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Common Core: Will it hurt struggling readers?

The debate over the Common Core State Standards continues. Here an author writes about potential problems with Common Core implementation regarding reading instruction. This was written by Laura Robb, a veteran teacher, teacher mentor and author of books on reading for middle school teachers, early literacy and professional development. She has also created curricula for The Great Source Education Group.

By Laura Robb

I worry that the way many states want teachers to implement the Common Core State Standards will result in a larger population of students who struggle with reading and writing.

The Common Core’s explanation of “the reader and the task” makes clear that it is the teacher who has the knowledge about his students reading abilities; it is the teacher who can best decide whether students can read and learn from a specific text.

However, I see the Common Core in conflict with itself because the standards say that that all students should be reading complex, grade-level texts by the end of the school year. If a teacher decides to offer English language learners or developing readers texts they can learn from, texts two to four years below grade level, the teacher uses his decision-making power under “the reader and the task” — but his students’ won’t be reading on grade level by the end of the year.

An article in the Feb.27th issue of Education Week verifies my concerns. The study, conducted in October, 2012, surveyed 600 teachers in grades K-12 who subscribe to Less than one third of the teachers surveyed agreed that their schools districts were up to the task of implementing the standards. Not only do teachers feel unprepared to teach by applying the Common Core State Standards, but teachers also believe their students are less prepared. What’s interesting is that despite their negative feelings, two thirds of the surveyed teachers felt the standards would improve their teaching.

So what’s the real issue? One major issue is time. Teachers have two years to absorb the standards, plan curricula, find and purchase materials with diminished budgets, and prepare their students for taking the Common Core tests.

States are already becoming over-zealous in their efforts to accelerate students’ reading achievement and have all students reading complex grade-level texts by the end of the 2014 school year.

Heaping spoonfuls of blame and punishment will be meted out to schools that have too many students failing the Common Core tests taken in 2014. However, schools that have made major turnarounds without blaming and firing teachers and administrators needed 10 years to create positive and lasting change. Brockton High School in Brockton, MA, and the Union City Schools in Union City, NJ, are two excellent examples of the fact that change takes time.

Governors have embraced the Common Core in the hopes that this will be the silver bullet, the magic educational fix for their states. There is no magic bullet, no quick fix. Richard Allington’s studies have shown that it’s the teacher who can make a huge difference in children’s learning and attitudes toward education — if teachers are allowed to teach.

By now, I’m sure you’re wondering how can we accelerate reading achievement. Here are some suggestions:

  • Invest in print and e-books and build rich classroom libraries, K-12—1200 to 2000 books in every K to 12 ELA classroom.
  • Fund school librarians and provide them with an annual budget for books.
  • Provide and fund ongoing professional study for teachers because it’s the teacher who can make the difference in children’s development and achievement.
  • Differentiate instruction through guided reading groups or by organizing reading workshops where every student reads at her instructional level.
  • Have students read, at their independent reading level, forty to sixty books a year in addition to instructional texts that build their reading skill.
  • Develop rich summer reading programs so students don’t lose progress made during the school year.
  • Seek the advice of the best educational researchers and master teachers when developing educational policy.
  • Fund federal and state mandates so teachers have the finest materials and there are enough qualified teachers in a school to prevent class size from jumping to 35 to 40 students

Change takes time. Investing in education means diverting the billions of dollars now being used to create more tests and using the money to improving school’s’ infrastructure, enlarging school and classroom libraries, making computers and e-readers available to all students, and continually training teachers to improve their practice through ongoing professional study at the building level.