The Next New Thing in American Education:
The Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts
The second of three articles.
In the first article of this series, I reported on key changes afoot in American education that are reflected in the core standards recently adopted by 43 states. These include a balance between knowing and understanding, greater emphasis on the quality of learning than on its quantity, a reduced – and hence more manageable – set of learning objectives each year, and a careful progression of skills from year to year. I also pointed out important ways in which these standards bring the mainstream of American education into conformity with the means and ends of learning practiced by Schechter Manhattan all along.
The new core standards for English language arts and literacy across the curriculum represent a sea change for American education and a repudiation of the way in which teachers have taught English for generations. If successful, they will radically transform what teachers do, the materials they use, the tasks in which their students engage, and the learning outcomes they achieve. Though, in general, these changes are not easy to quantify, they represent a significant raising of the bar for American students. For example, an appendix to the standards that cites relevant research notes that a widely respected educational measurement company, MetaMetrics, recently adjusted its scale for measuring texts to increase the text complexity for particular grades. In middle school, the target score for complexity used to be 860-1010; the new standards call for a complexity range of 955-1155 in sixth through eighth grade. (To understand how significant this increase is, we need only compare the new expectations for middle school with the old expectations for ninth and tenth grade – 960-1115 – to appreciate that, in the future, students will be expected to read by the end of eighth grade at a level higher than that which students used to be able to read by the end of tenth grade!)
Of particular interest to us at Schechter Manhattan is the new thinking being brought to bear on the literacy skills students are being held accountable to and the habits of mind they are expected to develop.
In each of the literacy strands – reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language – the new standards differ significantly from earlier standards that prevailed in most states.
Reading: The core standards break new ground by identifying the sophistication of the texts students read as the key distinguishing factor between skilled and ineffective reading. In study after study, the complexity of the texts students read proved more important than even their ability to engage in higher-order, critical analysis of what they read.
In particular, the authors of the core standards criticized the declining complexity of textbooks over the past 50 years. Another contributing factor to low reading performance has been the predominance of narrative (i.e., fictional) texts and students’ infrequent exposure to informational or expository (i.e., non-fiction) reading.
At Schechter Manhattan, the reading program has not suffered from these drawbacks: we use almost no textbooks, in part precisely because the writing in them is of such poor quality. Rather, we use high-engagement, high-quality reading material, both fictional and non-fictional. In the middle school, one of the salutary by-products of organizing the curriculum across disciplines and assigning one teacher to teach both English and social studies is that, as a matter of course, the English teacher works with students on reading informational social studies texts, including the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers in seventh grade and Alex Haley’s Roots in eighth grade. All along, our students have been trained to read texts of a complexity and sophistication that other American schools are only now first beginning to aspire to.
Writing: The most far-reaching new insight that undergirds the writing standards is the priority given to writing logical arguments. The key writing skill for success in both college and careers, researchers have found, is this particular form of writing that makes use of sound reasoning, as opposed to narrative, explanatory, or even persuasive writing in which the primary appeal is to the reader’s emotions. Among the writing skills essential for future success that students learn in the writing of arguments are articulating a thesis, citing evidence to support or challenge a thesis, and discussing counterarguments. The core standards anticipate that the types of writing students engage in during their school years will increasingly focus on persuasive and expository writing, whereas narrative writing, whether fiction or memoir, will correspondingly decrease.
This emphasis on academic writing is nothing new at Schechter, though it seems to be neglected in the vast majority of other schools at present. Students write to convey information (“all-about” books) beginning in kindergarten and first grade. They graduate to writing paragraphs with thesis sentences beginning in third grade, and by middle school, they are writing lengthy (5+-page) research papers at least once a semester. In every subject, teachers continuously focus their students’ attention on the evidence for claims they make, whether in writing or in class discussion. From an early age, Schechter students learn to acknowledge each other’s ideas in class conversations (“I agree with Johnny that…..”; “Mary said that…., but I disagree because….”) Our students are well versed in many of the subtleties of logical argumentation long before they head off for high school.
Speaking and Listening: The new standards emphasize developing oral skills not only in formal presentations, but in informal settings as well, including those that call for working together, collaboration, and listening to other members of a group and building upon each other’s ideas.
The myriad opportunities Schechter Manhattan students have for formal presentations – beginning with author’s chair presentations and publishing parties in kindergarten, continuing with public theme presentations in third through fifth grade, and culminating in their exhibition presentations in the middle school – confer on them a tremendous academic advantage in comparison to students in other schools. And because we ask our students to work collaboratively in groups several hours a day, every day for nine years, they are world-beaters in speaking and listening in cooperative learning settings
Language: Even in an area as tradition-bound as teaching vocabulary, grammar, and other language conventions, the core standards have a different take from the norm in American education. First, students should be expected not only to know the rules, but also to be sensitive to the context and purpose of their language use (for example, formal vs. colloquial, print vs. digital) so that they can choose consciously when to observe and when to violate the rules – not simply to vary their writing or to make it “interesting,” but rather because their purpose or medium demands a non-standard use. Second, the standards make the point that, even though all vocabulary is important, not all vocabulary words are created equal. Special priority should be given to general academic words (such as “modern times,” “determine,” and “second-class citizen”), as opposed to the words of everyday speech, on the one hand, and domain-specific academic terms (such as “legislature,” “aorta,” or “segregation”), on the other.
Schechter Manhattan teachers intersperse language lessons with other literacy activities and relate them to each other so that students learn to recognize them and evaluate them in context. The method used in every grade for language learning is the Word Study mini-lesson. Teachers identify a skill that students are struggling with, isolate it out of context so that they can focus on it, and then ask the students to notice the same language patterns in context, whether in the reading they are doing in the subsequent lesson, or in their own writing. Our students develop rich and powerful vocabularies which they use with careful attention to situation and context.
Habits of Mind
The authors of the core standards identify other characteristics that, though they are not standards in themselves, describe characteristics of students who meet the standards. In other words, in Schechter Manhattan parlance, the core standards recognize the importance of the following seven habits of mind for becoming a literate individual:
Demonstrating Independence: Students should become increasingly self-directed, able to access resources to help them read, write, listen, and speak powerfully.
Sound familiar? This is the first of Schechter Manhattan’s first principles!
Building Strong Content Knowledge: Students should use the literacy skills they master not only to complete assignments and succeed in school, but also because they appreciate its value and usefulness and wouldn’t want to read or write or speak or listen any other way. They’re committed to it; it’s their default approach.
At Schechter Manhattan, we call this “cultivating the mind,” and it’s one of our four Schechter Manhattan differences!
Adapting Communication to Audience and Purpose: Students should develop an intuitive sense of subtle differences in tone, connotation, and types of evidence that are appropriate to particular occasions.
Schechter Manhattan students use literacy skills in a wide variety of contexts with such regularity and facility that, even if they initially vary their responses consciously and intentionally, ultimately they become spontaneous and intuitive in the literacy and language choices they make.
Comprehending and Critiquing: Students should read and listen not only warmly, to understand, appreciate, and affirm an author’s or speaker’s point, but also coolly, to question the other’s assumptions, logic, or conclusions.
Powerful, challenging questions are at the core of the constructivist learning design of Schechter Manhattan’s “new academic rigor.”
Valuing Evidence: Students should use evidence to support their own claims and evaluate others’ use of evidence.
Schechter Manhattan teachers challenge their students to cite evidence for their assertions, in class discussion or in writing, with such regularity that looking for evidence and finding it becomes second nature to them.
Using Technology Well: Students should know how and when to assess technology and use it appropriately, including digital resources, to further their literacy and language use.
Though Schechter Manhattan students are digital natives like their counterparts in other schools, they are also taught to be discerning and critical users of technology, enthusiastic and embracing or skeptical and guarded, as appropriate.
Understanding Other Perspectives: Students should understand other cultures and points of view and evaluate them constructively and critically. They are able to experience others’ settings and vicariously see the world through their eyes.
Schechter Manhattan students are immersed in unfamiliar cultures regularly, whether in their study of Native Americans in third grade, of rainforest cultures in fourth, of African narrative in sixth, or of African-American and other minorities’ experience of the American Dream in eighth. They also regularly are asked to inhabit others’ worlds in reading and responding to literature.
The English language arts core standards mark the dawn of a new day in literacy teaching and learning in America’s schools. As curricular materials and assessments are developed over the next few years to help schools effect a transition to the new model, teachers will become increasingly adept at cultivating in students these skills and dispositions.
For its part, we can expect Schechter Manhattan to be both inspired and challenged by other schools’ successes. As those schools learn to promote high-level literacy skills and habits of mind, as Schechter already does so well, we will maintain our pre-eminence only by scaling new heights. In this, Schechter will be helped by two resources: first, we will be able to make use of many of the same high-quality curriculum materials that will have been developed for the wider market of American schools, and second, we will continue to be able to use our own secret weapon to good advantage, namely the Hebrew language and Jewish Studies program that inculcates high-level academic skills in its own right and thereby translates into a further academic advantage for our students. We look forward to rising to the new challenge.
Next in the Series:
The Common Core State Standards in Mathematics
 Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (2010). Appendix A: Research Supporting Key Elements of the Standards, p. 8. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf.
 Intersegmental Committee of the Academic Senates of the California Community Colleges, the California State University, and the University of California (ICAS). (2002). Academic literacy: A statement of competencies expected of students entering California’s public colleges and universities. Sacramento, CA: Author. In ibid., p. 25.