Using Professional Judgment with Text Exemplars in the Common Core State Standards

By Sarah Ottow

The Common Core State Standards could potentially give educators unprecedented opportunities for rethinking and redoing the way we do school.  The Standards focus on real world application and evidence-based critique, they raise the level of rigor for all grade levels, and they integrate literacy and oral language skills across the content areas.  The adoption and implementation of the Standards mark a grand movement to provide a consistent framework for forty-five states plus four U.S. territories.

By reading the Introduction to the Standards for English Language Arts and literacy across the content areas, one can glean the intention behind them--to provide an overall vision and set of outcomes for what students should be able to know and demonstrate in their journey to becoming career and college ready in the 21st century.  The overall emphasis is on relevant learning that students can independently transfer in new situations, which requires higher order thinking skills beyond rote memorization and recall.  The Standards themselves are not the curriculum that teachers should follow; instead they are guidelines with which a “great deal is left to the discretion of teachers and curriculum developers.”

If we must use “discretion” in implementing the standards, then the question arises, “How do we know that appropriate and responsible discretion is being acted upon?”  Educators are left on their own to interpret them or, perhaps, misinterpret them.  As Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins warn, “failure to understand the Standards and adjust practices accordingly will likely result in ‘same old, same old’ teaching with only superficial connections to the grade level Standards...[and] their promise to enhance student performance will not be realized” (p. 2).  And “same old” equals past practice, not best practice.  Past practice is not what our students deserve.  Past practice will not prepare them to be self-reliant, thoughtful global citizens.  A newer, better  suggested set of practices demands that we undertake four tasks--1) take the time to deeply understand the big ideas and shifts behind the Standards, 2) consciously plan curriculum and assessments around rich performance tasks, 3) adhere to student-centered, multicultural instructional approaches that focus on real world application, and 4) continuously reflect on our implementation of these tasks.  This newer way of doing school requires us to re-envision ways that schools can look, feel, and function.  It requires us to literally think outside of the box and even consider that perhaps there is no box.  The industrialized model of education can exist no longer in our global society.

With the attitudes and behaviors that the Standards demands of schools, it is imperative that we consider how to proceed responsibly.  Otherwise, opportunities for change may be thwarted.  Take the Standard’s Text Exemplars for example.  As the documents states, “Being able to read complex text independently and proficiently is essential for high achievement in college and the workplace and important in numerous life tasks” (p. 4).  Certainly text complexity does matter for students as they develop and extend their meta-cognitive skills and critical literacy strategies in a fast-paced world of images and sound bytes.  Furthermore, the statistics for high school graduates and adults who are proficient readers in our country are atrocious, and the level of literacy required to succeed in college is daunting for many.  Yes, the goal of increasing text complexity is a worthwhile endeavor for our schools to undertake;  Appendix B gives a set of Exemplar Texts for educators to consider when choosing texts for their particular grade and task.  It states that these texts are to be referred to as “useful guideposts in helping educators select texts of similar complexity, quality, and range for their own classrooms. They expressly do not represent a partial or complete reading list.”

Appendix A explains the three criteria for selecting texts based on their complexity--”quantitative, qualitative, and reader and task consideration” (p.4)--along with the research and rationale of why teaching text complexity matters.  The document goes on to give grade-specific text complexity demands, sample reading tasks, and an overview of the linguistic skills needed for literacy development.  It tells us that the Standards expect “that educators will employ professional judgment” (p. 7) when selecting texts for students.

These appendices are rich and could be starting points for professional development in the often-overlooked but critical theory that every teacher is a literacy teacher.  Yet, are these appendices being digested in the ways they were intended?  Or is the list of Text Exemplars solely being focused in on without careful consideration of the supporting documents explaining how to implement them?  If schools do not take into consideration the ways that text complexity can be taught and the professional judgment necessary to do so, then the list of Text Exemplars is in danger of becoming a list of required texts, not recommended texts.

A simple Google search for “Common Core Text Exemplars” brings up a comprehensive list straight from the list in Appendix B “ready to purchase” through Follet Educational Services.  Is this the intent of the Standards--to purchase a ready-to-teach kit of complex texts?  No, the Standards, say.  The danger of proceeding to implement text complexity without a thorough unpacking of what it means can, in turn, allow us to perpetuate the very practices the Standards may be urging us to change.  If schools skip the work needed to deeply apply professional judgment in selecting texts for their school libraries and classrooms, students may not be reflecting in those very texts.   Critics of the confusion around the usage of the Exemplars share strategies for discerning text selection.  Katie Cunningham asserts that although classics give students the “cultural capital needed to be successful within the educational system,” they can be taught alongside multicultural texts to give multiple perspectives and mirrors for every child.  Debbie Reese shares with us that instead of using a passage from the recommended Little House in the Big Woods that refers to American Indians as “wild men,” we could infuse more contemporary texts that honor Native children.  In order to make these professional judgments, educators need to be diligent in unpacking the privileges inherent in race, class, language, ability and other groups, and they need the collaborative structures and resources in place to try and respond to what works for their particular students.

As written in Appendix A, “A turning away from complex texts is likely to lead to a general impoverishment of knowledge, which, because knowledge is intimately linked with reading comprehension ability, will accelerate the decline in the ability to comprehend complex texts and the decline in the richness of text itself.”  (p. 4).  Could it not also be said that “a turning away from true professional judgment could lead to a general impoverishment of cultural pluralism, which, because cultural pluralism is intimately linked with democracy, could accelerate the decline in democratic practices in schools and the decline in democracy itself?”   Strong instructional leadership that promotes the professional judgment of teacher is essential in order to implement the standards as they were intended or else we are just doing school as usual.

Sarah Ottow  is Director of the Worcester E.L.L. Teacher Residency

has served as a program coordinator, instructional coach, reading specialist and teacher for schools in the Milwaukee area and in Puerto Rico. She has taught on balanced literacy, ESL and bilingual education, instructional mentoring and service learning. 

The Worcester E.L.L. Teacher Residency is a program of the Center for Collaborative Education, Boston.