A few days ago, I watched a series of videos produced by PBS and the New York State Education Department aimed at helping educators understand the Common Core Standards. I watched intently as David Coleman, one of the Core’s contributing authors and John B. King, commissioner of Education in New York, outlined the six primary instructional shifts the core seeks to influence in classrooms:
1. Balancing informational text with literature
2. Building knowledge in the disciplines
3. Staircase of complexity of text in the classroom
4. Text-based answers
5. Writing from sources
6. Academic vocabulary
As I listened, I found myself, at times, nodding in enthusiastic agreement and at other times, I found my jaw opened wide staring in confused disbelief. At first I thought my real objection was to the way in which they laid out the expectations of the fourth shift, “text-based answers” but in learning more, what I am having the biggest problem understanding is the third shift, “Staircase of complexity.”

As Mr. Coleman and Mr. King spoke about this shift, they expressed the sentiment that schools have “over-corrected” for students who are not on grade level by giving them easier texts. They spoke about the need for close reading and rereading as a way of grappling with increasingly difficult text. They talked about creating the kind of dissonance that allows children to be frustrated without allowing “confusion and despair to overwhelm” them.

On the one hand, it sounds like what they are describing is exactly what we do in guided reading. We give children books that we know will require support and scaffolding in order to read successfully. We encourage close and careful reading and rereading in order to help children think deeply and make meaning as they read the text; but on the other hand, the words “over-corrected” followed by a comment that we “shoot too low because we see kids are finding text too hard to grapple with” makes me wonder if this is an attack on the practice of guided reading and matching books to readers…or an attack on the way in which this has been misconstrued and misinterpreted and thereby, wrongly implemented in schools?

In their discussion, there was a push for educators to present children with increasingly difficult text and allow them opportunity to read it sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph and cultivate “a world of disorientation” albeit in a scaffolded environment. As I digest this idea, I feel tormented because yes, I do believe that we need to give students the tools they need to read complex text. I want children to engage in rich discussions about books and the important texts of our time. In fact, this is exactly what Kelly Gallagher advocates for in his book Deeper Reading but that book is written for teachers of grades 4-12. It makes me wonder about the foundation work that needs to happen in order to allow for that possibility. At what point do we begin creating this dissonance? If we begin too early will it serve only as a reminder to some children that reading is hard, too hard, in fact, there’s no point working to get better at it? How do we determine when it is developmentally appropriate to present text that will create discord and have to be worked at to be understood? Should third graders be unpacking Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech? Or is that too soon? Where does the research that says that children need texts that match their ability level fit into this picture? How do we reconcile the call for a “staircase of complexity” with the need for good-fit books that encourage students to read widely and get the practice they need—the very practice that allows them to open their minds to reading these “increasingly complex texts” that in turn puts them on the “trajectory of college and career” readiness that Mr. King calls for?

Dissonance is important to learning. That said, when it comes to implementing the standards that affect the shift in text complexity in our classrooms, I’ve got some dissonance of my own to grapple with.

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