In late June, when teachers ought to be out sunning themselves, a trio of them instead sat inside a Frank Lloyd Wright-looking new elementary school nestled into a Chicago suburb and, perched on bright purple block chairs at a snack break, discussed whether they could imitate a model lesson they had just seen.
“Most of my kids are not on grade level,” said a youthful teacher in grey slacks, whose black hair was piled into a high bun at her crown. “Lots have no dads or moms, and are being raised by whoever. They’ve got their own problems.”
A teacher sitting across from her, in a purple boyfriend cardigan and jeans, noted that her school wasn’t bright, colorful, and airy, like the one they were sitting in for that week’s teaching conference: “It’s dark, and old. I think the kids pick up that feeling when they’re inside.” The other two teachers nodded in sympathy.
“I like how they told the kids first what they would learn, then they learned it” in the model lesson, said a wavy-haired blond teacher, whose nametag read “Angelique.”
“How did they get the kids to be so quiet?” the grey-slacked teacher said, in astonishment. Probably because the model classroom had two teachers for fifteen students, she guessed. She didn’t have a teaching assistant or co-teacher, so “I got to keep my students from jumping out the window.” And, besides, “some parents you can’t call [for help] because you know the kid is going to get a beating.”
Teachers and staff in Bensenville School District 2 spent months putting together a three-day conference in June for nearby school districts on how to teach Common Core, a set of national curriculum and testing mandates. Illinois, like 44 other states, had agreed to replace its state curriculum mandates and tests with Common Core in 2010, but by this 2014 summer conference, Bensenville was still one of the few school districts already all-in.
It Pays to Be an Early Adopter
It certainly helped that Bensenville, a bitty school district next to O’Hare Airport that contains just three schools, received $20,644 from a $43 million federal grant. In exchange for part of this Race to the Top money Illinois won in 2011, 35 of its 866 school districts, including Bensenville, agreed to do several things the Obama administration required four years faster than about 96 percent of Illinois’ other districts. The money-getting policies included rating teachers at least partly with student test scores, increasing science and math initiatives, and reorienting instruction around Common Core, all of which are Obama administration priorities. Bensenville also volunteered to try out Common Core’s federally funded national tests before all schools must use them in place of their previous state tests. That gave them an early look at the test format and questions.
The $20,644 certainly didn’t cover the cost of making all these changes, but Bensenville wanted to be one of Illinois’ few “reform exemplars” willing to strike out into a thicket of education policies the Obama administration set forth for the nation. Common Core, because it will be enforced by a set of federally funded tests that in turn provide the basis for rating teachers and schools, and because it determines what children will learn from preschool all the way through college, may be this thicket’s most tendril-heavy vine. It even shifts teacher preparation. That’s the goal, anyway—reality, as for the trio of chatting teachers, is messier.
“I just interviewed a bright teacher candidate from a good school and said, ‘What do you know about Common Core?’ and she said, ‘I never heard of that,’” said Kay Dugan, Bensenville’s instructional leader. Dugan also serves as co-chair of Illinois’ Educator Leader Cadre, a group of teachers and administrators that lead workshops about Common Core for one of its national testing organizations, known as PARCC.
Dugan, a small lady with bright grey eyes and a red-tinted brown bob, said she’s felt “pushback” against Common Core from teachers and administrators in other school districts, because “it’s too hard.” So a main goal of the June conference and its model lessons was to help other districts feel as confident in their new set of curricular clothes as Bensenville.
A Look at ‘Close Reading’
The Bensenville teachers who led several of the workshops, aside from morning keynotes featuring University of Virginia education professor Carol Ann Tomlinson, were enthusiastic, if a bit nervous at welcoming groups of fifteen to twenty outside teachers to observe their summer-school lessons. The buzzword of the day was “close reading,” a literary interpretation technique popular in universities in the 1940s that with Common Core is pouring into K-12 classrooms. Adapted for younger children through Common Core, it seems to mean anchoring students’ observations about a text—the teachers never speak of a “book” or an “article,” but always instead of “texts”—in quotations from the material students are studying.
In her second-grade classroom, Kristi Mullen bobbed and weaved between students in silver heels and a striped navy and white sleeveless dress. Her hoop earrings swiveled into her long blond hair as she pivoted from child to child, handing out highlighters. The tykes had just read “Pop’s Bridge,” by Eve Bunting, a fiction picture book about two young San Franciscans whose fathers—one Asian and one Caucasian—helped build the Golden Gate Bridge. Young Robert, the white boy, thinks his father has the most important bridge-building job, and that his friend Charlie’s dad, a painter, has a less-important one—until he and Charlie see several workers die in a fall. Then Robert realizes that creating the bridge equally endangers all the workers, and drops his superiority complex. Scholastic says the book is appropriate for readers in kindergarten through second grade. Summer school students, of course, are behind their peers. That’s why they’re in summer school.
“I’m going to ask some text-dependent questions,” Mullen says to the children, emphasizing the last three words and flipping to a “warm-up” on a giant pad of paper stuck to an easel. It tells the children to underline, on their Xeroxes of the book’s first few pages: “Who are the important characters in the story? Why are they important?” The children’s desks are arranged in three clusters of five, and Mullen walks among the seven-year-olds as she repeats those two questions. “Charlie’s father is important because he builds the bridge,” one student offers. Mullen repeats the answer, then adds, “I like your text evidence.”
A few minutes of this, as Mullen scurries about the classroom, then a “challenge question”: “What are Robert’s feelings about his pop and Charlie’s father?” A girl raises her hand.
“Yes, ma’am,” Mullen responds.
“How do we know he’s proud?”
“The book said that.”
“Let’s go to our book and highlight evidence that he’s proud: ‘He has an important job.’ What does he keep calling the bridge?”
Another child: “The Golden Gate Bridge.”
That wasn’t what Mullen was looking for: “At the beginning, what does it say? ‘The impossible bridge.’ If it’s impossible and you do it, are you proud?” A few kids say, “No.” Mullen looks at them: “Yes.” Then she tells the children to pair up and look for more evidence to help answer the challenge question. As they rearrange themselves, she sends about five who need extra attention off to a semicircle in the corner with her teaching assistant.
What It Looks Like in Eighth Grade
A few halls away, past open sections of building space lined with computers, another pair of teachers are teaching eighth-grade students, for most of whom English is a new language. They are also teaching a “close reading” lesson, also using a picture book. “Grandfather’s Journey,” by Allen Say, tells the story of a Japanese man who emigrates to the United States but keeps going between the two countries, in each place longing for the other. The prose is simple—just one sentence per page—but the watercolor illustrations are exquisite. It won the 1994 Caldecott Medal, for American picture books, which emphasizes illustrations over language. Its publisher says the book is suitable for children ages 4 through 8, but Scholastic puts it at a third- through fifth-grade reading level.
This room, also, has desks arranged in clusters of fives. A bulletin board in the back contained “Grandfather’s Journey Vocabulary”: evoked, homesick, towering, exchange. In the front, a projector has beamed questions about the book onto a screen. After each question is a reference to the Common Core standard it evokes: “Why do you think grandfather surrounds himself with songbirds? RL8.4.” Translated into plain English, the code means, essentially, “Reading and literature requirement for eighth grade, number four.”
The eighth graders were much quieter than the second graders. They kept their answers short and low. The two teachers—Nick Georgopoulos, in a blue shirt with a mustard-colored tie covered in blue rectangles and hair that looked like he ran his hands through it often (which he did), and Argiro Vranas, in a black shirt-dress and tall heels to fill in her height—also energetically worked the room, circling the students, pointing to their open books, querying. As students sequentially answered each question from the screen, the teachers repeated this question and direction to the class: “Do you guys agree with [your peer’s answer]? Write down your text evidence.”
Teachers Teaching Teachers
After viewing the several different lessons, the visiting teachers all grouped in the school’s roomy music room around seven folding tables covered in brightly colored plastic tablecloths and dotted with yet more highlighters. The teachers who had given the model lessons, plus several of the district’s instruction and curriculum coaches, sat around the room in canvas director’s chairs. First, they answered questions. Teachers had many.
An early one: “Where did you learn to do this?” Caitlin Hare, a first-year Bensenville teacher with long, dirty blonde hair and an elementary school teacher’s gentle, open face, took that one on.
“All through college we learned about Common Core, so I do feel comfortable with it,” she said. Her third- through fifth-grade class will finish out summer school with another five-day close-read on one main fiction book about the Oregon Trail, accompanied by a number of nonfiction “texts” such as travelers’ journal entries and historical accounts. Common Core also requires that teachers assign equal amounts of fiction and nonfiction reading to elementary students.
“When we started, there was no textbook for Common Core,” said Leah Gauthier, the district’s instructional services director, bouncing her silver sequined Toms wedges with a peep toe. “This did not happen overnight. We’ve taken baby steps the whole way.”
Those baby steps included ditching textbooks, except for continuing to use Everyday Math curriculum as Bensenville’s main math resource. Everyday Math is frequently pilloried as being one of the “fuzzy” curriculums, which tend to emphasize group activities, story problems, and abstract math, while de-emphasizing standard algorithms (such as “stacking numbers” to add or multiply) and constant practice with core concepts such as multiplication. In Bensenville, a committee now pulls together all the materials each grade uses, and integrates all the subjects. So an “English” class, such as the close reading lessons, might use historical or science-based materials, and a science class might include math concepts.
“Before, I didn’t know how I could spend five days on one text. Now, this is how we do it in Bensenville,” Vranas said.
Is Close Reading Effective?
If one looks at supporting materials for Common Core, the time Bensenville spent transmitting the close reading method seems warranted. Perhaps most prominently, Common Core architect David Coleman, an education consultant who now heads The College Board, gave a model lesson himself, employing the technique to analyze Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” His 15-minute video for New York’s education department is featured in an extensive online collection of Common Core materials. An instructional guide from PARCC, the Common Core testing organization, says close reading is “a key component of college and career readiness” and will be included in its exams.
A key reason to stress this way of reading is a problem research has uncovered. Typically, children in poor homes read far fewer books, hear far less and less complex speech, and have far less exposure to varied experiences such as visiting a farm, zoo, or museum. This reduces their knowledge about the world, which in turn drastically limits their reading ability, because that depends heavily on a person’s prior knowledge about the topic at hand. A baseball fanatic will read various team stats and articles with ease, but people with little knowledge of baseball will have a very hard time getting through articles littered with terms such as “RBI” and “closer,” as this writer learned after taking on the baseball beat for the college paper. This is not just true of baseball, but of every subject, as E.D. Hirsch’s momentous work of the past several decades has demonstrated.
So to avoid the natural boost kids with greater knowledge about the world get from home, close reading tries to emphasize only what knowledge one can get from the materials at hand. But, as Robert Pondiscio writes of Hirsch’s research, this is a fool’s errand. Skills are inseparable from knowledge. You can’t learn how to build a house without using tools or materials. And you can’t learn to read about baseball, or phases of the moon, or the Oregon Trail, without actually reading about these things. If children read a haphazard list of materials their teachers happen to like, very little about schools will have changed, and our countrymen will continue to be poor readers, and their knowledge of core concepts will continue to be laughable. Recall, for example, that a 2011 survey found only half of grown Americans can name the three branches of government, and just one in five could correctly choose one of four options for the origin of the phrase “a wall between” church and state.
Further, research apparently doesn’t prove or even suggest that close reading benefits kids. A search of the U.S. Department of Education’s research repository yields no high-quality studies of the method. PARCC’s citation for endorsing close reading includes no studies of the technique, only studies of deliberate, sustained reading practice and systematic instruction in core content. Few teaching methods are well-researched. Indeed, Brookings Institution researcher Tom Loveless recently summed up the research on teaching effectiveness: “We are flying by the seat of our pants.”
At any rate, close reading is now all the rage not just in Bensenville and school districts it influences, but across the nation, thanks to Common Core. But Pondiscio, a Common Core supporter and former employee of Hirsch’s foundation, nevertheless was aghast to see a model Common Core lesson in New York using close reading.
“Excerpts. No complete works. Bleeding chunks of literature chosen because they presumably offer opportunities to learn and practice a reading ‘skill,’” he complained. “If nothing else, [Common Core] should mean a transition from skills-driven literacy to curriculum-driven literacy…Given the opportunity to show what a great reading lesson might look like under Common Core, [model lesson-giver Kate Gerson] offered up something dull, uninspiring, and not that much different than what too many teachers are doing today.”
Changing curriculum and instruction is the whole point of Common Core. If teachers go through years of retraining and rethinking their classrooms and teaching style only to end up where they began, the entire project will be an expensive exercise in futility.
Surveys keep finding that most teachers feel two things about rolling Common Core into their classrooms: Optimism and worry. A 2013 summer survey (the most recent) from Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, found that three-quarters of teachers strongly or somewhat agree they are “enthusiastic” about Common Core. But the same proportion agrees strongly or somewhat that getting it into place will be “challenging.”