Common Core State Standards, the initiative of National Governors Association and State Education Chiefs, have been adopted by 44 states. They are the new hot topic in American education, perhaps as important in shaping what happens in America's classrooms as No Child Left Behind. Some interpretations of the Common Core State Standards seem to call for yet another assault on teachers and their current practices. Here's why we should stop blaming teachers and ask politicians and parents to step up to the plate.
Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are supposed to clearly communicate what is expected of students at each grade level, allowing teachers to better serve students. Some say they put everybody on the same page, working together on shared goals to ensure that students make progress each year and graduate from high school, college- and career-ready. At each grade level, all students are expected to master a rigorous curriculum.
CCSS Direct Teachers to Teach Reading from Harder Texts
What is new in Common Core State Standards is that all children at any grade level are expected to read and comprehend difficult books. There's a new focus on "text complexity" at each grade level. One person highlighting this issue very pointedly is Dr. Tim Shanahan, a reading researcher who is Chair of the National Early Literacy Panel, Past President of the International Reading Association, Member of the National Reading Panel, and Coordinator of Graduate Programs in Reading, Writing, and Literacy at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He says that "Reading educators going back to the 1930s . . . have championed the idea of there being an instructional level (for reading)." Dr. Shanahan goes on to list the basic premises of a model called "guided reading," which is currently widely practiced in American schools, but according to Dr. Shanahan, not well supported by research.
The Guided Reading Model
(Reading practitioners who read this post will recognize this model as practices promoted by renowned reading professors, Dr. Irene Fountas and Dr. Gay Su Pinnell.)
- Children learn to read by reading.
- The teacher matches kids with "just right" books at each child's instructional level.
- The teacher provides guidance and support.
- Complex texts at a child's "frustration level" are avoided.
- Use of lower-level reading resources is encouraged.
According to Dr. Shanahan, the CCSS call for complex texts runs counter to current practice. He argues that the following practices (but not guided reading) are supported by research.
Basic Common Core Principles
Here's What CCSS-Recommended Harder Texts Look Like
To demonstrate what complex texts might look like at different grade levels, let's contrast two texts that CCSS might deem appropriate for fourth versus fifth graders, and suited for developing college- and career-ready readers: Beezus and Ramona for fourth grade and The Great Fire for fifth grade.
Beezus and Ramona is the enduring 1955 classic about Beatrice and the antics of her annoying younger sister, Ramona. In contrast, The Great Fire by Jim Murphy, a historically accurate compilation of eyewitness accounts of the great Chicago fire of 1871, is a harder and more complex text suitable for fifth grade.
Beezus and Ramona is executed in a clear-cut, step-by-step story plot sequence, along with information and experience familiar to any fourth grader. It's very concrete. The Great Fire requires more abstract thinking and reflection. The reader must shift back and forth surveying informational text from many complex perspectives. Deductive thinking is required in the last chapter, where fifth graders move from general to specific reasoning to determine whether it was the cow, the vagrants, or the drunk firemen who caused the great fire that burned Chicago and left over 100,000 people homeless. There is no simple right or wrong answer. In that last chapter, the reader must draw his or her own conclusion.
The CCSS notion of text complexity makes sense. It's clear that text complexity in these respective texts requires different levels of thinking. Beginning fourth graders who read Beezus and Ramona are likely comprehending based on thinking limited to concrete phenomena and their own past experiences. The story is full of referents to the fourth grader's real life: sibling rivalry, a pesky younger sibling, sibling love. In contrast, The Great Fire, a story of triumph of the human spirit, is much more complex–an intricately crafted story that requires abstract thinking.
The CCSS model suggests that even though these texts may not be on a child's "instructional level" for reading, they should still be taught at the respective grade levels. Dr. Shanahan and some other reading experts seem to be saying that teachers need to shift their focus–no more guided reading in "just-right books." Their solution is to have teachers shift gears and teach from complex text by offering more "scaffolding" and support. In our American schools, where 4 out of 10 eight-year-olds read below grade level, these texts would still be taught, even though many kids are not ready for success with them. It's the teacher's burden, according to some experts, to scaffold and support to make these texts work. It seems to me that the simple solution–placing the burden on the teacher to teach out of harder text–is unrealistic and not very congenial to teachers.
While some adjustments may need to be made in the guided reading model, based on research, I think there is a better solution than correcting guided reading and having teachers alone bear the burden of teaching struggling readers from harder texts.
A Better Solution–Two Big Ideas
Comprehending complex texts that lead to college- and career-level readiness at any grade level requires that most children enter that grade reading proficiently. Currently, about 40 percent of eight-year-olds in America don't meet this requirement. That's a huge problem for reading teachers. If you are a third grade, fourth grade, or fifth grade teacher and you have many students who lack the skills to be successful at your grade level, you have to spend a lot of time helping struggling readers catch up. It's difficult to scaffold and support these students in difficult text. So why don't we look for some answers that ensure more kids enter a grade level ready for success with complex text? If we consider how the brain works for reading, there are two big ideas that continually receive short shrift that can prepare more students for success: spelling instruction in elementary school and baby/toddler reading.
I have written about both of these challenges. The first Big Idea is to re-emphasize spelling. New groundbreaking technology is making it clear that spelling knowledge is foundational for how the brain circuitry functions for reading. It is also clear that spelling in American education has been given short shrift. We need a spelling book in each child's backpack. (For more, see No Spelling Book in Your Child's Book Bag Spells Trouble Ahead.)
The second Big Idea is to promote baby/toddler reading, with the parent or preschool caregiver being the child's first reading teacher. Birth to age four is a critical period of brain development, when the brain circuitry is developing at such a stunning rate that toddlers can pick up reading as easily as they can pick up language. A huge focus on baby/toddler reading and preschool education would ensure that all kids enter kindergarten on an equal footing ready for success with reading. (For more, see Can Babies Really Read? What Parents Should Know!.)
So here's the rub. If politicians such as the governors, who gave us the Common Core Standards, or the politicians in Washington, who gave us No Child Left Behind, require teachers to teach children from complex texts, I say fine. But make it possible for teachers to work with children who come to them ready to read complex texts at their grade level. How can politicians help? Fund preschool. Provide funds for spelling textbooks. Instead of building more prisons or entering more wars, fund universal preschools where children joyfully learn to write their names and are introduced to books before entering kindergarten. Invest in parent education programs so that parents know what's expected and how to take more responsibility as the child's first teacher. And when schools what to adopt spelling texts, fund them.
Politicians and Parents Should Do Their Part
The top level of education in America where our students are college- and career-ready for the 21st century is like a giant skyscraper–everyone wants the view from the top. Kids can hop on the education elevator and race all the way up, but not unless the elevator door is open to them. Too many poor and disadvantaged kids get closed out even before they enter kindergarten. When they come to kindergarten, the elevator door is already shut. They are already behind and they have to take the stairs. On the way up, crucial materials such as spelling books are not funded. And teachers are suffering because they have to carry too many of these kids up those stairs on their backs. Baby/toddler reading and elementary spelling instruction along with common core standards can pry open those elevator doors.
Reading instruction needs to begin at birth-informally, joyfully, and lovingly by the first reading teacher, the parent. It's not the teacher's fault that kids come to them not ready for success with reading. And it's not the teacher's fault that it's hard to get students reading complex text at their grade level when students come to them as struggling readers.
It's hypocritical for politicians and parents to criticize teachers and expect teachers to teach from complex texts when they haven't funded preschools and spelling textbooks or supported teachers.
(Dr. Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write--from Baby to Age 7. Available on Amazon.com. Follow Dr. Gentry on Facebook and on Twitter. Sign up for my newsletter at www.jrichardgentry.com. Form at bottom of homepage.)