OPINION SHAPER: The Common Core state standards are what we need

2014-07-05T22:00:00Z 2014-09-29T13:09:14Z OPINION SHAPER: The Common Core state standards are what we needMarné B. Isakson Daily Herald
July 05, 2014 10:00 pm  • 

Among college freshmen, 30 percent do not return the second year, resulting in millions of dollars lost and dreams dashed.

One reason is they feel defeated by heavy reading loads. Most are surprised that 85 percent of the learning they are to do is from texts and that their professors want them to come already having “learned” the material because class is for clarifying, analyzing and applying.

Many “good” readers have difficulty reading academic texts, not realizing that reading-to-learn is an intensely active process: a quest to construct understanding, problem-solve, and evaluate the author’s information, intentions and biases.

Shockingly, in some states 40 percent of college freshmen must do remedial work before continuing.

Legislators and other educational stakeholders dislike paying for students to gain skills in college they should and could acquire in high school.

I have tried across 38 years, along with devoted colleagues, to make a difference as a literacy teacher at all levels of education.

The reality of the problem hit me hardest when teaching at BYU from 2007 to 2013. I saw smart, diligent, motivated students struggle to read their college texts. They were not remedial readers, so why were they struggling? I came soon to a forceful conclusion: They do not know how to read complex texts.

However, my hopes for prepared students entering college and the workplace have risen substantially because of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

We can be thrilled that these standards have been accepted by our state. If our students achieve them, they will be ready to take on the thinking demands of college, career and citizenship.

Common Core is a set of rigorous standards identifying what K-12 students should know and be able to do in math and in literacy. They help ensure that all students, by the end of high school, have the learning capacities to be college and career ready.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers initiated the standards. All states, except two, helped create them, and each chooses whether to adopt the final version.

The standards were painstakingly developed by individuals representing state offices of education, higher education, educational organizations, teachers, and parents. Several versions were drafted, compared to the standards of high performing nations, and refined using much feedback. On June 2, 2010, the document was released to the public.

The standards lay out a vision of what it means to be literate in the 21st century. The introduction to the CCSS states that students who meet the literacy standards “readily undertake ... close, attentive reading,” “habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally,” and “actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldview” (p. 3). Imagine students like this coming to college and the workplace!

Since the standards are few in number, aligned across K-12 age groups, and applied across disciplines, they provide excellent focus for instruction. In literacy, for example, five sets of standards (Reading Literature, Reading Informational Texts, Writing, Speaking/Listening and Language) emphasize processes which draw on and build the learner’s capacities to read, write, think, and inquire. Justifying process standards, Smith, Appleman and Wilhelm (2014) argue that our students will have to solve problems that seem not to have solutions and will have to confront problems that have not yet appeared. When you consider that 70 percent of today’s kindergartners will work in occupations that do not now exist or that will be radically different, and knowing in our rapidly changing world that available information doubles every six to seven months, the importance of knowing how to learn rises exponentially (p. 5).

The standards can help all students, including poor readers, special needs students, and English language learners, move forward.

Teachers using texts at students’ reading levels can stimulate complex thinking no matter the text.

I have witnessed 11th graders reading at a 3rd grade level who, with guidance, did complex and sophisticated thinking. Such students felt genuine success, gained confidence, valued reading more, and came to persist with reading, thereby increasing their reading abilities and attitudes.

What the Common Core is not

It does not tell HOW to teach to the standards — that is the teachers’ job using their best judgment and expertise.

Yet, teaching to these rigorous standards is NOT business as usual; wholesale change may be required. A few tweaks will not do the job. Utah’s legislators, therefore, need to fund professional development to help teachers facilitate these changes.

The Common Core does not tell how to assess the standards—that is the job of the states, designing effective ways to measure student attainment of the standards.

The CCSS is not a federal program. The federal government had no role in developing the standards and has no role in their implementation. This is a state-led effort and a state choice.

While exemplar texts are listed in the standards appendices to demonstrate the desired level of text quality and complexity, the CCSS does not prescribe specific texts. Teachers, knowing their content, their students, and the quality texts in their field, choose their own texts.

The standards are not perfect. Indeed, the CCSS should be “shaped and reshaped by the educators and students who are held accountable to them.” Only by folks suggesting improvements, do the standards “stand a chance of achieving the goals behind them” (P. D. Pearson, endorsement page, Un Common Core by Smith, et al., 2014).

Where from here?

I cannot imagine that we would not want for our children what these standards could help them do.

Colleges need prepared students; workplaces need employees prepared to contribute, to innovate, to problem-solve. A vibrant democracy depends on a thinking, reading, critical citizenry.

I urge all Utahans to seek to understand the vision of these standards and to promote them as a worthwhile goal for learning in our schools and families.

Three sources I recommend are the standards document itself: www.corestandards.org; and for educators especially: Cracking the Common Core by Lewis, Walpole, & McKenna (2014) and Un Common Core by Smith, Appleman, & Wilhelm (2014).

Marné Isakson, Ph.D., is a reading consultant. Contact her at read@isaksonliteracy.com.

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