Educational initiatives almost always arrive to much fanfare, have their moment on the stage, and then shuffle off to increase the height of the scrap heap of failed curricular reforms. But it is vitally important that the Common Core State Standards be the suitor to break this weary and counterproductive paradigm.
Like other curricular changes before it, the Common Core is meeting its share of resistance as its implementation nears. So, what should supporters of the Common Core be worrying about?
First, that the initiative could fail due to the burden it places on teachers. Since the reading of complex texts has been extended beyond language arts into science, social studies, and technical studies classrooms, there is a lot of work to do. One can already hear the grumbling—the standards “weren’t written by teachers”; or, “they’re bringing commercialism into the classroom”; or, “second graders are suddenly supposed to be reading like fifth graders.” One can already see heads stuck in the sand, waiting for the initiative to die.
Also, we hear complaints that the Common Core’s laudable mandate for students to read more terrific literature and a great many more quality informational texts is an “unfunded mandate.” It’s a fair point—without sufficient education funding, how do we get great books into students’ hands?
But these concerns lead us to a fundamental, great danger: that the burden of meeting the standards will lead to educators and administrators taking the easy road, and buying “canned curriculum”—also known as the slow death of everything good and decent. Tepid, stultifying, canned curriculum, designed to wear a stamp saying it is “aligned with the Common Core State Standards,” can never rise to the level of great reading material that truly, dynamically engages and inspires students.
As an independent bookseller, I am excited by the opportunity to support teachers in making the transition to the Common Core by providing them with high-quality trade title selections that they can trust, filtering through the many, many newly released titles that meet the standards to find those few that embody it, and that strongly engage and move student readers. And all of us in the industry must give careful thought to how we support and market the Common Core. If our outreach leads with great materials, careful title selections, and creative thematic title links, sales will follow. But we want to be—and we must be—invested as partners whose goals are aligned with education rather than depredation.
Plutarch once observed, “When men see their neighbor’s house on fire, everyone contributes his utmost to quench it; but when they see the mind inflamed with furious passion, they bring fuel to nourish and increase the flame.” A publisher coming to the happy conclusion that its entire backlist meets the Common Core is but wood on the fire of the educator’s fears that the Common Core will push more commercialism into our classrooms. To say that commercialism is already in the classroom in the form of canned curriculum may be true, but it misses the point. The case for more trade books in the classroom needs to be made with positive, constructive action, not through argumentation.
The Common Core may not be perfect—few things are. But the new standards strongly affirm the power of reading to stimulate learning. The Common Core recognizes reading as the dynamic component of education, as the yeast in the dough. It affirms that reading fluency is not a mechanical process, but rather a profound event. In making this observation, and putting it into practice, the Common Core gets it very right. And we in the book business—booksellers, publishers, librarians, citizens—should do our best to help these standards succeed, whether that means organizing a community literacy forum, participating in local events, or just working the Common Core into fitness-center conversations with fellow parents.
There is a great deal at stake. If the Common Core ends up on the scrap heap, you can be sure that the next big educational initiative will hinge upon something other than inculcating and celebrating the power of reading.