Common Core

Does your school have a guaranteed and viable curriculum? How would you know? (Infographic)

A few months ago, we began working with a new principal who was in the process of getting to know her school. She knew that students came to school ready to learn, teachers were prepared to teach, and families were supportive of their school. The school was a welcoming place that served as a focus for community activities. But despite these positive supports, she explained, students were not meeting learning expectations. Academic progress in both English language arts and mathematics were below the state average, and she was concerned that families might soon lose confidence in the school’s ability to prepare students for the next level of learning.

During our consultation with this principal, we asked her if she knew whether the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum (GVC). She wasn’t sure how to answer, so she responded with a question, “How would I know if the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum?”

To determine whether a school has a GVC, we must first describe it. A “guaranteed” curriculum is often defined as a mechanism through which all students have an equal opportunity (time and access) to learn rigorous content. This requires a school-wide (or district-wide) agreement and common understanding of the essential content that all students need to know, understand, and be able to do. The word “all” needs emphasis; a guaranteed curriculum promotes equity, giving all children equal opportunity to learn essential content, and to provide this opportunity, curricular materials and instructional approaches must be grounded in research, implemented with fidelity, and must include vertical as well as horizontal alignment.

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Career Readiness: What does it really mean and how do we get there?

School systems across the country are being pushed to re-think their approach to Career Technical Education (CTE) and what it means to be “career-ready.” Job markets are continually changing, and it’s become more critical than ever that secondary students are prepared for college and career upon graduation. While many educators have equated career readiness to college readiness, others have begun to take a more nuanced approach, understanding that not all careers—like students—fit the same mold (Conley & McGaughy, 2012; DeWitt, 2012).

In 2015, ACT refined its definitions of the types of academic skills required for work: Work readiness skills are the academic skills required of all students to be prepared for the workplace; career readiness skills are those particular academic skills needed to work in a given industry; and job readiness skills are the particular academic skills needed for a specific job.

At McREL, our review of CTE-related certifications, standards, curriculum documents, and textbooks in nearly a dozen industries and career pathways has confirmed that the academic content required by various industries and jobs can differ greatly.

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Civil discourse on the Common Core

Being an academic standards consultant was once a fairly anonymous, low-profile job. Relatively few people seemed to know or care about the importance of educational standards, and news stories about standards were rare. Just a year or two ago, when I talked with other parents at the neighborhood park about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), they politely smiled and nodded, not really understanding what I meant. But, as the CCSS slowly began to be implemented over the last couple of years, people who had never given a second thought to educational standards began to take notice and discuss what exactly it is that they thought our students should understand and be able to demonstrate.

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Balancing the Common Core: Reading strategies take on supporting role

Reading“Where are our reading strategies?” This was the reaction of a group of K‒5 educators in North Dakota I was working with in 2010 as we reviewed the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Some widely used strategies, such as summarizing and inferencing, were easily found in the new standards, while others—like text-to-self connections, making predictions, and pre-reading—were not. During the review process, it became clear that the role of reading strategies had shifted: They were no longer primary objectives for student reading, as they had been in previous state standards, curriculums, and reading programs.

The Common Core instead places the text and student understanding front and center. Rather than focus on reading strategies and how students read, the CCSS focuses on the text and what knowledge students gain from their reading. The new standards stress comprehension and analysis of complex texts and the synthesis of ideas across texts to build knowledge. Reading strategies are largely sidelined as techniques for scaffolding instruction with individual students. As David Coleman, a lead author of the CCSS and current president of the College Board, said in a presentation at the New York State Education Department, “We lavish so much attention on these strategies in the place of reading, I would urge us to instead read” (“Bringing the Common Core to Life,” p. 17).

We know, however, that many children don’t understand what they read, and that they benefit from instruction on how to apply research-based reading strategies. It is not surprising, then, that many teachers plan their reading curriculum around them. How can we align strategy-based curriculums with text-based standards? There is a sensible balance to be found.

Complex texts, by the very nature of their complexity, often require teachers to support students’ reading. Teachers should continue to teach students how to apply certain reading strategies when they need them, but strategies should not be applied for their own sakes. Strategies should be carefully selected to support the aspects of a given text that are complex. For example, texts that have a high readability score on the quantitative measure of the CCSS text complexity model often have challenging vocabulary and sentence structures, aspects that teachers should support through targeted reading strategies.

Research-based reading strategies still play an important role in teaching reading comprehension. However, teachers should seek out a complex text that provides the information or ideas that students need to learn, and then provide opportunities for students to practice using a strategy suited to that specific text, rather than seek out a text that “fits” a certain reading strategy dictated by the curriculum.

A former English language arts teacher,
Susan Ryan is a curriculum services consultant at McREL and co-author of Common Core quick-start guides published by ASCD on English language arts and mathematics standards at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Taking the gamble out of CCSS curriculum alignment

Just as Claude Raines’ character in the classic movie Casablanca was “shocked, shocked!” to find that gambling was taking place in everyone’s favorite nightspot, many people may have been just as “surprised” to recently learn that education publishers can’t always be trusted when they declare that their materials serve the Common Core. (For those who haven’t seen the movie, Raines’ character wasn’t really all that shocked.)

If you’ve been an educator for a while, you might remember the days when “customization” meant simply that publishers changed state logos on the same textbooks to “customize” them to meet the state standards. Similarly, Education Week recently reported  on a study by researchers Polikoff and Schmidt, which found that publishers’ claims that traditional instructional materials are aligned to Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are largely a “sham.”

With so many states gearing up to implement and assess the Common Core State Standards—and looking for quality materials that support them—it’s puzzling that economies of scale, growing competition, and increased scrutiny haven’t yet resulted in well-aligned instructional materials.

Prior to the advent of the Common Core, standards varied widely from state to state, and the work of analyzing the quality of instructional materials and their alignment to state standards typically fell to selected teachers and curriculum staff in an individual district or state, sometimes with assistance from organizations like McREL. When this work went well, it resulted in a map of standards to the textbook series, recommendations for supplementary materials to ensure all standards were covered, and cautions where matches needed special attention. When done right, that work is time-intensive and can be expensive.

But now we have a universal set of standards, implemented across more than 40 states. Shouldn’t that make alignment, from a publisher’s perspective, a bit more efficient?  And if, as Polikoff and Schmidt suggest, this is not quite the case, where do we go from here?

Let me offer a modest proposal: if the efficiency offered by a common set of standards hasn’t yet provided the benefit of quality, aligned work from publishers, then maybe consumers (teachers, schools, and districts) should take the lead.

One example of this type of grass-roots effort is the Anthology Alignment Project which houses free, teacher-developed Common Core aligned lessons for Anthology reading series in grades 6–10. This effort is a follow-on to the Basal Alignment Project, spearheaded by the Council of the Great City Schools, which is a collection of replacement lessons for the most commonly used basal readers.

With hundreds of schools and districts across the U.S. reviewing the same textbooks—either in consideration for adoption, or mapping for current use in the Common Core—we have the strength in numbers to develop high-quality alignment work that is available and affordable to all, whether it’s a mapping of Common Core to a mathematics textbook at 4th grade, or to a well-designed grammar lesson available as a downloadable file.

Do you know of efforts to develop consortia of schools or districts to realize a similar goal? If so, I invite you to use the comments section below to share information on how they came together and how others might join.

Working together, we ought to be able to reduce the expense of, and the gamble on, curriculum adoption, and maybe, to quote Casablanca again, even begin a few beautiful friendships.

John Kendall conducts research and provides technical assistance on academic standards to schools, districts, states, national, and international organizations. He is the author of
Understanding Common Core State Standards and Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K–12 Education and the author or co-author of numerous reports and guides related to standards-based systems.

From book to classroom: Applying the 12 Touchstones

This is the first in a series of posts by Bryan Goodwin and Elizabeth Ross Hubbell, authors of the new book, The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching. Their posts will look at individual touchstones, providing insights, making connections, prompting reflection, and sharing ideas for using the touchstones in the classroom. Elizabeth Ross Hubbell starts things off with a look at the first touchstone.

Touchstone #1: I use standards to guide every learning opportunity.

If you have never seen Brian Crosby’s “Back to the Future” TED Talk, stop now and go watch it. It’s one of my favorite videos for showing how a dedicated teacher with few resources and a class of “at risk” students expertly uses technology, real-world experiences, and outside connections to tap into student excitement. I’m always struck by the emotion and dedication that is evident throughout his high-tech classroom.

Another, perhaps more subtle, message that Brian sends is that he addresses curriculum standards through innovative and creative means. This echoes our first touchstone, using standards to guide every learning opportunity. Embedded in this first chapter is the idea that teachers should use standards as a platform for creativity.

This may at first seem dichotomous. We sometimes hear groans among educators (and parents) who say that following a set of standards in the classroom restricts spontaneity and imagination, and reduces motivation for impromptu student learning. Crosby’s TED Talk video, however, demonstrates how we can follow curricular guidelines while still allowing for creativity and love of learning for students and teachers.

As we state in The 12 Touchstones book, “When everyone gets on the same page about what’s important for students to learn (i.e. standards), teachers can devote their time and energies not to figuring out what material to teach but, instead, to determining how to teach that material in a way that engages and enlightens students and—when possible—accelerates their learning” (p. 14).

As you look through your lesson plans over the next week or month, ask yourself, “What’s a more creative way I could engage students in this content? How can I make them want to learn this material?” We’d love to hear your ideas below.

Elizabeth Ross HubbellElizabeth Ross Hubbell is a principal consultant in the Center for Educator Effectiveness, and co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and The 12 Touchstones of Great Teaching

Balancing the Common Core: The truth about informational text

While driving the other day, the talk on the radio shifted to the Common Core State Standards—specifically, the requirement that 70 percent of student reading be non-fiction by the end of high school. “What great literature will be tossed aside in favor of bus schedules and how-to manuals?” the host and callers wondered with alarm. This wasn’t the first time that I’d heard this Common Core recommendation misinterpreted and overblown.

What they—and others—have missed is the footnote on the bottom of page 5 in the standards: “The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings.” Most high school students have always been required to do a significant amount of reading in non-language arts classes. When you consider that the 70 percent includes reading in all subject areas, it doesn’t sound nearly as earth-shattering.

Further, ELA state standards, instructional materials, state assessments, and NAEP have been moving to include more informational texts for many years, so it is not all that surprising to see a greater balance between literature and informational texts in the Common Core, particularly for the middle and high school grades.

Another concern about the Common Core’s emphasis on informational texts is the fear that “bus schedules” will replace great literature in our classrooms. This fear is also not new, though it may have some merit. A federal tax form that found its way into my local state assessment for reading comprehension some years ago was the cause of much angst in the teachers’ lounge for years afterward.

While I cannot speak to the types of reading passages that may appear on Common Core assessments, I can say with confidence that the Common Core does not mandate the reading of bus schedules or tax forms in curriculum. Rather, the standards have called for rich primary documents, engaging “literary non-fiction,” and complex informational texts that support deep student learning across the curriculum and prepare them for college and career.

While you will find reference to “technical texts, including directions, forms, and information displayed in graphs, charts, or maps” in the standards for grades K–5 (p. 31), it is up to teachers and local districts to make decisions about the texts students read and to embed them within units of instruction that make their use purposeful. I believe that there are many functional texts that meet the expectations of the standards text complexity model that will also engage students in topics that interest them across the curriculum.

While the push for more informational texts is not really new, the standards’ emphasis on literacy instruction across subject areas and the quality of student reading materials in those areas is. Have you read any social studies textbooks recently? I don’t recommend them as exemplars of informational writing. Social studies and science teachers will need to identify and incorporate complex texts into their curriculum, and what is likely to be most challenging is that they need to be able to scaffold that reading with text-specific supports when needed.

Embedding literacy instruction within science, social studies, and other subjects is likely to be a real change and the real challenge of the Common Core’s emphasis on informational text—though it may make for a less alarming debate.

2008_RyanA former English language arts teacher, Susan Ryan is a standards consultant at McREL and co-author of Common Core quick-start guides published by ASCD on English language arts and mathematics standards at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Balancing the Common Core: Leveled readers vs. complex text

The art of teaching requires many careful balancing acts, and implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for literacy offers an opportunity for one more. We’ve heard a lot about the CCSS’ focus on complex texts; however, this doesn’t mean texts matched to students’reading levels aren’t still important. It takes both to build competent and fluent readers.

Elementary classrooms and libraries across the country are filled with leveled readers, or books categorized into reading levels. During literacy blocks, many teachers carefully and systematically ensure that each student is assigned to a reading group or given a selection of texts for independent reading based on his or her assessed reading level. This is common practice in reading instruction and is, in fact, the centerpiece of popular curricula such as Lucy Calkins’ Reading and Writing Project.

On the other hand, Reading Standard 10, which underlies all of the reading comprehension standards in the Common Core, expresses an expectation that all students comprehend complex texts on a continuum that leads to college readiness by the end of high school. This expectation certainly is a shift—not because college readiness and reading comprehension weren’t previously our goals, but because many of us thought that we could achieve higher student reading comprehension scores solely by enticing students to read more.

In my own teaching practice, I felt that if I coaxed a non-reader to pick up a magazine or graphic novel or just about anything, I was succeeding. I tried to get them to fall in love with reading and learning by allowing them time to read whatever they wanted. I still believe offering such choices is important, but I have now come to understand that a balance is needed.

The Common Core’s Publishers Criteria states that scaffolding reading instruction should not include using easier versions of the same text (pp. 8–9), but rather teachers should model reading strategies and provide other supports, like guided questioning and vocabulary development, when students struggle. However, the CCSS also state in the K–5 domain for Reading Foundational Skills that students need to build fluency—which comes as they read self-selected texts and texts matched to their level.

Research doesn’t offer much clarity on the effectiveness of either. In a recent blog, Timothy Shanahan, a literacy professor and researcher, notes the surprising lack of research proving the effectiveness of using leveled readers: “Research shows that matching kids to books does not guarantee big learning gains. In fact, in the two best and most recent studies on the topic, one study found minor benefits of a good book match on one measure only, and the other study actually found that kids made better progress in the frustration level books!” (For a rebuttal on the research on frustration level books, read this blog by literacy consultants Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris.)

I advocate for the middle ground. We do not need to take all of the choice out of classroom literacy instruction in order to meet the Common Core’s expectation for text complexity, but we do need to deliberately guide student reading so that all students have supported opportunities to engage with rich literature and build complex knowledge with informational texts. Sometimes the best thing to do is not to listen to all the hub-bub about the standards and just read the standards themselves:

Students need opportunities to stretch their reading abilities but also to experience the satisfaction and pleasure of easy, fluent reading within them, both of which the Standards allow for (The Common Core State Standards, Appendix A, p. 9).


A former English language arts teacher, Susan Ryan is a standards consultant at McREL and co-author of Common Core quick-start guides published by ASCD on English language arts and mathematics standards at the elementary, middle, and  high school levels.

Common Core math doesn’t mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater

Math. Love it or hate it, it’s essential for success in schooling and in life. As states, districts, and schools continue to implement the Common Core State Standards, helping students “think like mathematicians”—to explain and justify their thinking and apply their learning to new situations—can be a challenge for teachers. But as I wrote in a recent ASCD Express column, implementing the Common Core State Standards in math doesn’t require a complete rework of your instructional strategies. Rather, using time-tested instructional strategies in conjunction with a focused approach to the Common Core can smooth the path to implementation.

Common Core Standards for High School Mathematics: A Quick-Start Guide (Schwols & Dempsey, 2012) provides three recommendations for beginning implementation of the Common Core math standards: focus on the standards for mathematical practice, focus on critical areas, and focus on connections. For more on how to integrate research-based instructional practices with these Common-Core-specific strategies, check out the full ASCD Express column here.

Written by McREL Lead Consultant Kirsten Miller.