Treating Common-Core Syndrome

By Linda Diamond

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A new disorder seems to have swept the nation: Common Core State Standards Syndrome. This malady is characterized by sharply polarized positions—worshiping the common core as schools’ salvation, or condemning it as on the path to Armageddon.

The clinical manifestation is similar: op-eds in newspapers (“Common Core Education Is Uncommonly Inadequate,” The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2013) or editorials (“Moving Ahead With Common Core,” The New York Times, April 20, 2013), impassioned blogs, and spirited tweets.

Entire states exhibit symptoms as well, embracing the standards one year and threatening to dump them the next.

Nonetheless, the attention being trained on the standards has the potential to transform our education system if the focus shifts to the more difficult challenge—implementation. Neither side in the debate believes that the standards alone will be sufficient, but the heavy lifting required may be beyond the capacity of many districts and schools.

“Are states really focusing on the crucial details of implementation and allotting enough time and resources to get the job done?”

As a nation, we do not have a history of thoroughly implementing or sustaining education reforms, which is troubling.

State standards are not new. We have always had a de facto set of them, driven by textbook publishers that produced national series used across states. As states developed their own standards, they often built them upon the standards written by others. But even with this history, education quality and student achievement have remained stagnant at best. Why?

Rigorous standards alone will not improve student achievement, and if we focus too much on the common-core standards themselves, we may limit the more urgent discussion about implementation. Are states really focusing on the crucial details of implementation and allotting enough time and resources to get the job done?

What is needed is a consensus on critical implementation requirements. These include specifying the details of the curriculum and how instruction should look so that students master the standards and struggling students receive the supports they need; planning a comprehensive assessment system that starts in kindergarten and is designed to identify or predict reading problems; providing continuous professional learning opportunities for teachers; selecting strong curriculum materials; communicating to all stakeholders; and developing knowledgeable educators.

The standards are not a curriculum. Because this is true, educators are busy “unpacking” them. What does this really mean?

State education departments should guide districts by spelling out specific frameworks. These frameworks should include sequences based on careful task analyses that lead to articulated and robust curriculum. What specific content will be taught, for how long, at what grades, and in what order? This is no easy task. In some districts this has devolved to teachers writing their own lessons without adequate preparation. Is this really time well spent?

Figuring out the right amount of practice for a new skill or concept, the correct order of introduction, when to provide more guided instruction, and when to provide more fluid structure is difficult.

The common-core mathematics standards provide a more overt progression than do the English/language arts, or ELA, standards. While the appendix to the ELA standards provides a progression for phonemic awareness and language skills, no such progression exists for writing. The standards themselves contain a phonics progression, but details on teaching are left up to schools.

Unlike the mathematics standards, the ELA standards are pedagogically neutral, except for their focus on close reading. Textbook publishers, if they do the job right and thoroughly, can bolster the implementation of strong curriculum to support achievement.

New math and ELA texts and resources are essential to implementing the common core successfully. If left to schools and districts alone, articulation and coherence may be elusive.

Amnesia also seems to afflict some educators when it comes to the National Reading Panel findings from April 2000, which recommended that systematic phonics be a routine part of reading instruction for all elementary students. The reading-foundational-skills standards in the common core show that their authors recognized the importance of these skills.

What is not clearly evident, however, is how much time and practice needs to be devoted to mastering these skills.

Despite the evidence, we appear to be drifting away from systematic instruction in these skills. In part, this is the result of the placement of the reading foundational skills after the text-based standards in the common core, thus potentially minimizing their importance.

It also stems from a testing plan that starts in 3rd grade, with fewer states attending to the importance of preventive screening and early diagnosis of reading problems in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Continued vigilance in the primary grades and systematic reading instruction are imperative. Because of the emphasis placed on literary and informational text work, it is important to remember that children must be able to decipher words and read fluently, especially if they are going to meet increasingly rigorous textual demands.

Designing curriculum of sufficient depth to effectively address foundational skills while also meeting the common core’s demands regarding text will be challenging. Will the new basal readers or anthologies meet these dual challenges?

Without a strong and continued commitment to effective research-based early-literacy instruction along side rich content, we may be doomed to high rates of failure in the upper grades by students who still don’t read well.

As a profession, we seem to avoid discussions of teaching methods. Once we have defined a specific curriculum, how we teach it does make a difference. A strong body of research points to instructional methods that have a high likelihood of raising achievement. In a recent essay for the Education Week Teacher online site, Mike Schmoker argued for “soundly structured lessons” based on research dating back nearly 50 years but largely ignored. He said the research recommended:

• Articulating a purpose statement or opening with a provocative question;

• Modeling or demonstrating the carefully calibrated steps in learning a new skill;

• Guided and active practice of each individual small step the teacher modeled while checking for understanding; and

• Repeating the cycle based on student feedback and to support those who need further instruction.

Curriculum and instruction must be the levers by which the common-core standards become reality and firmly take root. State departments of education must play a vital role in ensuring this focus.

Setting rigorous expectations for what students should know and be able to do is an essential step that will bring a degree of consistency to our national education system. However, the common-core standards represent neither salvation nor Armageddon. Rather, it is time to shift national intensity from the standards to their implementation, with a focus on curriculum and instruction. Without this shift, the common core may end up as just one more failed reform.

Linda Diamond is the chief executive officer of the Consortium on Reaching Excellence in Education, in Berkeley, Calif. She is a former public school teacher, principal, director of K-12 instruction and professional development, and senior policy analyst for an education think tank. She is also a co-author of Teaching Reading Sourcebook, 2nd Edition (Arena, 2008); Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures, 2nd Edition (Academic Therapy Publications, 2008); and Vocabulary Handbook (Paul H. Brookes, 2007). She can be reached at ldiamond@corelearn.com.

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