NCLE Study Reveals the Potential of a Quiet Revolution
This academic year Common Core State Standards for English language arts became a powerful reality in the majority of US P–12 schools. How professional educators implemented the standards became a question of immediate consequence for teachers, school leaders, and millions of students.
The National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE) 2013 study Remodeling Literacy Learning Together: Paths to Standards Implementation zeroes in on how day-to-day practices in literacy teaching are changing—how literacy learning looks different this year than it has in the past.
While we learned much in the study, it’s worth pausing for a minute to note what we didn’t find. A few key non-findings and their implications:
A common narrative is that educators instinctively resist change. That certainly is not the case in meeting the challenges represented by new standards. Our data show that educators are eager to work together to look critically at literacy teaching and learning practices and pilot approaches that enrich student learning. But few are given the time and support to do this thoughtful work.
Another canard is that only English and reading teachers should teach literacy skills. That no longer is the case—teachers in every discipline, librarians, and school leaders all embrace responsibility for improving student literacy learning. And while more cross disciplinary collaboration to improve literacy is underway in our schools, it isn’t nearly enough to create the well-integrated learning experiences that help literacy skills take root.
- While it is hard to find anyone who is satisfied with current testing practices, it is not the case that teachers hate all assessments. At the same time, many educators are appropriately cautious about limiting assessments to tests, the amount of time new tests may require, how tightly curriculum marketed by test-makers ties to the tests, and how hastily policies link consequences for schools to how students do on assessments. The general concern, it may seem, is not with what could be meaningful assessment, but with an expensive new system that seems to lead back to a problem we have been trying to fix: teaching to the test.
What we did find in the study is heartening, because it suggests avenues to real progress in meeting our national literacy learning challenge.
1. Although this past fall relatively few teachers felt well prepared to help students meet new literacy standards, and very few ready to help ELL students or those with learning disabilities meet rigorous standards, a clear majority of teachers agreed on what would most help them get ready to make a difference for students. They need more collaborative time with colleagues with whom they work. This finding is significant and reflects trends in other professional fields like medicine, architecture, and law enforcement. What’s missing isn’t rare expertise or miraculous technology. The key is time to solve problems and build practical approaches that make sense for the literacy learners teachers serve daily.
2. Most educators, however, are getting less and less productive time to work together, and few are playing a significant role in planning their schools’ shift in preparing students to meet new literacy standards. Fortunately, that situation is not true everywhere. In those schools where teachers are playing a central role in implementing new standards, remarkable things are happening:
- Where teachers are collaborating around the new standards, they are twice as likely to report that they feel well prepared to help students meet and exceed literacy standards.
- A strong majority of teachers who collaborate to build new approaches to implementing standards already are incorporating new content in literacy lessons. And, an even stronger majority report that they have significantly shifted how they teach literacy skills.
Other benefits accrue to schools that organize to promote teacher collaboration as a central pillar of their shift to new standards. Teachers more readily create new curricula and teaching materials; design new, more meaningful assessments; and take responsibility for working together to advance student learning.
The main finding from the NCLE 2013 study is a positive one: a quiet revolution in how school time and decision-making are organized can help students build vital literacy skills.
As many familiar with successive waves of reform have suspected, it isn’t the content of the standards that will make them a positive or negative influence on student learning. It is how educator expertise is developed, accessed, and deployed that can make all the difference. Where educators can operate as true professionals, students thrive. We can remodel literacy learning if we support educators as architects of innovative improvements, engineers of teaching approaches that fire the imagination of students and help them solve both academic and real-life problems.