A national movement has been underway for several years now with a with a perfectly reasonable goal: to develop common core educational standards that will apply nationally, rather than have fifty different sets of standards from each state to which educators and publishers must adjust. These are intended to be minimum standards, not complete specifications for all curricula at all levels. They are also not intended to preclude local decision making.
All good intentions aside, however, the Common Core State Standards create some thorny issues. We won’t try to weigh all the advantages and disadvantages of the CCSS in this article. However, we thought we would make a few points that might help teachers who are using, or want to start using, theStevenson Program. Please note that our primary source for information about the standards comes from the web site of The Common Core State Standards Initiative at www.corestandards.org.
Categories: Skills versus Literature and Other Areas – The English Language Arts standards are divided into six categories that are broken down for each grade, K-12, and one category broken down for grades K-5. Then there are several more general categories. The Stevenson Language Skills Program does not claim to cover all of these standards. Most of the standards covered in our program fall into the Foundational Skills category, but many fall into other categories also. Some people tend to think of Stevenson as simply a phonics program, but in fact we develop many non-phonics skills. Our vocabulary building activities would probably fall under the Language category and our sequence for answering questions in complete sentences would fall under Writing.
Many of the standards refer to Literature, and the Stevenson Program is not literature based. So many schools using Stevenson also have separate literature programs. Of course, many students using Stevenson have some learning differences, and those students are often limited in the literature they can read until their foundational skills improve. The important point to be made is that when you are trying to cover the standards with your instruction, you need to know which of your tools (e.g., the Stevenson Program) are designed to meet which standards. Some publishers will claim they have a basal program that fulfills all the standards. Whether that is true or not, it is only relevant if the basal program works for every student. Readers who have struggled with the basal series need alternatives, and may need to focus on one area at a time for a while.
Sequence – As many of you know, the Stevenson Language Skills Program presents its phonics elements in an unusual sequence. The aspect of our sequence that stands out most is the introduction of common long vowel constructions before common short vowel constructions. If you look at the phonics elements under the Grade 1 segment of the Foundational Skills category on the CCSSI web site, you find that the standards are simply not specific about this issue. One would have to infer from what is stated that both constructions need to be covered in Grade 1, but the order of the list is a bit strange. For example, knowing “the spelling-sound correspondence of common consonant digraphs” precedes knowing “how to decode regularly spelled one-syllable words.” We doubt that would reflect the order in which one would teach those skills.
The fact that the Stevenson sequence differs from other structured multisensory phonics programs does not appear to be much of an issue. What might be an issue, however, is that the specifications for each grade are going to present a problem for almost any teacher whose students need significant reading intervention. Let us imagine a realistic scenario under RTI (Response to Intervention). Some students in a school struggle with basic reading skills in first grade, and they begin to receive Tier One and Tier Two Interventions. By the middle of second grade the students are designated for Tier Three and receive full-blown multi-sensory phonics instruction on a daily basis. The students are bound to need careful instruction in first grade skills, and if they are still also held responsible for all the second grade skills, they will probably be overwhelmed. These students may well be capable of doing grade level work at some point, perhaps in less than two years. But at what point will the standards be relaxed or enforced?
Here is a very interesting quote from a section on the CCSSI website under the title, “What is not covered by the Standards:”
“The Standards set grade-specific standards but do not define the intervention methods or materials necessary to support students who are well below or well above grade-level expectations. No set of grade-specific standards can fully reflect the great variety in abilities, needs, learning rates, and achievement levels of students in any given classroom. However, the Standards do provide clear signposts along the way to the goal of college and career readiness for all students.”
The people advocating CCSS obviously realize the limitations of the Standards. Note, however, in the example of the RTI group we gave above, the students were not “well below” grade level because they are simply too young to be. We feel confident that any struggling reader in grades K-3 who spends two or three full years in the Stevenson Program will read at least at grade level and probably higher. (The exception would be students with significant cognitive deficits, who take longer.) However, that does not mean that every Foundational Skill Standard would be met at exactly the grade indicated.
It would be helpful if the standards really were presented more as guideposts and less as detailed directions. Some states have refused to adopt state standards at all, and others who have already adopted the CCSS are now backing off a little bit. Most of the controversy is more about local control than it is about educational philosophies or the realities of teaching. But, in any case, it would seem that the CCSS movement will need to adapt somewhat if it is really going to provide a valuable educational tool for all of our students.