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Connecticut Teacher Evaluation 2.0

By Rachel Gabriel

Like a message in a bottle that first crashed on to shore on a wave of reforms – only to be carried out and back in again by smaller waves and currents – teacher evaluation has come, transformed, and settled into the everyday lives of teachers across Connecticut. For those who were involved in the pilot year, this marks the third year under the new policy, which has rolled back in intensity each year since the start. For others, this is the second time around: A chance to consider evaluation more closely and to begin to find ways to use it to support teaching and learning.

As I study teacher evaluation and teach reading specialists, I have heard a wide range of responses to the new policy: from teachers who claim new rubrics don’t leave room for instruction they believe in, to those who have found new ways to engage and support struggling readers as a result of conversations with evaluators and colleagues. The truth is that teacher evaluation policies and rubrics for observation say very little about the nature of reading instruction that qualifies as exemplary. In this article, I am going to argue that this is good news for literacy professionals. The vague descriptions of “good teaching” in rubrics for evaluation and the room for personalization in individual teachers’ goals and measures of student growth leave us room to direct our efforts and evaluators’ attention to what matters the most in literacy classrooms.

Focus on what matters most Reading is the most researched K-12 content area in all of education research. Despite its importance and complexity, decades of research and experience teaching reading tend to converge on the same set of opportunities needed to develop literacy. Teachers can arrange these opportunities within most any framework using literally any set of materials (Taylor, Pressley & Pearson, 2000; Bond & Dykstra, 1967), but without any one of these opportunities, we know literacy development is thwarted. One way to conceptualize these research-based opportunities to develop literacy is as non-negotiables (Gabriel, 2013) that must be part of instruction for every reader every day (Allington & Gabriel, 2012). The four non-negotiables are listed below.
Every reader every day:

  1. Reads something they can and want to read
  2. Writes something to an audience for a purpose
  3. Talks about what they read or write with peers
  4. Listens to an expert reader read and think aloud

We ought to hold these truths to be self-evidence because we have found them to be true in so many different studies, from so many different
perspectives, with so many different goals. When we organize our instruction, professional conversations and goal setting around these non-negotiables, we can use teacher evaluation to focus our work on what matters the most. In the following section, I will briefly describe each nonnegotiable and what it means in the context of classroom observations, goalsetting and professional growth conversations.

Every Reader Reads Something They Can and Want to Read

We know that time spent reading is necessary-but-not-sufficient for reading growth. It is not sufficient because simply putting in the time does not guarantee optimum (not too much or too little) exposure to new words and text structures, or the engagement and feelings of success required to motivate and sustain reading practice within and outside of school. Students must have high-success experiences with texts in order to solidify skills, build confidence, and leave room for the engagement that fuels comprehension and the motivation to continue reading. When students self-select texts, it dramatically increases the chances that they will find something they can and want to read.

Ensuring every reader has something they can and want to read can be accomplished in a number of ways, but is antithetical to a classroom where every student is always reading the same class text with no alternative. This is not to say that shared reading experiences are not valuable for discussion and that challenge is never a good idea. A balance between shared and individual texts allows the best of both to contribute to literacy development. In fact, English teacher and author Kelly Gallagher would argue for a 50:50 split between whole class novels and independent reading (Gallagher, 2010). For classrooms with many struggling and/or reluctant readers, I encourage teachers to invest even more than 50% of their time doing the independent reading that fuels a cycle of reading success (Gabriel, 2013), and less on the shared texts that fail to match readers by level or interest.

When an evaluator enters an effective literacy classroom, they should see evidence that students sometimes have the opportunity to read something they have chosen at or near their individual level. They should witness students actually reading at some point in a full period, and they should be able to interview students who will describe what they’re reading now and what they will read next. These indicators suggest that the teacher has invested in high-success reading experiences and organized instruction that promotes reading motivation, engagement and success.

Every Reader Writes to an Audience for a Purpose

We know that reading and writing are reciprocal processes, which means that growth in either supports the other (Graham & Hebert, 2010). In fact, sometimes writing is a way into engagement with reading (Calkins, 1994), especially for students who struggle to learn to read (Dostal & Wolbers, 2014). Like time spent reading, simply investing more minutes writing is not enough. Students need to be writing to an audience, for a purpose, in order for writing instruction to be meaningful. Like reading for a purpose, writing for a purpose increases engagement and stamina, but it also provides an authentic reason to pay attention to conventions and skill work (e.g., spelling, punctuation, grammar, style) in context.

Marie Clay famously referred to reading as “a meaning-making, message-getting process,” (Clay, 1991), but too often, writing is either avoided altogether, or taught and practiced without attention to its meaning or message. That is, students are taught to write formulaic paragraphs, brief responses, and journal entries that are only ever seen by their teachers. In other words, they write, but are not taught writing as an agentic linguistic process of composition (Kiuhara et al., 2009). Moreover, they are writing in formats that do not have any real referent in the outside world, and therefore fail to transfer to meaningful writing tasks. When students are asked to write in class, they must be writing to someone for some reason. Rather than writing a paragraph that a teacher will grade, students can write to their classmates, students in other grades, or school papers. They can create copy for a class website, a how-to book, a warning sign, a petition, set of directions or menu of options.

Evaluators should see students’ writing to an audience for a purpose that they can articulate at some point during every class. Even if the writing is short and informal, without an audience and a purpose writing tasks cannot add up to meaningful practice. Audiences give young writers a reason to internalize conventions in order to ensure clear communication. Writing for a purpose gives young writers a way to make choices about structure and formatting in order to create a text that can accomplish something in the world. Investing in instruction and assessment that include writing to an audience, for a purpose ensures opportunities for students to develop both as readers and writers.

Every Reader Talks with Peers About What They Read or Wrote

We know that literate talk is an important part of literacy and language development. Students need to use words in order to learn them, and will see the impact of their words, as well as the importance of their stories (written or read) in conversation with one another. Classrooms where students have time to talk with each other about what they are reading and writing demonstrate growth in both reading and writing achievement (e.g. Applebee et al., 2003; Cazden, 1988)

Teachers are often unwilling to allow time for students to talk because they are afraid of what they will talk about, and assume time spent talking is wasted time. Perhaps this is the reason that students have so little practice or opportunity to engage in literate talk. Classrooms that support discussion and provide time and reasons to talk about text show significantly higher achievement, engagement and participation than classrooms where teachers do all of the talking, or only involve students in echoing or filling-in-the-blank of predetermined answers (see Nystrand, 2006 for a review).

Evaluators should expect to witness students talking with each other about text in every classroom, every day. The old idea that a quiet and compliant classroom is a high quality classroom has been thoroughly debunked by the research. Students need to use language to learn language. They need conversations as reasons for reading and writing, and spaces for considering what they’ve been reading and writing. This talk about text means that students must have experiences with texts worth talking about and shared experiences making sense of texts they have written or read.

Every Reader Listens to an Expert Reader Read and Think Aloud

We know that access to experts’ reading processes and strategies is invaluable for developing readers. This is especially true when reading in content areas where discipline-specific texts present unique challenges for readers such as unfamiliar formats, sentence structures, purposes for reading, and multiple meaning words (Fang & Coatam, 2008; Moje, 2008; Shannahan & Shannahan, 2008). Reading, like other complex and invisible multipart processes (swimming, driving, riding a bike) requires modeling – not of the outcomes of reading, but the very moment-tomoment thinking that leads to reading with understanding.

Even (and especially!) in the upper grades, time spent reading aloud to students increases exposure, engagement and expertise when reading discipline-specific texts for discipline-specific purposes. Though students may have had the benefit of years of stories being read aloud in school or at home, few have been able to watch an expert approach the kinds of texts students use in math, science, theater or agriculture classes. As a secondary teacher, you may be their first and best model for meaningmaking in your discipline.

Evaluators should expect to witness teachers talking about their thinking in every classroom every day. Students should be able to articulate how they approach, make sense of and fix their understanding of texts that represent the range of types and purposes required for the discipline. This means that a look around the classroom should show a range of text types, as well as some evidence or reminders of conversations about how they are read.

Advocate for The Instruction You Believe Should be Used

Under new teacher evaluation policies, rubrics for observation and student learning objectives (SLO’s) define what counts as good teaching, and what evaluators should focus on during feedback and coaching conversations. Thus, rubrics for observation and guidelines for writing SLO’s are general enough to apply to every grade level and subject area. They therefore say very little about what kind of literacy instruction should count as good teaching, or what administrators should pay most attention to when observing and supporting literacy instruction. As literacy professionals, we have a responsibility to be able to articulate exactly how the general descriptors of rubrics, and criteria for goals apply to our visions of excellent literacy instruction. For example, Table 1 includes descriptions from the “exemplary” column of Connecticut’s Rubric for Effective Teaching third domain (instruction) next to descriptions of what this might translate to in a literacy lesson.

Table 1. Generic rubric language and literacy-specific “look-fors”

3a. Instruction for Active Learning
Literacy-specific look-for
Every reader every day…
Students are encouraged to explain how the learning is situated within the broader learning context/curriculum.

Students are writing to a real audience, and will deliver their written products to that audience.Students are reading in order to do something: act, build, create, write, communicate, and are thus responsible for selecting texts that matter to them.

2. Writes something to an audience for a purpose.
Invites students to explain the content to their classmates.
Students talk about texts they have written and read, their conversations allow opportunities to use vocabulary in context, evaluate each other’s writing, and review/recommend books to one another.
3. Talks about what they read or write with peers.
Challenges students to extend their learning beyond the lesson expectations and make cross-curricular connections.
Students self-select texts so that they are applying skills and strategies learned in class to novel texts. Similarly, students compose written texts for specific audiences and purposes, this ensures their writing takes on the formats and conventions of authentic texts and are used as communication outside of the lesson.
1. Reads something they can and want to read.
Provides opportunities for students to independently select literacy strategies that support their learning.
Students have access to a wide range of explicitly modeled reading and writing approaches that match varied text types and purposes. These models allow them to use these flexibly for their own reading and writing purposes.
4. Listens to an expert reader read and think aloud.

We have to be ready to articulate literacy-specific versions of good teaching with evaluators so that we can keep observations, feedback and conversations focused on literacy instruction. Similarly, we have to be ready to suggest goals and measures that mirror our visions of literacy instruction so that SLOs and IAGD’s do not promote a limited version of reading. Table 2 includes sample SLO’s from the state’s website ( along with the versions of reading they imply, as well as some alternatives.

Table 2. SLOs, measures and implied importance

CT SEED website
1st / 2nd
Students will increase fluency of reading with specific skill level, i.e. single word, within a story, etc. to improve reading comprehension.
First graders will increase Nonsense Word Fluency score by 20 words and Second Graders will increase Oral Reading fluency by 45 words per minute, as assessed by relevant measures on the DIBELS assessments.
Measuring fluency using nonsense words narrows the task to rapid word calling, rather than reading quickly and smoothly with expression in ways that promote comprehension.
Students will write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence, including the acknowledgement of opposing claims, references to credible sources, a concluding statement, and a formal style.
The majority of my students will be able to write arguments in response to literary and informational texts that score between Proficient and Advanced on the department’s rubric.
Measuring writing using a school rubric may narrow the task to academic essay writing, rather than allowing students to select and compose in the format and style that matches their chosen audience and purpose.
All of my 11th grade students will demonstrate growth towards mastery of the Common Core State Writing Standards
Fully-developed essays, graded analytically using the district rubric will improve by 10% by the end of the year.
Measuring growth in writing in terms of the CCSS writ large would require a multitude of writing samples. It’s impossible to imagine if/how a goal this broad would influence daily instruction.
Potential Alternatives
1st / 2nd
Students will increase fluency in ways that support reading comprehension by rehearsing and performing a range of performative texts (poems, plays, speeches) that include repetition and require attention to prosody.
Students will read a novel text with accuracy, prosody and a 20% higher rate in words per minute than they did at the beginning of the year. Prosodic phrasing will indicate comprehension, which will be confirmed by paraphrasing or representing what was read in a visual or other modality.
This classroom is likely to involve repeated reading for authentic purposes (not skill & drill) and attention to prosody for communicative purposes.
Students will write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence, including the acknowledgement of opposing claims, references to credible sources, a concluding statement, and a style that aligns with their chosen purpose and audience.
Students will compose, publish and deliver a persuasive piece of writing to the relevant school or town official. It will also earn a score of proficient or advanced on an analytic rubric.
This classroom is likely to contextualize persuasive writing within topics that matter to students, and to teach the tools and conventions associated with such writing for the purpose of interpersonal persuasion, not academic correctness. Students select and meet genre-specific expectations by considering their audience and purpose.
All of my 11th grade students will compose, deliver and evaluate texts of three distinct types using formats and conventions that match their intended audience.
Students will generate and demonstrate a set of criteria for effective compositions in a range of settings. They read widely and consider the impact of various structures and conventions when determining criteria for judging various text types, and will be able to create texts that meet the criteria they have developed.
Students are asked to use their writing knowledge strategically and flexibly to understand, deconstruct and compose texts depending on a nuanced understanding of how written language is used and understood across contexts.

When setting SLOs and selecting IAGDs, we have to be ready to suggest and explain the goals and measures that support the kind of literacy learning we believe in, in order to avoid narrowing the focus of instruction to whatever is easiest to measure.

Make Evaluation Work for You

In this second year of teacher evaluation reform in Connecticut, we can no longer leave evaluation’s impact on reading instruction to chance. We have to be ready to make evaluation work for us by linking our goals, conversations and instruction to the aspects of literacy instruction that matter most for students. This means
making explicit connections between the vague aspects of literacy instruction that matter most for students. We have to be ready to make evaluation work for us by linking our goals, conversations and instruction to the aspects of literacy instruction that matter most for students. This means making explicit connections between the vague descriptions on evaluation rubrics and specific literacy practices. It also means setting goals and choosing assessment measures that focus on opportunities to develop powerful literacies – rather than contrived or isolated skills.


Allington, R. & Gabriel, R. (2012). Every child, every day. Educational Leadership, 69 (6), 10-15.

Applebee, A., Langer, J., Nystrand, M., & Gamoran, A. (2003). Discussion-based approaches to developing understanding: Classroom instruction and student performance in middle and high school English. American Educational Research Journal 40: 3, pp. 685-730.

Bond, G. L., & Dykstra, R. (1967). The cooperative research program in first-grade reading instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 2, 5-142.

Calkins, L. (1994) The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Cazden, C. (1988). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Clay, M. (1991). Becoming literate: The construction of inner control. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Dostal, H. & Wolbers, K. (2014). Developing language and writing skills of deaf and hard of hearing students: A simultaneous approach. Literacy Research and Instruction. 53(3), 245-268.

Fang, Z., & Coatoam, S. (2013). Disciplinary literacy : What you want to know about it. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(8), 627-632.

Gabriel, R. (2013). Reading’s Nonnegotiables: Elements of effective reading instruction. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Graham, S. & Hebert, M. (2010) Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading. New York: Carnegie Corporation.

Kiuhara, S., Graham, S., Hawken, L. (2009) Teaching writing to high school students: A national survey. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(1), 136-160.

Moje, E. B. (2008). Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching and learning: A call for change. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(2), 96 107.

Nystrand, M. (2006). Research on the role of classroom discourse as it affects reading comprehension. Research in the Teaching of English, 40, 392–412.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40- 59.

Taylor, B.M., Pressley, M.P., & Pearson, P.D. (2000). Research supported characteristics of teachers and schools that promote reading achievement. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, Reading Matters Research Report.

Legislative Report – Fall 2014

By Ann Marie Mulready, Ph.D.

For literacy professionals, the most important development at the Connecticut State Board of Education (CSBE/SBE) this year is the K-3 State-wide Reading Plan. The plan is required by Public Act 12-116, An Act Concerning Education Reform, and requires monitoring at the beginning, middle, and end of the year of all K-3 students with instruments that measure phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

In March, 2014, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE/SDE) conducted a round table review of the proposed K-3 plan. Several members of the CARR Board, including Agnes Burns, our president, attended those sessions and expressed concerns regarding the outcomes of the meetings.

In response to these concerns, Aggie Burns, Dr. Darcy Fiano, our dissertation prize recipient, and I addressed the Connecticut State Board of Education (CSBE) over the course of the April, May and June meetings.

In summary, we pointed to,

  •  The over-representation of code-based instruments
  • The lack of attention to oral language development
  • The necessity for integrating foundational skills at the earliest point as opposed to isolating those skills as many of the proposed instruments do
  • The failure to distinguish more highly validated instruments from weaker instruments
  • The lack of a definition of reading by the state. Without a clear definition, instruction tends to flow from the elements of the assessment

The SDE presented a list of 19 assessment instruments in May, though the final recommendation limited that number to 7. At this point, the Observation Survey (Clay) is not included as it was on the first draft of the plan. This is despite the fact that the United States Department of Education (USDE) afforded it the highest technical ratings of any of the included assessments. The DIBELs was included despite the USDE reporting its validity as “partially convincing” and the Office of the Inspector General objecting to the “clear conflicts of interest of those who were charged with validation,” and evidence that the companion program produced a large negative effect on comprehension.

The other recommended instruments are AIMSweb Tests of Early Literacy or Reading, mCLASS with DIBELS Next, Edcheckup, STEEP, NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), and STAR.

The SDE could not recommend a vocabulary assessment given the lack of an instrument that can measure vocabulary achievement in a standardized, efficient fashion. And comprehension is not directly tested, again due to a lack of availability of an efficient, standardized measure.

The Reading Plan policy also provides for a transition period from the use of the DRA2 as a screen for the 2014-2015 school year, a change in exit criteria for K-3 English Learners (ELs), assessing students in dual language programs, an assessment reporting table to be submitted to the CSDE, and a biennial, open review period. While priority districts are mandated to report the number of students who are performing below the cut point, other systems are not held to the same reporting requirement.

Lastly, the use of the mandated screening instruments does not preclude the use of other diagnostic measures, including the DRA2. They may be used in addition to the mandated instruments.

Other Issues

The most critical issue for the last legislative session has been the reports on and initiation of investigations of the FUSE charter organization that is responsible for Jumoke Academy/Milner School in Hartford, and the Dunbar School in Bridgeport. Commissioner Pryor directed the Department staff to review the existing rules concerning oversight, public transparency, completion and reporting of background checks, and student performance and equity in all charter schools.

Commissioner Pryor also reported the work of the Common Core Task Force. The Task Force has five recommendations:

    • Develop clear and consistent knowledge of CCSS at the classroom, school, district and state level;
    • Provide the necessary support and training to effectively transition the CCSS into district defined curricula;
    • Support all teachers and instructional staff in developing the capacity to master the instructional shifts that the standards necessitate;
    • Engage all stakeholders in a rich dialogue regarding the CCSS;
    • Provide the necessary resources to support effective implementation of the CCSS across all state districts.

The Commissioner is being asked to allocate $2 million to fund special training days for teachers, and to create a grant advisory committee to formulate mini grants for teachers and parents to develop CC aligned resources in the classroom and community.

The SBE also approved adoption of Praxis II for new cut scores for certification in Middle School English Language Arts, English Language Arts: Content and Analysis, and Mathematics Content Knowledge. Further, the cut score for certification in the ELA was raised from 168 to 173 on a 200 point scale, one conditional standard of error above the multi-state standard. The availability of candidates in the ELA was cited as the rationale. A position statement regarding Social Studies education has also been adopted.

A Final Note

It is incumbent upon all of us as literacy professionals to remain informed regarding literacy policy at the state and national levels and to observe the outcomes of those policies. The unquestioned emphasis on fluency by NCLB is an example. The speed and low cost with which fluency can be measured has resulted in a great deal of student time spent developing rapid reading as an end in itself. The rationale from the instrument developers for this has been that there is a correlation to word recognition, automaticity, and comprehension. But the question has not been asked about whether the observed comprehension, dependent on oral language development and background, is in fact the condition that is supporting the fluency. Further, the measures do not incorporate the other elements of fluency—prosody, expression, and appropriateness—that are essential to its use as a comprehension support. These are the questions that organizations like CARR can ask. We are all volunteers and are beholden only to our members and our mission. This makes your support of the organization vital to continuing the work. To that end, we may request information in the coming months on your districts’ use of the tests listed above. And now more than ever, renewal of your membership is essential to accomplishing the CARR mission.

BOOK REVIEW: Quantity and Quality: Increasing the Volume and Complexity of Students’ Reading

Review by Adrienne Chasteen Snow

Author: Sandra Wilde
ISBN: 978-0-325-04796-6
Publisher: Heinemann
Audience: K-12 Classroom Teachers and Reading/Literacy Specialists, Coaches, and Consultants

Protected time for reading and literacy instruction is a norm in most public elementary schools, Language Arts has traditionally gotten much of the focus in professional development for educators. With the Common Core making more than half of the standards (Foundational, regular, and secondary subject-specific Literacy) English Language Arts, Reading continues to be at the forefront of research and focus for best practices. In her book, Quantity and Quality: Increasing the Volume and Complexity of Students’ Reading, Sandra Wilde takes a good, hard look at Reading as a practice and as a subject area. She argues that the reading that our students needs to not just be bookended by tried-and-true pedagogy and implications from the latest research, but needs to be authentic and of a true rationale, heavy in both quantity and quality.

She begins with 6 core principles that she says enable her main premise that reading must be the main activity in our Reading/English/Language Arts classes. The principles from the first page of the first chapter are:

  1. Everyone reads a lot, including setting personal goals, as described below.
  2. Everyone reads widely – fiction and information, different genres, topics, and styles. you can also read narrowly or deeply if you want; all of the Twilight books in a row, everything you can find on spiders.
  3. Everyone grows as a reader. The goal each year is to read more challenging books over the course of the year than those you read at the beginning. The reader chooses the books, but the teacher mentors.
  4. There’s time for reading during the school day. The amount will vary depending on circumstances, but reading needs to be a part of school, not just a hobby.
  5. Teachers help kids be smarter readers. This includes literal and informational understanding, and also literary appreciation. There needs to be plenty of teaching, in individual conferences and in lessons and conversations for small groups and the whole class.
  6. Everyone keeps a record of books read. Readers need to monitor and document the extent of their reading.


While none of these ideas are particularly revolutionary, Wilde argues that the precepts are non-negotiable if our children are to become the type of readers that our world demands they be if they are to succeed. Wilde expressed gratitude to other writers and let the reader know that many of the ideas in the book come from the notable research and positions on education held by so many in academia. Stephen D. Krashen’s book, Power of Reading (2004) provides support for Wilde’s basic tenants that we read more and more as we grow and that those readings need to increase incomplexity over time because if we do, then we will have a group of better writers, speakers, learners, thinkers, and humanitarians. On paper, we will also have adept test-takers who are able to demonstrate comprehension through their own metacognition. The future is rosy for our students if we can help them find their way to literacy and informational text!

Wilde speaks to teachers in a smart and friendly tone, showing respect for their profession and always remembering that the children are the reason why they are teachers. She makes a point to use her knowledge of curriculum and instruction in the latter half of her text when she focuses on “What to Teach”. Wilde makes it known that a room full of students who are reading is not enough; the teacher must also consider what information to bring to her students in a most serious manner. Wilde’s perspective is very child-centered and does not advocate following a script blindly or teaching lessons on subjects students have already mastered. Instead she believes in using information gained through the process of conferring and bringing students to knowledge through discovery and a Constructivist approach.

One of her chapters is titled “Special Cases: Beginning Readers, English Language Learners, Struggling Readers, Reluctant Readers”. In this chapter Wilde addresses many of the exceptions to the rule. She is sensitive to the differing journeys of students and shares strategies for scaffolding.

She also shares three research studies that demonstrate the powerful connection between the role of culture and literacy. Understanding these correlations, teachers can be sensitive as they challenge all students in their charge to grow.

The book has many statistics, facts, and figures that support Wilde’s message. However, when looking for a common-sense justification for her rationale, her straightforward words do it best, “Reading, a lot of it, has got to be the center of our reading curriculum, just like cooking is at the center of cooking school. Everything else that goes on must be in support of readers spending time constructing meaning from the books they read. Reading itself develops not only reading ability but the knowledge that comes from reading and the habits that support a lifetime of reading” (p. 13).

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

Reviewed by Agnes Burns

Authors: Michael W. Smith, Deborah Appleman, and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm
ISBN: 978-1-4833-3352-6
Publisher: Corwin Literacy
Audience:  Educators, Administrators, and Curriculum Specialists at the Secondary Level

Educators are familiar with the confusion and controversies that have surrounded the Common Core State Standards. Many have weighed in and offered opinions that have left educators, parents, and stakeholders wondering what direction to take. In their book, Uncommon Core: Where the Authors of the Standards Go Wrong About Instruction and How You Can Get It Right, Michael Smith, Deborah Appleman, and Jeffrey Wilhelm offer some guidance about how the English Language Arts standards can be implemented faithfully using what are considered research-based best practices. By means of introducing their recommendations, they offer a look into the development of the standards, some of the positive aspects, and breakdown misconceptions regarding instructional practices. Most of all, they offer teachers a path to follow that is clearly marked by research on what works for students.

The authors describe several favorable aspects of the standards including that for the first time all states can have common understandings of what needs to be taught at each level and can share resources. The standards provide teachers the freedom to choose resources and materials, which combined with the fact that there are fewer standards, allow educators to teach more deeply. Covering content is no longer a sprint, but a marathon. And finally, all our children can learn from instructional practices that inspire them while providing a true purpose.

However, they also, as the title suggests, provide some insight into the negatives that have been voiced. For example, we have heard the controversy over how much time or what percentage of instruction should be allocated to nonfiction versus fiction. This has caused quite a national discussion. If some teachers believe that there is a prescribed amount of time that is best for teaching fiction, then those teachers might miss opportunities to engage, motivate, and teach students to appreciate literature and the joy of reading for pleasure.

Misconceptions surrounding teaching one text and not connecting across texts or teaching strategically across texts, can deprive students of expanding their knowledge and learning how to think analytically and problem solve independently. Misconceptions can plague instruction if educators are not well informed. All students deserve the kind of instruction that will prepare them for the future and literacy educators can rely on Smith, Appleman, and Wilhelm’s guidance in this well-laid out book.

Smith, Appleman, and Wilhelm devote each chapter to describing a misconception as well as how describing how teachers can implement the standards, but in a meaningful way. One chapter addresses the critical importance of background knowledge. Many educators have seen David Coleman’s demonstration of close reading using Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” done on the Engage NY website. In referring to Coleman’s description of pre-reading, the author’s state, “His is an impoverished and gross misrepresentation and underrepresentation of good teaching.” (p. 39) Following this harsh statement, the authors argue their case for the importance of background knowledge by using a sports analogy of practicing before the “big” game and not just showing up hoping for a win. Five possible strategies with specific guidelines for implementation follow along with a research base. Throughout the book, Smith, Appleman, and Wilhelm refer to David Coleman’s video of teaching “Letter From Birmingham Jail” as their basis for explaining misunderstandings and how classroom teachers can plan instruction that reflects the expectations of the Common Core. Coleman advocates for teaching the three paragraphs of The Gettysburg Address over six days! He breaks the instruction down by following each paragraph with text-dependent questions that don’t correlate with the rigorous expectations set forth in the standards. Smith, Appleman, and Wilhelm rescue their readers with a hefty dose of what research tells us are effective practices that guide us to notice information in any text and offer ways to instruct students to create their own questions!

The book culminates with the authors’ revised unit for teaching “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” The planning and materials are described in detail along with why these ideas will work. This unit exemplifies what should be happening in classrooms across the United States. The activities are aligned with the Common Core State Standards and illustrate instruction that is appealing to all students and prepares them for a literate life in which they can understand, appreciate, analyze, and communicate with friends and colleagues.

Preparing Literacy Specialists in Connecticut: Perceptions, Realities, and Policies (A Preview of the Research)

by Dr. Dianna Sisson and Dr. Betsy Sisson, Sisson & Sisson Educational Consulting Services, LLC

AUTHOR’S NOTE: CARR is currently conducting original research on Connecticut universities’ preparation of literacy specialists. The following is an excerpt from the complete study that will be released in 2015.

The achievement gap. Poverty. Racial inequalities. New educational standards. Changing platforms for student assessments. The international race between American students and competing nations. For over four decades, U.S. policymakers have searched for effective tools to raise student achievement and ensure American competiveness. What has research definitively established? Teacher quality is the single largest factor affecting student achievement (Boston Public Schools, 1998; Darling-Hammond, 1999; Jordan, Mendro, & Weerasinghe, 1997; Rowan, Correnti, & Miller, 2002; Sanders & Rivers, 1996; Sanders, 2000; Wright, Horn, & Sanders, 1997) with the strongest teacher qualification variable being an educator’s state licensure – so significant in fact that after controlling for student factors, the achievement gap between Black and White students can almost entirely be explained by differences in teacher qualifications (Armour- Thomas, et al., 1989; Ferguson, 1991; Fuller, 1999; Strauss & Sawyer, 1986).

What is universally accepted today is the understanding that educators have a profound effect on student achievement, and the programs they attend to develop this specialized skill set is critical to their effectiveness and ultimately . . . to the success of their students. As Connecticut continues to grapple with the largest achievement gap in the United States, the teaching and learning carried out in this state’s classrooms demand instructional support focused on the needs of a diverse student population. The key support commonly comes in the form of literacy specialists (Dole, 2004; Hawley & Valli, 1999; Sykes, 1999) who, with an advanced degree in literacy possess more sophisticated skills than their classroom colleagues, devote their professional energies to academic support.

This recognition of the power of literacy specialists to influence learning outcomes informs this current study on preparation programs. The Connecticut Association for Reading Research will conduct qualitative research on the preparation programs for literacy specialists in Connecticut. Do literacy specialists perceive themselves as comprehensively trained to meet the onslaught of needs they face daily in the field? What are the views of school administrators? Classroom teachers? Importantly, what views do leaders of these preparation programs hold?

As the world around us catapults into a rapidly changing landscape of student needs, technological challenges, and international competition, this study seeks to inform literacy specialist preparation programs in Connecticut as to the perceived needs and successes of training as well as what the future may hold for the ways in which we ensure that those who specialize in literacy come to the field thoroughly prepared to meet the needs of students, classroom teachers, and administrators as they all work collaboratively to assure that Connecticut classrooms offer a world-class education.

In looking at today’s preparation programs, an awareness of where we have come is essential to our understanding of what is in place as well as to an impartial analysis of current practice. In these efforts, we begin with what the literature tells us about the significance of teacher preparation programs.

Importance of Teacher Preparation Programs

Since the formation of teacher education, there have been few instances when it has not been studied, evaluated, and reformed (Cochran-Smith, 2004; Wideen & Grimmett, 1995). So, perhaps, not surprisingly, teacher preparation programs have once again been thrust onto the national stage by policymakers intent on using them as a tool to transform the educational system in this country. On April 26, 2014, The New York Times reported that President Obama’s administration was constructing a rating system for teacher preparation programs to ensure greater accountability for educators’ performance in the classroom. The newspaper quoted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as saying that:

We have about 1,400 schools of education and hundreds and hundreds of alternative certification paths, and nobody in this country can tell anyone which is more effective than the other . . . Often the vast majority of schools, when I talk to teachers, and have very candid conversations, they feel they weren’t well prepared. (p. A12)

Such an undertaking is incredibly controversial as many education experts believe that it isn’t possible to link a preparation program to student achievement in schools, arguing that it isn’t feasible or helpful to rate programs. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford and one of the nation’s foremost experts on education, countered a more realistic rating system should be based on surveying graduates and their employers – as is illustrated in the current CARR study.

Despite its detractors, the federal government is moving forward with its efforts. What compelled such a decision can be viewed through two much-discussed, heavily-researched lenses – teacher influence on student achievement and education’s role in global competitiveness.

Teacher Effects on Student Achievement

Since the well-publicized study by James Coleman discounting the importance of schools and teachers to affect substantial changes in student achievement, large-scale research has consistently demonstrated that teachers do, in fact, have profound power to influence student outcomes (Carey, 2004; Ferguson, 1991; Ferguson & Ladd, 1996; Haycock, 1998; Jordan, Mendro, & Weerashinghe, 1997; Nye, Konstantopoulos, & Hedges, 2004; Odden, Borman, & Fermanich, 2004; Sanders, 2000; Sanders & Rivers, 1996) – particularly in the area of reading (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Goldhaber & Brewer, 2000). After reviewing the literature in 1997, Scheereens and Bosker posited that approximately 60% of variability in student performance stems from student factors, however, 20% relates back to the schools that students attend, and 20% links directly to individual teachers and classrooms. Thus, based on their appraisal of the existing research, schools and teachers can account for nearly half of the variation in student achievement — a conviction echoed by the general public who voiced their opinion in a study in which 55% of respondents selected teacher quality as “the greatest influence on student learning” (National Education Association, 1999).

This research has been substantiated with numerous studies corroborating the link between teacher quality and student achievement (Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2007; Goddard, Hoy, & Hoy, 2007; Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001; Perry, 2011). The inarguable power of educators to affect student outcomes has become a significant rationale for examining teacher preparation programs. The perception that the education system plays a key role in the U.S. ability to compete globally is another significant factor.

Education’s Role in Global Competitiveness

In 1983, the U. S. Department of Education released the incendiary report, “A Nation at Risk” which spoke directly to teacher preparation programs and an evaluation of their effectiveness in training teachers.

The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in “educational methods” at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught. A survey of 1,350 institutions training teachers indicated that 41 percent of the time of elementary school teacher candidates is spent in education courses, which reduces the amount of time available for subject matter courses. (National Commission on Excellence in Education, p. 20)

Interwoven throughout its findings, however, was a consistent link from educational outcomes to the ability of the United States to compete globally, beginning with these opening words: “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world” (p. 9).

This conviction has consistently been reiterated throughout research, academic texts, and popular media (Barro, 2013; Lauder, Brown, Dillabough, & Halsey, 2006; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2008; Sahlberg, 2006; The Role of Education in Global Competiveness, 2006; U. S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, 2010). Thus, the belief that our educational system has a causal link to our economic well-being pervades all aspects of American society and impacts the role of preparation programs.

Current Status of Teacher Preparation Programs

With over 1,400 teacher preparation programs, 200,000 candidates leave training programs annually and enter the teaching profession. Twenty-five years ago, veteran teachers had an average of 15 years of experience; today that number is down to just one year with studies finding between 23% to 50% of teachers typically leaving the field within five years (Keigher, 2010; Plash & Piotrowski, 2006). Of greater concern, Levine’s seminal 2006 study revealed that three in five teachers feel that their teacher preparation program did not prepare them for the classroom. Their principals agreed.

In 2001, The U. S. Department of Education commissioned a report to summarize research on teacher preparation programs. After reviewing over 300 research studies, only 57 adhered to the inclusion criteria for their meta-analysis. The report determined that multiple studies found a link between training in subject matter and higher student achievement, particularly in reading. Studies also revealed that some pedagogical training is beneficial. The report further found that “study after study shows that experienced and newly certified teachers alike see clinical experiences (including student teaching) as a powerful – sometimes the single most powerful – component of teacher preparation” (Wilson, Floden, & Ferrini-Mundy, 2001, p. 17) and discovered that teachers performed better on certification tests if they attended an institution approved by the national accrediting association.

Within the preparation programs, literacy professionals also gain a specialized skill set necessary to support classroom instruction. How have these professionals emerged as a critical aspect of schools and classrooms?

The Specialized Field of Literacy Professionals

Literacy professionals have been an integral component of instructional support since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 which established federal funds for compensatory education in American schools. Within this model of Title I support, the literacy professional, more commonly known as the reading specialist, tended to work with struggling students and offered services in addition to classroom instruction, providing additional, targeted support with little attention to the needs of the classroom teacher. Despite the expense of providing literacy professionals, numerous studies reflected little evidence of continued student growth after they were returned to mainstream teachers (Allington & Walmsley, 1995). In 2000, Congress re-authorized the ESEA with three specific aspects directly influencing the role of the literacy professional: 1) highly-qualified professionals should be a requirement to teach reading, 2) reading programs and strategies should be scientifically-based, and 3) informal assessment should inform instruction.

Since 2003, the International Reading Association has recognized two distinct roles inherent in the role of literacy professionals – reading specialist and literacy coach (International Reading Association, 2004).

In this new role the reading specialist supports teachers in their daily work—planning, modeling, team-teaching, and providing feedback on completed lessons in collaboration with classroom teachers in a school. In addition, the reading specialist assists teachers by helping them understand the assessment and instructional cycle and how that cycle can help them as they develop lessons and organize their classes for instruction. (Dole, 2004, p. 462)

In the most recent draft, the International Reading Association (2009) offers six standards for the reading professional:

  1. foundational knowledge
  2. curriculum and instruction
  3. assessment and evaluation
  4. diversity
  5. literate environment
  6. professional learning and leadership.

After consulting a number of reading coaches from the field, Dole (2004) suggested that reading professionals require several attributes in order to be effective. They must have a greater expertise than the classrooms teachers they support and be capable of articulating what they see taking place in classrooms. They must have extensive knowledge about how to teach – both in theory and in practice – and be reflective about their own instructional practice. Coaches must also be able to “support and nudge” their colleagues as they help them improve their own practice.

How effective are literacy professionals in the field? Several studies have researched their impact on student achievement. In 2003, a study of the International Reading Association Exemplary Reading Program award-winning schools revealed that coaches act as change agents, providing instructional materials as well as a wide range of professional development support services, such as a: (1) resource to colleagues, (2) liaison between school and community, (3) coordinator of the school reading program, (4) contributor to assessment practices, and (5) instructor (Bean, Swan, & Knaub).

As the spotlight continues to highlight the work of literacy professionals, this current CARR study will be performing document analyses, conducting interviews, and holding focus groups as it seeks to provide a comprehensive review of how literacy professionals are prepared in Connecticut, the perceptions stakeholders maintain regarding their preparation, as well as the current and future policy ramifications of this research. The complete report will be released in late 2015.


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