Throughout 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.
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)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Power 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.
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.
- ASCD and Common Core State Standards Resources: A comprehensive list of resources available from the ASCD and other external resources.
- Common Core State Standards Initiative Home: Download a pdf version of the CCSS for ELA and math.
- Expert 21 and the CCSS: Scholastic’s language arts program based on the CCSS to prepare students for careers and colleges.
- CCSS Professional Development Opportunities: Virtual conferences (for grades K–2, 3–5, 6–8, and 9–12) sponsored by the National Council for Teachers of English.
- Programs Aligned to the Common Core State Standards: A comprehensive list of books and resources to help you align your instruction to the CCSS, from Scholastic.