Publishing professionals gathered for an informal discussion about the Common Core during a January 30 event sponsored by the American Book Producers Association. Marc Aronson, an editor, author, and Common Core consultant for schools and libraries, and John W. Glenn, an editor and creator of illustrated nonfiction, presented. The speakers, who are partners in the independent book production company Aronson & Glenn LLC, came with the goal of clearing away what Aronson described as the “white noise” surrounding the Common Core, in order to address its real-world application in U.S. schools. ABPA board member Susan Knopf, president and founder of Scout Books & Media Inc., moderated.
Aronson said that though he does not necessarily advocate every aspect of the Common Core’s implementation or its assessments he is a fierce advocate of the educational reform. The essential point to remember about Common Core, he said, is that the standards do not dictate content, but rather serve as guideposts to the skills that students should be building throughout their years of primary and secondary education.
Common Core brings about a philosophical and pedagogical shift when it comes to text, according to Aronson. Rather than viewing a text as the ultimate authority, he said, the standards urge teachers to teach students that it represents one authorial point-of-view, and that that information “doesn’t come from a database in the sky,” adding that students will find this lesson particularly applicable in a world that is more saturated with information (and misinformation) than ever before.
Texts provide teachers with vehicles through which to teach fundamental skills outlined in the standards – so in a sense, the texts themselves become secondary to the instruction, Aronson suggested. He brought up the now ubiquitous labeling of nonfiction books by publishers as being Common Core-aligned, a practice that he and Glenn believe is essentially meaningless. Any book (“the phone book or Finnegans Wake”), Aronson said, could be taught so that it aligns with the Common Core. Publishers would better serve teachers, he said, by describing how the standards can be used to teach a book or by including an author’s note that provides deeper insight into his or her process. Then teachers can make more informed and substantive decisions when it comes to selecting texts.
Aronson also believes that too much emphasis has been placed on the Lexile Framework for Reading as a means for determining age-appropriate texts. Lexile levels are quantitative measurements of a book’s reading complexity based on word and sentence lengths. Yet texts are not always so cut-and-dried. For example, Aronson said, according to the Lexile system, a book about dinosaurs might not be an appropriate selection for a six-year-old, due to the fact that dinosaur names are long and polysyllabic. And yet, Aronson said, dinosaur books have tremendous appeal for kids of that age range, who might be so immersed in the topic that they don’t notice that they are tackling such challenging words.
“I preach patience,” Aronson said. “There will be stumbles, weak applications, and a lot of professional development” for teachers in the coming years. Yet for those educators who feel that their jobs are on the line, grappling with ambiguity and pleas for patience won’t always be easy.
New Challenges, New Perspectives, Emerging Solutions
Questions from the audience touched on the future role of picture books in classrooms, opportunities for publishers, and the function of assessment, among other topics. According to Aronson, picture books can and will play a “tremendous role” in the classroom under Common Core. He used the example of reading “global Cinderellas” in the second grade and comparing and contrasting the different approaches to the same story. Other fairy tales, including fractured variations, could be used to teach point-of-view, thus touching on the English Language Arts standards.
While there is a vast amount of material already available for educators to fold into a Common Core curriculum, the educational reform also paves the way for new publishing ventures, specifically in nonfiction. With the Common Core’s emphasis on comparing and contrasting ideas from different points of view, even if nonfiction books on a particular topic already exist, there’s always room for one more.
Aimed at assuaging some of the remaining confusion surrounding Common Core are a growing number of supplementary digital resources. Aronson and Glenn are creating an algorithm that will read a text and determine its alignment with Common Core standards, and on the state-by-state level, Web sites are clarifying how the standards are being locally implemented. For example, Glenn mentioned the EngageNY Web site, which provides insight into the Common Core for parents and teachers in New York state, and includes lists of texts that meet the standards by grade level. These lists aren’t meant to be prescriptive, but they offer a common meeting ground for educators who may feel overwhelmed by reading choices and may worry that their curricula aren’t meeting the benchmarks that students will be tested on. While educators are understandably “intimidated” because more is being asked of them, Glenn believes that more tools for “enterprising teachers” to use in conjunction with the Common Core are becoming available. The success of the Common Core will ultimately depend on the creativity that teachers bring to instruction, he said.
Because, regardless of the valuable student-teacher interactions that occur in the classroom, there comes that inevitable moment when students are shuffled into a computer lab for state assessments. Aronson said that since the Common Core has been implemented in New York City, overall student test performance has dropped (according to the state Education Department, 26% of students in third through eighth grade passed the ELA tests, and 30% passed the mathematics tests). But to Aronson, such sweeping reform naturally spawns growing pains as teachers become better versed in what the standards entail. The first rounds of testing, he said, will necessitate a “political and emotional reckoning with scores” that may be not live up to hopes and expectations. But if students are not retaining key skills, Aronson added, “it’s better that we find that out in the third grade than in the 12th grade.”