This We Believe and the Common Core

How is adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) affecting middle school instruction?

At a meeting with teachers and principals from an array of schools honored with the Schools to Watch designation, co-author Nance Wilson asked the educators how the adoption of CCSS has affected their schools. The response was an astounding “not at all.” Each person at the table described how the expectations of the standards align with their high expectations for students and that the standards only comprise a small part of the curriculum for their schools.

Although the teachers and principals from the represented schools were in agreement, a debate over the CCSS has monopolized the public’s conversations around teaching, learning, and schools. The standards have sparked debate around issues such as states’ rights, testing, developmental responsiveness, and even mind control, as evidenced by a CBS Sunday Morning segment in September 2014.

The hype surrounding the CCSS has prompted people to take sides regarding the standards and whether they should play a role in our schools. The veracity of the debate convinced us to take a step back and determine how well the standards align with the landmark publication This We Believe, published by the National Middle School Association (now the Association for Middle Level Education).

This We Believe (TWB) examines all aspects of a young adolescent’s school experiences, including curriculum, instruction, and assessment; leadership and organization; and culture and community. It characterizes curriculum, instruction, and assessment as a combination of teachers’ positive dispositions toward middle school students, the application of a variety of teaching approaches, the learning environment, and a multi-faceted curriculum.

TWB asserts that curriculum is “the primary vehicle for achieving the goals and objectives of a school” and should be challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant. As passionate supporters of developmentally appropriate education for young adolescents, we believe that TWB is the gauge by which educational initiatives should be measured. Standards such as the CCSS inform the academic goals and objectives of a school, not how schools should achieve those goals. Therefore, it is important to carefully examine those standards in reference to our knowledge of effective middle level education.

Some Background

The effort to develop the Common Core State Standards was launched in 2009 by state leaders, including governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia. The CCSS were informed by already-existing state standards, experiences of teachers and other educators, and public feedback ( Since the development, and despite controversy surrounding the CCSS, the majority of states have adopted them. According to the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the standards serve to “outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade.”

As English Language Arts (ELA) teachers and literacy scholars, we wanted to analyze the CCSS for ELA to determine their fit within our understanding of middle level best practices. The ELA standards examine literacy across the curriculum, illustrating a vision of a reader as “an active, engaged reader endowed with agency.” The middle grades readers described in the CCSS cite textual evidence to support their ideas, write for different purposes, read across a variety of texts, and use academic language throughout the learning process. But do these expectations align with TWB?

Is There a Match?

After analyzing the content of the CCSS for the English Language Arts, we discovered that the CCSS themselves, as a document, do not give a complete or accurate picture of curriculum, instruction, and assessment in middle grades classrooms. Rather, the alignment of the CCSS depends on implementation by schools and individual teachers. For example, the CCSS do not address an exploratory curriculum as described by TWB because the CCSS are too narrowly focused. However, we did find that the standards meet the criteria for challenging, integrative, and relevant.

The standards are challenging in that they provide students with rigorous concepts as they engage in analysis within and across texts, as well as with language. Many of the standards require students to engage in performance-based activities, and they give students the responsibility and control in how to demonstrate specific skills. The CCSS challenge students with expectations that they are able to:

  • Analyze the extent to which a filmed or live production of a story or drama stays faithful to or departs from the text or script, evaluating the choices made by the director or actors. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.7)
  • Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.8)
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.4)

These are only a sampling of how the CCSS encourage instruction that will challenge middle school students.

We also found that the standards were integrative within the setting of expectations for students. The speaking and listening and writing standards depend on the reading standards across the disciplines. Therefore, they support the middle grades philosophy of an integrated approach to teaching the academic subjects. For example, students should use what they are learning in content courses to “write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.2).

Not only do the CCSS call for integrating writing across the disciplines, they require instruction that fosters speaking and listening across the disciplines, as well.

The ELA standards ask students to generate ideas, learn across the disciplines, and share knowledge through diverse technologies. This supports TWB’s description of a relevant curriculum as one that “allows students to pursue answers to questions they have about themselves, the content, and the world.” For example, the standard for WHST.6-8.2 asks that students “Develop the topic with relevant, well-chosen facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.” As students answer their own questions, the curriculum becomes relevant.

Accepting Responsibility

Standards are just a small part of what makes an effective middle level school. We see them as a piece of a very complex puzzle. The completed puzzle includes a school in which young adolescents are recognized as unique learners who need strong teacher involvement, a responsive student-centered learning climate, a school with a strong parent-community network, and school leadership that builds collaboration among stakeholders.

Considered in isolation, the Common Core State Standards are neither a guarantee of student achievement nor an indication of good teaching. The CCSS, while potentially in alignment with middle level philosophy and characteristics, relies heavily on individual teacher implementation. Teachers must use the CCSS to plan and implement instruction and assessment that honors the wide diversity among young adolescents. Further, for the effective teacher middle level education means, as TWB indicates, “accepting full responsibility for the success of students in his or her classroom.”

While the CCSS may offer guidelines for teachers, the teachers themselves must be the ones to ensure a curriculum that is developmentally responsive, challenging, empowering, and equitable. This We Believe calls teachers to action in this regard. The standards implore teachers to maintain the vision and commitment laid out in TWB and advocate in their classrooms, schools, and communities for what is right for young adolescents rather than what might be simply “current practice, expedient, or readily accomplished.”

Nance S. Wilson is associate professor in the literacy department at SUNY Cortland in Cortland, New York.

Laurie A. Ramirez is assistant professor in the department of curriculum and instruction at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

Carla K. Meyer is assistant professor in the department of instruction and educational leadership
at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Published in AMLE Magazine, March 2015.