Implementing Higher Literacy Standards or Putting on a Show?

  • Common Core State Standards author awareness
  • 19 July, 2018

Back in the 1930s, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney always seemed to be putting on a show. They were going to be sent to a farm to work for the summer in Babes in Arms, but they wanted to go to Broadway instead – and they did!

I love that whole idea of Judy and Mickey with their teenage backs to the wall, singing and dancing their way to success (and into our hearts). Younger folks might prefer a more recent analogy—like Footloose—but then I’d have to be a younger blogger who is less than 6-degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon.

I’m not the only one who appreciates the spunk and eventual success manifest in these films.

Just look at the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The idea was that American education was on the ropes, so let’s adopt high standards that will set college- and workplace-ready goals for U.S. schools and…

And, hey kids, let’s roll up those sleeves, dance and sing like crazy until the world is a better place and everyone can read and write well enough to learn and work and participate in our techno-centric civic and social life. Oh boy, I can’t wait for the big performance number at the end in which even the poorest kids get to raise their voices to show that they can read well, too. MGM would be very proud.

Unless they read the new report released this week by the Thomas Fordham Foundation, Reading and Writing Instruction in America’s Schools by David Griffith and Ann M. Duffett

In 2012, Fordham surveyed America’s English Language Arts (ELA) teachers to determine what their CCSS-relevant instructional practices were. (That was when CCSS was first issued.) Now, eight years after wide adoption of these standards, they've surveyed teachers again.

Whether you think the education system is as audacious, exuberant, entertaining, and successful as Mickey and Judy (or Kevin) depends on which part of the report you read.

Sure, there are more teachers teaching reading with expository text and narrative non-fiction, too. There has also been an increase in the teaching of vocabulary. And more teachers are asking kids to support their answers with evidence from the texts. (Thank you, CCSS).

But those were the simple shifts: America’s schools were already increasing exposition and vocabulary teaching in the reading curriculum during the decade leading up to CCSS and asking kids to show where their answers were coming from is a pretty simple adjustment. (The first reading class I took in 1969 stressed that too, so it’s not exactly revolutionary.)

What about some of the more challenging CCSS-inspired shifts? Teaching with complex text, having kids write about content, using ELA instruction to build kids’ cultural literacy and domain knowledge? Let’s just say, Judy and Mickey wouldn’t have been happy with our efforts: They’d be plowing and milking this summer instead of dancing and singing.

As Shakespeare wrote, “the problem is not in our stars but in ourselves.” In this case, the problem is not in our standards but in our implementation.

Are teachers more focused on content writing (that is, having kids write about historical, social, and scientific ideas) or are they having kids write about personal stuff and what they already know? According to the report, teachers have doubled down on the personal at the expense of academic writing. (The report doesn’t give a sense that teachers have exactly embraced the idea of kids learning a lot about their world from reading either it is fair to note—in fact, they themselves expressed the need for more attention to that).

How about reading classical literature (the so-called “literary canon,” whatever that is these days)? Less, not more, according to the survey.

How about teaching kids to negotiate the complexity of grade level texts? Even more emphasis, according to the report, on teaching students with relatively easy texts that shouldn’t require much teaching. (Forty-two percent of the teachers were concerned that if you exposed kids to grade level texts they’d just be discouraged.)

Judy Garland once sang about a place “Over the Rainbow” where “dreams really do come true.”

Sadly, our literacy dreams have not come true. We put on a show, and nobody came.

This isn’t surprising. Teaching is hard—even harder than putting on a good show.

There is only one thing that raises literacy levels: students’ academic experiences.

If you want to see higher levels of literacy, then you should increase the amount of teaching that kids receive (and the amount of reading and writing that we enage them in).

You need to make sure those academic experiences are focused on things that actually improve reading achievement (like phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, writing, and content knowledge—rather than teaching test-question types).

Finally, you need to make sure that the teaching students receive is as efficient and powerful as it can be (by teaching with books that are hard enough to present opportunities to learn and making sure kids—and teachers—understand the purposes of lessons).

The standards movement labors under a theory that postulates school achievement will improve if we adopt high learning goals, then align tests with those goals. Teachers will see those goals and be frightened enough by those tests that they’ll teach kids to read more successfully.

Past generations - you know the ones that raised American literacy levels (Kaestle has described very steady growth in American literacy from 1776 until the 1970s when things stalled) - weren’t quite that fancy. They did crazy things like increase the amount of schooling that kids received (or brought populations into school that had not been enrolled previously). They increased the education levels of teachers. And they increased supports for them to teach well (look at the changes in reading textbooks in the 1930s, for instance).

If you want to raise reading achievement, kids will have to read more demanding texts. But that means teachers will need to know why that is and how to prepare them for and support them in reading those texts (instead of how to avoid such instruction). Kids aren’t necessarily discouraged by challenging text, but they are often insulted by the below grade level substitutes teachers use in the place of such text.

If you want reading levels to rise, you’ll have to make sure that what kids are reading (and what they are doing with the texts they read) increases their knowledge of history and science and our literary culture.

Standards can only be a start.

States were wise to adopt such high standards. I just wish they would have matched that wisdom with an equal commitment of the energy and resources needed to implement them well.

Countries that have raised literacy achievement have adopted higher standards, but then they aligned their entire instructional system to those higher standards: instructional materials, tests, professional development, teacher and principal education, and parent and media expectations. Now that really can work.

Or you can put on a show…. It worked for Judy and Mickey.

Other links of interest:

Literacy Lifelines (based on this survey):

Thomas Fordham Foundation's 2013 survey on these issues:

Stephen Sawchuk's (Education Week) take on the new report:


See what others have to say about this topic.

Sam Bommarito Jul 19, 2018 03:22 PM

First, I've cut and pasted this quote from todays blog and put a hard copy over my desk. "You need to make sure those academic experiences are focused on things that actually improve reading achievement (like phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, writing, and content knowledge—rather than teaching test-question types)." THANKS

Second I'm following the links you provided and looking for more guidance on how to (paraphrased) "Teach with complex text, have kids write about content, use ELA instruction to build kids’ cultural literacy and domain knowledge?" Examples of that happening- resources to help teachers implement what you describe?

Reading instruction has to include a strong decoding component and a strong meaning making component. I don't always agree with all that you say. But I always listen very carefully to what you say and I recognize there is a great deal that you say that is really right on the mark. So..., what does really good meaning making instruction (my preferred term for comprehension instruction) look like? Thanks for listening, looking forward to hearing more of your views on the topic.

Harriett Janetos Jul 19, 2018 11:45 PM

This statement, "If you want to raise reading achievement, kids will have to read more demanding texts . . .but that means teachers will need to know why that is and how to prepare them for and support them in reading those texts (instead of how to avoid such instruction)", reminds me of commentary in this month's Reading Research Quarterly, "Toward Contingency in Scaffolding Reading Comprehension: Next Steps for Research". Contingency, "responsiveness to student thinking", is as necessary as "preplanned scaffolding", the authors argue, since "the dynamic, contextual, and affective nature of comprehension calls for a focus on contingency in scaffolding interactions because the requisite assumptions of preplanned scaffolding can obscure students' emergent comprehension." In my observations and discussions I find that many teachers do indeed struggle to both initially scaffold demanding texts and then to support students "contigently" as they read those texts.

Kathy Nall Jul 20, 2018 12:29 PM

Absoultely agree with your analysis of current education. What disturbs me about 'higher standards' in primary CCCS is the needed emphasis on five components without overwhelming the child. Taking the time to enjoy literature is impossible whilst teaching to a test that asks 8 year olds to read and agressively compare 2 lengthy texts is odd. We've only pared down college expectations (they look the same from grade to grade, begging the questiin, do young children learn the same as college students???) and added instruction to a mere 6 hour day. It is worth investigating.

Becki Krsnak Jul 21, 2018 05:42 PM

I think you again are right on! Although I'm in Texas, there's not much difference in CCCS and our TEKS as you know. Our new ELAR TEKS, I'm glad to say, hit these very topics and skills needed. But again as others have commented, we must bust our butts to teach teachers how to teach this way and implement these higher standards. There's not enough professional learning out there on this topic, so I'm thankful for you and Doug Fisher, and others who are bringing this to light! Oh, if I could get all my teachers to teach the way you and Fisher describe! And i could get the higher beings above me torealize this need! Well, our students would not be ranked an F in comparison to their peers! Keep up the great motivation!

Timothy Shanahan Jul 24, 2018 01:33 PM


You raise an important point. Teachers (and textbooks) can only pre-plan so much, and it is impossible to anticipate everything. Teachers have to not only try to anticipate where students might need support, they also have to pay attention to the mistakes kids make and rather than just correcting the mistake ("No, Johnny, Moby Dick was the whale."), they have to try to try to help Johnny to figure out the correct answer. I couldn't agree more.



Krista Sep 07, 2018 12:32 AM

I think negotiated choice is key to reading the volume necessary in increasing reading levels and building vocabulary. In the digital age it is so easy to fake read a novel. I see students reading more volume with more depth and more variety when given more choice.

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Implementing Higher Literacy Standards or Putting on a Show?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.