Arrrg! No Need for a Reading War on Common Core Text Complexity

August 27, 2012 — Leave a comment

To some educators, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) could be consider the work of control freaks. To other educators, the CCSS could be interpreted like the line spoken by Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Carribean, “the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

At my core I am a control freak with strong tendencies towards being a perfectionist. However, 21 years of teaching in real classrooms with real students has informed me to deal with these tendencies in order to achieve realistic educational outcomes. I must teach the student in front of me, not the student I want to teach. I must deal with each student’s  particular mix of strengths and weaknesses. As I deal with that reality, I have learned to hand over more control to my students in their choice of reading and their choice to demonstrate understanding at each grade level.

When I give up control, the results are often unexpected, occasionally raw, and generally more than I planned every year. However, this  process is messy and individualized which is probably why policymakers cannot wrap their neat little statements around what really happens in a classroom. I have learned teaching  in the classroom is more like following the guidelines rather than following a strict set of rules.

But there are those policymakers who claim that following the rules is more important. One argument for this ideology recently was posted by Kathleen Porter-Magee who argues for text complexity in a blog post on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute website, “Common Core Opens a Second Front in the Reading Wars” (8/15/12):

But the Common Core ELA standards are revolutionary for another, less talked about, reason: They define rigor in reading and literature classrooms more clearly and explicitly than nearly any of the state ELA standards that they are replacing. Now, as the full impact of these expectations  starts to take hold, the decision to define rigor—and the way it is defined—is fanning the flames of a debate that threatens to open up a whole new front in America’s long-running “Reading Wars.”

Her missive across the bow of education uses the motif of war, the subject of a 2007 post “Reading Wars Redux”  which scratches at the scab of the phonics vs. whole language debate associating a student’s “natural” selection of a text with whole language; a student’s reading choice does not fit with scientifically-based reading research reading programs. Porter-Magee references that argument as part of a strict adherence to text complexity as outlined in English Language Arts Standard 10 and the complexity determining software.

The ELA Standard 10’s arc begins in kindergarten where students will, “Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding.” By grades 11-12, students should, “Read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 11–CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.” Determination of a text’s rigor is suggested through six different computer programs that factored in the research study: ATOS by Renaissance Learning; Degrees of Reading Power® (DRP®) by Questar Assessment, Inc.; Flesch-Kincaid; The Lexile® Framework For Reading by MetaMetrics; Reading Maturity by Pearson Education; SourceRater by Educational Testing Service; and the Easability Indicator by Coh-Metrix. These educational commercial enterprises (only the Flesh-Kincaid is in the public domain) are the means to determine what Porter-Magee argues is critical to developing rigor in our classrooms.

I would argue differently. A curriculum is not rigorous because of a text; a curriculum is rigorous because of what a student does with a text. Assigning students a rigorous text, say Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in grades 6-8 does not mean the curriculum is rigorous. However, a curriculum with a lesson that has students read the narrative, compare this autobiography with  narratives from former slaves that were recorded in the 1930’s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, and then have students conduct research on slavery and tell a story based on their findings could be considered rigorous. This lesson would be an example of a whole class read.

This lesson, however, does not promote a critical learning experience. The lesson does not address a student’s love of reading. Students may enjoy the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, but I would venture that few 6-8th graders would choose to read the text independently. That is why there needs to be a place in every curriculum for independent choice where students may read above, on, or maybe even below grade level. Teachers are educating students so that we will be a nation of readers. My experience in the classroom informs me that handing a low level reader a complex text for close reading does not lead to a love of reading. Moreover, forcing rigor is not authentic; many adults do not choose complex texts, in fact, many admit to avoiding text complexity as a result of being force fed the literary canon in a misguided attempt to enforce rigor.

The ELA CCSS itself does not require the forced rigor that Porter-Magee implies. Appendix A of the ELA CCSS “Key Considerations in Implementing Text Complexity” notes the flexibility that educators have:

The tools for measuring text complexity are at once useful and imperfect. Each of the tools described above—quantitative and qualitative—has its limitations, and none is completely accurate. The question remains as to how to best integrate quantitative measures with qualitative measures when locating texts at a grade level. The fact that the quantitative measures operate in bands rather than specific grades gives room for both qualitative and quantitative factors to work in concert when situating texts. The following recommendations that play to the strengths of each type of tool—quantitative and qualitative—are offered as guidance in selecting and placing texts.

Quantitatively, a book may be at the level for a grade 10 student; qualitatively, the book may be too mature in theme, or the student may need additional support. The ELA CCSS recognizes this difference. That is why Appendix A offers guidelines rather than rules; suggested texts rather than required reading.

This is not a war. This should not be a skirmish. The ELA CCSS can be met with a blend of independent reading and complex texts. (see my earlier post  on blending independent student selected reading with whole class novels) Porter-Magee’s hyperbolic statement about a second front in a reading war is  one of ideology not reality. Teachers, even the most controlling, have an understanding of how text complexity can be balanced in the classroom today with the real students in front of them. Policymakers who see rigor through the addition of texts are distanced from the classroom. Magee-Porter’s post should be met with the same level of criticism as given to the pirates of the Caribbean, “You’re teachers. Hang the code, and hang the rules. They’re more like guidelines anyway.”

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