Hopes for Common Core State Standards

The print version (4 inches thick!) of the local telephone directory “yellow pages” landed like a thud on my front porch recently. I threw it in the recycle can the same day. When I need to find local businesses, it seems preferable to do a search on the Internet. Do we need a print version anymore?

Clearly, we have a number of choices to extract knowledge when we need it: consult Google and U-Tube, ask “friends” at social media sites, and of course, read traditional print texts. And still to come will be new “products” of the knowledge industry that have not yet been invented — but we know they’re coming …

How do we best prepare our children for this brave new world? In a word ─ education.

I’m optimistic about promising reforms in K-12 education ─ the Common Core State Standards. The Standards “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”  (http://www.corestandards.org/)

Currently, 45 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the Standards in English Language Arts and mathematics. The implementation timeline for states is drawing close ─ the 2014-2015 school year.

I’ve been following with interest what the standards will mean for literacy education, and particularly reading. In English Language Arts, the standards are built on the premise that students must read texts of increasing complexity as they progress through K-12. The standards envision a “staircase” of increasing complexity in what students must be able to read so that all students are ready for the demands of college- and career-level reading no later than the end of high school. The standards also envision progressive development of reading comprehension as students advance through the grades ─ gaining more from whatever they read. (http://www.corestandards.org/)

Both content and skills are important components of the Standards. On the content side in English Language Arts, the Standards require certain critical content for all students (for example, classic myths and literature from around the world and foundational documents in American history and literature). Exactly what content would be taught is to be left to states and local determination. On the skill side, the Standards require that students systematically acquire knowledge in literature and other disciplines through reading, writing, speaking and listening, language, and media and technology.

What will be especially important in my view is what will be the best balance at different grade levels between reading literature (classic and contemporary) and reading informational texts in a range of subjects. Clearly, students will need to be good readers – to help build their core knowledge and to develop the skills to acquire more specialized knowledge as they need it (for example, through Internet search sites and/or traditional print texts).

The new Standards have already spawned many new resources to help teachers and school administrators prepare for implementation. And work is well underway to develop the assessment approaches to measure how well students will meet the standards.

Parents, grandparents and caretakers of children have an important role to play too in helping to support the Common Core at home. Patrick Daley, Senior Vice President & Publisher, Scholastic Classroom & Community Group, has identified five great tips to help support the Common Core at home for both English Language Arts and math (http://www.scholastic.com/commoncore/common-core-for-parents.htm):

  • Talk about books, especially the great ones:  The Common Core says that children need to read “books worth reading.” We all know that reading ANYTHING is great for kids, but they should be exposed to great writers and challenging content too. Lead by example!
  • Ask your children questions about what they’re reading: One of the key shifts with the Common Core is its requirement that students (both orally and in writing) cite evidence from the texts they’re reading to make an argument. Try asking questions that require your kids to talk about the content of the books they’re reading. For example, have them give reasons why a favorite character was heroic or clever or forgiving.
  • Push your kids to read nonfiction:  Reading fiction is still a critical and wonderful part of learning to read, but the Common Core elevates the importance of nonfiction, or “informational text,” as the authors of the standards call it. Does your son love gross bugs? Get him a book about cockroach infestations and let him dig deep into a topic that interests him. You might have a future scientist in your house!
  • Encourage your kids to write, write, write:  The Common Core State Standards emphasize the fundamental link between reading and writing. Writing to persuade by citing evidence is a key 21st-century skill. Encourage your children to keep a journal or blog, or write a letter or an e-mail to a favorite author.
  • Talk math with your kids: The Common Core requires students to learn important math “reasoning” skills in addition to learning their multiplication tables and memorizing formulas. Parents: Try talking to your kids about mathematical practices they use every day. Have them estimate time and distance, compare the value of products in a store, or calculate the tip when you’re out to dinner.

Before we know it, the 2014-2015 school year will be here and pundits will be assessing whether the new Common Standards live up to their hype. I hope they do. I also hope that the telephone directory “yellow pages” isn’t sitting on my front porch in 2014-2015.

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