Most educators emphasize reading skills,such as picking out the main idea,over teaching grade-level-appropriate texts,according to a survey released Oct. 23.
The study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that 73 percent of elementary teachers and 56 percent of middle school teachers say their lessons are dominated by skills,despite the Common Core’s emphasis on challenging students with complex works.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative,released in 2010,does not mandate what schools should teach. Instead,it outlines the skills and knowledge that students are expected to develop each year from kindergarten through 12th grade,with an “ultimate goal to succeed in college and careers,” the website says.
The standards are composed of two parts: mathematics and English language arts.
Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core State Standards.
However,experts said at a discussion Oct. 24 that teachers were wary of assigning books that exceeded their students’ reading levels,which is not the original goal of the common core.
Teachers should give kids a chance to “stretch themselves,” Timothy Shanahan,author of the report,said.
Shanahan said students do better at answering a difficult question about a simple text than answering a simple question about a more complex text. He said students need to understand complex texts.
Shanahan is professor emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The common core’s language arts standards aim to create “a staircase of increasing text complexity.”
For example,the standards do not say fifth-graders should read “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” although it is a recommended book. But students be should be able to “compare and contrast two or more characters,settings,or events in a story or drama,drawing on specific details in the text (e.g.,how characters interact).”
One standard for sixth-graders is to “describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution.”
However,the report found evidence of a decline in text complexity.
That’s because too many people believe that the best way to encourage students to read is to feed them a steady diet of relevant and easily digested books,according to the report.
“As a result,classic literature has,in many classrooms,been replaced by popular teen novels such as ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Twilight,’” Shanahan said. “It’s the worst of times: only one percent of high school teachers surveyed assign ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’”
He said teachers need to find reading materials based on topic and language complexity.
He said “To Kill a Mockingbird” has “a wonderful context.”
“The idea is sophisticated and complex. But the language is pretty simple,” he said. “Harper Lee’s language is just gorgeously simple in terms of not very complicated sentences and not very out of the ordinary vocabulary.”
Some parents are concerned about the language and racial epithets in the book,which is not listed on the Common Core website.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is still not approved by some school districts for classroom use. The Plaquemines Parish (La.) School Board lifted a 12-year ban on the book last week.
Shanahan said teachers need to vary the amount of support they give to students.
“To be honest,the children of our state are handling it much better than the grownups,so we are working toward helping inform our grownups,” Suzanne Culbreth,Alabama’s 2012 Teacher of the Year said at the discussion.
Culbreth is a geometry teacher from Span Park High School in Hanover,Ala.
That pattern was reflected in the choices of novels. Half of elementary teachers who responded to the survey said they based their choices on the average class reading level,rather than on the grade level.
The Fordham Institute,a right-of-center education policy think tank,surveyed 1,154 public-school teachers of English,language arts or reading in states that have adopted the common core. The survey,conducted in early 2012,included 300 teachers of fourth and fifth grades,370 middle-school teachers and 484 high-school teachers.
Names were randomly drawn from a comprehensive national database of approximately 3.5 million K-12 educators maintained by Agile Education Marketing in Denver.
Teachers in Alaska,Nebraska,Texas and Virginia were excluded because those states have not adopted the common core.
The margin of error for the overall sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
“Obviously,if we went back and surveyed today,I’d expect to see some changes. But we’d probably be very upset that things hadn’t changed as much as they should have,” Shanahan said.
Debates around the common core standards vary from adoption to implementation.
Another report by the Brookings Institution released Wednesday said the Common Core Consortium helps small states team up with other states,which saves the small states money in developing their own assessment systems.
“It is too early to tell which path will be the best choice for students,but two facts are clear,” Matthew M. Chingos,author of the report,said. “Taxpayers get more bang for their buck when states collaborate,and students cannot afford for policymakers to compromise on assessment quality.”
Reach reporter Sihan Zhang at [email protected] or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.