By Dr. Kim Ehrhardt, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment
The following article is a second installment concerning the unpacking and implementation of the Common Core Standards and potential impact on teaching and learning in the School District of Janesville. This article is adapted from commentary by Denise Smith Amos.
Some educators believe that reading achievement has been declining in our nation’s schools for more than two decades, but some experts say, the new Common Core Standards for English and Language Arts might halt that slide.
The Common Core’s standards are currently being rolled out in forty five public and many private schools with Common Core tests soon to follow in the 2014-15 school year.
The standards for English Language Arts and Literacy are supposed to change what students read and how they read it.
The reading requirements will get tougher, with students in every grade expected to read more nonfiction/informational texts. Teachers also will be expected to push students to become more engaged in the text, stretching their reading levels and showing them how to glean more than just the facts from their reading.
For instance, for fourth graders the Common Core recommends a 50-50 split between reading fiction and nonfiction in the typical student’s school day. The recommended ratio of nonfiction is supposed to grow with each grade, so that by the senior year in high school, students will read about 70 percent nonfiction texts each day.
Some teachers believe they’ve figured out how to get more nonfiction reading in without discouraging, overwhelming, or boring school age readers.
Katie Isaacs, a teacher at Princeton High in Sharonville, is planning lessons now that will pair nonfiction works with relevant, classic fiction in each lesson unit. For instance, Isaacs’ plan for ninth graders includes a four-week unit on Of Mice and Men. The students will explore “what determines one’s ability to achieve his/her dreams?” by reading the John Steinbeck novel about two migrant farm workers in the Great Depression. The students will also read informational texts such as excerpts from the New Deal, propaganda, and articles about the American Dream and the roles of women, African Americans and people with special needs. “The material is not a drastic shift for us,” Isaacs said. “These works (are) the same works colleges tend to focus on and expect their students to be able to analyze and understand.”
Students may write an essay focusing on the American Dream, discrimination, or symbolism. They also may research and present an argument in a mock criminal trial of one of the book’s main characters.
Students need to practice reading nonfiction, especially complex, technical writing because if they get a job or go to college, chances are good nonfiction reading will be the bulk of what’s required, said Karen Brewer, a teacher who runs Discovery Education’s Common Core Academies for educators.
“It is a huge shift, especially for third and fourth-grade teachers,” said Danielle Pankey-Wallace, a Common Core and literacy coach for Cincinnati public schools. “We’re so used to reading stories and talking about story elements…. This time we’re going to dive deep into informational texts.”
But will students like reading more nonfiction?
Two students in Isaac’s sophomore class said they’ve already started to balance fiction and nonfiction reading and they like it, especially the contemporary articles about subjects they’re interested in. Johnny Rosa, a 15-year-old sophomore, is usually a sci-fi and mythology fan, he says. He calls the Star Wars books “classic” fiction. But he recently enjoyed reading news accounts of people who consider themselves vampires in Serbia.
“I like reading fiction, but I get into nonfiction, too,” he said. “I like to read fiction adventures and compare and contrast: could this really happen or could this not happen?”
Cristina Valdiva, a West Chester sophomore, said she loved reading MacBeth because “it was a little twisted,” but she also enjoyed recent articles on President Obama and the recently injured basketball player Kevin Ware.
“I like reading nonfiction because you get to know what’s actually happening,” Cristina said. “Fiction kind of lies to you.”
In recent weeks, a growing chorus of critics like political commentator Glenn Beck and less well known education pundits have sounded alarms, claiming Common Core’s nonfiction emphasis means less poetry or classic stories in schools.
That’s ridiculous; say others who’ve read the Common Core standards. The nonfiction emphasis is supposed to include all of a student’s reading each day, not just what’s assigned in English class.
“If we began to spend far more class time on authentic forms of literacy—on close reading, analysis, discussion and writing—there would be enough time for us to greatly increase both fiction and non-fiction reading. We’d have more of both, hands down,” said Mike Schmoker, an Arizona-based education author and consultant.
At any rate, what’s wrong with introducing students to what they might encounter in college or at work, some ask.
“No one is saying ‘Do away with the Classics’,” said Karen Naber, Sycamore schools’ director of academic affairs. “But it is imperative, as a worker in our global society, that you are able to glean new information from complex texts.”
It’s not just affecting language arts classes. The Common Core calls for more reading, writing and vocabulary work in social studies and science, too.
In social studies students in Ohio will read from historical documents such as the U.S. Constitution or Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In science they’ll likely read lab reports and articles from scientific journals.
“We’re all going to be literacy teachers,” said Patricia Fong, a chief academic administrator for Lakota schools. “We’ll all be teaching students how to read, write, and how to listen and speak within (our) content areas.”
Students will get more time to read because teachers will direct them to read and reread passages to ferret out key facts and meanings. It’s a process called “deep reading” or “close reading.”
“No matter what it’s called, it’s about time,” says Timothy Shanahan, a University of Illinois -Chicago professor of urban education who specializes in literacy.
“There’s not enough reading going on at school. It’s something that has been … evolving over time,” he said. “Our kids need to be reading throughout the school day and throughout their existence.”
He partly blames the federal No Child Left Behind laws and various states’ low-level reading standards, which he said meant more students passed state tests though their reading skills may have stalled.
Some national studies bear that out.
In the 1990s and 2000s, several studies showed that as little as 7 percent of what children read in elementary school was “expository” writing – sometimes called informative nonfiction - while the rest of what they read was “narrative.”
For middle school, the percent of expository text was as low as 15 percent.
That’s not good enough to put students on track for college or career texts, experts said. A 2006 study by ACT Inc., the college entrance test maker, showed that students who scored below the college readiness threshold usually stumbled on questions linked to complex, nonfiction passages.
“The clear, alarming picture that emerges … is that while the reading demands of college, workforce training programs and citizenship have held steady or risen over the past 50 years or so, K–12 texts have, if anything, become less demanding,” the Common Core document states. The new Common Core tests, which Shanahan helped review and revise, will highlight reading deficiencies in time for students and teachers to fix them.
“These aren’t more rigorous tests; they’re more honest tests,” Shanahan said. “
The final question poised in this discussion about embracing the new common core standards is, will they really make a difference? Some advocates believe the new core will (or should) change everything—from teacher education, to instructional materials, to the organization of schools. Others are concerned that CCSS will overreach and still not change what really matters—whether students learn more. Just as in the past, the effective implementation of the standards will greatly depend on the understanding and commitment of our instructional staff toward the change. The instructional leaders of our district are working hard to realize this challenge. Our work with the new standards-based report card, the new rigorous 4-3-2-1 grading scale, RtI, PBIS, and Project Redesign are all focused on making the tenants of the new Common Core part of how we approach the mission of quality teaching and learning in the School District of Janesville.