The Common Core State Standards are poised to bring some of the most meaningful changes to our education system in a generation, some observers say, and with the emphasis on literacy, resources, and critical thinking, it’s no surprise that librarians are embracing the Common Core as an extraordinary opportunity. At the recently concluded ALA midwinter meeting in Seattle, the Common Core was a hot topic of conversation, including at a standing-room only “discussion group” organized by the ALA’s Young Adult Reference Services Committee, where more than 80 librarians — school, academic, and public — gathered to learn more about the Common Core, and to share their own experiences thus far.

“The discussion was diverse,” said Amanda Ellington, assistant branch manager at the Lexington Park (Md.) Library, a 2012 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, and one of the discussion leaders at the event. “Some of the participants were there to share their successes, and that energized the group. Other participants expressed some concerns, and even frustration.” But for the most part, Ellington told PW, “the discussion was inspiring and motivational.”

Ellington was joined in leading the discussion by two “double-duty” librarians: Margaux DelGuidice and Rose Luna, who both work as school and public librarians in the state of New York. DelGuidice is a teacher-librarian at the Garden City High School and a youth services librarian at the Freeport Memorial Library; Luna is a teacher-librarian at Freeport High School and a bilingual reference librarian at the Freeport Memorial Library. The pair have spoken on the subject of Common Core at many conferences and meetings, have created a Wiki to gather resources and follow the Common Core, and have written a book together – Make a Big Impact @ Your School Board Meeting (Libraries Unlimited, 2012) – to help librarians market the ways the standards directly impact student achievement.

DelGiudice and Luna agreed that the librarians at the ALA discussion brought a range of experiences with them, most likely because although nearly every state has adopted the Common Core standards, each state is at a different level of implementation. “Some school districts have simply scratched the surface,” Luna said, “while other districts have been working to roll out changes since day one.”

Indeed, the ALA discussion group focused on wide range of questions as basic as what is the Common Core (neatly explained and illustrated by Luna with the help of a three-minute video) to the thornier questions, such as how Common Core might affect collection development in public and school libraries. But everyone in the room seemed to agree – libraries are integral to the success of the Common Core standards.

“A common phrase that has been circulating throughout the library world is, ‘We are the Common Core.’ And that is the truth,” DelGiudice told PW. “Now is the time for librarians to lead, to reinforce the importance of having a librarian as an information specialist available to support students and teachers. Remember, what is new for many educators are techniques that librarians have been practicing for years.”

Common Goals

To date, the Common Core State Standards have been adopted by some 45 states (as well as U.S. territories). Ellington explained to attendees three areas of focus for students: the standards will require students to demonstrate independence and perseverance; to construct arguments, and comprehend, critique, and support with evidence; and to use resources, strategies, and tools to demonstrate strong content knowledge. Ellington offered one example: “In the past students might be taught the definition of a haiku and then given several examples to review,” she said. Under the Common Core, a lesson on haiku might now start with students reading haiku, discussing what each have in common, and then constructing the definition.

This “shift in curriculum,” she told PW, uniquely positions librarians to be “content experts” and to support classroom teachers with materials and instruction. “The Common Core State Standards have a stronger focus on nonfiction, primary source documents, research and inquiry than most state’s current standards,” giving school librarians “the opportunity to co-teach and share their expertise with teachers and students alike.”

In fact, DelGuidice added, the Common Core simply builds on what librarians have always done. “As librarians working in a school we teach information literacy skills, we form the foundation for lifelong reading and learning, we encourage inquiry and formulate assignments that force students to use critical thinking skills, we teach students how to use technology ethically and in a meaningful way to enhance their educational experience,” she said. “Now, with the advent of the Common Core, we have an opportunity to highlight all that we do.”

Collaborations between school and public libraries, Luna said, will continue to be key. For example, Freeport’s school district and public library work together to create a joint summer reading list, she said, so that when school is out students can able to access the titles they need at the public library. “The beautiful thing,” Luna adds, “is that many librarians already have this established relationship in place – the standards simply build upon that foundation. When administrators and communities invest in libraries, they are investing in resources that can be used by an entire school and town.”

The best way to make the case for the important role that librarians play, DelGiudice and Luna agreed, is for librarians to showcase their skills in librarian-led professional development workshops, to participate in Common Core meetings, and to promote the things librarians can provide. And this is not limited to school librarians, they stress. Public librarians also have the opportunity to conduct outreach within the community by highlighting the print and digital resources that are available for free at the public library.

Overcoming the Hurdles

Of course, realizing the potential of Common Core won’t happen automatically, and librarians are already engaged with the universe of challenges that accompany such a seismic shift in education policy.

“I see the transition as the biggest challenge,” Ellington told PW. “The shift from current state standards to the Common Core is going to require teachers to change the way they present lessons, write assignments, and research their content. This transition can be stressful and time consuming.” Librarians, however, can help teachers make that the transition, she adds – but they must be proactive. “Librarians have always been a valuable resource. Now, they need to make themselves visible, approachable, and available as the obvious go-to for help.”

Librarians in the ALA discussion group raised a wide range of issues. Some voiced concern about new testing models to assess the new curriculum. Two librarians from New York, meanwhile, pointed to some useful tools and resources on the New York State Education Department’s EngageNY Web site to aid in the transition. “One of the college professors in the audience emphasized that these new standards need to be emphasized in library schools across the country,” DelGiudice said, “to prepare school librarians for a new curriculum and style of teaching.” But perhaps some of the biggest challenges, she adds, are “the myths” that surround the Common Core.

At one point during the ALA event, a librarian noted that the Common Core standards have been a topic of discussion for more than two years, and their rollout should not be taking anyone by surprise. Nevertheless, what Luna calls “urban legends” surrounding the Common Core persist – in Alabama, for example, the standards have been pilloried by one group as “liberal” and are resisted as a federal takeover of education.

The elephant in the room – funding – was also raised, as many libraries have taken budget cuts in recent years and have yet to rebound. How to support the standards, especially the need for more nonfiction and high-quality resources, without the funding? “The key is collaboration,” DelGiudice stressed, whether between public and school libraries to share resources, or between educators and librarians to push for the support they need.

Publishers, too, also have a role to play. “Many people have latched on to the idea of nonfiction as extremely important in relation to the Common Core – and it is,” DelGuidice told PW. “However, nonfiction is just one piece of the new standards. Now is the time for publishers to provide a high level of print and digital resources that include primary sources and documents with high text complexity, to promote higher-level thinking with a focus on inquiry-based learning. In a nutshell, publishers can provide the tools and resources for students to formulate their own questions on a topic and then answer those self-constructed questions.”