Common Core Watch

Editor’s note: This article concludes our series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom, which provides in-depth reviews of promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms.

As described in our prior post, iCivics Drafting Board is an online essay-building tool for teachers seeking to help their pupils learn to write argumentative essays while exposing them to core civics and social-studies content. As with any online resource, however, it has both strengths and shortcomings.

What are iCivics Drafting Board’s greatest strengths?

Drafting Board is a unique online resource for improving students’ core literacy skills—namely, teaching them how to construct effective argumentative essays that are supported by evidence and reasoning. A major strength is its clear and simple breakdown of the writing process. The site’s use of user-friendly “game-like” graphics and instructions helps students at all levels to formulate ideas, organize arguments, and defend conclusions, while making the multistep writing process interactive and approachable (for example, text is supported through a glossary of potentially unfamiliar terms, such as “candidate,” “campaigns,” and “special interest groups”). Such embedded supports may be especially helpful for struggling students who are intimidated by long essays. Differentiating the level of...

Editor’s note: This article is part of the series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom, which provides in-depth reviews of promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms.

We are keenly aware of the challenge in encouraging teachers to work on writing instruction in subject areas other than English language arts (after all, one of us is curriculum director for a midsized K–12 school district). First, teachers need to appreciate that writing well is essential to the study of any subject. Then we must help teachers recognize that their pupils need strategies for learning how to write well within specific subject areas. Absent such strategies, students may be assigned writing yet not know how to get better at it.

Fortunately, tools such as iCivics Drafting Board can help with writing instruction across subjects, particularly when it comes to the important “argumentative essay.” If you teach social studies at the secondary level, we find Drafting Board well worth a look.

What is iCivics Drafting Board?

Founded by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to enhance civics education across the nation, iCivics is a website that has grown from...

Editor's note: This article was first published on June 18, 2015. It was last updated on November 23, 2016, when President-elect Donald Trump named Betsy DeVos as his pick for education secretary. Read similar posts for her and Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

President-elect Donald Trump addressed many of today’s biggest education policy issues while he was campaigning. But he’s also been talking about a number of these topics for more than a decade. For example, in The America We Deserve, published in 2000, he wrote about citizenship education, teachers unions, and school safety. And ten years later, in Think Like a Champion, he touched on American history and comprehensive education.

On Wednesday, November 23, President-elect Trump picked Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education, a Michigan philanthropist and education activist who has chaired the state's Republican party and helped advance a number of education reforms, such as the expansion of private-school choice and the passage of Michigan’s charter school law.

In his own words, here are some of Donald Trump's thoughts on education, with recent quotes first:

1. School choice: “As president, I will establish the national goal of providing school choice to...

Editor’s note: This article is part of the series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom, which provides in-depth reviews of promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms.

As described in our prior post, Liquid Interactive’s Writelike is designed to strengthen a writer’s craft through analysis, writing exercises, and emulation of master authors. How does this design translate into strengths and weaknesses for the user?

What are Writelike’s most notable strengths?

Writelike’s greatest strength is the creative way in which it exposes students to numerous authentic literary excerpts and strong texts that they can read and emulate. The interactive exercises are fun and will likely keep students engaged, while helping to improve important writing skills such as writing in different styles, rearranging sentences into the correct order, and proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar (grammatical elements notably get more sophisticated treatment than in typical grammar texts: fragments are handled in a category amusingly entitled “four and a half types of sentences,” for example).

The activities themselves are also user-friendly. Exercises and drills allow users to check their answers instantly as they progress, and the site also offers ongoing assistance for students...

Editor’s note: This article is part of the series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom, which provides in-depth reviews of promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms.

It may not be a word in Webster’s, but Writelike ought to be, at least according to those of us who have an interest in helping our students become excellent writers. Many lament the decline of writing from “the good ole’ days” and claim that our students can’t write the way that Americans used to write. Fortunately, Writelike—which aims to improve higher-order literacy—offers an excellent solution through careful analysis of the masters and re-creation of their stylistic traits. Best of all, much of what Writelike accomplishes is so user-friendly and game-like that students could be trapped into learning before they even realize it.

What is Writelike?

Developed by Liquid Interactive with a target audience of middle school students and their teachers, Writelike meets a modern need to challenge writers into new ways of developing their craft, in this case by emulating great writers of centuries past and current. The site includes exercises, drills, lessons, and courses that are all graduated in...

Tabitha Pacheco

Editor’s note: This article is part of the series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom, which provides in-depth reviews of promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms.

All curricula and supplemental tools have their pros and cons. In ThinkCERCA’s case, there are far more of the former than the latter (see my first post here for a description of ThinkCERCA).

Advantages

One of the greatest strengths of this tool is the power it gives teachers to customize a student’s learning based on her abilities. All students are administered an initial leveling assessment to confirm their reading level (below, at grade, or above grade level). The program then generates custom reading passages for each student, based on his or her abilities, for use in the applied reading and writing tasks. This is a huge help to teachers because it saves them hours of time in administering reading-placement assessments and finding authentic leveled-reading material for each student. In addition to establishing a reading baseline, ThinkCERCA provides students with a baseline writing assessment, too—the results of which can be used to customize the ThinkCERCA rubrics used to grade all written work.

Another advantage...

Tabitha Pacheco

Editor’s note: This article is part of the series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom, which provides in-depth reviews of promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms

Helping students become effective writers is a challenging task; teaching students to write persuasive argumentative essays can be downright daunting. ThinkCERCA is an English language arts (ELA) curriculum designed to meet the ELA Common Core State Standards, specifically those pertaining to language, listening and speaking, reading, and writing. It is described as a “personalized literacy platform” that emphasizes close reading and writing argumentative essays. For the uninitiated, close reading is defined as follows:

Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole (see...

Like most of you, I am in shock and more than a little worried. I can’t pretend to be a neutral policy analyst today; I made my deep concerns known about a Donald Trump presidency, and they haven’t gone away. His thin-skinned temperament, his bullying tendencies, his scapegoating of Mexican-Americans and Muslim-Americans, his misogyny,  his support from white nationalists, Breitbart and Vladimir Putin, his impulsive attacks on free speech and our allies around the world—none of that has evaporated in the light of day.

But as I told my young boys this morning, America will persevere. The nation will endure. We will support our president and give him a chance to show true leadership—to bring us together, as he promised in the wee hours last night. The emergence of a “unified” government means a possible end to gridlock and futility. We will trust—but we will also verify. If President Trump attacks our Constitution, or our fellow citizens, or our allies, we will push back. We will use the tools of our democracy—our independent media, our institutions of civil society—to resist when necessary. We will be OK.

As for what happened yesterday, we should be careful in how we interpret the...

Mike Pence was elected Vice President of the United States on November 9, 2016, alongside President-elect Donald Trump. Here are his views on education.

1. Charter schools: “We want to eliminate low income and location as barriers to receiving a quality education, and public charter schools are an essential element of achieving that objective.” July 2015.

2. Vouchers: “This is a school that has greatly benefited by our educational voucher program, opening doors of opportunity to kids that might not otherwise be able to enjoy the kind of education they have here. We've increased our investment in our traditional public schools, we've raised the foundation under our charter schools, and we've lifted the cap on our voucher program." (Said while visiting St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School.) May 2015.

3. School accountability: “We grade our children every week, and we can grade our schools every year, but those grades should fairly reflect the efforts of our students and teachers as we transition to higher standards and a new exam.” October 2015.

4. Indiana’s abandonment of the Common Core: “I believe when we reach the end of this process there are going to be many other states around the...

Ruth Wattenberg

It’s now a fairly well established fact that under No Child Left Behind, and to some extent during the years leading up to it, instructional time spent on reading in schools grew—at the expense of social studies and science (and probably the arts).

There was a certain logic at work. In most states, accountability was based mainly on reading and math tests—not science, history or geography tests. And the reading standards on which the tests were based were typically free of subject-matter content—focusing instead on such generic reading “skills” as syntax, finding the main idea, and identifying author’s point of view. From the perspective of teachers and administrators, focusing precious instructional time on these generic reading comprehension skills rather than the subject matter would seem to make sense.

Unfortunately, as anyone who is familiar with E.D. Hirsch’s work knows, this approach is counterproductive because reading comprehension depends hugely on the background knowledge that the reader brings to the text. Knowledge builds vocabulary, and when the reader doesn’t understand the words in a text, comprehension suffers. More broadly, background knowledge lets us tap into our existing knowledge to make sense of the words we read. To use an example...

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