Who will take an early lead in literacy?

Lisa Hansel

Having observed, and occasionally weighed in on, the Common Core standards debates, I’m sure of one thing: no one is paying enough attention to the good work educators across the country are doing as they attempt to bring these new standards to life. Journalists, op-ed writers, and bloggers are doing a fine job of gathering quotes from educators to represent pretty much every possible attitude toward the standards, but so far there has been little research or reporting on the day-to-day work of implementation.

So I was heartened to read Fordham’s new report, Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers; it gets inside schools in Kenton County, KY; Metropolitan Nashville, TN; District 54, IL; and Washoe County, NV. Early adopters always face the greatest challenges. It’s much easier to sit back and let others do the hard work—but if everyone had that attitude, nothing would ever be accomplished. These districts should be congratulated for their willingness to lead the way and to serve as case studies for Fordham’s report. No doubt they expect to learn along the way, and our commentary on their work should be in the spirit of helping.

Reading this report, the one way I can help is by encouraging these districts to carefully consider the extent to which they are meeting the academic literacy goals of the standards. As best I can tell from the report’s case studies, all of the districts have been focused on teaching English language arts skills. They appear to have taken some steps toward “Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects,” and my aim is to encourage them to press forward.

If educators attend to each individual standard (i.e., “Describe how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges,” “Ask and answer questions about key details in a text,” “Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic,” etc.), they may think they are meeting the overall requirements of the standards. But they aren’t. The subject-area literacy requirements appear in the explanations that accompany individual standards.

What the individual ELA and literacy standards do is set forth skills that must be acquired in each grade in order to graduate from high school ready for college and career (and hopefully ready for citizenship, too). What the notes alongside the standards do is (1) clarify that broad academic knowledge is crucial and (2) provide research-based guidance on how to efficiently build knowledge:

To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts. Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge as well as familiarity with various text structures and elements. By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. (p. 10)

At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students. Within a grade level, there should be an adequate number of titles on a single topic that would allow children to study that topic for a sustained period. The knowledge children have learned about particular topics in early grade levels should then be expanded and developed in subsequent grade levels to ensure an increasingly deeper understanding of these topics…. Having students listen to informational read-alouds in the early grades helps lay the necessary foundation for students’ reading and understanding of increasingly complex texts on their own in subsequent grades. (p. 33)

The standards even provide a specific example on how to build knowledge of the human body with sets of carefully selected texts that build on each other from Kindergarten through fifth grade (see p. 33).

In short, these standards are based on a simple but profound finding from cognitive science: reading, thinking, and writing are knowledge-driven skills. They cannot be done without at least some relevant knowledge and vocabulary; the more relevant knowledge a student has, the deeper and stronger her comprehension, thought, and written analysis will be.

The standards are clear: literacy depends on knowledge and vocabulary, as well as ELA skills. So districts that want to embrace the full intent of the Common Core should plan over the next several years to overhaul their entire curriculum—all subjects, not just ELA and math.

There are very promising glimmers coming even from the report’s brief case studies. In Washoe County, secondary-level social-studies teachers are aligning their instructional practices to the literacy standards. They “have generally welcomed the opportunity to align their instruction with the Common Core in English language arts/literacy, and explain that the emphasis on close analysis of primary sources supports the shifts to content-rich nonfiction and using text-based evidence. They particularly appreciate that the stress on literacy skills empowers them to spend more time on complex texts, and that the emphasis on text-based evidence levels the playing field somewhat for students with less background knowledge.” Similarly, in Kenton County, Literacy Design Collaborative “modules are incorporated into social studies and science to meet the CCSS literacy requirement in those subjects.” And in District 54, at least one school-improvement plan included, “Increase the quantity and quality of content area reading.”

While it’s heartening to see these standards helping to improve history and science instruction, my hope is that this is just the early implementers’ first step. Over time, far more could be accomplished with a systemic, K–12 examination of the history, geography, science, art, and music content being taught. In the long term, the goal should not be leveling the playing field for students with less knowledge—it should be developing a curriculum that ensures that all students have the broad knowledge they need.

Ideally, content-area topics should be planned out grade by grade so as to systematically broaden and deepen students’ knowledge and vocabulary. This is clearly seen in the human-body example provided in the standards: “Taking care of your body: Overview (hygiene, diet, exercise, rest)” in Kindergarten leads to “Germs, diseases, and preventing illness” in first grade. Likewise, an introduction to the body’s systems in first grade leads to the digestive and excretory, muscular, skeletal, and nervous systems in second and third grade, then the circulatory, respiratory, and endocrine systems in fourth and fifth grade. Content in history, geography, science, music, and the arts needs to be mapped out like this, grade by grade, in order for students’ knowledge, vocabulary, and literacy to build.

Take Kenton County, for example. Educators there know that curricular changes are essential to implementation of the standards. For middle and high schools, they are customizing the College Board’s SpringBoard program, but “at the elementary level, multiple textbooks are in use across schools and the elementary curriculum map does not reference specific texts or materials.” As a result, middle-school teachers will have to compensate for great variation in students’ preparation, and students who switch elementary schools will have gaps and repetitions in their learning. Kenton County’s secondary teachers are seeing firsthand the difference a district-wide curriculum can make, and their elementary teachers report a desire to be able to collaborate across schools. So here’s an idea for taking another step toward full implementation: elementary- and middle-school teachers could work together to specify the academic knowledge, vocabulary and skills children need upon entry to middle school. With firm targets for each subject (history, geography, science, music, and the arts, in addition to ELA and math), the elementary teachers could then map out a grade-by-grade, content-rich, district-wide curriculum. That would make Kenton County not just an early implementer but also truly an early leader.

To see how Washoe County is already taking this sort of early lead, see this companion post by Aaron Grossman, a teacher-leader helping Washoe schools rethink their approach to building knowledge and literacy.

Lisa Hansel is the communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Previously, she was the editor of American Educator.

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