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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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How the Common Core Standards Could Help Restore the Curriculum

Published:  May 14, 2012

More than 80 percent of elementary school teachers, grades 3 through 5, report that they are spending more learning time on math or language arts at the expense of other subjects. This is one of the most disconcerting findings from a recent survey of 1,000 3rd through 12th grade public school teachers commissioned by Common Core, a DC-based non-profit that promotes content-rich curricula and instruction.

In the past decade since the passage of No Child Left Behind, which required schools to report and raise standardized test scores in reading and math, research and anecdotal evidence have demonstrated that many teachers (in grades K through 2 also) are being required to spend more time on those subjects, reducing learning in some schools primarily to preparation for state standardized tests. States are now able to apply to the US Department of Education for waivers from NCLB’s proficiency mandate, which required all students to show proficiency on math and reading tests by 2014. Still, state standardized test requirements for reading and math –  and the corresponding pressure to raise scores by focusing instruction in those two areas –  remain.

While not directly affiliated with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, Common Core has produced corresponding curricula materials for the K-12 English Language Arts standards. At an event last month, Common Core brought together a panel of experts to present its survey results and discuss how the core standards might help address the problem of “curriculum narrowing.”

The Common Core State Standards are a state-led effort to establish more consistency in what is expected of students across the country. To be considered an “adopter” of the core standards, a state must agree to adopt the entire set of standards in math and literacy, as opposed to adopting only some of the standards. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core. Only Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have not.

At the Common Core event, David Coleman, a lead writer of the English language arts standards, said the new standards demand the use of more diverse texts during literacy instruction. While the core standards require fewer topics and skills to be covered over the course of the year, they require that more time be devoted to content-specific texts. In K-5, the Common Core calls for half the instructional time and half the assessment time allocated for language arts to be dedicated to reading informational texts from content areas such as science, history, geography and the arts.

This would represent a significant departure from common practice in most schools, in part because state standards do not necessarily demand subject-specific informational reading, and also because of a dearth of quality curricula materials to support such instruction. But according to Coleman, including more non-fiction and informational texts in reading instruction could benefit students in the long-term.

“There is no way to learn how to read without the building of dense knowledge in the early grades, which crucially drives vocabulary, the heart of reading,” Coleman said. “There is no such thing as doing the nuts and bolts of reading K-5 without coherently developing knowledge in science, history and the arts.”

Coleman also discussed the National Assessment of Educational Progress and offered a possible explanation for why reading scores have improved slightly in the early grades but not in 8th or 10th grades. He said a strong foundation in subject-area knowledge and vocabulary allows older students to read and respond to more complex texts. But too many students are missing out on richer reading assignments in the early grades, so are not prepared to read denser literary and content-area texts in later grades.

We agree with Coleman and are glad the Common Core State Standards promote the use of more than just narrative texts. Children are capable of and interested in learning so much more. But developing this knowledge base should start well before kindergarten. Pre-K and preschool teachers should also be introducing young children to a variety of science and social studies concepts, which will benefit students as the progress through school.  

You can listen to the entire Common Core panel here.

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