COMMON CORE: Curse or Cure? Oakland Schools Responds

Oakland Schools

(Click on image to view video)

View informative NEW PODCAST to hear about the benefits of the Michigan Common Core Standards. Presented by Dr. Michael Yocum, Executive Director of Learning Services, Oakland Schools, and Consultants Valerie Mills and Delia DeCourcy. An excerpt:

The nature of work in America has changed. But because education has not kept pace with these changes, a growing number of people will not possess the skills needed to perform many of the jobs that will be available between now and 2020. The different and greater demands of college and careers today require a shift in teaching and learning… This initiative is showing great potential for raising student achievement and building a foundation of our children’s, our state’s, and our nation’s future.” ~ Dr. Yocum


Common Core State Standards are generating a love/hate following. Recent outspoken opposition to the Common Core  from high-profile educators (people I strongly respect and admire) had me concerned and puzzled. What was fueling the mounting push-back and CCSS implementation fury? I turned to my in-house experts at Oakland Schools, educators I work with and know to be entirely and tirelessly dedicated to children and public education. Here is their response…

Oakland Schools

“If we want uncommon learning for our children in a time of common standards, we must be willing to lower the voices of discontent that threaten to overpower a teaching force who is learning a precise, deliberate, and cohesive practice.” -Sarah Brown Wessling, 2010 Teacher of the Year

Oakland Schools’ Response to Critics of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy: Oakland Schools strongly supports the adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  While some critics claim that the CCSS are not well crafted, will only create more work for teachers, and will lower student achievement, we maintain that holding our students to these rigorous standards will improve the quality of teaching and learning in English Language Arts classrooms statewide.  As Lucy Calkins, professor at Columbia University’s School of Education explains, “The Common Core is, above all, a call for accelerating students’ literacy development.  The most important message centers around lifting the level of student achievement, not around course coverage and compliance”(17).  The rigor of the new standards calls for a depth over breadth instructional approach to content and skill development, which will benefit all learners.

Are These High Quality Standards?

Standards are outcomes that indicate what students should be able to do. “Standards also refer to the desired qualities of student work and the degree of rigor that must be assessed and achieved (McTighe & Wiggins).  Curriculum provides a plan for the learning that must take place in order to achieve said outcomes, qualities, and rigor.

The CCSS’s quality has been and will continue to be hotly debated.  But the consensus among education leaders and scholars like Jay McTighe, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Lucy Calkins, and Carol Jago is that these standards are a positive development in addressing the demands students will face in the 21st century.  As Carol Ann Tomlinson, Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundation, and Policy at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia explains, “[The CCSS] are ingredients for curriculum—better ingredients than many we’ve had in the past. But they are not dinner. They are contemporary building codes—better suited to the 21st century than many previous sets of building codes. But they’re not the buildings”(90).

We agree with Tomlinson.  While it is true the CCSS were not piloted before they were adopted, they have provided a vertically aligned and carefully spiraled framework on which to build rich and rigorous curriculum that will prepare students for college and career.  As McTighe and Wiggins point out, “…The whole point of Anchor Standards in ELA…is to establish the genres of performance (e.g., argumentation in writing and speaking) that must recur across the grades in order to develop the capacities needed for success in higher education and the workplace”(10).

Just Making More Work for Teachers or Creating Opportunities for Curricular Collaboration?

In response to Michigan’s adoption of the CCSS, ISDs and RESAs across Michigan have collaboratively developed high quality English Language Arts (ELA) curricular units through a project supported by the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA).  The MAISA ELA units were designed and written by educators, then piloted in classrooms across the state so teachers could provide feedback to the curriculum writers to focus their revision.

This extensive cross county work is unprecedented in Michigan and points to the power of adopting national standards.  As the units are taken up statewide, teachers are sharing implementation strategies and resources, and building networks at a rate and with a reach we have never seen before.  Research tells us that this kind of peer to peer collaboration improves teaching quality as teachers reflect on and evolve in their practice through dialogue with other educators.

How Do the Standards Address 21st Century Skills?

While some critics say the CCSS are too rigorous and will result in low student achievement and poor test scores, we maintain that they address the skills needed for students to thrive in the 21st century.  Education thought leader Heidi Hayes Jacobs characterizes the CCSS as, “a forward-thinking set of ideas just waiting for a place to live in our classrooms and in our school year” (as qtd in Pipkin).

The nature of work in America has changed.  In their book The New American Workplace, Lawler and O’Toole write, “In plain English, today more large American companies can make more money selling knowledge than they can by making and selling things” (26).  But because education has not kept pace with the swift changes in work, a growing number of workers will not possess the skills needed to do the 21st century skill-based positions that will be available between now and 2020.  So 12-24 million of those positions will go unfilled (Guilfoyle).

The CCSS address this shift in work and correlated job skills.  Students who master the CCSS will leave high school possessing the kind of intellectual independence and strong critical thinking skills necessary to succeed in today’s global economy due to the ELA standards’ focus on:

  • close reading across multiple texts and text and media formats,
  • articulating evidence-based arguments,
  • independent research,
  • writing as a recursive process,
  • using technology to publish, interact, and collaborate, and
  • oral language—listening, discussion, and public speaking.

Why Text-Based Answers?

The CCSS ask students to “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text” (Common Core).  By asking that students’ responses remain anchored in the text, their writing and discussion about a work will be more substantive and will allow them to engage with increasingly more complex texts over time.

The tendency for students to personally relate to what they read is natural and helps them engage with a text.  But remaining in the personal engagement realm limits the conversation.  If the academic goal of reading a text is to analyze it and develop a clear interpretation–an evidence-based argument–students must read like detectives, searching for clues that will help them develop their case.

Oakland Schools

Image via

Such reading comprehension skills are critical to success in college and career.  The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2004 that while needing to take one or more remedial/developmental courses of any sort lowers a student’s chance of eventually earning a degree or certificate, “the need for remedial reading appears to be the most serious barrier to degree completion”(63).

The MAISA ELA curriculum units and Oakland Schools’ support of CCSS implementation focuses on multi-draft reading of texts.  By performing multiple readings and building background knowledge, students can grapple with not only the facts presented in a work of fiction or non-fiction, but also the central ideas, arguments, and themes, as well as the structure the writer has employed to convey that content.

Text Based on Grade Level or Student Reading Level?

The Common Core specifies that the texts assigned to students should be at grade level as determined by qualitative and quantitative dimensions as well as reader and task considerations (motivation, knowledge and experiences).  There has been some controversy surrounding the CCSS about how to handle students who are not reading at grade level.  How can they succeed in reading grade level texts?

The MAISA ELA curriculum units take a balanced literacy approach to the teaching of reading, emphasizing the importance of student engagement.  The reading workshop model allows students not reading at grade level to engage with grade-level anchor texts during mini-lessons and full class instruction.  This guided reading is balanced with reading texts during literature circles and independent reading that reflect students’ individual reading level.  The International Reading Association supports such an approach.  “Athletes vary their routines to build strength, flexibility, and stamina; likewise, readers need reading experiences with a range of text difficulties and lengths if they are to develop these characteristics as readers”(1).

Is Fiction Being Pushed Out of the ELA Curriculum?

The controversy over the amount of informational text the CCSS require students to read is the result of a misinterpretation of the Common Core’s introduction.  The introduction states that by 12th grade, students should be reading 70% informational text (Common Core).  Many critics have interpreted this to mean students will be reading 70% informational text in English class.  But this is not so.  Reading and literacy instruction must be shouldered by all disciplines according to the CCSS.

Carol Jago, former NCTE President and Associate Director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA commented on this controversy:

“What seems to be causing confusion are the comparative recommended percentages for informational and literary text cited in the Common Core’s introduction.  These percentages reflect the 2009 NAEP Reading Framework.  I served on that framework committee and can assure you that when we determined that 70% of what students would be asked to read for the 12th grade NAEP reading assessment would be informational, we did not mean that 70% of what students read in senior English should be informational text. The National Assessment for Educational Progress does not measure performance in English class. It measures performance in reading, reading across the disciplines and throughout the school day.”

Still, this ongoing discussion underscores that the new requirements will be an adjustment for many English teachers.  As education scholar Lucy Calkins explains, “For many schools, the Common Core Standards are a wakeup call, reminding people that students need to read more nonfiction texts across the curriculum as well as to receive focused ELA instruction in nonfiction reading. It is a mistake, however, to interpret the CCSS as simply a call for more nonfiction reading. The standards also call for students to move away from simply reading for information, toward reading with a much more analytical stance”(18).

A Common Metric

CCSS adoption allows for a common metric and scale to measure student achievement.  Such consistency creates two important possibilities, as outlined by Chester Finn, senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation:

  1. We can compare student, school, district, and state performance in a straight- forward and credible way.
  2. Students who move across the state or across the country can be assured of learning the same things at the same grade levels.

While the CCSS will be implemented by educators in a way that best addresses the needs of their local population, these shared national performance expectations will ultimately provide a clearer picture of what American students are learning and are able to do.  ###

Common Core text by Delia DeCourcy, Literacy Curriculum Consultant, Oakland Schools [*please scroll down for Sources Cited]



On Creativity Allowed / Vigilance Required: Dr. Vickie Markavitch, Superintendent, Oakland Schools

“In terms of my own thoughts, the common core will elevate learning standards to more globally competitive levels; they are more rigorous than what we have in many states now; they are broad enough to allow for more creative teaching and learning than is allowed by many current state standards; and IF the Smarter Balance tests assess thinking, reasoning and interpretation of data as they are proposed to do, we will have better assessments of the most important student learning.  However, like all else and like what we currently have, there is always room for policy makers to misuse and misdirect the use of good assessments, thereby undermining the best of efforts.  That is where we need to be vigilant.”

On Alignment & Assessment: Dr. Terri Spencer, Deputy Superintendent of Instructional Services, Oakland Schools

“The other reasons that districts in many states have been working hard to support the development and implementation of common core state standards is to increase alignment between instruction and assessment thereby significantly increasing student achievement as well as dramatically reducing the costs related to the instructional materials selection process.

Historically textbook companies have developed their materials to align to the standards in states that conduct state-wide textbook adoptions. In these states–primarily New York, California, Texas and Florida, once the state adoption process is conducted, every classroom in that state for any particular grade level must use the state adopted books, materials and professional development from the specified state approved vendor(s). Because textbook companies only have so much development funds and because they make a lot more money in statewide adoptions–they can align their content to a state standards and then only have to direct their marketing and support to one group in a state that is charged with reviewing and selecting all books, materials, online resources, and instructional materials that will be used by all teachers and students in the state.

The other states in the nation have then been typically relegated to selecting books and materials that were really aligned to one of the states that conducts state-wide adoptions (unbeknownst  to many). This has been very problematic because when districts in states like Michigan go through a local textbook adoption process they typically have had to choose from books that were originally developed for a different state, and as such, had very low alignment to Michigan standards–on average only 19%!

Then when this true alignment information is not understood by new or overburdened teachers, they conscientiously teach both the content and sequence from the book that was selected for them to use by their district. The result is that kids then learn content or concepts that were not included in Michigan’s standards or did not learn other concepts (or content) that are included. Students then don’t do we’ll on MEAP and the MME because these tests are tightly aligned with Michigan’s standards (not the material in the book that they were taught with).

Instructional leaders around the state overwhelmingly support moving to the CCSS so the eventually once textbook companies begin producing instructional materials aligned to the common core state standards–we (and every state that adopts the CCSSs) will be able to provide high quality instructional materials to teachers and students that are aligned to rigorous state standards which will significantly increase student performance on our state assessment. In addition we will save millions of dollars related to the time and money we spend in each district to review, select, purchase, deliver, inventory, and train teachers to use effectively with their students.”


Oakland County Common Core 

How the Common Core Stacks Up Against State Standards (2010)

Can Student-Driven Learning Happen Under Common Core?

Sources Cited

Brown Wessling, Sarah.  “Does the Common Core Demoralize Teachers?” The Huffington Post, 17 Feb. 2012.  Web. 27 Feb. 2013.

Calkins, Lucy, Mary Ehrenworth and Christopher Lehman. Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2012. Print.

Finn, Chester E.  “The War on the Common Core,” EducationNext, 5 March 2012.  Web. Feb. 27 2013.

Guilfoyle, Christy.  “College Career and Readiness.”  ASCD Policy Priorities 18:3 (Fall 2012): 1-7. Web. 7 March 2013.

International Reading Association Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Committee. (2012). “Literacy implementation guidance for the ELA Common Core State Standards” [White paper]. n.d., Web. 7 March 2013.

Jago, Carol. “What English classes should look like in Common Core era.” The Washington Post, 10 Jan. 2013. Web. 5 March 2013.

Lawler, Edward and James O’Toole, James. The New American Workplace. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006. Print.

McTighe, Jay and Grant Wiggins. “From Common Core Standards to Curriculum: Five Big Ideas.” 2012. Web. 6 March 2013.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: Authors, 2010. Web. 10 March 2013.

Pipkin, Cameron. “Common Core Standards That Live and Breathe.” Common Core 360. School Improvement Network, n.d., Web. 6 March 2013.

Tomlinson, Carol Ann.  “Teaching Like a Four-Star Chef.”  Educational Leadership, 70:4 (December 2012/January 2013): 90. Web. 5 March 2013.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2004). The Condition of Education 2004 (NCES 2004–077). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Oakland Schools

Blog compiled by Jean MacLeod, Communications/Oakland Schools


Oakland Schools • 2111 Pontiac Lake Road • Waterford, MI 48328-2736 • 248.209.2000

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: