A version of this post originally appeared on the Shanker Institute blog.

Up until now, the Common Core (CCSS) English language arts (ELA) standards were considered path-breaking mostly because of their reach: This wasn’t the first time a group attempted to write “common” standards, but it is the first time they’ve gained such traction. But the Common Core ELA standards are revolutionary for another, less talked about, reason: They define rigor in reading and literature classrooms more clearly and explicitly than nearly any of the state ELA standards that they are replacing. Now, as the full impact of these expectations  starts to take hold, the decision to define rigor—and the way it is defined—is fanning the flames of a debate that threatens to open up a whole new front in America’s long-running “Reading Wars.”

Game of Risk
A new front opens on a war worth waging. 
Photo by Ben Stephenson.

The first and most divisive front in that conflict was the debate over the importance of phonics in early-reading instruction. Thanks to the 2000 recommendations of the National Reading Panel and the 2001 “Reading First” portion of No Child Left Behind, the phonics camp has largely won this battle. Now, while there remain curricula that may marginalize phonics and phonemic awareness, we see few if any that ignore these elements completely.

But the debate over phonics is limited to the early grades. There remain important divisions over how best to devise curricula and teach literature in the years that follow, and minimizing (or papering over) these divisions has been central to most standards-setting efforts. After all, the “grand compromise” of standards-driven reform has always been: States get to define what students should know and be able to do at each grade, but teachers retain the flexibility and autonomy to decide how best to assist all of their pupils to reach those goals. And standards-setters have been loath to provide too much guidance to curriculum developers, particularly in ELA.

Common Core is no different in that regard. Page six of the CCSS ELA standards states:

The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach…

Yet in a field like this, where the content is ill-defined and its substance changing—sometimes dramatically—from early elementary to high school, where is the line drawn between the “what” and the “how”?

Most state-level ELA standards have defined the “what” as the skills and behaviors that great readers share. These expectations have therefore described only very broadly what students should actually be able to do, and they’ve only hinted at how teachers should define content and rigor at each grade level.

Sounds marvelously adaptable, yes, but the actual result was that most state ELA standards were vague and virtually meaningless directives that led to the kind of low-level reading assessments and “teach to the test” preoccupation that has plagued far too many classrooms for the past decade.

Enter the Common Core.

Like the state ELA standards that preceded them, the CCSS describe the skills and behaviors that great readers and writers exhibit at each grade level. But, in an effort to define the rigor more clearly than their predecessors, the Common Core standards specify that the sophistication of what students read is as important as the skills they master from grade to grade. To that end, Standard 10 clearly asks that all students be exposed to and asked to analyze grade-appropriate texts, with scaffolding as necessary.

No one likes war, but this is an important fight that’s worth having. And it’s one that has been put off for too long.

This seemingly innocuous directive—to read appropriately complex texts and to use scaffolding to help struggling students understand what they’ve read—is perhaps the most revolutionary element of the Common Core standards. For the first time, the standards guiding curriculum and instruction in forty-six states plus D.C. clearly define what it means for an ELA curriculum to be aligned to the level of rigor necessary to prepare students for college and beyond.

But this clarity means picking sides. There have long been two very different schools of thought about the best way to organize curriculum and instruction in literature. On one side are those who believe that reading comprehension will improve if teachers assess students’ individual reading levels and give them a bevy of “just right” books that will challenge them just enough to nudge them to read slightly more challenging texts. Yes, teachers do provide some guidance and instruction, but that instruction is limited. In essence, the book choice is leveled to meet the student where he or she is; the “heavy lifting” of reading is placed squarely on the students’ shoulders.

On the other side are those who believe that reading comprehension improves as domain-specific content knowledge deepens and students are exposed to increasingly complex literature and nonfiction texts. Here the role of the teacher is more pronounced, and instruction more explicit. The instruction, not the text, is scaffolded to meet the students where they are.

Until now, the vagueness of state standards allowed teachers to decide where their instruction would fall, and to choose between programs like “Great Books” or “Junior Great Books,” which put the emphasis on reading and analyzing rich and complex literature, or programs like the Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop or Heinemann’s Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy System, which focus on assessing students’ reading levels and assigning “just right” books for them to read.

If you are to take the Common Core at its word—that the sophistication of the text is equally as important as the skills that students master—then it will be increasingly difficult for publishers of curricula that focus on matching books to readers, rather than scaffolding instruction to meet their needs, to claim that their materials are truly aligned with the new standards. It’s a sweeping change that holds enormous promise for improving the quality of ELA curriculum in America’s classrooms.

This is also a debate that, until now, has mostly been waged in classrooms and among curriculum developers, outside the scope of state standards and below the radar of the national press. But with the specific guidance in the Common Core state ELA standards, the critical question of how to define rigor in an ELA classroom now has front lines in all but four jurisdictions. And while some believe that, by wading into this debate, the Common Core has violated the principles of the “grand compromise” of standards-driven reform, others believe that this guidance gives these standards more clarity and purpose than teachers have had for years.

No one likes war, but this is an important fight that’s worth having. And it’s one that has been put off for too long.

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