Uncommon Core: Where the Authors of the Standards Go Wrong About Instruction-and How You Can Get It Right


Michael W. Smith, Deborah Appleman, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm & Grant Wiggins

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  • Copyright


    For Peggy Jo Wilhelm, and her uncommon core of courage and resilience.

    List of Figures


    Whither Common Core? As I write, this is a very live question. A confluence of factors has brought intense criticism—some of it substantive, some of it political—on the provenance, process, and implementation of the Standards. So, while the idea of national standards remains a sound one, as the authors here note, the devil is in the implementation details. And ironically (given the emphasis on the aim of dispassionate argument in the Standards), polemics are currently drowning out sound reasoning.

    That is why Michael, Deborah, and Jeff have done the profession a great service in this book. Finally! A text with more light than heat on the issues surrounding the Standards and their implications for learning. We come to understand through their clear and well-documented analysis precisely what the Standards do and do not imply for practice, and we gain endless practical advice on how to use the Standards to make intelligent progress in literacy development.

    With regard to dispassionate argument, the authors provide readers with a fair and helpful account of the ebb and flow of views about reading over the past 75 years and how those views have played into the English language arts (ELA) Standards. Here, for example, are the authors lamenting how the important advance of reader-response theory nonetheless led to excess (see pages 29–30):

    Lois Tyson (2006) reminds us that “the New Critics believed that the timeless meaning of the text—what the text is—is contained in the text alone” (p. 170). Reader-response critics contend that “what a text is cannot be separated from what it does” (p. 170). The role of the reader, then, and how he or she responds to any particular text, cannot be separated from our understanding of the text itself….

    Yet in some ways, as a profession, we overcorrected. In some cases we threw the text out with the bathwater, leaving some pretty sloppy practices that encourage personal revelation at the expense of textual interpretation…. As English teachers, we may have been guilty of overprivileging and romanticizing the individual at the expense of considerations of context and text.

    But their even-handed history is merely a backdrop for a forceful argument as to what kind of instruction best supports the Standards. The authors clearly show how close reading—a performance at the heart of the Standards—is helped, not hurt, by the appropriate use of valid comprehension strategies and reader-response activities that involve pre-reading questions, discussions, and surveys that assist in meaning making. Why is this important? Because the chief author of the Standards—David Coleman—has spoken out against such practices (even as he acknowledges his limited experience in teaching and with the research on literacy).

    The authors are most astute in showing that Coleman's constant emphasis on text-dependent questions actually undercuts the aim of transfer—a goal that Coleman, the authors, and I all agree is crucial while too rarely achieved. The authors effectively marshal the evidence as well as common sense to show that burying one's nose in each text, in isolation, is highly unlikely to foster the kind of strategic thinking and connections across texts that transfer requires—to the additional detriment of likely decreases in student engagement.

    They remind us that transfer demands metacognition and the ability to (consciously) apply powerful strategies to new texts:

    What research on transfer teaches us is that students must have conscious control over what they will transfer and plenty of practice in doing so. Research on classroom discourse teaches us that the asking of authentic questions that foster open discussion among students, discussions in which they can hear and evaluate multiple interpretations, is associated with improved performance on complex literacy tasks.

    What makes the book a must-have for every teacher is that the authors never rest content in merely making these kinds of academic arguments. Each chapter is filled with clear, practical, and rich examples for how teachers might honor “best practice” while also meeting the Standards. In each chapter we see best practice modeled and discussed in a way that will help all teachers, novice and veteran, be more effective teachers of reading.

    In sum, this is a book that represents the best in teacher education and professional development: a seamless melding of theory and practice, argument, and advice. The book practices what the writing standards preach and helps us experience directly what the reading standards demand. In short: an anchor text for the anchor standards.

    —Grant Wiggins

    Grant Wiggins is the president of Authentic Education and the author of numerous books and articles on curriculum and assessment. He is perhaps best known for being the coauthor of Understanding by Design.


    There are of course so many people, teachers all, who have helped us on our own human journeys, our educational journeys, and our Specific journey writing this book. But here we would like to focus on just two acknowledgments. The rest of you know who you are and have our gratitude and love.

    First, we'd like to thank Lisa Luedeke, Maura Sullivan, Francesca Africano, Melanie Birdsall, Julie Nemer, Linda Gray, and the whole team at Corwin. They have been delightful to work with, and their expertise and passion have made lots of things better, including us as writers and the book you hold in your hands.

    Second, we have dedicated this book to Peggy Jo Wilhelm, Jeff's wife and a teacher extraordinaire. We'd like to explain why.

    Seven years ago Peggy collapsed of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. In the intervening years she was told that she was terminal on four occasions. She has suffered 17 more strokes, all resulting in traumatic brain injury, and has lost her vision and ability to read and play music (she was a professional musician and a music and humanities teacher).

    Throughout all of this, she retained her amazing grace and courage, and, perhaps most inspiring, remained a teacher. She has worked with the Healthwise project to educate legislators and the public about patients’ issues when moving between doctors and hospitals, about abuses from health insurance companies, about the effects of undiagnosed diseases, and much more. She has also continued to be a guest teacher in classrooms of all kinds regarding her own condition, but also about many other topics in the arts and human psychology. She is a prized thinking partner of Boise State Writing Project teachers who invite her into their classrooms whenever she feels well enough to come. She is a model of service and of service learning.

    Suffice to say that beyond the very worthy goals of teaching our students to become career and college ready, to become lifelong readers and writers, and to become democratic citizens, we want to help our students to become teachers, thinking partners, helpmates and companions to all around them, to become wide-awake and committed citizens, and to become compassionate and loving human beings. We want to help them become full human beings, even in the greatest distress. We want them to become like Peggy Jo Wilhelm.

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