Our guest author today is Kathleen Porter-Magee, Bernard Lee Schwartz policy fellow and editor of the Common Core Watch blog at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Previously, Ms. Porter-Magee served as both a middle and high school teacher, as well as the curriculum and professional development director for a network of public charter schools.
Up until now, the Common Core ELA standards were considered path-breaking mostly because of their reach. This isn't the first time a group attempted to write “common” standards, but it is the first time they’ve gained such widespread traction.
Yet the Common Core standards are revolutionary for another, less talked about, reason: they define rigor in reading and literature classrooms more clearly and explicitly than nearly any of the state ELA standards they’ve replaced. Now, as the full impact of these expectations is starting to take hold, the decision to define rigor—and the way the CCSS define it—is fanning the flames of a debate that threatens to open up a whole new front in America’s long running “Reading Wars."
The first and most divisive front in the reading wars was the debate over the importance of phonics to early reading instruction. Thanks to the 2000 recommendations of the National Reading Panel and the 2001 “Reading First” portion of No Child Left Behind, the phonics camp has largely won the day in this battle. Now, while there remain curricula that may marginalize the importance of phonics and phonemic awareness, there are none that ignore it completely.
But the debate over phonics is limited to reading instruction in the early grades. There remain important divisions in how best to devise curricula and teach literature in the years that follow, and minimizing these divisions has been central to most standards-setting efforts. After all, the “grand compromise” of standards-driven reform has always been: states get to define what students should know and be able to do at each grade, but teachers are given the flexibility and autonomy to decide how to ensure all students reach those goals. And standards-setters have been loath to provide too much guidance to curriculum developers, particularly in ELA.
Common Core is no different. On page 6 of the Common Core ELA standards, it states:
The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach…But, in an area like English Language Arts, where the content is ill-defined and where its substance changes, sometimes dramatically, from early elementary to high school, where is the fine line between the “what” and the “how” drawn?
Until now, state ELA standards have largely defined the “what” as the skills and behaviors great readers share. These expectations have therefore described only very broadly what students should be able to do, and they’ve only hinted at how teachers should define content and rigor at each grade level.
Of course, the result was that most state ELA standards were vague and virtually meaningless directives that led to the kind of low-level reading assessments and the basest “teaching to the test” that has plagued far too many classrooms for the past decade.
Enter the Common Core.
Like the state ELA standards that preceded them, the CCSS describe the skills and behaviors that great readers and writers exhibit at each grade level. But, in an effort to define the rigor more clearly than their predecessors, the Common Core specifies that the sophistication of what students read is as important as the skills they master from grade to grade. To that end, Standard 10 clearly asks that all students be exposed to and asked to analyze grade-appropriate texts, with scaffolding as necessary.
This seemingly innocuous directive—to read appropriately complex texts and to use scaffolding to help students who are struggling understand what they’ve read—is perhaps the most revolutionary element of the Common Core standards. For the first time, the standards guiding curriculum and instruction in 45 states clearly define what it means for an ELA curriculum to be aligned to the level of rigor necessary to prepare students for college and beyond.
But this clarity means picking sides. There have long been two very different schools of thought about the best way to organize curriculum and instruction in literature. On one side are those who believe that reading comprehension will improve if teachers assess students’ individual reading level and give them a bevy of “just right” books that will challenge them just enough to nudge them to read increasingly complex texts. Yes, teachers do provide some guidance and instruction, but that instruction is limited. Here, the book is leveled to meet the student where s/he is; the “heavy lifting” of reading is placed squarely on the students’ shoulders.
On the other side are those who believe that reading comprehension improves as domain-specific content knowledge deepens, and as students are exposed to increasingly complex literature and nonfiction texts. Here, the role of the teacher is more pronounced, and instruction is more explicit. The instruction, not the text, is scaffolded to meet the students where they are.
Until now, the vagueness of each state’s standards allowed teachers to decide where their instruction would fall, and to choose between programs like “Great Books” or “Junior Great Books”—which put the emphasis on reading and analyzing rich and complex literature—and programs like Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop or Heinemann’s Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy System—which put the emphasis on assessing students’ reading levels and assigning “just right” books for them to read.
If you are to take the Common Core at its word—that the sophistication of the text is equally as important as the skills students master—then it will be increasingly difficult for publishers of curricula that focus on matching books to readers, rather than scaffolding instruction to meet their needs, to claim alignment to the new standards. It’s a sweeping change that holds enormous promise in improving the quality of ELA curriculum in America’s classrooms.
This is also a debate that, until now, has mostly been waged in classrooms and among curriculum developers, outside of the scope of state standards and below the radar of the national press. But with the specific guidance in the Common Core state ELA standards, the critical question of how to define rigor in an ELA classroom now has 45 front lines in 45 states. And while some believe that, by wading into this debate, the Common Core has violated the principles of the “grand compromise” of standards-driven reform, others believe that this guidance gives these standards more clarity and purpose than teachers have had for years.
No one likes war, but this is an important fight that’s worth having. And it’s one that has been put off for too long.
- Kathleen Porter-Magee