Pros and Cons of Common Core Reading


My district is in the process of transitioning into the Common Core. I've noticed that in reading, ome teachers are excited. Others are worried that they won't be able to do as many poems or narratives. I have mixed feelings about it. Here are my thoughts on some of the pros and cons of the Common Core.

Pros

  • Social studies and science now play a more prominent role in literacy. To me, that's a step in the right direction, because they help build the background knowledge for additional reading.
  • The standards themselves are holistic. They include media literacy (which is often neglected) and they also include fictional texts and poetry. In other words, they reach most genres of writing.
  • When I look at the standards, there is a push away from some of the basic, repetitive skills and a push toward critical thinking. I see less "identify" and more "evaluate and analyze." 
  • Common standards will make it easier for students who move from state to state. That makes a big difference in some of the transient populations. 
  • I look forward to the chance to collaborate with teachers throughout my PLN. Right now, we have to tie things in to our own standards. However, with Common Core, I feel like we can create a common curriculum and do shared projects across the country.

Cons

  • I fear that we are moving away from a holistic concept of being literate. I know that the standards still include creative writing and fiction. However, I'm bothered by David Coleman's pejorative words about emotions, fiction and imagination (and the misguided notion that none of those are valuable to the corporate world) 
  • I'm always concerned when the local context is neglected. I worry that in the push toward a more federalized system, we will lose the local control that schools should have (especially given the fact that schools are almost entirely locally funded). 
  • I'm concerned that social studies and science will become additional reading classes. While I love the fact that they are now included, I worry that Socratic seminars, mock trials and debates might all be considered superfluous in the future.
  • The adoption process bothers me. They were forced through politically as a bailout of the unrealistic No Child Left Behind. And, while the standards tend to be good, they relied more on "experts" and wealthy business people rather than asking for input from educators. 
  • The language is overly technical. I understand the need for precision. I'm not entirely opposed to professional jargon. However, the framers of Common Core used so many unnecessary clauses and packed it full of so much argot that certain standards become unintelligible at first sight. Why not write standards so that parents and students can understand them?
  • I'm concerned with the push toward "college and career readiness." What about critical thinking, democratic citizen readiness? What about learning to think well about life? 
Final Thought:
I don't think the standards are all that different in reading and writing (though they are in math). Some of them ask for more text evidence or critical thinking. However, isn't that what good teachers do anyway? Thus, while I see some pros and cons to the standards, I really don't think they will lead to a seismic shift in how we teach our content.
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John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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34 comments:

  1. Excellent, thoughtful response.

    We share many of the same views and you might enjoy my recent blog/book-response!

    http://www.creatingcreativeclasses.com/blog-the-creative-classroom.html

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  2. John, I think that there is a grave concern by the folks behind these standards that most teachers will say exactly what you just said: that drastic changes in teaching practice and coverage are unnecessary. The Core is presented as a 'seismic shift,' not a tweak of existing ways of doing things.

    #justsaying

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    1. Do you think the Common Core Standards are a seismic shift? When I look at them, they seem to be the same skills and concepts as before, just with a slight addition of digital media and more critical thinking. I do think they increase rigor, but that's what good teachers have already been doing?

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  3. I think they're meant to be - and presented as - a shift toward bigger (and fewer) ideas, away from lower-level thinking factual recall and procedural knowledge work. I'm not an ELA or math teacher, so I'll leave the judgment of whether they're a true move up the ladder of cognitive complexity to others with more content expertise. I do know that there's a lot of concern that teachers are just going to keep doing what they're doing now but give it new labels (much like the publishers will).

    You say 'that's what good teachers have already been doing' and yet I think most teachers, even those that traditionally are thought of as 'good,' are doing a tremendous amount of lower-level thinking work with students.

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    1. "You say 'that's what good teachers have already been doing' and yet I think most teachers, even those that traditionally are thought of as 'good,' are doing a tremendous amount of lower-level thinking work with students."

      I think that's where you and I disagree to a certain degree. I see teachers pushing for higher-level, critical thinking. I saw that in my observations last year, when I was a coach. Good teachers already taught students to cite text, to do analysis and to push for higher-level thinking. I would say that most teachers didn't push for critical thinking.

      The danger I saw involved the testing culture. Even in tests that were supposed to "push rigor," the format of MC tests almost always pushed toward a lack of connective or systems thinking, a chance to truly cite textual evidence or a student developing a factual argument. MC tests are designed for recall.

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    2. My second thought is that if the framers were worried that teachers wouldn't teach the Common Core Standards as intended, they should have changed their approach from the start. Where was the teacher voice? If teachers had been treated as professionals and brought into the process from the ground-up (rather than having the measure pushed on us from above) we might see a little more excitement about Common Core.

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    3. I agree with you John. I don't think teachers are doing high level analysis or critical thinking. MC tests are all about low level knowledge. How do you assess critical thinking and textual evidence? If students are supporting claims, they need to be able to make those claims and draw their own evidence out. The best we can do is test if the can select how someone could do those things, once again reducing it to the lowest depth of knowledge.

      I am a fan of Common Core, but see the flaws in the roll out and lack of buy in as being a critical error in judgment that may proof to be the main factor that causes its failure.

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    4. And..."draw their own evidence out." I have looked at the "practice" assessments already created (by companies whose ONLY purpose is to increase their bottom line, NOT the best interests of students or they would be bringing in teachers at all levels of this process) they are mostly MC and the very fact that it is MC means the students are not allowed to make their own claims or draw their own evidence out. The writing assessment portions do not look much more clear cut then the current writing assessments we already use and the big factor in play there is how/who/where will the written parts of the assessments be "scored/judged/evaluated."

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  4. I will start by saying I am not an expert on common core and base my comments on my somewhat limited knowledge. I also base this on the conversations I have had with people more versed in the standards and their implementation.

    One of the biggest concerns I have is the intense focus on literacy standards within the science and social science classrooms. While, this is a good thing and I feel as though we need literacy instruction in those classes, I worry about teacher prep. How many of our social science and science teachers have had training on literacy teaching? I hope that training is provided but I feel as though budgets will fall short when that time comes.

    The other comment I wanted to offer was in reply to how this will change what we are doing. The metaphor I was given was people are thinking this is like renovating your bathroom when in reality it will be like knocking down the house and starting over. While that may be a drastic look at it, there might be a shred of truth within. As Scott mentioned, I think a majority of teachers, good and bad, are teaching low level skills. This might be because those are the only skills we value on standardized tests. The common core will have the potential to elevate the level of learning expectations and I am curious to see how teachers will react...the standards that I have looked at in ELA are tremendously more intense than the ones I am currently using. Only time will tell...

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    1. Oddly enough, I found that my training in social studies prepared me for teaching literacy. Part of my BA meant that I studied primary source documents, analyzed text, developed arguments, etc. What I think will be hard is how science and social studies teachers handle students who lack the basic reading skills that the standards assume they know. I struggled with how to deal with a student who couldn't blend and didn't understand phonics.

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    2. Josh, just to piggyback on John's point: Will changing the standards make a difference for the good teachers out there? Will increasing the rigor in the standards fix anything for teachers who are not using critical thinking? I'm just wondering if maybe the issue isn't with the standards, but with pedagogy.

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    3. I think Anonymous has it right: it has more to do with pedagogy than standards. If you're not used to thinking and working with kids in higher-level ways, changes in standards aren't going to all of a sudden alter that.

      John, from what I can see, you're an exceptional teacher, not just what we traditionally have viewed as 'good.' And that can make all the difference. The research is pretty clear that, contrary to what you believe you're seeing locally, the vast majority of what kids do on a day-to-day basis in school is low-level mental work. See, e.g., http://bit.ly/dzRBDV

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    4. My observations were pretty similar to what the research saw. Many teachers taught low-level skills. My thought, though, is that it has to do more with the testing culture than with the teachers themselves. It is a real risk to push critical thinking, constructivist pedagogy or creativity in schools that are obsessed with test scores.

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  5. Anonymous,

    I think you bring up a valuable point. If the standards are elevated to such a high degree as they are being touted, will there be teachers that will get left behind and not be able to hack it? Again, I am not sure...too early to tell.

    John,

    I think you question is really what I was getting at. Will SS/SCI teachers be adequately prepared/trained to fill in that gap for students who have reading difficulties?

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    1. I'm not sure they will. The balance that an social studies teacher brings is the need to read for a purpose and understand functional text. It's the idea of reading to learn rather than learning to read.

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  6. Scott...you are right on. Changing standards will not change the level of teaching in a classroom. It might force people to more training on standards but at the end of the day bad pedagogy will overrule any standards. Yet, good pedagogy can and have prevailed with any standards put in a teacher's hands.

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    1. Agreed. We just need more 'good' pedagogy. In the past 'good pedagogy' has been defined differently than it is being defined now. Helping practitioners (and preparation programs) make that shift is proving to be HUGE.

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    2. Ask ten teachers to define "good teaching pedagogy" and you would get a range of answers...not sure if that is good or bad.

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    3. While I tend to agree with this, I also see a lot of teachers who simply teach to the test. I think the test, and the testing culture that is the result of it, makes a huge difference. Many teachers are simply scared.

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    4. Sad thing is...I don't entirely blame teachers for teaching to the test. Yes, it is nice to pontificate and say it is bad practice. However, in reality, teachers fear for their jobs and in some places that is entirely dependent on test scores.

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    5. Yes, our testing culture makes it harder to move toward something different. No, we weren't living higher up the cognitive complexity ladder before NCLB, AYP, accountability, and our current testing scheme.

      http://dangerouslyirrelevant.org/2009/05/its-not-the-tests-its-us.html

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  7. One of my problems with the Common Core and with this conversation is the lack of understanding of how what students need to learn changes as they grow older. You can decry the lack of critical thinking all you want, but without basic levels of knowledge you won't get any thinking at all. There needs to be an address of learning that basic knowledge in the lower levels.

    As a sixth grade teacher I feel like I am at a pivotal time in the student's career. Students still need at this age to learn basic knowledge and yet they also need to start (or continue) making connections and thinking more about the big picture. Where are the content standards? Do we really expect a student to show up for class with no content knowledge and still be able to connect ideas?

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    1. When you refer to basic knowledge what is that? What would be missing now under Common Core?

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  8. Will,

    Great point...there are basic skills that are needed that predicate critical thinking. My understanding is the common core is based on these learning progressions and build as students get older. My other concern is if a student fails to progress, what do we do? Is our system set up to hold kids back or move them forward as needed or do we still push them based on date of manufacture.

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    1. Josh and Will,
      I think it is a mistake to think that students must have background knowledge before critical thinking. I think both things can happen at once in a cycle rather than a linear: knowledge then thinking.

      For example students could start with a driving question such as "What motivates terrorism?" This would be the first step in critical thinking leading to research of history involving more critical thinking as students work toward an answer. What I don't like about Bloom's is it is usually presented as a linear progression. In reality learning involves many steps at the same time in cycles.

      If all we focus on is background knowledge in elementary school then content can become stale and irrelevant.

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    2. Agreed. See http://bit.ly/zRgNUi

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  9. I have two problems with the standards in general. First of all, is the assessment of them as already mentioned above in other comments. It leads to a narrow curriculum and test prep in the way schools are currently being evaluated. Although many of the standards are more skills based on important skills, they still will be assessed by multiple choice or the new, magic computer graded essays. So I have a hard time seeing those skills being focused on by teachers.

    The second issue I have is that standardization is in opposition to student voice and choice in their learning. It is great for a factory, but not for people. I think this kills motivation, especially for students who have traditionally struggled in schools.

    I believe it was Papert who said that out of the exponentially growing amount of information in the world, we choose less than 1% and decide that every child must know it. How arrogant and narrow-minded on our (there are alot of people in this "our" I know) part.

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    1. I, too, worry about the assessment and about the specificity of the standards. I also worry about student voice and what the standards might be doing to that.

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  11. I know I don't have the popular view, but I like the standards. The shift to more Informational Text is crucial. I would love to hear your comments on this. You guys have some great ideas and discussions that need to happen. Share your thoughts:

    http://www.rozlinder.com/drop-the-canon-and-step-away-from-the-students/

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    1. I agree that the shift to more Informational Text is a good thing. But, am concerned some schools, districts, or teachers may drift far to the Informational Text side and abandon the critical fictional side. And I feel both are equally as important, if for different purposes. Our kids are vastly underserved in being literate in Informational Texts, for the most part. And the push to include more of them--in every content area--is a good push.

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  12. I see one of the major issue with Common Core being the attempt to make everyone except ELA teachers responsible for teacher reading and writing. In my district and many others I've worked in, the ELA teachers see themselves as literature teachers and take no responsibility for actually teaching students to read and write. To me, the ELA teacher's role is one of providing the underlying skills the students need in order to read for learning in their other classes and the role of the other teachers is to help the students learn the specific skills needed to read in their curricular areas. Instead most of them chose to read the novels they enjoy. They chose to take a month or more to read and analyze to death those same books and they chose not to have the students researching and writing because they don't like grading the papers. As a result, our students are drastically below many of their international peers in all their academic skills. It is time for the ELA teachers to recognize that they are not literature teachers and to stop destroying the love of reading students have by forcing them to over-analyze books they don't want to read in the first place, especially boys!

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    1. Interesting thoughts, but I will have to disagree with a large part of anonymous' argument. #1 ELA teachers--good ELA teachers--plan a mix of reading, writing, presenting, analyzing, and synthesizing. #2 ELA teachers do need the help of the science, social studies, math, and elective teachers--especially in regards to requiring reading and writing within their own content areas. Because all classes should be reading and writing-I do not see how you can divorce reading and writing from ANY content area. And, if the content area teachers are fully aware of their content, they realize the way students read and write for their courses are a bit different than others. Research in science is different than research in social studies, which is also different than research in an ELA class. #3--other content area teachers should put just a high a premium on spelling/grammar/writing skills AS the ELA teachers, which would help students see they are skills they should be applying everywhere, instead of JUST inside an ELA classroom. Good reading and writing should be done everywhere. #4--if teachers don't like grading, they don't become ELA teachers. Or they shouldn't.

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  13. John, your post hit a chord with me.

    I added my own reflections on my blog. As a librarian/educator I absolutely embrace the concept of "Ready for Life" as opposed to "College and Career Ready." Maybe it's just semantics, but I think the Common Core's tagline says a lot about its focus.

    http://commoncorrelations.wordpress.com/2012/12/07/ready-for-life/

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Please leave a comment. I enjoy the conversation.