. Just type "CCSS Main Menu" in your Facebook search bar, or go to to see how I have organized the CCSS by subject and grade level. Hit "Info" to see the standards, hit "Wall" to see all of the free resources to help you teach the standards!

  • #11 Mary Blow

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 05:31 PM

    Dear concerned 4th Grade Teacher,

    I am trying to keep a positive attitude; however, like you, I have some concerns. I believe as educators, we cannot throw out researched best practices that are effective in our classrooms. If we do, there will be gaps in inferencing and higher level thinking. I, too, share your concerns about differentiated materials. My interpretation is that it is appropriate to differentiate independent practice, not classroom instructional materials as it robs students of the exposure to the text that they need to learn to navigate.

    As we strive for inclusive classrooms, I understand your concern. Realistically, asking someone on a 2nd grade reading level to read a 6th grade book is unrealistic. Keep in mind that there is a difference between individualized and differentiated instruction. When you differentiate, you consider learning styles and provide choices. I have learned that students who struggle will navigate more challenging material when given the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding using preferred learning styles and when given choices. I think students are more invested in taking ownership for their learning. When you individualize, you tier lessons, and meet the students at their independent levels. I think we need to balance learning experiences in the classroom to encompass both pedagogical approaches. I believe we are being asked to stop spoon feeding students, which may result in learned helplessness. It is a throw-the-bird-out-of-the-nest approach to force them to fly--a holistic approach. If you have ever studied a second language, you understand how students who are immersed in the language pick it up faster than those who only speak the second language in the classroom. Again, I am cautious about limiting myself to one approach because all my students are not holistic learners.

    There does need to be more focus on nonfiction literature and content area reading as most students, even our highest achievers, are a grade level or two lower in reading nonfiction as opposed to fiction. Most college and career reading is nonfiction. It is overwhelming; I agree. Take Care.

  • #12 Concerned 4th grade teacher

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 04:28 PM

    This approach to teaching literacy is FRIGHTENING! It goes against the "best practices" as seen by many districts and specialists. I fear that teaching will become less and less desirable over the next several years. Will basal readers make a comeback? Will differentiation be frowned upon? How will struggling students ever close their gaps and advanced students be challenged? I have seen some reading programs that mix a basal approach with differentiated material. Some seem decent, but they are expensive! Where will schools get the funding to replace the materials we have now? I'm concerned that instead of reform, we are setting many students up for failure.

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Mary Blow
Glenfield, NY
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