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Thompson: Common Core's Potential

The story line of NPR’s four stories on Common Core was entirely predictable. The excellence of reporting was equally predictable, as well as the great teaching it showcased. Even so, it left me more saddened than ever about the Common Core fiasco. 

Emily Hanford, in Common Core Reading: "The New Colussus," began the series with a teacher, Linnea Wolters, assuming that her students would not be able to handle the complexity of a sonnet. She keeps an open mind, teaches the lesson with fidelity and is pleasantly surprised, “Wolters was amazed. She'd rarely seen her kids so excited about learning. And she had no idea they could succeed with such a challenging text. She couldn't wait to tell her colleagues about what had happened.” 

This is consistent with my experience. Low-skilled students despise the “dummying down” of instruction. They want the respect that is demonstrated when they are taught for mastery of challenging materials and concepts. Moreover, many or most teachers welcome assistance in helping students “dig deep.”

Then, Corey Turner explains, we must wrestle with the question of how do we teach complex reading in a way that “doesn't just lead to tears and frustration?” He summarizes the findings of cognitive scientist Dan Willingham who explains why background knowledge is more important than a child's reading skills. "Kids who, on standard reading tests, show themselves to be poor readers, when you give them a text that's on a topic they happen to know a whole lot about, they suddenly look like terrific readers." 

The NPR reporter concludes that although some Common Core architects may deny it, background knowledge “is just too important to ignore” when teaching reading. “The trick is, don't overdo it.” 

The same balance applies to the question of close reading instruction. As Harvard’s Catherine Snow explains, we have to teach “complex stuff” to children. But, "close reading is a technique that's been widely recommended based on a dangerous delusion that, if you just struggle harder, you will be able to understand and access the content of the text." 

Turner gets poetic in describing the dilemmas educators face with Common Core:

Every set of academic standards has a soul.

Yes, a soul. It's made of varied stuff: part research, part practice, part conviction of its authors.

To find the soul, follow the words that turn up again and again in the winding backwaters and byways of the standards themselves.

The first huge problem with Common Core is the conviction of its authors that they have found the truth, and that it must be implemented with complete fidelity to their preferences. (The second huge problem, of course, is that high-stakes Common Core testing is likely to doom the standards.) 

Turner concludes in the final report that “lots of teachers” are approaching Common Core reading instruction “not as an either-or proposition.” 

But, a lot of teachers won’t be allowed to do so. When this latest quest for higher standards fails, if it is not replaced by a more successful approach, it will be tragic. If the great efforts of the teachers described by NPR are flushed down the toilet, students will suffer. 

I naturally supported Common Core as a reasonable and incremental effort to improve instruction. But, then I realized that Common Core was often pushed by true believers who don’t trust teachers to pick and choose the standards and teaching methods that are appropriate for their students. When reflectively supporting Common Core, I never contemplated that Common Core tests were something we would have to teach to, but assessments we could teach with

When Common Core collapses, we need to take the time to mourn. We need to learn the experiment’s lessons and start over with an effort to raise instructional standards. The lesson I take from NPR, and other analyses of Common Core is that the problem is not the higher standards. This mess was created by ideologically-driven advocates of higher standards in an age of test-driven “reform.”-JT (@drjohnthompson)   


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