The Common Core essentials: 5 things to read if you're starting from scratch

Have you heard praise or criticism about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and wondered what people were talking about?

If so, you're not alone. Since December 2013, when I posted this column, not much progress has been made in informing parents about the standards. A June poll found that nearly half of Americans have never heard of the standards, which are being implemented in public schools in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.

While many educators believe that the Core represents a huge leap forward in preparing students for the world they will inherit, others are skeptical. Have teachers been given enough time and training to implement the standards effectively? Do districts have the bandwidth to administer upcoming assessments?

Many concerns are real. Others are based on hearsay and misinformation. If you'd like to learn more about the standards and their implications for the future of education in the U.S., I'd recommend starting here:

1. Read the Standards. It's tough to take a position when you don't know what they say. (If you're feeling ambitious, compare the CCSS to your state's previous standards.)

2. This FAQ by a reporter for Stateline, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts, answers basic questions about the Core.

3. This portrait of David Coleman, the architect of the ELA Standards and a lightning rod for criticism, will help you understand the thinking behind the work that students are being asked to do.

4. If Coleman is in one corner, educator Diane Ravitch is in the other. Ravitch, her blog, and best-selling book, Reign of Error, are influential in the debate over how best to improve educational outcomes for all children.

5. The standards seek to redress inequities by giving every student, rich and poor, access to challenging content. But, as the reporter of this New York Times article asks, "If education is a poor child’s best shot at rising up the ladder of prosperity, why do public resources devoted to education lean so decisively in favor of the better off?"

The Core doesn't answer the question, but we must.

Five big education stories in 2013

From testing to teachers unions, from standards to sequestration, it’s been a newsworthy year in education. Here are five big stories we’ve been tracking all year long.

What would you add to our list?


What are the Common Core State Standards? What do they mean for my kids? What are the expectations for me as a teacher? Why did test scores drop in New York and Kentucky? Am I still allowed to teach fiction? 2013 has been a year of confusion for parents, teachers and school leaders with almost as many questions raised about the Standards as answered.

  1. The Hechinger Report: The ELA standards: Content and controversy
  2. The Huffington Post: NY Standardized Test Scores Drop as Expected
  3. NPR: “Fans say it’s long overdue. Critics say it’s heavy-handed, it’s window dressing, it’s scary.


President Obama pushed for it in the State of the Union and in his budget proposal. The DOE is supporting it through Race to the Top. Researchers and educators continue to speak out about the importance of early learning, and how access to language, books and learning opportunities from age zero to five predicts success in later years.

  1. The New York Times: Few States Look to Extend Preschool to All 4-Year-Olds
  2. The Washington Post: READ: Obama’s PreK Plan
  3. The New York Times: Language gap study bolsters a push for Pre-K


iPads are all the rage, and nowhere is there a higher profile 1-to-1 tablet program than in the nation’s second largest school district. Los Angeles began giving iPads to students this year, but the rollout has proven to be challenging. Seeing how LA meets those challenges will be beneficial to other schools districts going forward.

  1. Los Angeles Times: LA school board OKs $30 million for Apple iPads
  2. Los Angeles Times: New problems surface in LA Unified’s iPad program
  3. Wall Street Journal: Schools learn tablets’ limits


NAEP and PISA scores were released this fall, with results mostly unchanged for American students. In the case of PISA, several other countries saw their scores improve significantly, which raises the question: What are they doing to move the needle that the U.S. is not?

  1. NBC News: PISA scores show test scores of U.S. students stagnant compared to global competitors
  2. Education Week: U.S. Math, Reading Scores Edge Up, But Gaps Remain


Grit, growth mindset and resilience were buzzwords in 2013. But research on these so-called “soft skills” is serious business. Educators and parents are paying attention to the research of people like Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth, and looking for ways to bring it home and incorporate it into classroom instruction.

  1. The Washington Post: MacArthur fellow Angela Duckworth: Teach kids’ grit, not just their IQ
  2. Education Week: Growth Mindset Gaining Traction as School Improvement Strategy
  3. Annie Murphy Paul: The way we praise matters, even for babies

A school with no bells

The phrase “college and career ready” is taking on a new meaning at Rancho Mirage High School, in the Palm Springs Unified School District. In addition to ensuring all students meet the required English and Mathematics skills for continuing their educations or getting jobs, Rancho Mirage High School is also focusing on accountability by removing the bell system. The decision to remove the bell, that alerts students of class start and dismissal times, was done to help prepare students for collegiate and workforce lifestyles.

In the article, Principal Ken Wagner said, “The lack of bells is meant to enhance the campus’ collegiate atmosphere by demanding students keep track of their own schedule.”

Although the administration seems to be pleased with the system, saying it give students more responsibility and limits the amount of loitering in the hallways, some parents aren’t on board. One parent argued that the system is unfair to students who don’t own a watch or carry a cellphone.

Educators: Do you support the “no bell” school system? Why or why not?

Four tips for improving guided reading instruction (and a giveaway)

Even the most experienced teachers take time to lay the groundwork for success. Teachers need to get to know their students as readers and as members of the classroom community. And students need time to learn what is expected of them during a lesson. This is especially important for guided reading instruction.

As we release our newest program, Guided Reading Nonfiction: Second Edition, we wanted to provide some practical tips teachers can implement.  Oh, and there is a giveaway too!

Here are some tips for laying the groundwork for Guided Reading success:

  1. Model Literacy Activities including close reading through interactive read-alouds, shared reading, and shared writing. Show students how to keep readers notebooks and use graphic organizers to keep track of their reading and to help them cite textual evidence.
  2. Assess Students as Readers with running records to determine their instructional reading levels. Check for fluency in both reading and writing, and use reading attitude surveys and interest inventories to help you suggest the right books for each student.
  3. Get to Know Your Book Collection, from fiction to literature and nonfiction to informational text. Making sure titles match your students’ reading levels and interests is critical. Organize books so that students can quickly find the books they want or need for independent reading and group work.
  4. Group for Guided Reading using the data you collect during these initial steps. Begin working with one guided reading group a day, adding in more groups as your students become more adept at rotating from activity to activity and working on their own. Add in grouping assignments to your classroom chart.

GIVEAWAY: To celebrate the launch of Guided Reading Nonfiction: Second Edition, we thought it would be fun to host a giveaway for one lucky reader to win two individual levels (winner’s choice) from Guided Reading Nonfiction: Second Edition. For a chance to win, leave a comment below telling us a tip you have to make guided reading instruction even more powerful. See official rules here.

On the cover of Instructor Magazine: Boy trouble

If you follow education news, you’ve seen the disturbing stats about boys failing in school. Boys are 30% more likely than girls to flunk or drop out of school. They’re twice as likely to get suspended. And they are 4.5 times more likely to get expelled.

Boys are falling behind in academics as well, scoring lower than girls on standardized tests at almost every grade level.

Everyone seems to be trying to figure out the reason why. The Atlantic’s Jessica Lahey argues that boys’ behavioral issues affect teachers’ grading practices. TIME’s Christina Hoff Sommers cites zero-tolerance policies as the major roadblock to boys’ success. Countless other journalists, teachers, and experts have offered up their ideas on brain-based differences, lack of male role models, and more.

The truth is that there is no one size fits all reason, but “why” is the wrong question to ask.

Let’s change the conversation from “why” to “what.” What can we do to help? In the new issue of Instructor, we offer practical classroom strategies that have already proven successful in closing the achievement gap for boys. Read the article, “Why Boys Fail (and What You Can Do About It),” to find five key ways you can help boys in your classroom succeed—starting now.

Holiday gloom? Read Fran Lebowitz.

With brightly-lighted trees and beribboned packages, the holiday season is a time of wonder. But as with life itself, that sense of wonder can soon turn to melancholy.

My first inkling that it isn't all Currier & Ives came when I was 12 and only got a pair of sneakers for Christmas. My mother had stacked gift-wrapped boxes for my siblings and me on the back porch, labeling each with the penciled shorthand she learned in secretarial school. I thought that I'd cracked the code and a dozen presents were headed my way.

After I opened my first gift that Christmas morning and realized it was my last, I burst into tears.

Then there was the Christmas my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. We tried to cherish our time with him, knowing that the clock was ticking, but we were desolate.

A year later he was gone, and so was my brother Michael, who was killed in the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center. A gray pall seemed to cloak our New Jersey community as dozens of victims' families grieved losses.

Still, life went on. In a new documentary, Terror on a Train, my friend and former colleague Mi Won Kim talks about finding meaning in life after a traumatic loss. Her sister Mi Kyung was murdered 20 years ago this month when a deranged man pulled out a gun on the Long Island Rail Road.

Six people were killed and 19 injured.

Watching the documentary, I remembered how we waited to hear from Mi Won the day after the massacre. For several hours, there was a slim chance that her sister would pull through. Then we got the phone call.

As the documentary shows, no matter how many years elapse, even the memory of trauma can make you cry in an instant.

Life is unalterably different, especially around the holidays. But eventually your heart stops hurting. In cases like Mi Won's and mine, it is a literal hurt, one that makes you think you should go to the emergency room.

Too many Americans know the effects of trauma firsthand, including the families in Newtown who mark a somber anniversary this month—in peace, one hopes.

I have no antidote. So I look to humor. This season it comes in a Fran Lebowitz interview in The Paris Review. I remember devouring the Q&A back in 1993 when it appeared in print.

It's even better the second time around. The Paris Review has posted several interviews from the archives—with Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin and Edna O'Brien, among others—each writer more miserable than the last.

At the risk of making Lebowitz, a notorious sufferer of writer's block, sound like Henny Youngman, here are some of her best lines:

"I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself."

"I've always liked people who are older. Of course, every year it gets harder to find them."

"Now that I realize I don't hate to write, that I just hate to work, it makes writing easier."

"I look at my dictionary, a Webster's Second Unabridged with nine million words in it and think, All the words I need are in there; they're just in the wrong order."

"I like a person who is embittered. That embittered sensibility is not possible in a young person. You can be nasty when you're young, but you really have to be older to achieve bitterness."

"I smoke so much while I'm writing that it's hard for me to make out what few words I've actually gotten down on paper."

I hope you find wonder this holiday season, if only in a Lebowitz turn of phrase. But please don't smoke.

Your brain on exercise

What's your memory of gym class from when you were a young student? It may induce a panicked feeling of being picked last for a kickball team, a fond recollection of sinking your first three-pointer in basketball, or flashbacks of pain from getting hit in a game of dodge ball.

Physical education today is moving towards a fitness focus instead of a sports focus, ensuring inclusion of all students (and hopefully avoiding some of the extreme feelings mentioned above). Organizations such as Sparking Life are working with schools to find PE curriculum that will “optimize learning, improve motivation, activate impulse control, moderate mood, build self-esteem…and make our students want to be in school!” The organization cites research showing that exercise and movement improves learning and academic performance. To learn more about their work, watch this video about the success story at Naperville Central High School, where students raise their heart rate in the gym before their most difficult classes.

As a teacher, how can you incorporate this into your classroom? Allow time for short stretch breaks, a brief yoga sequence, or a song or chant with movements. Also, check out this EdWeek post to see how regular breaks can benefit student health.

#GivingTuesday: Why it’s so important to give back year round

It’s been a week since Giving Tuesday, and as part of an effort to continue to raise awareness about the important contributions so many non-profits provide year round, I asked a few of our extraordinary partners to share some thoughts on why it’s so critical for companies and individuals to give to organizations who are helping to address some of society’s most pressing issues.

Mike King, President/CEO, Volunteers of America: “The importance of donations from individuals, foundations and corporations can never be overstated. Philanthropy represents our margin of excellence; it lets us serve more people and affords us an opportunity to address the quality as well as the quantity of our services. It helps us fill gaps in existing funding to create new services in response to emerging needs.  It is the difference between simply keeping people alive and giving them a life.   Philanthropy makes a critical difference in the lives of the people we serve.”

Dr Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD, Medical Director, Reach Out and Read Wisconsin: “Through Reach Out and Read, medical providers arm more than 4 million families with books and knowledge about the importance reading to children beginning in infancy. The research, including 15 peer-reviewed studies about the effectiveness of Reach Out and Read, shows us that books in the home, and involved parents make a world of difference in a child's school, and overall life success. During the preschool years, children served by Reach Out and Read score three to six months ahead of their non-Reach Out and Read peers on vocabulary tests, preparing them to start school on target.” Read more in this recent Huffington Post blog.

Jane Heaphy, Executive Director, Learning Leaders: "It is important for companies and individuals to contribute to organizations like ours because we are all stakeholders in the success of our public education system.  Our society is built on that success.  We know that family engagement is key to student achievement. Learning Leaders promotes this by building family-school relationships, providing parent information workshops, and training volunteers to provide classroom and other assistance in NYC.  As a non-profit working with over 300 schools, making a difference in the lives of 180,000 children, we require philanthropic investments by corporations and individuals to sustain our work.  A donation supporting education makes an impact on children today and on future generations."

Lee Seham, General Counsel, NBRA: “We’re so proud of our collaboration with Scholastic on the program “Time Out for Reading,” which is designed to enhance the literacy skills of sixth grade students. Each referee participating in this program cherishes the wonderful opportunity to give back to the community by visiting the schools and serving as positive mentors to the children. Each community has leaders that can help make a difference, simply by giving their time.”

Michael Haberman, President, PENCIL: "More and more, people are looking for opportunities to put their skills to use in a way that creates real change for their communities. The funding we receive allows us to develop and support programming that helps people use their professional skills to build stronger school leaders, boost family engagement in their children’s learning, and prepare students to thrive in college and their future careers."

Sheena Wright, President and CEO, United Way of New York City: "United Way of New York City is fiercely committed to student success and we strive to reach as many supporters as possible to enlist their help for our work, including READ NYC, our new campaign to get children reading on grade level," says Sheena Wright, President and CEO of United Way of New York City. "We leverage our unique and long-standing partnerships in the corporate, nonprofit and public sectors to cultivate communities of advocacy, giving and policy change. Our goal? To make New York work for every New Yorker. #GivingTuesday provides one more opportunity to accomplish this."


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