Let’s take, as one example, a ninth grade student –Maria—who has the equivalent of a fifth grade reading level. Her peers are reading things like Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hemmingway. Maria is reading Maniac Magee. If we assume that both comprehension and cultural and background knowledge build over time, how we will ever get Maria to the same place as her peers? How do you get her from Maniac Magee to Macbeth?
The reality is that, the incremental increases in complexity that the “just right” books theory demands simply will never close the gap between Maria and her peers.
Enter the Common Core. The “Grade Appropriate” approach that drives its ELA standards is based on a very different assumption. Teachers who follow the “Grade Appropriate” theory select books, poems, articles, and stories that are appropriate for the grade level, even if that level is above the students’ instructional or independent reading level.
Teaching with this approach can be more challenging, particularly in schools where many students are far behind grade level. A great deal more scaffolding is needed to ensure that all students—including those who are reading far below grade level—are able to understand grade-appropriate texts. And there’s no easy way to ensure that students do more of the “heavy lifting” of the reading on their own, rather than to rely on teachers to help them struggle through.
Figuring out how to target remediation and how to scaffold difficult texts is exactly the kind of work that needs to happen to make a serious push to close the reading gap. And for those looking at whether CCSS is going to live up to its promise to drive student achievement, we could do worse than to start tracking the type and complexity of texts being assigned in classrooms across the country as Common Core implementation ramps up.
What does this have to do with the Common Core? Isn't the right curriculum whatever gets kids up to standards?
And while I'm unfamiliar with Maniac Magee one of the mysteries of this whole scheme is what one might mean when one says "fifth grade reading level" in the age of Common Core. Give me a 9th grader who can complete these tasks for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and four years, and we should be fine. We might not nail Macbeth the first time, and heck, we may backslide and read some sub-grade level dreck like Little Women or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but it is all quite doable, either way.
Fifth grade reading level according to the Common Core:
They were indeed a queer-looking party that assembled on the bank--the birds with draggled feathers, the animals with their fur clinging close to them, and all dripping wet, cross, and uncomfortable.
The first question of course was, how to get dry again: they had a consultation about this, and after a few minutes it seemed quite natural to Alice to find herself talking familiarly with them, as if she had known them all her life. Indeed, she had quite a long argument with the Lory, who at last turned sulky, and would only say, `I am older than you, and must know better'; and this Alice would not allow without knowing how old it was, and, as the Lory positively refused to tell its age, there was no more to be said.
At last the Mouse, who seemed to be a person of authority among them, called out, `Sit down, all of you, and listen to me! I'LL soon make you dry enough!' They all sat down at once, in a large ring, with the Mouse in the middle. Alice kept her eyes anxiously fixed on it, for she felt sure she would catch a bad cold if she did not get dry very soon.
`Ahem!' said the Mouse with an important air, `are you all ready? This is the driest thing I know. Silence all round, if you please! "William the Conqueror, whose cause was favoured by the pope, was soon submitted to by the English, who wanted leaders, and had been of late much accustomed to usurpation and conquest. Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria--"'