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Quick Guide to the Common Core: Key Expectations Explained

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How the Common Core Will Change the Way Teachers Teach and Students Learn

Guest Post By Adam Berkin, vice president of product development at Curriculum Associates

Since the Common Core State Standards were introduced, there has been much discussion about what they mean for educators and students and how they will impact teaching and learning. While the standards have been adopted by 45 states and 3 territories so far, there is a lot of concern, anxiety, and debate around what is best for students, potential challenges for teachers, and what implementation should and can look like. While many educators, parents, and concerned citizens have delved deep into the world of Common Core and understand the detail and complexity, most people have only a cursory understanding of the changes that are taking place, and some only know that changes are coming but don't know what they mean.

The new standards are focused on two categories: English Language Arts and Mathematics. Following are some of the key differences between the new ELA Common Core State Standards and many of the current educational standards in place around the country. Next week, my colleague, Kathy Kellman, will share the key differences in Mathematics.

English Language Arts

The text is more complex.

Since the 1960s, text difficulty in textbooks has been declining (Source: CCSS Appendix A). This, in part, has created a significant gap between what students are reading in twelfth grade and what is expected of them when they arrive at college. As you might imagine, this gap is hurting students' chances of success in college: the CCSS cites an ACT report called Reading Between the Line that says that the ability to answer questions about complex text is a key predictor of college success.

The text covers a wider range of genres and formats.

In order to be college-, career-, and life-ready, students need to be familiar and comfortable with texts from a broad range of genres and formats. The Common Core State Standards focus on a broader range and place a much greater emphasis on informational text. Colleges and workplaces demand analysis of informational or expository texts. Currently, in many elementary programs, only 15 percent of text is considered expository. The Common Core sets expectation that, in grades three through eight, 50 percent of the text be expository. Specifically, in grades three through five, there is a call for more scientific, technical, and historic texts, and in grades six through eight, more literary nonfiction including essays, speeches, opinion pieces, literary essays, biographies, memoirs, journalism, and historical, scientific, technical, and economic accounts.

In addition, students are expected to understand the presentation of texts in a variety of multimedia formats, such as video. For example, students might be required to observe different productions of the same play to assess how each production interprets evidence from the script.

There is a greater emphasis on evidence-based questioning.

The standards have shifted away from cookie-cutter questions like, "What is the main idea?" and moved toward questions that require a closer reading of the text. Students are asked to use evidence from what lies within the four corners of the text and make valid claims that can be proven with the text. The questions are more specific, and so the students must be more adept at drawing evidence from the text and explaining that evidence orally and in writing.

Students are exposed to more authentic text.

In order to ensure that students can read and understand texts that they will experience outside of the classroom, it is important that they are exposed to real texts in school. The Publishers' Criteria for the Common Core State Standards, developed by two of the lead authors of the standards, emphasize a shift away from text that is adapted, watered down, or edited, and instead, focus on text in its true form. While scaffolding is still considered an important element when introducing students to new topics, it should not pre-empt or replace the original text. The scaffolding should be used to help children grasp the actual text, not avoid it.

The standards have a higher level of specificity.

There is a great amount of flexibility for educators to determine how they want to implement the new standards and the materials they choose to use and/or create; however, the standards themselves are quite specific. This helps to ensure fidelity in implementation and common understanding of expectations. Examples include:

  • RL 4.4 - Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including those that allude to significant characters found in mythology (e.g., Herculean).
  • RL 5.2 - Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic.
  • RI 5.6 - Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent.

Additional Expectations

  • Shared responsibility for students' literacy development. In grades six through twelve, there are specific standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. The message here is that content area teachers must have a shared role in developing students' literacy skills.
  • Compare and synthesize multiple sources. Students are expected to integrate their understanding of what they are currently reading with texts that they have previously read. They need to answer how what they have just read compares to what they have learned before.
  • Focus on academic vocabulary. One of the biggest gaps between students, starting in the earliest grades, is their vocabulary knowledge. The new standards require a focus on academic vocabulary, presenting vocabulary in context, and using the same vocabulary across various types of complex texts from different disciplines.

The Common Core State Standards are not "test prep" standards. They aim to teach students how to think and raise the bar on their level of comprehension and their ability to articulate their knowledge. Many educators are already teaching in ways that align with the new standards, and the standards themselves allow the flexibility for educators to do what works best for their students. However, the depth of the standards and the significant differences between the CCSS and current standards in most states require a whole new way of teaching, so even the most experienced teachers will need to make great changes and require support in doing so.

A lot of publishers are repurposing old materials and saying that they are "aligned" with the Common Core. Many of us at Curriculum Associates are former teachers, and our team has been dedicated to learning everything we possibly can about the standards so that we can build products from the ground up that work for first-year and veteran teachers alike - and help students learn. We believe in the potential of the Common Core to help close the achievement gap in this country, and make our students more competitive on an international scale. We hope to faithfully do our part by making the transition easier for students and teachers.

For more information on the Common Core State Standards, please visit: http://www.corestandards.org/

Adam Berkin is vice president of product development at Curriculum Associates and has a diverse background in education. In addition to his current position in educational publishing, he has taught at the elementary school and graduate school level, has written about education for publications including Children's Literature in Education and Instructor, and is the co-author of a professional book for teachers called Good Habits, Great Readers .

Curriculum Associates is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

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