Common Core Watch

[Editor's note: This is part two of a multi-part series on the use of prior knowledge in literacy. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Reading. The first post can be found here.]

 In my first post, I focused on the controversy over prior knowledge. Common Core has discouraged enhancing reading comprehension through the introduction of information external to a text.

That challenges the most popular ways of introducing texts in schools—telling students information about the text topic or exploring student knowledge relevant to the topic. CCSS proponents bridle at such practices. They want students to become independent readers, which means they’d be able to read texts effectively without extra information.

They also blanch at the idea of students constructing text meanings without sufficiently accounting for the author’s input; texts should mean something closer to what the author intended than what a reader might choose to make it mean.

The problem with de-emphasizing existing knowledge is that reading comprehension depends on reader knowledge. We use what we know to draw inferences, clarify ambiguity, and store information in memory. Banning explicit attention to student knowledge can’t “level the playing field” between rich and poor because you simply can’t stop students from using what they know when they read.

I promised to provide some instructional guidance for dealing with prior knowledge during reading comprehension lessons (and shared/guided/directed readings). Here are ten guidelines for dealing with prior knowledge.

  1. Don’t overdo it. Research shows that providing readers with key
  2. ...

[Editor's note: This is part one of a multi-part series on the use of prior knowledge in literacy. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Reading.]

An idea heavily promoted in Common Core (CCSS) discussions is the notion that we shouldn’t talk about students’ “prior knowledge,” and that avoiding such discussions somehow “levels the playing field” when it comes to learning to read. Researchers in the cognitive sciences rediscovered the importance of people’s knowledge in learning and comprehension back in the 1970s (revisiting ideas previously explored by Bartlett, Kant, Plato, etc.).

Research findings were very clear: Readers comprehend more when a text overlaps with their knowledge of the world, and they comprehend less when there is less such information in their minds.

Research also has shown benefits from increasing students’ prior knowledge (it is “prior” in the sense that readers knew it before the author told them). And even reminding students that they have relevant knowledge prior to reading can bear fruit.

Why is prior knowledge so useful to readers? There are many reasons, but certainly a basic one is that the availability of such information reduces how painstaking reading may have to be. If you already know much of what the author is going to say, you can kind of go on autopilot and just watch for the new stuff. Your less informed classmates are going to have to attend to the text more carefully, trying to build up...

Fordham Institute to evaluate Common Core assessments on quality and content alignment

PARCC, Smarter Balanced, ACT Aspire, and Massachusetts participating in landmark study

Media Contact:
Michelle Lerner
mlerner@edexcellence.net
202-223-5452


Washington, D.C. (November 19, 2014) — The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has launched a new study to evaluate the quality and content alignment of PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and ACT Aspire to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Fordham’s study will be published in summer 2015.

As part of the effort, Fordham will also evaluate the 2014 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), a high-quality state assessment, for Common Core alignment under an agreement with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“The promise of the Common Core State Standards, implemented faithfully, is improved education and life outcomes for millions of American children,” noted Amber Northern, vice president of research. “We need tests that fairly reflect and honor the hard work that we are asking teachers and students to do under the Common Core.”

Nancy Doorey (an educational consultant with assessment-policy expertise) and Morgan Polikoff (an assistant professor at...

Common Core has the potential to shift and drastically improve math instruction in American schools, but its detractors have marshalled a raucous opposition to its proposed changes. We’ve already examined the questionable arguments against Common Core literacy standards; now we’re turning our sights to math.

September’s Intelligence Squared U.S. debate pitted Fordham President Michael J. Petrilli and the Center for American Progress’s Carmel Martin against the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess and New York principal Carol Burris. Hess and Burris are two of Common Core’s most eloquent and energetic critics, but the position they mounted against the initiative’s math standards is not a strong one. It can essentially be boiled down to three points:

1.) The standards confuse children.

This is perhaps the most common critique of Common Core math. As the new standards have been implemented (seldom perfectly) in participating states, districts, and schools, children have sometimes been assigned math problems that would make a structural engineer scratch her head. Parents accustomed to the “classic style” of teaching math—long worksheets of standard algorithms with one or two word problems at the bottom—worry about the unfamiliar presentation of their kids’ homework, and many opponents have delighted in picking apart often inscrutable questions. At the debate, Burris recited a confusing-sounding Common Core standard (1.OA.C.6) for teaching young students:

Here’s a first grade example. “Use strategies such as counting...

There’s apprehension in some ed-reform circles that things have gone sideways.

There’s the resistance to Common Core coming from the right and the left. There’s frustration with ESEA waivers. There’s the mess in Newark. There are twelve students demanding Harvard divorce Teach for America.

But each of these is, of course, an anecdote, and “data” is not the plural of “anecdote.” So are these chapters in a larger backlash-to-reform narrative, or are they just well-publicized exceptions to the reform-is-winning rule?

I’ve spent some time going through four recent surveys of the views of the public, educators, parents, and insiders. They offer encouragement to the reform community, though with one important exception. In short, many of today’s most prominent reforms are quite popular, but it looks like folks are perturbed by a meddlesome Uncle Sam. (If you have time, I recommend your taking a gander at the data from Education Next, Phi Delta Kappan, Whiteboard Advisors, and Education Post.)

Consistent with public opinion data going back decades, today’s Americans think their local schools are doing fine, but they think schools in the rest of the nation are seriously troubled. Whether you ask the public or parents, only 1–4 percent believe the nation’s schools deserve an A.

Though people rate their local schools much higher, there’s broad agreement that low-income kids, even in our esteemed local schools, aren’t getting what they need....

I confess I’m somewhat bewildered by the passionate arguments over the Common Core State Standards. Getting in high dudgeon about K–12 learning standards, which say almost nothing about what kids do in school all day, makes no more sense to me than getting apoplectic about food-handling procedures, which I seldom think about when pushing my cart through the grocery store. In New York City, where I live, architects seem grimly determined of late to litter the skyline with strange new monstrosities, each a greater eyesore than the last. It had not occurred to me to blame Gotham’s building codes. 

I expect an argument when I assign my students Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, and Hayek. But standards? They are dry, unlovely things.

But no matter. I come neither to praise nor bury the Common Core State Standards, now widely regarded as a “damaged brand” and a political piñata. But I do wish to point out that the standards enshrine several sound education ideas that have long been near and dear to conservatives. If Common Core disappears tomorrow, the considerable energy that has gone into fighting the standards ought to be redirected toward ensuring their survival. If not, conservatives may win a pyrrhic victory over standards, losing the bigger, longer war to improve America’s schools. 

Here are a few big ideas in Common Core worth preserving and promoting:

READING TO LEARN

If you haven’t set foot in an elementary school in a few decades, you might be surprised and dismayed to see what...

Call it the Iron Law of Pedagogy: Every good teaching idea becomes a bad idea the moment it hardens into orthodoxy.

The latest example might be “close reading,” which has become yet another hot-button issue among Common Core critics. But complaints about it bother me less than its potential overuse, or the creeping notion that close reading is what all reading instruction should look like under Common Core. That would be bad for the standards, and even worse for reading achievement in the U.S.

Close reading is “an intensive analysis of a piece of text, in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it, and what it means,” writes literacy expert Tim Shanahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Common Core expects students to “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.”

Sounds simple, benign, even obvious. Would anyone not want students to be able to do this? Close reading for evidence and to support inferences is a far more rigorous and academically useful standard to meet than, for example, expecting student to produce a “personal response” to literature—the kind of content-free literacy practice Common Core is intended to supplant. The mischief comes in translating “reading closely” into sound classroom practice. Some of the guidance teachers have...

Though the occasional political firecracker still flares across the night sky, as of mid-2014 it seems likely that most of the forty-six jurisdictions that originally embraced the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will stick with them.

That’s a seismic development for American public education, but whether it produces a 1.0 or an 8.0 on the Richter scale remains to be seen. It depends on (1) the thoroughness of implementation, (2) the selection (and scoring) of assessments, and (3) perhaps most of all, the ways in which results revealed by those assessments affect the lives of real people and their schools.

Today, all three are up for grabs.

The most important thing to know about the Common Core standards is that learning what they say you should learn is supposed to make you ready for both college and career, i.e., for a seamless move from twelfth grade into the freshman year at a standard-issue college, where you will be welcomed into credit-bearing courses that you will be ready to master.

That’s the concept. It’s a really important one and the main justification for the heavy lifting and disruption that these standards will occasion.

Today, far less than half of U.S. twelfth graders are “college ready.” (Never mind those who have already dropped out of high school.) The National Assessment Governing Board estimates that not quite 40 percent are college ready. The ACT folks estimate 26 percent are college ready across the...

Kevin Mahnken

Among opponents of the Common Core, one of the more popular targets of vitriol is the standards’ focus on improving literacy by introducing higher levels of textual complexity into the instructional mix. The move to challenge students with more knotty, grade-level reading material represents a shift away from decades of general adherence to so-called “instructional level theory,” which encourages children to read texts pitched at or slightly above the student’s individual reading level. New York public school principal Carol Burris, an outspoken standards critic and defender of leveled reading, recently published an anti-Common Core missive on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog that was fairly typical of the form. Where, she wondered, “is the research to support: close reading, increased Lexile levels, the use of informational texts, and other questionable practices in the primary grades?”

The blog post, which has already been intelligently critiqued by Ann Whalen at Education Post, expanded on remarks delivered by Burris earlier this month at an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate with Fordham president Michael Petrilli and former assistant secretary of education Carmel Martin. There, too, she demanded evidence of literacy improvements arising from the use of complex texts.

A fair request and one that warrants a thorough response. But first, for the benefit of readers who are neither teachers nor literacy specialists, a quick explainer on how these two theories of reading work: In leveled reading, a teacher listens as her...

For over a year, I’ve been encouraging Common Core advocates to stop endlessly re-litigating the standards and instead to focus on getting implementation right. Taking my own advice last week, I traveled to Reno to see first-hand the work of the Core Task Project, the initiative driving implementation of the standards in Washoe County, Nevada.

It was a refreshing and invigorating visit. Common Core is not without controversy anywhere. But Reno seems to have largely sidestepped some of the more heated battles. Washoe County’s implementation has become something of a national model—being one of four case studies highlighted in Fordham’s report Common Core in the Districts, published in February 2014.

Reno’s relative peace can be explained, I think, by several factors. First and foremost, under the leadership of curriculum and instruction specialist Aaron Grossman, implementation has focused on the right things—including building a coherent body of knowledge across and within grades (one of the broad “instructional shifts,” along with reading for evidence and a greater focus on complex and nonfiction text)—that are easy to rally around and hard to dismiss as unimportant.

But more importantly, Washoe County’s work simply gainsays many of the criticisms leveled at Common Core. Far from a top-down initiative, driven from afar by nationalizers, privatizers and moneyed interests, the Core Task Project is homegrown, teacher-led, and the product of a mid-sized and diverse public school system. Neither has implementation been a...

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