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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