Reading and writing with the Common Core

According to this report from the Center for American Progress, high school seniors are more likely to read young adult staples like The Fault in Our Stars and Divergent than Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Hamlet. As surprises go, this is roughly the equivalent of learning that Americans choose beer and chicken wings over quinoa and kale smoothies. The trouble is that this lightweight fare (the inevitable result of student self-selection) leaves students ill-prepared for the rigors of college reading.

There is “a stark gap between the complexity of texts that high school students are reading and of those that they will confront in college and their careers,” notes Melissa Lazarin, the report’s author and a CAP senior policy advisor. “Students reading at the average level of high school texts…may be comfortable with as little as 5 percent of university-level texts and with only one-quarter of the texts that they would encounter in the military or the workplace.” Common Core was supposed to help close these gaps, so what’s happening? The new standards are giving students “regular practice with complex and grade-level appropriate texts, using more informational texts, and practicing more evidence-based writing,” she observes. They are also “influencing the way teachers approach instruction.” But despite these encouraging signs, Common Core implementation is still a long way from fulfilling the standards’ promise.

The report recommends that state and district leaders 1) push ahead with the Common Core standards and aligned assessments; 2) strengthen training supports for prospective and current teachers, including teachers of other subjects; and 3) ensure that teachers have access to and use high-quality curricular materials and tools aligned to the Common Core. There’s nothing wrong with any of those recommendations, particularly the third one. That said, Lazarin seems not to have considered another, more sobering possibility: that Common Core simply exposes the limits of some number of teachers expected to teach to the higher standards, for which no amount of “professional development” can compensate.

The CAP report is hit-or-miss when discussing teaching practices that Common Core either encourages or has failed to dislodge, such as assigning texts to students based on their “instructional reading level” instead of their grade level (I’ve written about the “literacy myth” of leveled reading here). “Research on early implementation of the standards indicates that teachers are still warming to the idea of using grade-level texts. This is especially true of elementary teachers and teachers of high-poverty students and ELLs,” she notes. The report stumbles in its insistence that “reading informational and literary texts requires distinct comprehension skills for each.” It’s hard not to read that as tacitly encouraging teachers to focus on the kind of content-agnostic “skills and strategies” approach to reading comprehension that has set reading achievement back for decades—particularly among the most vulnerable students.

Similarly, the report could be a little stronger in discussing the need to build background knowledge across the curriculum. “Teachers of math, science, history, and other technical subjects are expected to play a significant role in building content knowledge through reading of informational texts,” the authors note. That’s kinda, sorta true. Non-ELA teachers have always contributed to literacy, since a broad, well-rounded education is a main driver of broad reading ability. Thus, it’s not quite accurate to say that “supporting students’ literacy development is mostly a new role for non-ELA teachers.” Every teacher in every subject who contributes to a well-rounded education is a de facto literacy teacher. While reading complex and grade-appropriate texts across the curriculum is to be encouraged, I’d worry if the takeaway for schools is to make teachers of every subject—science, social studies, the arts, etc.—into reading teachers first.

Knowledge is literacy. This is a lesson that we learned the hard way in the NCLB years by narrowing curriculum to reading, math, and not much else—and which Common Core, for all its faults, is supposed to correct.

SOURCE: Melissa Lazarín, “Reading, Writing, and the Common Core State Standards,” Center for American Progress (August 2016).

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.