February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Consider the Source: The Problem with Common Core’s ‘Appendix B’

Letter B with kids

Photo by Jupiterimages

We always warn kids not to “pile on”—adding an extra shove when another kid is already down. But in this case, I have to add my voice to Melissa Jacobs-Israel’s. Melissa has expressed her frustration with the Common Core’s infamous Appendix B: Text Exemplars and Performance Tasks, and I couldn’t agree more.Sadly, Appendix B isn’t down.

In fact, a big problem is that it’s standing all too tall. I’ve just heard that Massachusetts—the state that perennially leads the education pack—has endorsed it. As my wife recently pointed out to me, though, I’m a fixer: if something is wrong, I always assume there’s a way to correct it. So this column is neither a complaint nor a “me too,” but a proposed solution.

First the problem: friends—and that includes librarians, teachers, administrators, and publishers—telling schools to use Appendix B as a buying guide makes no sense. Student Achievement Partners, a New York–based nonprofit group, first promulgated the Common Core (CC) State Standards in 2010. Of necessity, the books the CC development team evaluated were from 2009 or (much) earlier. The CC team knew that, which explains why Appendix B offers not “must-have” lists but “exemplars.” These are the kinds of books the CC team of teachers and librarians found useful for supporting CC goals. They’re listed for your reference as examples.

Like many, I was surprised by the list: not merely the dated books for grades K–6, but the almost total absence of titles written for middle school and high school readers. As I said, I’m a fixer. So I found out who was responsible for crafting the list—Steve DelVecchio a bright former school librarian who now teaches in the library school at the University of Washington. Steve explained that a team of teachers tried out books in their classrooms (though they couldn’t get all of the titles they wanted) and then reported back on those that they found worked well to support the CC.

That’s fine as a process, but not as a guide: we have no access to what the teachers said, why they favored one book over another, which books they wanted and couldn’t get publishers to give them, or how they used them. So Appendix B is precisely the opposite of what it claims to be—the books (plus, 6 to 12 primary documents) are not “exemplars” because we have absolutely no way to know what they “exemplify.” Even an editor-friend-of-mine who was pleased to see books she had worked on appear on the list was totally baffled. Why those particular books by a certain author, when there are 20 others by the same writer in the same format that are not on the list? If the list stated what was valuable in that author and that format, libraries would know to select which of the 20 suited them, rather than dutifully purchasing the two that happened to be on the list. We can all say it in chorus, “That makes no sense.”

Enough. Let’s move on to solutions. One of the great values of CC is that librarians and teachers in 46 states will face similar challenges and can share their solutions. Sue Bartle, the school library system director for New York’s Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES, has started a new list of CC-enhancing exemplars, which better reflect what’s available in our library collections. These suggestions include annotations and information on why they are considered exemplars. It’s an open list, and everyone is welcome to add his or her suggestions and comments to it. Let’s build this list together, discuss it together, and craft it together to serve all of us as we implement the CC. Sue and I will have more to say about it in a feature we’re writing for SLJ.

Common Core tasks us to teach “critical reading” to young people, so that they are always questioning where information comes from and why the author reached his or her conclusions. We should be the same in our professional reading. Don’t accept a list because it exists: ask why, and then offer your own best insights. Help us build a “Better B” through our shared experience and intelligence, with all of our evaluation cards on the table. Appendix B will have served its purpose if it prompts us to be engaged readers sharing information we gather and stand by on our own. That’s the kind of example we need to set.

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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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