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Confusing Standards and Pedagogy: When Policy Analysts Don't Talk to Educators

Kathleen Porter-Magee ripped into Heinemann last week with a scathing review of their book Pathways to the Common Core. I first learned of this review, on the Fordham Institute's Common Core Watch blog, after seeing a Twitter exchange between Porter-Magee and one of the book's authors on Twitter.

She accuses Heinemann and the book's authors (Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Chris Lehman of the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project, or TCRWP) of bending the Common Core State Standards to support their existing work, rather than taking the standards seriously and making needed changes:

Part ideological co-opting of the Common Core (CCSS) and part defense of existing—and poorly aligned—materials produced by Heinemann, the book is the leading edge of an all-out effort to ensure that adoption of the new standards requires very few changes on the part of some of the leading voices—and biggest publishing houses—in education.

I'll start by agreeing that this is a very real risk: If we all pretend we're "aligning" with Common Core but change nothing, we're fooling ourselves. Virtually every curricular resource has by now had the Common Core label slapped on it, with varying levels of actual change in the service of alignment.

But Porter-Magee's comments suggest she fundamentally fails to understand the distinction between standards and pedagogy, which isn't a great sign for a professional policy analyst tasked with tracking the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. I can only presume she was called out for this, because yesterday she wrote a follow-up post in which she acknowledges that the standards explicitly state that they "define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach..." (CCSS ELA standards, p. 6).

However, Porter-Magee immediately goes on to reinterpret Standard 10 in pedagogical rather than outcome terms:

in an effort to define the rigor more clearly than their predecessors, the Common Core standards specify that the sophistication of what students read is as important as the skills they master from grade to grade. To that end, Standard 10 clearly asks that all students be exposed to and asked to analyze grade-appropriate texts, with scaffolding as necessary. link

Her critique of Heinemann and Pathways to the Common Core seems to center on the use of Irene Fountas & Gay Su Pinnell's text leveling system (an A-Z scale often referred to as F&P), which is also published by Heinemann and is widely used in elementary and middle schools. The TCRWP model uses F&P to help teachers and students select "just right" books for students to read—a practice Porter-Magee says is backwards according to the CCSS:

F&P is designed to help match books to readers—the precise opposite of what the Common Core demands. And the purpose of the program is to give students "just right" rather than grade-appropriate texts—exactly the practice that the Common Core seeks to end. link

Grade-level CCSS text complexity standards are expressed in Lexile scores, a different leveling system that relies on word frequency and sentence length to measure text complexity. F&P is a different system, but one that is certainly compatible with an approach that treats text complexity as a relevant factor. Porter-Magee seems to believe that the pedagogy behind F&P—the pedagogy advocated by TCRWP—is incompatible with Common Core. She is incorrect. If she had spoken with any actual teachers, she would not be nearly so confused about the difference between standards and pedagogy.

Standard 10, "Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity," states that students should be able to

By the end of the year, read and comprehend [text] in the [grade level] text complexity band proficiently....

These standards vary in wording from grade to grade (to take the 4th-5th grade band as an example, in 4th grade scaffolding is specified, whereas in 5th grade students are expected to read such text independently and proficiently), but essentially, Porter-Magee is correct that the standards specifically address text complexity as a learning target for students. She writes:
This seemingly innocuous directive—to read appropriately complex texts and to use scaffolding to help struggling students understand what they've read—is perhaps the most revolutionary element of the Common Core standards. For the first time, the standards guiding curriculum and instruction in forty-six states plus D.C. clearly define what it means for an ELA curriculum to be aligned to the level of rigor necessary to prepare students for college and beyond.

I agree. But what the standards do NOT do is specify how teachers should help students reach these standards, and it's here that the critique of F&P becomes a bit ludicrous. Porter-Magee seems to believe that students should be taught using only texts of grade-level complexity. This is confusing the methods (instructional and independent reading activities) with the standards (what students should know and be able to do).

I'll be as clear as I can: You can teach students to read complex grade-level text by giving them just-right books. The more reading of just-right books you do, the faster you will reach standard. Perhaps Porter-Magee misconstrues TCRWP's approach because she believes that it includes only independent reading with just-right books. This hunch is supported by her "Reading Wars" post. Pedagogy is complex and multi-faceted, and good instruction uses a variety of approaches to help students reach standards. The clarity of the CCSS is a breath of fresh air, but part of that clarity is in the standards' explicit disinterest in specifying how teachers teach. Students can certainly be taught to read texts of great complexity by and in addition to being taught with just-right texts.

If you are an elementary classroom teacher, or if you spend any time at all in classrooms where reading is taught, you are well aware that the "Reading Wars" that Porter-Magee seems to think she is reporting on have long since ended in compromise. If you teach Kindergarten or 1st grade, you teach some phonics but not only phonics. If you teach older students, you expect them to have a firm grasp of letter-sound correspondence. Beyond that, you get about the business of teaching reading in rich and engaging ways, not engaging in silly debates about so-called Reading Wars.

There will always be healthy debates about which curricula are best and which pedagogical approaches are best, but these do not constitute Reading Wars. Sorry. This is what happens when policy analysts don't talk to the educators whose practice they are supposedly analyzing. It's easy to critique how well a printed resource is aligned with CCSS, the real test is how it's used actual classrooms.

Porter-Magee concludes her review:

In the end, we don't all need to agree that the expectations laid out in the Common Core are the right ones to guide instruction in classrooms across America. But we will never have an honest discussion about the relative merits of one approach versus another if publishers avoid the difficult conversations and merely seek to bend the Common Core to their own will—and self-interests.

More to the point, we will never have a productive discussion as long as we're confusing approaches to teaching with standards for what students should know and be able to do.

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