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Boosting Reading Skills: Will ‘Common Core’ Experiment Pay Off?

May 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Called the "Common Core," a new set of state guidelines spell out what young students are expected to learn and what books they're expected to read. Forty five states and the District of Colombia have already adopted the standards. Learning Matters' John Merrow reports on the design and the aim of the new guidelines.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, how the world of reading may change for younger students.

Some big moves could be in store for schools as part of an important experiment around the country, as the NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, reports.

WOMAN: Did you bring back “The Three Little Pigs”? Very good.

JOHN MERROW: Today, almost 15 million public schoolchildren in kindergarten through third grade are working on their reading, sounding out letters, making meaning out of words.

STUDENT: A tree that is a. . .

WOMAN: Okay.

JOHN MERROW: Teaching them is big business. Billions of dollars are spent every year on books and reading programs, a significant investment, with disappointing returns.

Nationwide, 65 percent of eighth graders are not meeting grade level expectations in reading. And more than 600,000 of the nation’s students drop out of high school every year, some without ever having become competent readers. The repercussions are enormous for individuals and the country.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If we’re serious about building an economy that lasts, we have got to get serious about education. We are going to have to pick up our games and raise our standards.

JOHN MERROW: The question is, how do we raise our standards? The new view is that our kids read too much fiction, books like this, and not enough about things like electricity, whales and the solar system, at least not as much as kids in other countries that are outperforming us on international tests.

All that is spelled out here in what’s called the Common Core State Standards, new guidelines for what students are expected to learn and what kinds of books they’re expected to read. Financed with federal money, but developed outside of Washington, the Common Core has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

How much will reading programs in our 67,000 elementary schools have to change to get in sync with the Common Core? We looked at three very different programs to find out.

This public school in Newark, N.J., and about three-quarters of the elementary schools in the U.S. are using textbooks called basal readers.

WOMAN: This story right here, “The Secret Life of Trees,” is an example of informational text.

JOHN MERROW: Basal readers go back to the “McGuffey Reader” that was introduced in 1836. It paved the way for the popular “Dick and Jane” series that dominated schools from the 1930s to the ’60s.

For decades, readers like this were the only game in town. And they’re still popular today because they’re cheap, only about $150 per child, and because it’s an easy curriculum for new teachers.

WANDA BROOKS-LONG, principal, Peshine Avenue School: The basal program provides directions and support for teachers who are just coming out of school and who might not have a solid repertoire yet.

JOHN MERROW: Basal readers teach kids how to read by teaching them comprehension strategies, how to attack a passage, take a paragraph apart to figure out what the author means and so on.

PLANTIS SIMON, second grade teacher, Peshine Avenue School: So, for one week, it might be main idea. The next week, it might be focusing on expository text. So they’re focused on skills. They’re skill-based stories within the book.

WOMAN: There is “blank” wood and its trunk to build over 300 houses.


STUDENT: Enough.

WOMAN: Enough. What else can we do to help us when we are not sure of a word?

JOHN MERROW: Lessons are laid out page by page. Second grade teacher Plantis Simon sometimes follows the textbook exactly as prescribed.

PLANTIS SIMON: So they give you a list of questions at the end. After we read a story, I’ll use that as a reading response question. Children have to write about that question in their notebooks.

WOMAN: I want you to think about the story. I want you to check out the picture.

JOHN MERROW: But, other times, she says, basals are not doing the job and her students need more choices.

PLANTIS SIMON: So if you get a child that is going astray and they’re not picking up on the narratives and the skills that are supposed to come through in that story, sometimes you have to go outside the box and you have to find books that are interesting to them.

JOHN MERROW: School districts like basal reader programs because they can use the same books year after year.

Newark schools have been using their basal series for eight years. But now, with the Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction, some schools will need to buy new editions, or at least complemental books to keep up with the new standards. That’s great for the publishing companies, not such good news for schools with tight budgets.

STUDENT: We can make you. . .

JOHN MERROW: At first glance, a second approach to teaching reading looks quite different. For one thing, there are a lot more books. It’s something called balanced literacy.

And it’s used in about 15 percent of elementary schools nationwide, including this school in the Bronx in New York City. Books cost at least $300 per child, roughly twice as much as the basal approach. Instead of everyone reading from the same textbook, students in this program get to choose their own books. Every week, they pick about a dozen books from bins filled with just-right books compiled by teachers.

They read independently or with a partner.

Just-right books, what does that mean?

HARE QARRI, first grade teacher, Public School 109: It is just right for them, where they’re able to read that book fluently, independently, without any teacher support.

HARE QARRI: Can you turn to page five? And find the word colony. I want you to point to that word.

JOHN MERROW: Teachers like Hare Qarri continually assess their students to determine which books are on their level.

HARE QARRI: You guys can begin reading.

JOHN MERROW: And there are 26 different levels in all. Filling 35 classrooms and the library with choices is not cheap. And this year, because of the approaching Common Core, principal Amanda Blatter had to add lots more nonfiction choices.

AMANDA BLATTER, principal, Public School 109: We now have level libraries that are nonfiction in all of our classrooms. So the curriculum in reading and writing is now aligning to the Common Core standards.

JOHN MERROW: Just like the students using basal textbooks, these first-graders are learning reading strategies.

AMANDA BLATTER: We’re teaching comprehension strategies such as main idea, author’s purpose, inferencing, cause and effect.

JOHN MERROW: In balanced literacy, comprehension is a skill, something to be practiced, like a jump-shot or dance steps.

WOMAN: What planet is that?

STUDENT: Saturn.

WOMAN: And what makes Saturn unique?

JOHN MERROW: Not so here. In this reading program at a school in Queens, N.Y., the emphasis is on content, the knowledge kids acquire.

WOMAN: Pick your favorite planet. And you’re going to look back into your reading notebook and you’re going to have to write two facts about that planet.

JOHN MERROW: PS-96 uses a curriculum called Core Knowledge developed by a nonprofit organization led by education reformer E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Even though the word Core is in its name, it has no affiliation with the national movement.

STUDENT: Saturn is the second biggest planet. Saturn has thousands of rings.

JOHN MERROW: Core Knowledge is an outlier used by just over 1 percent of elementary schools. That’s only 800 schools. Because it’s such a small program now, the final cost has not been determined. Organizers say it will be less than basal readers.

Joyce Barrett-Walker is principal of PS-96.

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER, Principal, Public School 96: When I initially came to PS-96, we were not a Core Knowledge school. We basically used basal readers and some sort of — and balanced literacy. Through the basal readers, it was a lot of fictional, fictional studies, fictional texts.

JOHN MERROW: But principal Barrett-Walker wasn’t a fan of basal readers and their emphasis on fiction. She felt her students needed to know the same things that children in affluent neighborhoods were learning.

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER: I felt that some of the students who were here didn’t have enough prior knowledge.

JOHN MERROW: Prior knowledge means?

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER: Knowledge that they need to have to, I feel, function in society, to have conversation, just to help them exist and understanding who they are as far as their relationship to the rest of the world.

Core Knowledge can be challenging. So you do have to do a lot of training, because informational text is very complex. Now, how do you tear it down so that young children in kindergarten and first grade can understand about Egyptian civilizations?

JOHN MERROW: Content is king in the Core Knowledge approach. Books are organized by subjects like mythology, Mozart and the Westward Expansion, topics that some say are over the heads of the young readers.

Okay. So I want to know about the books you like to read.

Apparently, nobody told these first-graders.

STUDENT: My favorite book is solar system — actually, a nature book, “The Skeleton.”

JOHN MERROW: Oh, “The Skeleton.”

And how about you?

STUDENT: An archaeologist book because it’s teaching me more than archaeology.

JOHN MERROW: The arrival of the Common Core doesn’t faze principal Barrett-Walker.

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER: When I look at what the expectations are coming in with the Common Core learning standards, it seems that we’re where we need to be right now.

JOHN MERROW: So, how effective are these reading programs? The data for Core Knowledge in schools like this one in the Bronx is promising, but for basal reading programs, like this one in Newark, the research is muddy because it turns out that savvy teachers use whatever works best.

What is clear is that basal readers used in three-quarters of our elementary schools will have to make significant adjustments to comply with the emerging Core standards.

We won’t know for years where whether the new Common Core approach will produce more capable readers, but if this national experiment works, at the very least, our children should emerge knowing a whole lot more than they can learn from books like “Curious George” and “Clifford.”

School systems can look forward to another major challenge, new tests pegged at the Common Core in school year 2014-‘015.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just how big is the educational publishing industry? Learning Matters answers that question in a podcast. Find a link to their website on ours.