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New Common-Core Book for Teachers (and the Rest of Us)

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A new book by education writer Robert Rothman proposes to make the Common Core State Standards less scary. Prompted, in part, by an Education Week survey of teachers about their preparedness for teaching the Common Core, the forthcoming title Fewer, Clearer, Higher: How the Common Core State Standards Can Change Classroom Practice argues that the common core can transform teaching, and that such transformation is completely within reach for educators. The book is due in October from Harvard Education Press.

It seems that Rothman's book comes none too soon: As a new poll from Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup found, 62 percent of respondents – including 55 percent of parents surveyed – had never heard of the common core. As Education Week reported last week, PDK/Gallup respondents nonetheless appear to support teaching critical thinking and other skills emphasized throughout the common standards, so perhaps the book will find willing readers among the general public.

Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former Education Week reporter and editor, has been an active proponent of the common core and put forth a case for its adoption in Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education (Harvard Education Press, 2011). Readers of that previous volume – and anyone following Education Week's ongoing coverage of the standards – may experience déjà vu, as the introductory chapters of Fewer, Clearer, Higher recap a history of the standards' emergence already documented in Something in Common. Still, a large population of readers new to the standards may find the overview helpful.

Chapter 1 is dedicated to a political and policy history of the common core and updates highlights of Something in Common. Rothman retroactively builds a narrative of inevitability into the standards' development and adoption by a majority of states. While vituperative commentary on the standards and their implementation can give the impression of a divided and divisive K-12 field, Rothman emphasizes the many people involved in putting the common core in place; he sees in the "movement" a successful collaborative effort. The fairy-tale narrative resurfaces in Chapter 4 – "An End to the Math Wars" – which concludes that common assessment items currently in development, "like the classroom tasks earlier, represent a kind of peace treaty in the math wars."

Chapter 2 – "Less Is More" – and Chapter 3 – "Achieving Coherence" – dissect the reasoning behind the standards' focus on clarity, simplicity, and interconnectivity. That the common core – uniquely among American educational standards – maintains students' progress toward competence is one of Rothman's main arguments. A blend of research reports and interviews with the standards developers supplements Rothman's summary of the process behind the standards. Occasionally Rothman quotes personal correspondence a time too many – Do we really need to know that Jason Zimba said, of a poorly designed math textbook, "That's not a thing"? – perhaps in an attempt to humanize the common-core writers and bring their personalities to the fore.

Chapter 5 discusses changes in the sequence of math instruction, while Chapters 6 through 8 discuss nonfiction, critical thinking, and text complexity in the English/language-arts standards. Rothman starts in on an argument about the relatively stability of the high school literary canon over the past 30 years, but abandons it as he segues into findings about a decline in informational text consumption. Readers who feel this is a wasted opportunity may find a more interesting discussion – of whether a literary canon exists and is necessary, as well as the resilience of reading – in Marjorie Garber's 2011 book, The Use and Abuse of Literature (Pantheon).

Each chapter of Rothman's book includes a section titled "What the Standards Say" that parses select standards to indicate how wording and meaning stem directly from a particular debate or research finding. Some chapters follow up with "The Standards in Practice," a section offering examples of rubrics and criteria for picking curriculum materials.

One key point is Rothman's reiteration that "instructional shifts" should not entail teaching the standards themselves. He anticipates that this may be a point of confusion or frustration for teachers familiarizing themselves with yet another set of educational standards.

Fewer, Clearer, Higher addresses a number of controversies arising from the common core and its interpretation, including attitudes on prereading and publishers' criteria. Accommodations for English-language learners and special education students, as well as budgeting concerns for curriculum material and assessments – all serious challenges to standards implementation – receive but glancing mention. Then again, as new developments in common-core assessments and teaching crop up every week, Rothman's account of "the road ahead" is inevitably dated. It may be that his reticence on these challenges is practical – the difficulty of documenting rapid changes, limited information on how states intended to respond – rather than an oversight.

Rather than get overly wonky or (jargon alert) "in the weeds" with research related to the common core, Rothman primarily cites journalistic accounts and policy reports already available and accessible to most people. Sections of the book laying out research-based arguments for major "shifts" in the math and ELA standards cite key studies and journal articles, but for the most part readers who find Rothman's writing manageable will be able to follow along with his sources as well. Indeed, it seems that the purpose of this volume, with its friendly, firm, and not overly didactic tone, is to gain readers' trust, both for the author and for the standards themselves. Both are just here to help, not rile up or frighten.

Fewer, Clearer, Higher may find its best audience among teachers intimidated by and unprepared to teach common-core-aligned curriculum, or as a primer for those laypeople who remain unaware of the standards. Reading the standards cold is a daunting task for most; Rothman offers a way in to what can seem, at first glance, like an impenetrable document.

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