Book Review: Uncommon Core Brings the Discussion Back to Instruction

Full disclosure: I support the Common Core. So, it’s been challenging to watch the discussion around the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Just this week:

In the midst of all this discussion, comes the new book, Uncommon Core: Where the Authors of the Standards go Wrong About Instruction and How You Can Get it Right (Corwin Press). Authors Michael Smith, Deborah Applebaum, and Jeffrey Wilhelm acknowledge that the roll-out of the CCSS has presented major concerns. (The concerns primarily emerge through materials put out by David Coleman, author of the Standards and president and CEO of the College Board). In addition to the concerns raised by everyone from the Chattanooga Tea Party to Diane Ravitch (that the CCSS are an attempt to nationalize education, there is an overriding focus on profit, high-stakes tests take too central a role) Smith, Applebaum, and Wilhelm contend that if the CCSS is implemented in Coleman’s model it:

  • May erode teacher autonomy,
  • May result in a shift away from research-based best practices in reading instruction,
  • May negatively impact students who need it most (students who are underperforming or have specific needs), and
  • May result in a widening of the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’

In other words, may not produce the change in education that we want to see.

In addition, the authors point out that reading for pleasure and wisdom aren’t incorporated into the CCSS. Smith, Applebaum, and Wilhelm argue, and I agree, that reading for pleasure and for wisdom are both important goals for reading in school and at home. (For more about reading for enjoyment and the CCSS is Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts’ Falling in Love with Close Reading.)

In response to the concerns, Uncommon Core provides a well-researched argument for how the CCSS can be used to enhance instruction by building on strategies that teachers already use and with a focus on student independence (one of the goals of the CCSS). A few areas they incorporated:

  • Rather than having students start with cold-readings of complex texts, focused pre-reading and background-building instruction can help students access complex texts and build skills that will make their ability to “cold read” more likely in the future.
  • Instead of reading whole texts in isolation, reading various passages and texts within a unit improves students’ ability to transfer information and skills.
  • The list of exemplar texts, Appendix B, can be a starting point to build a diverse reading list for students with texts that are relevant, engaging and challenging.
  • Text-dependent questions can drive students into text, and can be combined with more general or authentic questions to drive discussion.

Suffice it to say, the authors of the Uncommon Core establish clear approaches to maximizing the CCSS to improve reading instruction.

I have followed the CCSS since 2010 when they were newly released and have seen the discussion develop from excitement to push-back to resentment. Teachers feel overwhelmed with the expectations of the CCSS and a confusing roll-out that’s merged with teacher accountability and evaluation, among other concerns. In the news, the arguments and discussions about the CCSS have gotten far away from the classroom, often devolving into political rhetoric. Uncommon Core brings the conversation back to the classroom and gives credit to teachers who are doing the work of the Common Core. (Edutopia Common Core, Teaching the Core, and Shanahan on Literacy also provide good resources around CCSS and literacy instruction.)

In short: for teachers who are working in states that are debating the CCSS, this book is a must-read. It will provide another access point for the CCSS and a critical look into what’s behind the educational arguments for and against the ELA Standards. For teachers in states that have adopted the CCSS and are moving forward with assessment, this book provides clarity and ideas for strengthening instruction, as well as guidance around how the CCSS have been and can be interpreted. Regardless of how the CCSS shakes out—if they’re adopted as-in, if they’re revised, or if they become the jumping off point for new state standards—Uncommon Core (as promised by the authors) provides a clear path for quality reading instruction using the CCSS.

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