Send in the clowns: Common Core implementation advice just keeps getting worse
I’ve posted before about the unusual interpretations and suggestions for implementing the Common Core standards that are popping up across the country. Earlier this week, more evidence emerged that when it comes to organizations peddling Common Core implementation resources and strategies, the buyer should beware.
When it comes to organizations peddling Common Core implementation resources and strategies, the buyer should beware.
Eye on Education, a publishing company that provides “busy educators with practical information” on a host of topics (professional development, school improvement, student assessment, data analysis, and on), released a report this week authored by Lauren Davis that highlights “5 Things Every Teacher Should be Doing to Meet the Common Core State Standards”:
- Lead High-Level, Text-Based Discussions
- Focus on Process, Not Just Content
- Create Assignments for Real Audiences and with Real Purpose
- Teach Argument, Not Persuasion
- Increase Text Complexity
At first glance, this appears to be pointed in the right direction. After all, nearly every point includes quotes from the standards themselves or from the publisher’s criteria released by David Coleman and Sue Pimentel.
Unfortunately, dressing up advice with strategically placed quotes does not a Common Core implementation strategy make. And, in all but one area, Eye on Education has gotten the spirit of the Common Core dead wrong.
First, teachers are told to “focus on process, not just content.” Here, the author gives lip service to the Common Core while at the same time prioritizing the teaching of classroom discussion skills over diving into substantive content and reading. Specifically, Davis argues:
“even if you craft strong questions, you cannot assume that students know how to be effective participants in a class discussion. In Teaching Critical Thinking, Terry Roberts and Laura Billings speak about the importance of explicitly teaching speaking and listening skills.”
To be sure, students need to be taught how to participate in class discussions. But we need not belabor such lessons. Nor should they trump the actual content—in this case, the literature—being taught.
Second, Davis tells teachers to focus on process not content, arguing that because the vocabulary standards encourage students to “make multiple connections between a new word and their own experiences” they should use “discovery-based word study” to expand their vocabulary. For instance,
“An example of a meaningful engagement would be for students to create a blog about a topic of interest and carry on an online conversation that is laced with target words. Even if the target words do sound forced, at least the student is combing through the new vocabulary in search of words that actually communicate their ideas.”
That’s one interpretation. A much more logical one is that the standards are calling for students to make connections to vocabulary when reading. That’s undoubtedly why, in the vocabulary section, the CCSS authors explain that, in order to make a “meaningful connection” to new vocabulary:
first, the reader’s internal representation of the word must be sufficiently complete and well articulated to allow the intended meaning to be known to him or her; second, the reader must understand the context well enough to select the intended meaning from the realm of the word’s possible meanings (which in turn depends on understanding the surrounding words of the text).
Note that neither of those two conditions depends on the reader doing decontextualized “discovery learning” activities.
Repackaging old strategies with Common Core wrapping paper does not constitute alignment to the new standards.
Third, Davis pretends that the Common Core writing standards ask teachers to “create assignments for a real audience with a real purpose.” Then she proceeds to propose using writing class as a way to promote classroom-level student activism. The example given is that a group of students was offended by the sound of the school bell, so “they developed a thesis, organized a petition, wrote letters, and prepared an oral statement to be read for the principal and vice principal.” In fact, the Common Core demands that persuasive and argumentative writing be grounded in evidence drawn from texts, not from empty personal experiences. (Interestingly, the fourth point made in the paper—that teachers should teach argument, not persuasion, seems to run directly counter to point three. Davis makes no attempt to relegate this.)
Finally, and perhaps most distressingly, Davis seemingly argues that text complexity matters, but then goes on to say “don’t rely solely on Lexiles or other formulas, even though they seem ‘official.’ The formulas are imperfect and do not take subject matter into account. Use your own judgment. Also be careful not to choose material that is too challenging.”
Wait: don’t rely on Lexiles? Really? Then, how, precisely, does Davis define text complexity? Because the entire thrust of the Common Core is to ensure all students are reading texts that are on grade level, not on their independent reading level. This is one of the most significant changes ushered in by the Common Core. (Of course, for students who are several grade levels behind, interventions are necessary and critical.)
Here is the bottom line: repackaging old strategies with Common Core wrapping paper does not constitute alignment to the new standards. In the end, only a careful investigation of what the standards actually say will make the difference between faithful implementation of the Common Core and more of the same. The details matter and so do the people teachers place their trust in to serve as a guide. To prevent this national effort from turning into window dressing for the status quo, we need to be much more vigilant separating experts from clowns.
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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she leads the Institute’s work on state, national, and international standards evaluation and analysis.
May 16, 2013
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