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ELA Common Core: A grand opportunity for grand misconceptions

6 min read


Adoption of the Common Core State Standards Initiative opens the door for ideas, not necessarily because of the content of standards — the Brown Center on Education Policy pointed out that standards reform alone means diddly squat to outcomes — but because educators have another opportunity to network ideas. There is no time as potentially transformative as the present.

That open door, however, can welcome a slew of agendas being pushed and uncertainty-driven decisions being made. My point in this post is not to defend or disparage the CCSS — that decision is yours — but instead give you tools to avoid being swept into any one of many currents of “alignment” rushing downstream. In idea making, everyone has a right to present an approach. It is up to educators to make smart decisions about which ones to employ.

There is a granddaddy CCSS myth that goes something like this: The CCSS define how we are supposed to teach. Major shifts in instruction are required by standards adoption. This is the patriarch from which all other CCSS myths draw their lineage.

  • Myth: English teachers have to stop teaching narrative and shift to almost solely nonfiction.
  • Myth: We must use complex texts all of the time.
  • Myth: Content-area teachers must stop teaching content.
  • Myth: Students can write only from sources, not their experience.

Simply put, these myths and others are untrue because poor ol’ Granddaddy CCSS myth is untrue. Yes, we should always aim to improve our practice. But be clear, there are no “requirements” for particular methodologies attached to the adoption of the CCSS. Really.

Open up your copy of the CCSS. This is what your state adopted. Turn to Page 6: “What is not covered by the Standards.” Here’s an excerpt (emphasis added).

  1. “The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”
  2. “They do not describe all that can or should be taught. A great deal is left to the discretion of teachers and curriculum developers.”
  3. “The Standards do not define the nature of advanced work …”
  4. “The Standards … do not define the intervention methods or materials necessary to support students …”

And so on.

Which means, Granddaddy: No one can tell us how to “teach the Common Core” because these standards are expectations — not curriculum, not lesson plans, not methods.

Turn to Page 5, where two itty-bitty footnotes clarify one of the largest misconceptions about the balance of types of reading and writing required under the CCSS. Specifically, many educators think the CCSS require literature to be removed from the classroom. Here’s an example of this myth in the wild from a tweet by @thereadingzone.

The Page 5 footnotes clarify this misconception. “The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.” Note that 70 percent is suggested for high-school seniors.

As with reading, percentages in the table reflect the sum of student writing, not writing only in ELA settings.

This is all well and good, you might be thinking, but my students still need to take a test. Yes. Here’s the thing: The two consortia creating tests aim to assess the entire standards document — not only parts, as Granddaddy has led you to believe.

Take one of the groups, Smarter Balanced. It has four claims driving item development. Notice that every part of the standards is represented. Here’s a quick look (emphasis added).

  1. “Students can read closely and analytically to comprehend a range of increasingly complex literary and informational texts.”
  2. “Students can produce effective and well-grounded writing for a range of purposes and audiences.”
  3. “Students can employ effective speaking and listening skills for a range of purposes and audiences.”
  4. “Students can engage in research/inquiry to investigate topics, and to analyze, integrate, and present information.”

The other group, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, sums this up in one of its six priorities: “Assess the full range of the Common Core Standards, including standards that are difficult to measure.”

So, yes, your students need to be able to read literary texts, even poetry and drama (Page 8) and informational texts, employ speaking and listening skills, engage in research and inquiry, and write in all three types (Pages 39 to 66). “Even narratives?” Granddaddy Myth asked. “Yes, even narrative writing.”

Where does this leave us? In a very powerful position. Your school is in control of decision making. No CCSS entity has yet to require teachers to teach in any way that they think is not in the best interest of students.

This also means that you have a tremendous responsibility to learn. Studying the standards cannot be replaced. They are here, however you feel about them, so empower your team. Many efforts, generally well intended, exist to say what you could do but not must do. Do not rely solely on those various “shifts” lists floating all over creation. Are they your shifts? Are they enough shifts? Are they your best first shifts?

Do not accept methods or curriculum because someone thinks you’re supposed to — even PARCC states that its Model Content Frameworks are “voluntary resources.” (I would not use them. But you could love them. It’s our choice.) Let your study decide what to do with my views, too. Do not take any CliffsNotes detour past a deep study of the full text of the standards.

More critically, do not skip a deep study of your students. Remember that the day of any test, students work alone. Without us. They employ not what we have “taught” but what they have “learned.” This is what they carry with them when the school year ends. The methods you and your colleagues choose must lead to students being able to apply skills independently — hopefully joyfully. Debunk the Granddaddy Myth, study the standards, study your students — then, make your decisions.

Christopher Lehman (@iChrisLehman) is an author, a speaker and a lead staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. His newest book, “Energize Research Reading and Writing,” will be available in August.