Common Core and the Common Good: The Need to Improve Secondary Literacy Skills

Posted: June 1, 2011 in post
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World illiteracy

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An April 2011 Policy Brief from The Alliance for Excellent Education, addresses the decline in literacy expectations during the past 50 years; the concurrent rise in text complexity at the post-secondary level; and steps to reverse the decline in expectations. In this age of accountability, it would behoove educators to familiarize themselves with the Common Core State Standards, and the policy brief: “Engineering Solutions to the National Crisis in Literacy: How to Make Good on the Promise of the Common Core State Standards,” published by the fore-mentioned Alliance for Excellent Education.


According to the Alliance (see above for details) “…the expectations for what students read in school and what they do with what they have read have continued to decline.” The Alliance states that the decline began around 1962 and the reason for this trend could be described as “teaching to the middle.” For those unfamiliar with that concept, “teaching to the middle” refers to the common practice of targeting the average student due to the wide range and diversity of student abilities and background knowledge. The report further states that students are prepared to do very little reading of informational texts. Irrespective of one’s view regarding post-secondary education, the reality is this: high school graduates today are less well-prepared for the demands of the workforce than were their counterparts of 50 years ago. It does not require an advanced degree to understand that poses a problem for employers and the economy in general. In this writer’s opinion, the “solution” to the above problem has been the enormous boom during the same period in college attendance. While this writer disagrees with the conclusion that more students need to attend college, he is in agreement with the authors of the brief that expectations must be raised and that the adoption of the Common Core State Standards by the majority of these United States provides an excellent opportunity to raise the bar.


The April policy brief cites the following as some of the obstacles to overcome: uneven expectations; necessity of literacy instruction following grade three; achievement gaps based on race, ethnicity, and income; inadequate teacher development and support.

Let’s briefly address each concern. First, the move towards the Common Core Standards is a response to the wide variety of expectations from state to state. The adoption of the Common Core should serve to even out these expectations. An April 24, 2011 New York Times article states, “The standards, to go into effect in 2014, will replace a hodgepodge of state guidelines that have become the Achilles’ heel of the No Child Left Behind law” (Santos, Fernanda. A Trial Run for School Standards That Encourage Deeper Thought, N.Y., Region). Next, while it is recognized that the window of opportunity for addressing reading fluency (one part of the measure of literacy) is early and narrow–specifically grades pre-K-3–and many successful programs like the Minnesota Reading Corps have been developed to improve students’ success, literacy instruction must not end after third grade. The achievement gap has been widely discussed and can not adequately be addressed in this brief space. For more information, see: “Understanding Gaps” from the NAEP. Finally, with regard to teacher development and support, the policy brief states that most upper level teachers lack the skills to interact meaningfully with students through reading secondary texts. Moreover, more than two-thirds of teachers surveyed in the “Schools and Staffing Survey” commissioned by NAEP indicated not one day of training in supporting special education or ELL students; thus, much of what teachers do to “enhance literacy skills” is haphazard and ineffective.


As above noted, one of the most important solutions to the concerns is to arrive at a common set of standards, and the Common Core Standards Initiative is a positive step in that direction. There is a fear that Common Core will lead further down the perilous road of “teaching to the test”; however, the promise of Common Core is that each of the states will be aiming for mastery of the same more rigorous standards. Another piece of the puzzle is to ensure that all students have access to teachers, opportunities, and research-based interventions and supports. That will require funding… a dubious word in these times, but perhaps the most critical element to solving this crisis: funding. Without funding for professional development; research; evaluation; and continuous improvement, it’s all just pie-in-the-sky.

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