Common Core Watch

Shannon Garrison

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

We know the importance of students developing strong reading comprehension skills. Students need to be able to read and understand a variety of complex texts in order to be successful – in school, in their careers, and in life.

As a teacher, I am always looking for new and better ways to engage my students in reading. One recent find worth sharing is ReadWorks. This site provides teachers with passages, paired texts, text sets, lessons, comprehension units, and novel study units, all at no charge to the user. The materials are research-based, come from reputable sources, and are classroom ready.

ReadWorks Overview

ReadWorks is an education website that provides teachers with online, research-based units, lessons, and nonfiction and literary passages to help develop and strengthen student reading comprehension. As its website says, “ReadWorks is committed to solving the nation's reading comprehension crisis by giving teachers the research-proven tools and support they need to improve the academic achievement of their students.”



New York has become the latest Common Core state to issue rewritten learning guidelines aimed at mollifying critics of the standards. The state’s move seems to follow a familiar pattern: officials promise a “major departure” from the controversial standards while actually changing very little. Like marketers re-launching an unpopular laundry detergent with the words, “New and Improved!” the underlying standards remain largely intact, get rebranded with the state’s name (and without the words “common” or “core”), and voila!

At first glance, this would appear to be precisely the case with the “New York State P-12 English Language Arts and Mathematics Learning Standards,” which were unveiled for public comment last week. Many of the changes in the “new and improved” learning standards were “tweaks to language, or clarifying examples,” noted The New York Times, wise to the game. “But the broad concepts that students were expected to master in math and English from prekindergarten through the twelfth grade were left unchanged.”

But the devil is in the details. On closer examination, what New York has done is roughly akin to leaving a bathtub intact with all the water inside, but subtly dislodging the drain plug—a minor shift...


In May, a new organization called Learning Heroes released a survey with a startling finding: 90 percent of parents believe that their children are performing at “grade level” or higher in their schoolwork. Setting aside the debate over what “grade level” even means, by any reasonable definition many of these parents, if they are being frank with the pollsters and themselves, are sorely misinformed. In fact, only about a third of U.S. teenagers leave high school ready for credit-bearing college courses.

Providing a more honest assessment of student performance was one of the goals of the Common Core initiative and the new tests created and adopted by states meant to align to the new, higher standards. Those tests are much tougher than they used to be, with failure rates in many states approaching those reported on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Yet on the heels of their first administration in most states in the spring of 2015, and the reporting of results in the months following, parents seem to be as ill-informed as ever. (The 2016 Education Next poll indicates that lower proficiency rates haven’t shaken parents’ view that their schools deserve As and Bs, either.) Why...

Shannon Garrison

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

Newsela text sets

Although Newsela’s news articles and resource library are in high demand with educators struggling to meet the Common Core’s recommended balance of fiction and nonfiction texts, perhaps Newsela’s most distinctive feature is its text sets: collections of articles that focus on a similar topic, theme, or standard. This can be an effective way to build students’ background knowledge and vocabulary, which are both linked to increased reading comprehension (for more on text sets and their use, see here).

Newsela’s free text sets consist of articles, primary documents, and biographies focused on a specific topic. The site includes featured text sets, text sets for specific subjects, and paired texts, among other resources. The site allows teachers to save text sets, edit text sets by either adding or deleting articles, and create their own text sets by selecting from Newsela’s library of articles, biographies, speeches, and historical documents.

Teachers new to this instructional strategy can find a text set “toolkit” in...

Shannon Garrison

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

With the transition to the Common Core, one of the biggest challenges teachers face is finding high-quality, relevant, nonfiction texts. Many of the traditional reading programs do not have the balance of fiction and nonfiction for which the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) call, and as a result, a lot of teachers struggle to find the resources they need to effectively prepare students.

As a teacher, I have spent countless hours trying to find appropriate nonfiction texts that I can use with a classroom of diverse learners. I have struggled to find engaging articles that could be read by my English-language learners and still challenge those students who are reading above grade level. Thankfully, last year, I found Newsela.

Newsela overview is an education website focused on building student reading comprehension by providing high-quality news articles and real-time assessments for students in grades 2–12. The site offers both a free version and a more extensive paid version called Newsela PRO. As many...

Shannon Garrison

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

The shift to the Common Core State Standards has ushered in a renewed focus on effective instructional techniques for reading instruction. As Common Core’s reading standards state, “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.” In this vein, teachers are seeking how best to engage their students in text analysis, ways to develop and utilize text-dependent questions and methods for integrating more complex texts, and for other effective strategies to strengthen students’ reading comprehension.

One promising instructional strategy, developed based on reading-comprehension research showing the importance of background knowledge and vocabulary, is text sets. Text sets are collections of texts tightly focused on a specific topic. They may include varied genres (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and so forth) and media (such as blogs, maps, photographs, art, primary-source documents, and audio recordings).

Text sets can be organized in many different ways. Although all high-quality text...


As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been a long-time, energetic, enthusiastic defender of the Common Core standards. That’s because those of us at the Fordham Institute believe these academic standards to be much stronger, in a variety of ways, than what preceded them in most states. They aren’t perfect, but they represent an ambitious, good-faith effort to identify the knowledge and skills kids need in order to be on track—from kindergarten through high school—for college and/or a remunerative career. And when it comes to math, the standards in the early grades are particularly strong, focused as they are on basic arithmetic and “math facts.”

That said, certain elements of the standards have been driving parents crazy.

So it was probably only a matter of time until my karma caught up with me. And so it happened the other day: My third-grader came home from his (Common Core-teaching) public school and asked, with eight-year-old exasperation, “Why do I have to explain my answer in math class? I just know it.”

I decided to turn to the Google gods for an answer—a suggestion of a script I might use to help him understand why it’s important to...


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

Many years after the adoption of new academic standards in most states, frustrated teachers and administrators across the country still decry the dearth of Common Core-aligned curricular materials. One survey conducted by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) in 2014 found that 90 percent of surveyed districts reported having major or minor problems finding such resources. More recent studies conducted by Morgan Polikoff and Bill Schmidt also conclude that the majority of textbooks marketed as being aligned with Common Core actually have “substantial alignment problems.”

In response to this persistent lack of high-quality, standards-aligned materials, organizations such as EdReports and agencies like the Louisiana Department of Education have begun providing educators with free, independent reviews of curricular resources. Other groups have developed rubrics and evaluation tools intended to help state, district, and school leaders vet the quality and alignment of textbooks, units, and lesson plans (including EQuIPIMET, and Student Achievement Partners’ “Publishers’ Criteria”). Even Amazon has entered the curricular...


Much like the typical American fourth grader, education news tends go on a ten-week vacation each June after a year of intermittently joyous, raucous, and bizarre happenings. While parents take their precious ones to Disneyland, education commentators—who have spent months poring over testing data and marveling at the intricacies of “supplement, not supplant” language—unwind with a Moscow Mule and a sheaf of white papers.

But Fordham hasn’t gone anywhere. We’ve stoically kept off the beaches and chronicled the important developments in education politics and policy. And to ward off the summer slide, we’ve compiled a list of the ten biggest ones.

10.) Education reformers find common ground

This one actually kicked off at the end of last school year, when our own Robert Pondiscio wrote a scalding philippic against the perceived encroachments of progressive politics into the reform movement. The reform Left didn’t take kindly to the piece, arguing that any mention of education would be incomplete without addressing issues of race, class, and social equity. With the conversation threatening to devolve into a Hobbesian war of wonk against wonk, Fordham leapt into the fray to convene a roundtable on points of concordance across the political spectrum....


The Fordham Institute’s new report, High Stakes for High Achievers: State Accountability in the Age of ESSA, examines whether states' current or planned accountability systems for elementary and middle schools attend to the needs of high-achieving students, as well as how these systems might be redesigned under the Every Student Succeeds Act to better serve all students. It finds that the overwhelming majority of states provide schools with few incentives to focus on their high-achieving students. This is a problem.

Accountability has been a central theme of education reform for almost two decades, driven by the unchallenged central finding of James Coleman’s seminal 1966 study: Although some interventions are demonstrably more effective than others, there’s no direct link between what goes into a school by way of resources and what comes out by way of student learning. Sage policy makers have recognized that trying to micromanage school and district “inputs” is a waste of time. Instead, the prudent course is to (a) clearly state the results that educational institutions ought to produce, (b) assess how satisfactorily those results are being achieved, and then (c) hold schools and school systems to account, with rewards of various sorts for success and...