ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Common Core State Standards are learning benchmarks for kids from kindergarten through high school. And they're at the center of a heated debate among politicians, teachers and parents. A few states have repealed them. And while polls show a drop in public support for the Core, they also show one constant: many people still don't understand the standards. Over the next few days, we're going to focus on what's changing when it comes to reading in school. Reporter Emily Hanford starts us off with help from teachers in Reno, Nevada.
EMILY HANFORD, BYLINE: Before Common Core, teachers in Reno used what they call a skills and strategies approach to teaching. It was widely used at schools across the country, particularly poor schools where lots of students struggle. Each lesson would begin by telling students the skill they'd be learning that day, says Cathy Schmidt, who taught elementary school.
CATHY SCHMIDT: Like today, we're going to read to make inferences. Or today, we're going to predict. Or today, we're going to draw conclusions.
HANFORD: Next, teachers would give kids a quick summary of the story they were about to read. Then they'd ask students about their personal experience with the topic. So, if the story was about a family taking a train trip, the teacher might ask the class...
SCHMIDT: Have you ever been on a train? Tell me about the time you've been on a train.
HANFORD: The idea was to get students interested. Some would raise their hands eager to talk about train trips and family vacations, but others had nothing to say. Maybe they'd never been on a train. When kids finally did get down to reading, they wouldn't necessarily read the same thing. Teachers used a technique called leveled instruction, says Torrey Palmer, who was a literacy coordinator for the district.
TORREY PALMER: So, if a student is in fifth grade and they're reading at a third-grade level, they spend most of their day reading texts at a third-grade level.
HANFORD: Even in the upper grades, students might get different things to read depending on their ability, says Angela Orr. She taught high school history for years.
ANGELA ORR: I was told if I wanted students to understand a primary source I should excerpt it for the highest kids and then give all of the definitions of hard words for what were called the medium kids and then actually change the words to something really comprehensible for the kids that were struggling readers.
HANFORD: The idea behind all this leveling was to...
AARON GROSSMAN: ...Keep kids out of frustration.
HANFORD: This was the message from the school district, from publishers, from all kinds of experts, says Aaron Grossman, who taught fourth and fifth grade.
GROSSMAN: So, we were all enormously cautious about making sure that whatever challenge we put in front of our kids that they weren't defeated by the experience altogether.
HANFORD: When Common Core came along in 2010, Grossman had just started a job as a teacher trainer. The message from above was Common Core wasn't going to be a big change. What he found surprised him. The Common Core calls for several shifts in instruction. One of those shifts is to get away from focusing on skills and strategies and instead to think more about what kids read and to make sure they're reading text that is sufficiently complex. In other words, less leveled instruction.
DAVID LIBEN: Leveled texts produce leveled societies.
HANFORD: David Liben works for Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit set up by the authors of the Common Core to help teachers put the standards into practice. Liben says a lot of what teachers were doing to try to help struggling learners was actually having the opposite effect.
LIBEN: Previously, so much was what's outside the text and your experience outside the text and how you relate to it. And that privileges those children who have that experience outside the text.
HANFORD: Remember that story about the family taking a train trip and how some kids had lots to say but others had nothing? That's what David Liben is talking about. He says when students have to cite evidence from a text, they can all find something to say. This made a lot of sense to Aaron Grossman. But he wanted a second opinion, so we went to his colleague, Torrey Palmer. Her reaction...
PALMER: This is big. This is different. And if we can build off of this then we could be doing something probably pretty significant for our classrooms and for our students.
HANFORD: So they asked their boss if they could bring a group of teachers together to see what they thought. When fifth grade teacher Linnea Wolters was invited...
LINNEA WOLTERS: I was like, oh, I'll go because I believe you should know your enemy.
HANFORD: In her opinion, standards were code for telling teachers what to do. But what she heard at the meeting was kind of intriguing. The teachers decided they would each try a Common Core sample lesson. Hers focused on the sonnet by Emma Lazarus that's on the base of the Statue of Liberty. It's called the "The New Colossus."
WOLTERS: And it's not like the brazen giant of Greek fame what?
GROSSMAN: (Reading) Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame with conquering limbs astride from land to land.
HANFORD: Wolters thought for sure that this poem would be way too hard for her fifth-graders.
WOLTERS: But then I went. And I read the lesson plan. And as I went through, I noticed that for all of the archaic language and all of the complex syntax in that poem, the last words of those 16 lines are free, me, fame, name. There are all these really easy one-syllable words that fifth-graders know.
HANFORD: When she realized this, she thought, OK, I'll give the lesson a try with my students.
WOLTERS: We were highlighting things and writing A's and B's and C's and D's, and the kids - even my historically low-achieving students - in fact, it was one of my sped kids...
HANFORD: A sped kid is a student in special education.
WOLTERS: ...Who said to the class, it's a pattern. And they all went, oh.
GROSSMAN: (Reading) From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome. Her mild eyes command the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
HANFORD: Wolters hadn't told her students this was a poem about the Statue of Liberty.
WOLTERS: And so I gave them a good, long while to think. And finally, it was my - the two students in my class who actually received pull-out ELL services raised their hands.
HANFORD: Pull-out ELL services are for kids who don't speak much English. These kids never raise their hands.
WOLTERS: I said, yes? And they said, it's about the Statue of Liberty.
GROSSMAN: (Reading) Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
WOLTERS: And the other kids go, grumble, grumble, grumble. What do you think of Ezekiel (ph) and Salvador's (ph) ideas? I don't know, well. I said, why don't you see if you can find more evidence? So they start digging in. And all of a sudden, I've got kids popping off with she's in a harbor, and there's two cities, and na-na-na. And they're just giving me all this information and more highlighting and circling on the Hovercam. And everybody's updating their notes.
GROSSMAN: (Reading) Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
HANFORD: Wolters was amazed. She'd never seen her students so engaged and excited about learning and with a poem she would've never thought to assign to fifth-graders. She couldn't wait to tell the other teachers what had happened in her class. For NPR News, I'm Emily Hanford.
SIEGEL: That story originally aired as part of an hour-long documentary produced by American RadioWorks. The shift that Emily Hanford described toward more complex reading has raised questions about struggle in the classroom. How much is too much for young readers? We'll have that story later this week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
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