A majority of American English and reading teachers surveyed in 2012 said the new Common Core State Standards will improve student learning, but they must shift their focus to teaching content instead of skills and must assign more complex reading tasks.

That’s according to a new report issued by the pro-education reform Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

According to “Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments,” 62 percent of teachers surveyed in February and March 2012 said Common Core will result in at least some student learning improvement, while only 11 percent said no learning gains will occur and 18 percent said it was “too soon to tell.”

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core – a set of common standards in math and in English language arts. For the study, 1,154 English language arts and reading teachers were surveyed. A second teacher survey will occur in 2015 to compare the changes over three years.

Researchers found that 73 percent of elementary teachers, 56 percent of middle school teachers, and 46 percent of high school teachers emphasized reading skills over analyzing the text itself, which is a focus of Common Core. According to the researchers, that means students are spending too much time learning how to decode words and not enough time gathering a deep understanding of the material.

“Common Core is really pushing the notion that the text really matters a lot more than that, in fact that the text ought to be more primary and that the reading skills themselves ought to take a bit of a back seat,” said Dr. Timothy Shanahan, one of the study’s authors.

Shanahan is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was director of reading for the Chicago Public Schools, and is a former first grade teacher.

At the time of the survey, only about 10 percent of teachers reported fully implementing the standards. In Arkansas, the standards were implemented in grades K-2 in 2011-12, in grades 3-8 in 2012-13, and in high school this year.

According to the survey, 64 percent of elementary teachers, 38 percent of middle school teachers, and 24 percent of high school teachers were assigning reading texts based on their students’ current reading levels instead of assigning more complex texts that were appropriate for the students’ ages.

For books read by the entire class such as a novel, more than a third of respondents were selecting works that reflected the class’s average reading level, meaning better readers were not being challenged, the study reported. For individual reading assignments, 83 percent of elementary teachers and more than half of middle school teachers were asking students to read books at their individual reading levels rather than what was considered grade-level appropriate.

Under Common Core, they should take a different approach, Shanahan said.

“Instead of just moving the kids to something they can do easily, keep them in the thing that’s going to be challenging to them, but give them more support than you give the other kids,” he said. “Teachers aren’t used to that. They’re used to, if it’s hard, you just move the kids to something easier, and I think that’s going to be a big shift for a lot of teachers, in part because they’ve been told that’s the right way to do it.”

The Common Core’s emphasis on informational texts has been a source of controversy, but elementary English language arts and reading teachers said 68 percent of their reading materials were fictional, while high school teachers pegged the number at 81 percent.

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Steve Brawner

Steve Brawner

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics. He is also a syndicated columnist in 10 Arkansas newspapers. You can email him at brawnersteve@mac.com or follow him on Twitter: @SteveBrawner.
Steve Brawner

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