Now that the dust stirred up by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has begun to settle, it’s time for the hard part, implementation, which finds districts, schools, and teachers unpacking the standards, often without a road map. Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement (Heinemann, 2012), by Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman, all leading members of the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project (TCRWP) offers welcome direction for making sense of the ELA standards, especially for elementary and middle school teachers and administrators.
The authors start by outlining legitimate reasons why many teachers express reluctance about getting onboard, such as lack of resources, effects of poverty, and technology challenges. Nevertheless, they recommend that it’s time to put reservations aside, take a positive leap forward, and treat the standards as “gold,” packed with the potential to spark real school reform. Teacher collaboration across and within grades is a key ingredient.
Focused on literacy instruction, Pathways is divided into three main sections: “Reading Standards,” “Writing Standards,” and “Speaking/Listening and Language Standards.” Each begins with a close reading and practical analysis of the related Common Core standards, defining what is and isn’t expected of students and teachers, followed by ideas for implementation.
Collaborative study exercises for teachers are incorporated as needed. Text complexity, “the hallmark of the Common Core State Standards,” and nonfiction reading are given due attention. Readers are assured that the Fountas and Pinnell system for leveling text need not be abandoned, though other methods are cited by the CCSS. And recognizing the challenge of getting more nonfiction (which is not quite so easy to level) into the hands of young readers in a time of squeezed budgets, the authors propose solutions, from adding quality magazines to tapping digital resources. Unfortunately, there’s no mention of drawing on school library resources.
When addressing writing, the authors point out that the CCSS clearly emphasize students’ ability to write evidence-based arguments, and it’s likely that assessments being developed by PARCC and SMARTER Balanced (the authors recommend that teachers become familiar with both agencies) will test those skills. Here the path to instruction and increasing student achievement is not quite so clear-cut, and caution is advised against jumping on packaged materials that promise success. Instead, instruction should begin with evaluating students’ skills (Common-Core-Aligned Performance Assessments for grades K-8 are available at the TCRWP website).
The third piece of the ELA pie, Reading/Listening and Language, is described as clearly intended to make students “independent word solvers and writers and speakers.” Teaching grammar and vocabulary via isolated workbooks isn’t the answer; integrating and developing these skills across the curriculum, as in reading and writing, is a better approach.
Whether or not a school follows the TCRWP model, Pathways analyzes the ELA standards with clarity and makes a convincing case for tapping into the CCSS as a route to thoughtful school reform at a local level spurred by the high expectations of teachers who are committed to honing their craft.
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