Eight years later, have the Common Core State Standards led to a revolution in how reading and writing are taught?
Not exactly. Teachers have shifted practices dramatically on vocabulary and assigning nonfiction, but they’ve struggled with some of the other shifts in those standards—most notably the tenet of having students of all reading abilities grapple with grade-level texts.
That’s according to a new, nationally representative survey of some 1,200 teachers published today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The teachers fall into in three categories: those teaching grades 4- 6, 6-8, and 9-10. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.
The usual survey caveats apply, of course: These are self-reported practices, not observed practices, which means that we can’t know for sure how teachers intepreted the questions. And it can be hard to capture detailed information about really nuanced aspects of teaching in a survey.
Let’s dig in!
Vocabulary Is Now Largely Taught in Context
Most teachers now teach new words in the context of reading and conversation. This is encouraging, Fordham analysts write, since most ELA scholars agree that learning words in the context of rich texts is superior to memorizing a list each week and taking a quiz on it.
Of note, 53 percent of teachers reported teaching domain-specific vocabulary essential to each discipline (sometimes called by practitioners “Tier III” words); fewer taught general academic vocabulary (or “Tier II” words).
Literacy experts greeted this finding with open arms.
“The news on vocabulary is heartening, moving away from list-based and program-based approaches,” said Carol Jago, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English and now a consultant, who was not involved in the survey. “I think all of that was eating up too much classroom time.”
Teachers Continue to Choose Reading-Level, Not Grade-Level Texts
Here’s an instance in which there’s evidence of some backsliding. Compared to Fordham’s last big survey on common-core reading, in 2012, the proportion of teachers reporting using “grade level” texts rather than texts based on students’ reading levels has fallen among secondary teachers.
This wades right into one of the common core’s biggest controversies. The standards prioritized giving even struggling readers opportunities to learn grade-level texts. It challenged what had long been an orthodoxy in reading instruction, especially for lower-level readers: choosing “just right” texts for each student that won’t cause frustration. The problem with that, the thinking goes, is that some kids are never challenged enough to reach the difficulty or complexity of grade-level reading materials, and thus fall further behind.
Fordham found that far fewer secondary teachers are assigning grade-level reading materials, and among teachers overall, fewer than half are assigning those texts.
Timothy Shanahan, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, pulled no punches in interpreting the results: “It means holding kids back and not learning texts that are hard enough,” he said.
(Shanahan provided feedback on an early draft of the survey report, and also helped to write portions of the common core.)
One explanation for this finding may also be that teachers haven’t been given enough training on how to “scaffold” more complex readings for students who are furthest behind.
“Asking teachers to teach kids who are well below grade level these texts is an extremely big ask, even for experienced and skilled teachers,” said David Griffith, a senior research and policy associate at Fordham who co-wrote the report accompanying the survey findings. “When I look at this, as a former teacher who is now interested in policy, that’s the one where I think, ‘Wow, teachers really have to have their act together and be supported to do this well.’ I see it as a basic capacity issue.”
Evidence-Based Reading Is Common, But Writing Lags
Most readers know that the common core highlighted the importance of reading and writing based on texts, not just on personal experience or creative writing—by far the most dominant kind in U.S. schools through the 2000s.
On the reading front, teachers are overwhelmingly asking students to cite evidence from texts when they teach “close reading,” which basically means assisting students as they grapple with a text’s craft, structure, and meaning. More than 90 percent of respondents said they did that.
No other techniques used as part of close reading scored as high, which Jago said probably reflects that some other best practices weren’t offered as drop-down choices on the survey.
“The idea of evidence-based questions, text-based questions is an easy idea to get your head around. Other techniques are harder to improve in instructional materials, and I do think there are a whole lot of things that high-quality close reading would have that aren’t described here,” she said. For example, teachers must make sure students feel safe offering up opposing points of view, that they are intrepid in their interpretations, and that all students have a chance to speak up, she noted.
On the other hand, writing still tends to be based on personal experience or creating a narrative, rather than based on texts. This was yet another flash point in the common-core wars, since personal experience was long a component of “workshop” -type writing classrooms.
What’s potentially most problematic here, literacy experts said, is that teachers reported giving below grade-level kids tasks based on knowledge or experience, not asking them to grapple with a text, as they did for more skilled students. In other words, students who are presumably more academically advantaged are getting what appears to be more challenging work.
Fiction Is on the Decline
Arguably, the single most divisive issue in the English section of the common core was its emphasis on giving students access to challenging nonfiction text as part of the effort to build their background knowledge and their academic vocabularies.
(There was quite a lot of confusion about what the standards actually required on this front. In brief, the standards called for this to gradually shift in favor of nonfiction until, in high school, about 70 percent of what they read is nonfiction. But this was supposed to be their reading diet across all the content areas; in English, they were still expected to engaging in literature.)
The survey found that, indeed, nonfiction is on the rise among all grade levels, making up more than a third of the materials the teachers reported teaching.
Here again, interpreting what these findings mean is a little difficult. On the one hand, teachers are clearly responding to what the common core demands.
On the other hand, Fordham sounds like it’s having some misgivings about this approach. The nonprofit notes that 40 percent of teachers reported assigning fewer “classical texts or teaching the literary canon,” and if those are being replaced by a random, rather than a coherent, collection of texts, it won’t benefit students, Griffith said.
Expect this finding to pique the interest of the Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts-based group that has been one of the foremost opponents of the standards, and has repeatedly cited the loss of “classic literature” in its push against the standards.
Overall, the survey paints a mixed picture about the effect of the common core on instruction. The standards are still in use (sometimes under other names) in dozens of states, but whether they’ve really penetrated classrooms is a different question.
Shanahan, for one, is concerned.
“Overall, I think this is not good,” he said. “I think maybe the political brouhaha around the common core scared people away from implementation.”
States may have kept the standards in place, but the fear of raising opponents’ hackles might have prevented them from sharing resources with each other or providing teachers with sustained help on some of the most challenging practices, he surmised.
The data, though, are somewhat challenging to interpret, because of the survey-based issues noted above. For more perspectives on the implementation of standards in the classroom, check out the work products from the Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning, a research collaborative with several continuing studies.
Fordham also offers recommendations for ELA teachers. The most interesting one is to organize lessons around “text sets,” or groups of texts on a theme or topic that are scaffolded in difficulty for students and help build background knowledge. Text collections are part of the work that Louisiana has assembled in its homegrown efforts to design curriculum for the common core. It’s also the approach taken by several new ELA content providers such as Newsela, which focuses on nonfiction.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.