Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments

For almost a year now, many states have been engulfed in a raucous debate about the Common Core State Standards. Mostly the to-and-fro isn’t about the standards themselves, but related issues: The Obama Administration’s role in their adoption, concerns about data privacy, pushback on teacher evaluation reform—the list goes on.

In our view, these issues are distractions from the serious work at hand: implementing solid standards that, by our lights, are better than those they replaced in three-fourths of the states, and more-or-less on par with the rest.

In an effort to nudge the conversation back to the standards and (yes, we know this is crazy!) teaching and learning—and as part of a years-long research effort to track implementation—we’re pleased to present a new Fordham study: Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments.

This report presents the findings of a survey of English language arts (ELA) teachers from Common Core states, asking them to answer questions about the texts their students read and the instructional techniques they use in the classroom. This year’s data are meant to serve as a baseline that shows where we were in the very early stages of CCSS implementation. We plan to do a follow-up study in 2015, whereupon we will comment on whether the instructional shifts have taken hold.

But first, let’s define those instructional shifts—ways in which the Common Core standards expect practice to differ significantly from what’s been the norm in most American classrooms:

• Build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction and informational texts
• Focus student work on reading and writing grounded in evidence from text
• Encourage regular practice with complex text and its academic vocabulary

These shifts have profound implications for ELA curriculum and instruction. The Common Core State Standards are among the first standards to stress the crucial link between knowledge and reading comprehension—something that will, if faithfully implemented, force many teachers to rethink whether their preferred reading programs meet the content and rigor demands of the CCSS. And this important shift serves to correct the fact that, for too many years, students have had little access to the kinds of literary nonfiction and informational texts they need to prepare them for the rigor of advanced coursework in college and beyond.

The Common Core unambiguously expects “regular practice” with suitably complex texts. In the past, state ELA standards tacitly called for students to be able to read and understand grade-appropriate text by year’s end. The Common Core, by contrast, recognizes that the only way to achieve that goal is to expose students to complex texts throughout the year.

What’s more, the Common Core emphasizes reading (and writing) “grounded in evidence from the text.” Whereas students in the past may have read something, then moved immediately to write personal responses and narratives, the Common Core pushes them and their teachers to stay with the text—to use the author’s words and other evidence within the text to answer questions and to support analysis. This is precisely the kind of close reading and analytical practice that students need to push comprehension and deepen “critical thinking” skills.

But will these shifts make their way into American classrooms? That is the question we sought to examine through the present study.

Even today, at this early phase, we found some hopeful signs. Most teachers believe that the new standards promise better learning for their students, and a majority say that their schools have already made progress toward implementing the standards, including relevant curriculum changes and professional development. Some teachers say that they are already teaching with grade-level-appropriate texts, and that they already include at least some informational texts in their English language arts curriculum.

But findings from this survey also showed that the heavy lifting of aligning curriculum and instruction to the rigor of the CCSS mostly still lies ahead:

• The CCSS emphasize the centrality of text in the English language arts curriculum. Yet the majority of teachers still say their lessons are dominated by skills; they are more likely to try to fit texts to skills than to ground their skills instruction in what is appropriate to the texts they are teaching. Indeed, an astonishing 73 percent of elementary and 56 percent of middle school teachers place greater emphasis on reading skills than the text; high school teachers are more divided, with roughly equal portions prioritizing either skills or texts.
• The Common Core asks teachers to assign texts that provide language complexity appropriate to the grade level, but significant proportions of teachers—particularly in the elementary grades—are still assigning texts based on students’ present reading prowess. Specifically, the majority of elementary teachers (64 percent) choose to match students with books presumed to align with their instructional reading levels. This happens less often in middle and high school, with approximately two in five middle school teachers selecting texts this way. This means that many youngsters are not yet working with appropriately complex language in their schoolbooks.
• The CCSS call for students to have substantial experience reading informational texts (including literary nonfiction such as speeches and essays). Despite some public controversy over this, teachers indicated that they are already devoting significant proportions of time to teaching such texts in their classrooms. Nevertheless, many English language arts teachers (including 56 percent at the middle school level) assign none of the literary or informational texts listed in the survey, which represented both CCSS exemplars and other high-quality texts.

The vast majority of teachers appear cautiously optimistic about the Common Core. Most (62 percent) indicated that, when surveyed in 2012, they thought the standards would have at least some positive learning benefits for their students (from a little bit to a great deal), while 11 percent thought that no learning gains would result and 18 percent said it was “too soon to tell.” These responses were consistent across the grades; elementary, middle school, and high school teachers characterized the standards similarly.

The promise and potential of standards- and accountability-driven reform is that, by setting clear and rigorous expectations for what students should know and be able to do, teachers can better prepare students for the more advanced work that they will be asked to do in later grades, in college, and beyond. In order for standards to have any impact, however, they must change classroom practice. In Common Core states, the shifts that these new expectations demand are based on the best research and information we have about how to boost students’ reading comprehension and analysis and thereby prepare them more successfully for college and careers. Whether those shifts will truly transform classroom practice, however, remains to be seen. Please stay tuned.

– Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Kathleen Porter- Magee

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Common Core Watch blog.

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