A decade after the development of Common Core State Standards, it is clear that the widespread adoption and implementation of them have done little to improve the literacy rates of America’s students. In 2020, reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the Nation’s Report Card, show that 4th and 8th graders are not reading any better than they did in 2012, the last time the Long Term Trend Assessment was administered. So what happened?
Plain and simple, the ELA standards have a fatal flaw: the standards are skills-focused. Generic skills such as finding the main idea, making inferences, and using context to determine word meaning are abundant in the standards. These skills are certainly relevant and necessary for students to read well, but they are incomplete.
While well-intentioned, the generic skills approach to reading instruction inevitably leads to gaps in knowledge as teachers select content without a cohesive sequence. For example, a student may end up studying life cycles in Kindergarten, 1st grade, and 3rd grade but never encounter habitats, heredity, or classification systems. Additionally, when students do encounter knowledge in the ELA block, it is often not to the depth needed to store the knowledge in their long-term memory, a sign of true learning.
By leaving the content out of the standards, the standards set students and teachers up to fail. Thankfully, teachers and school leaders can counteract this flaw in the standards within the ELA block itself.
To begin, schools need to establish a coherent content sequence to develop the background knowledge students need to be competent readers. This sequence should have the breadth and depth of knowledge to systematically build knowledge and increase student comprehension. Knowledge is sticky – the more you know about a topic, the more you can understand about that topic. Content that is taught in the younger grades can be expanded in older grades as students go through the sequence. An excellent place to start is the Core Knowledge Sequence, developed by the Core Knowledge Foundation founded by E.D. Hirsch, who has written extensively about the necessity of knowledge in reading comprehension.
The phrase “teach students how to think, not what to think” has become a common cry recently. But these thinking skills that everyone aspires to must stem from content knowledge. As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham wrote, “thinking skills depend on factual knowledge.” By teaching content knowledge first, students will become equipped to do the harder work of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating because they have something to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. They can think critically about the present because they have a store of historical, scientific, literary, and other knowledge with which to think.
A second tactic is to ask students to write about the content they’re learning. When writing instruction is embedded in content (history, science, math, arts), students are forced to interact with their knowledge in new ways. Students must retrieve content knowledge from long-term memory and then manipulate it, which in turn strengthens their understanding of the content. The Writing Revolution by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler provides a clear rationale and path for writing instruction, starting at the sentence level and systematically moving towards essay writing.
Lastly, parents should be invited into the work. Groups across the country are clamoring for transparency. And yet, every parent cringes when they ask “what did you learn at school today” and get the dreaded “I don’t know” from their child. Schools can and should provide daily or weekly dinner table questions so parents are aware of the knowledge that students are learning. These questions not only strengthen the parent-teacher relationship, but they also work to strengthen the learning of the student by asking them to retrieve the information from their memory.
The common core state standards are fundamentally flawed, but it could be years until public policy comes around to fixing them. Until then, it’s up to individual teachers, parents, and administrators to fill the knowledge gap.