Seeing the Common Core for what it is

I've already wondered aloud (see here) whether states' quick adoption of the Common Core was more an example of people seeing what they wanted to see than evidence of some broad consensus about what the actual standards meant for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. An article in last week's Education Week does little to assuage those concerns.

The article focused on the CCSS ?publishers' criteria? that was recently released by David Coleman and Sue Pimentel. (See here and here for more.) For those who want to see the Common Core faithfully implemented, it raised two chief concerns.

First, Barbara Cambridge, the state director of NCTE's Washington chapter, criticized the publishers' criteria because she feels that they ?signal a usurpation of teacher judgment in ways that are alarming? and because she believes the document shortchanges ?the value of children's own experiences in responding to what they read.?

?The way we learn something new is to attach it to something we already know,? she said. ?So of course what kids bring to school isn't sufficient, but it's important. And to imply we shouldn't spend time on it, with 1st and 2nd graders, is just bad advice.?

Second, Barbara A. Kapinus of the NEA felt that the criteria veered too far into the world of pedagogy. Kapinus argued that, by saying that ?fluency should be a particular focus? of second grade reading programs,

?teachers [may] put a premium on it, despite the developmental variations in when children reach fluency.

She also criticized the criteria for advising teachers to teach reading strategies only ?in service of reading comprehension, not as a separate body of material.? Good reading instruction, she said, requires pulling out and practicing specific skills.

?This isn't just a description of what curriculum should look like, it's a teaching guide,? Ms. Kapinus said. ?I'm afraid people will take this and say, ?This is what instruction has to look like.' ?

Both Cambridge's and Kapinus's positions are problematic for a number of reasons.

For starters, Coleman and Pimentel are right to warn against an overreliance on making personal connections to reading. Of course, they aren't saying that there is no place for students to relate what they've read to their own lives or to the world. Instead, their point is that reading lessons should be focused on the texts that students are reading first and foremost?not the feelings that those texts evoke.

Of course, no one would pretend that focusing on texts is antithetical to connecting in a very intense and personal way to what you're reading. But it does our students a very grave disservice to pretend that forcing text-to-self connections in only the most superficial way is the only?or best?way to interact with great literature.

More importantly, though, Kapinus wrongly slams the criteria for veering into pedagogy by asking teachers to focus on fluency in early and by advocating against teaching abstract reading ?skills? in isolation.

For starters, the standards themselves specifically require students to read and understand texts that are sufficiently complex?according to a students' grade level, not independent or instructional reading level. The standards very intentionally do not require mastery of abstract skills in the same way, primarily because there is no evidence to suggest that mastering abstract skills leads to improved reading comprehension.

Of course, nowhere in the criteria (or the standards) do the authors suggest that it's never appropriate to learn particular skills. They merely say that such strategies should only be taught in service of reading and understanding sufficiently complex texts, not as an end in themselves.

Unfortunately, across too many classrooms, those skills have become the ends rather than the means. And it would be easy?to look at the standards and see what we want to see?and to shun the changes that they are meant to bring. But, if these?standards are going to impact instruction the way they have the potential to, we need to see them for what they are. And advocates of these standards need to get serious about defending effective implementation.

--Kathleen Porter-Magee

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