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Common Sense for the Common Core

Four ideas to help maximize your schools’ chances for success in implementing the new standards.
By Regie Routman

As a mentor teacher, leader, and coach who has been working in diverse classrooms and schools for more than four decades, I’ve learned that no matter what reforms, standards, or new programs come along, literacy achievement gains tend to be fleeting. Here’s what I’ve observed over and over: Without administrators who have a solid knowledge of effective literacy instruction, schools wind up focusing on implementation of isolated skills and/or standards with the hope that all the parts will add up to something meaningful. At best, this yields short-term gains and superficial learning. A good example is No Child Left Behind. After many years of a national commitment that cost billions of dollars, most students got good at phonics but showed no measurable growth in reading comprehension. My concern is we may soon see a similar outcome with the Common Core standards, and educators, parents, and the public will once again become disillusioned. So let’s take a look at the historical and present realities to assess what is possible and advisable.

The Common Core State Standards—or some set of common standards and framework for what kindergarten through high school students need to know and be able to do to pursue college and career goals—became necessary when it was blatantly apparent that not all students in U.S schools had equal opportunity to learn. In particular, factors including income inequality and school re-segregation doomed many poor and minority students, as well as English language learners, to an inferior education, with the result that many of these students routinely performed at least two years below grade level. In addition, many schools had not been challenging, engaging, or meeting the needs of large numbers of average-scoring and high-performing students for years. The need for common, high standards with content that spirals coherently from grade to grade was real.

Implementing the CCSS has become even more complex in the wake of the recent U.S. midterm elections, as more state governors have said they intend to replace the Common Core with homegrown standards. Also, some educators now view the CCSS as another fad that we need to “wait out.” The reality is that standards are necessary but insufficient; all standards are eventually replaced by “new” standards and expectations. Propelled by continuing pressure for quick results and high-stakes consequences for failure, schools understandably implement new reforms, mandates, and standards, but often without sufficient preparation or support for teachers. Predictably, we wind up with disappointing results.

So what’s a conscientious administrator to do? The vision and goals of the CCSS are commendable. In the hands of a masterful teacher supported by a knowledgeable administrator, standards are a plus. However, despite worthy intentions, two huge obstacles may eventually cause the downfall of the Common Core, and both are common-sense factors.

  1. First, the success of these new, higher standards depends on teachers and leaders knowing how to expertly implement them. Many teachers, principals, and administrators have not been properly prepared to teach reading and writing well, and they are relying on rapidly proliferating “Common Core-aligned” materials, most of which are severely wanting; even for experienced teachers, implementing the standards is daunting. The challenge for administrators is to provide professional learning that puts the highest priority on ensuring all teachers receive a deep foundational knowledge that transfers to expert instruction in the classroom. Without that theoretical and practical knowledge, teachers cannot effectively implement the CCSS or expertly teach and assess. Effective application of complex tasks and concepts requires a high level of expertise, and such expertise requires time and practice through well-planned, long-term schoolwide professional development. We are a “quick fix” society, and we often reject a commitment to long-term goals and outcomes. 

  2. Second, and attached to the first factor, is the high-stakes testing that accompanies the standards. History tells us that such stakes breed fear and distrust as pressure mounts for results. What’s on the test is what gets taught, resulting in a narrow curriculum broken into bits and pieces to “match” the test. Rather than relying on putting our efforts into high-level professional learning for all teachers and leaders, we waste enormous sums of time developing, preparing for, and executing tests with major consequences for students, teachers, families, and society.  

Administrators need to take the lead in providing the guidance, coaching, and expert professional development teachers need to successfully implement and sustain any set of literacy standards or learning outcomes. Here are some recommendations and actions for teachers—and administrators, too—for where put the literacy emphasis to increase student learning.

  • Become discerning readers and writers. We cannot teach what we do not know or value. Apply what you do as a strategic reader and writer to teaching readers and writers. Let students know how and why you read and write for real-world audiences and purposes that go beyond the classroom—and this may include blogs, social media, opinion pieces, and more.

  • Do more read-alouds of excellent literature. In the course of reading, think aloud to show students how readers figure out vocabulary, question the author, make inferences, reread when confused, notice the author’s craft, and so on. Your read-alouds should include more emphasis on nonfiction.

  • Embed shared experiences in your teaching. Before asking students to read complex text, read complex text with them. Demonstrate “close reading” and reason through how to find, use, and analyze evidence from the text to make meaning and support a point of view.

  • Organize curriculum through emphasizing big ideas and important concepts. The best place to start is with the K-12 Common Core anchor standards for reading. These include key ideas and details, craft and structure, integration of knowledge and ideas, and range of reading and level of text complexity. Beware starting with small pieces of the standards; teachers and students can get stuck in the details and never get to the highest levels of understanding.

The Common Core State Standards are a worthy ideal of what’s possible for our students but they should be approached with perspective. Standards do not transform teaching and learning; effective teachers supported by knowledgeable principals and administrators do. Implementation and “how” to effectively instruct and assess student learning requires years of professional learning with skillful teachers, coaches, and leaders in a culture of trust, inquiry, coaching, collaboration, celebration of strengths, and, yes, even joy. In such learning cultures, students, teachers, and leaders thrive. It is up to knowledgeable administrators to ensure teachers and principals do not continue to drown in a culture of minutiae over testing and teaching to individual standards. Rather, savvy and courageous administrators ensure that being accountable for students’ engagement, enjoyment, and success as readers, writers, and thinkers comes before any set of standards, assessments, or mandates.

Regie Routman is an educator who works with teachers and administrators in underperforming schools to increase and sustain reading and writing achievement for all students. She is the author of many books and resources, most recently Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014). She can be contacted on regieroutman.org.

Image: Getty Image


This is a terrific article. Within this short text, the major points were eloquently addressed regarding CCSS and its implementation. All school administrators need to read this piece by Mrs. Routman. I plan on sharing it with my principal colleagues.

The AVID curriculum can provide all of the strategies that are outlined in this article and more. AVID is often referred to as the 'how' while the Common Core is referred to the 'what'. From it's inception almost 40 years ago, AVID was and continues to be grounded in equity for all students. Using AVID professional development opportunities for all of our teachers has given rise to improved learning and growth not only for our students but our teachers. Check out avid.org
Laura Foley
Associate Principal
AVID District Coordinator
Lebanon, Oregon

I am a former Middle School Principal of JHS 125 Henry Hudson School in the Bronx. I began my role as Principal in 2012. After collecting and analyzing data from our feeder schools it was quite clear that 80% of our incoming students could not READ on grade level (independent level). Students that could read on grade level needed support (instructional level).

My teachers were not Reading teachers other than the perfuntory required Literacy Class they took in College; but they had to become Reading teachers and as we all know this does not happen overnight.

I pulled out Invitations and Conversations; ordered them their own copies and we used strategies that were meant for much younger children, but our kids could not read and we had to start somewhere.

I agree, some administrators who are not familiar with Literacy do not understand the time it takes to teach Reading, the dedication to the craft of teaching Reading and the need to have time to practice the instructional strategies they learn.

I ensured that my teachers went to professional development for Reading and Writing; I included my paraprofessionals and administrators also. Fortunately, my background was in Literacy and one of my Assistant Principals, so we were able to help the teachers with Literacy strategies in the classroom and during "lunch and learns".

Another thing I highly suggest and did was taught a Saturday intervention class. All of the administrators taught Reading in small groups with the students. It allows you to see where the students are struggling, what the teachers are going through and where you need to deliver more support.

I know that the Networks will be disbanded at the end of the year in NYC but our Network which was supposed to be supportive, did not understand my need to have my teachers engage in so much professional development, needless to say they did not understand why I would have a reading group. These people will go out and probably be assigned to schools and they have no understanding about Reading and Writing and the complexity of teaching this, let alone to secondary students who are at the emergent stage.

In conclusion, this worked because I was able to move the school from an F to a B in less than 8 months. And this year we achieved Excellent in Reading for All students. But the real joy came because the children were excited because they were learning how to Read, they wanted to Read. In order to make this happen I had to support my teachers 100%. In doing so they turned around so many students lives.

Unfortunately after my departure in July, they cut out all the programs and professional development and the children will not get the instruction they need in Reading because the new administration does not understand Literacy Instruction.

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