Changing the conversation: The promise of the Common Core reading standards

The following post was adapted from a talk delivered by Kathleen Porter-Magee at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

Thank you, Dr. Reyes and also, thanks to Reverend Rodriguez for the invitation to speak. I’m honored to be with you here today.

Before I begin, I want to take a moment to express our sincere gratitude to Reverend Rodriguez for standing up in support of the Common Core, particularly at a time when it is politically more expedient to do the opposite. His support for these new standards and the promise they hold for the Latino and faith communities shows real courage and leadership, and your willingness as a group to start what we hope will be a long conversation is much appreciated.

As Dr. Reyes mentioned, I recently joined the College Board as the senior advisor for policy and instruction. But I’ve spent the past 17 years working both on the ground level, in schools as a teacher and network administrator in both Catholic and urban charter schools, and at the 30,000-foot level working to translate lessons from great classrooms and great schools to policy.

But before I dive in, I’d like to tell you a little about who I am and why I’m here.

I come from a traditional Irish Catholic family, where faith and religion were a big part of our family. Today is actually my grandmother’s 96th birthday. She was born in Hell’s Kitchen in New York before women won the right to vote and only shortly after the Wright Brothers first flight. She and my grandfather raised four children—happily—in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. As a young girl, she was stricken with a rare bone disease that left her essentially bedridden for two years. And the disease nearly cost her both legs. They were saved only when her doctors, perhaps at a loss for what else to do, offered her an experimental new drug: penicillin. Needless to say, 83 years later, I’m sure she still remembers those doctors well. And she walked herself into to her 96th birthday dinner last night.

I share this story both to honor my grandmother and because it struck me as almost poetic that I am here with you on her birthday. And that is because there are really two things that have defined my grandmother in my eyes and for our family: The first is her faith. And the second is her love of reading.

And that is, in nutshell why I’m here.

I’ve long been a supporter of the Common Core and I’ve been reading and writing about these new standards since before the final draft was released. But I’m here not because of the Common Core per se but, rather, because of the promise they hold for our children. And I believe that together with your help, we can change the conversation—we can refocus it on our children and on working to ensure that they work they do in school is worth doing and poised to propel them forward.

To that end, I want to talk about the Common Core as a vehicle to bring three fundamental rights to all students, but particularly our Latino and ELL students:

1.      First, this is about the right of all students to read the authentic, complex texts.

2.      Second, it’s about giving all students access to the vocabulary of power—the academic vocabulary we know students need to succeed.

3.      Finally, it’s about giving all students the support they need to exceed the expectations we’ve set.

Let me start with the first, because I feel it’s the most urgent. And I’m going to begin with a story that David Coleman shared with me not long ago. He was meeting with a group of publishers and talking about the Common Core and what the new expectations met for their work. One publisher in the audience raised his hand and asked a question. He said,

I work for a group that publishes science and history textbooks for English language learners. We publish mostly picture books for our ELL community: Will that need to change?

Emphatically: yes.

I have to admit that this practice distresses me. And it’s indicative of what I think is an epidemic that has reached into far too many of our classrooms but one that hits classrooms serving Latino and, especially, ELL students far more than any other. That is the practice of giving some students—those who we fear aren’t capable of rigorous reading or challenging work—“translated” or “retold” versions of great texts. The thought is that if we ask our students to do work that is too hard or to read books that are too challenging for them, they will throw up their hands in frustration. And so we have publishers that print several versions of great books—the original, a version for “intermediate” readers, and a version for “beginning” readers.

Such practice might sound sensible. After all, if a student can’t read something, shouldn’t we bend the text to meet the student?

Emphatically: no.

There is almost no hope of preparing our students—particularly our most disadvantaged students—for what lies ahead if we don’t ask them to do rigorous work that is worth doing every day. In English class, that means actually reading great—often challenging—literature.  In science and history, it means ensuring that all students have access to real content and the academic vocabulary that goes along with it.

The truth of the matter is that, by giving students translated books or watered down content, our children are reading not the author’s words but a translator’s interpretation of those words. And that robs them of the opportunity to draw their own conclusions and to do their own analysis.

A few years ago, as the Common Core was just getting off the ground, I read something written by the late Roger Ebert that really spoke to me. He had come across a “retold” version of The Great Gatsby and he was, in a word, appalled.

Let me give you an example. The Great Gatsby begins like this:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

He didn't say any more, but we've always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought -- frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don't care what it's founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction -- Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament."-- it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No -- Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this Middle Western city for three generations. The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we're descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather's brother, who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on to-day.

In a “retold” version that is given to intermediate readers, that opening is boiled down to this:

"My name is Nick Carraway. I was born in a big city in the Middle West."

Even more distressing is the version given to “beginning” readers:

My name is Nick. This is my friend. His name is Jay. Jay has a big house. See his house.

This, as Ebert succinctly puts it, is an obscenity.

Making matters worse, the way schools distinguish between “beginning” and “intermediate” readers is by tests of vocabulary and comprehension. So, while our students—particularly our ELL students—might be intellectually and creatively capable of advanced work, we keep that work from them, often in the name of differentiation and support. And in doing so, we not only insult them, but we artificially limit their options and their opportunity.

At the same time, we scratch our heads and wonder why our students are ill prepared for the rigorous work they will be asked to do in college and beyond. But we need look no further than these examples to understand why they aren’t ready: it’s because we haven’t prepared them.

Second, our hope with the Common Core is to give all students, but particularly Latino students, access to the language of power—to the academic vocabulary students need.

The reality is that if you flip through the SAT or through the table of contents of any conventional literature textbook, you’ll find page upon page of esoteric vocabulary: circular plot, denouement, elegy, epigram.

These are words that are perfectly good to know. But, let’s be honest, these are not words that our children need to master to prepare for the rigors of college and careers.

What’s worse, for students in the Latino community, these can become unnecessary barriers. These are not words that deepen student understanding or that help propel them into more advanced coursework. And so, we need to help teachers and students focus on the first things first.

Finally, this effort—this fight—demands that we give our students the support they need to meet the expectations we’ve set. In English language arts, the standards focus on reading texts that are worth reading. It means emphasizing the importance of content and vocabulary. And it means bending instruction and support to meet students where they are, rather than bending work to meet what we think they can handle.

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