Friday, November 15, 2013

The CCSS: Knowledge is Power

Today I am pleased to post a guest blog by my go-to person for discussing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), my wife, Cynthia Mershon. Cindy has been a reading specialist, language arts supervisor, and teacher resource specialist.  She has taught both struggling and gifted students, and collaborated with teachers and administrators to develop and implement classroom reading and writing workshops. In addition she has been a curriculum writer and a consultant for Reading Rainbow and is currently working with Teachers College, Columbia University, presenting workshops for school districts about implementing writing workshop.

Several days ago, Russ and I were talking about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English Language Arts.  Not an unusual conversation for two reading specialists these days, but the focus of our conversation was not what you might expect.  Rather than our usual lively but loud grousing about the CCSS in general that sends our cocker spaniels running out of the room seeking shelter elsewhere, we were discussing instead teachers’ and school districts’ responses to the Standards in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language. Recently, we have been working closely with several groups of teachers in different school districts, and have been surprised – shocked and dismayed, actually - by how little information teachers are being given about the CCSS, and at the ways in which school districts are responding, through instructional directives and curriculum development, to what they believe the CCSS require and recommend.  Is it possible that uninformed responses that ignore educational research, coupled with a lack of information about the actual Standards document, can be  more harmful than a set of standards can be on their own?

Certainly there are many voices weighing in on the CCSS and on particular aspects of them, e.g., “Close Reading in Elementary Schools” by Fisher and Frey, (2102), The Reading Teacher, 66.3, pp. 179-188; “Engaging Children in Close Reading: Multimodal Commentaries and Illustration Remix, by Dalton, (2103), The Reading Teacher, 66.8, pp. 642-649; “Children Giving Clues,” by Ohanian, (2013), English Journal, 103.2, pp. 15-20;  “Close Reading: A Cautionary Interpretation,” by Hinchman & Moore, (2013), Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 56.6, pp. 441-450.  Russ has talked in a previous post about the ways in which the CCSS might be misreading (ignoring?) research about how children learn to read here, here and here.  There is much for teachers to wade through, read, and consider, and many voices entering the conversation about what should be done, what should not be done, what is right, what is less than right, and what is just plain wrong. We worry about what information teachers are getting.  We worry more about whether teachers are getting any information, period.  We know they are being told what to do, but are they being given all the information about the CCSS they deserve and they need to make important decisions about their classroom instruction?

What concerns us most is how little opportunity teachers and administrators are given to examine and discuss the actual CCSS as a published document.  Most educators seem not to know some very important specifics about the Standards.  For instance,
·         The CCSS are not a curriculum, but rather a set of competencies with
clear, measurable benchmarks.
·         The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach
·         The Standards focus on what is most essential; they do not describe all that can or should be taught.  A great deal is left to the discretion of teachers and curriculum developers.
·         While the Standards described are critical to college and career readiness, they do not define the whole of such readiness.  Students require a wide-ranging, rigorous academic preparation and, particularly in the early grades, attention to such matters as social, emotional, and physical development and approaches to learning.
·         The Standards insist that instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language be a shared responsibility within the school, i.e., social studies, science, math, etc.
·         Each standard need not be a separate focus for instruction and assessment.  Often, several standards can be addressed through a single rich task.
·         The Standards set grade-specific standards but do not define the intervention methods or materials necessary to support students who are well below or well above grade-level expectations.  No set of grade-specific standards can fully reflect the great variety in abilities, needs, learning rates, and achievement levels of students in any given classroom.

     It is imperative that teachers be given the opportunity to learn about the CCSS; their conversations with colleagues, parents, and administrators need to be informed and intelligent.  Their classroom instruction needs to show they understand what the CCSS are asking of them but also that they as professionals understand what research says about best practice in literacy. They need to understand the CCSS did not invent good reading and writing instruction but are certainly exerting an influence over what is interpreted as good instruction in today’s schools. 

    In addition to learning more about the CCSS themselves, we encourage teachers to call on the very critical literacy questions they are modeling for their students to examine and reflect on the text that IS the CCSS.  Just as we do with our students, we need to look beyond, inside, and around this document and ask ourselves important questions [adapted from McLaughlin, M., &  DeVoogd, G.L. (2004).  Critical literacy: Enhancing students’ comprehension of text.  Scholastic.]:

Who is the author(s) of this text?
Who are we hearing from in this text?
Who are we NOT hearing from in this text?
How might this text be different if someone else had written it?
Why did the author(s) write this document?
Why did the author(s) write this document in this way?
What message do you think the author(s) wants us to take away from reading this document?

I believe many of us are finding it difficult to balance the power for critical teaching decisions with a document, a set of standards, which we cannot completely support, and may not completely understand.  Teachers are being asked to document which standards are met in their lesson plans, to volunteer for committees developing “CCSS curriculum” and “CCSS report cards.”  On their worst days, perhaps through a misreading or misunderstanding of the CCSS, they are being asked to alter what and how they teach in ways that ignore what they know to be research-based and responsible classroom practice. They are being told to abandon instruction that addresses the joy of learning, and concerns itself with not just what students know and understand but how they feel and what they think.

I am not suggesting that teaching, like life, is not a series of carefully considered compromises, but these compromises are best made when we are informed and educated about the factors in play. With regard to the CCSS, we need to know everything we can about who wrote them, what those people were thinking, what the final document says (and does not say), and how that document squares with the research that informs our daily teaching of reading and writing. When we lack important information, and do not have the knowledge we need to be a productive part of the conversation, we are giving the CCSS even more power than they are demanding.  When we give “people from out of town” (thank you, Donald Graves) the power to make decisions about our students and our instruction without collecting important information about what they are doing, how they will do it, and why they are doing it, we give away our power; we relinquish our responsibility to ourselves, our students, and our profession.  In this case, at this time, knowledge is power.