Industry Players Discuss Common Core and the Trade Market

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Publishers, authors, and others with a stake in how the new Common Core State Standards will shape our country’s educational system gathered on the morning of Wednesday, April 10, at the Random House offices in New York City for an open-ended panel discussion on the opportunities and challenges for the trade book market.

The panel was comprised of Mark Aronson, Sibert Medal-winning author, editor, and publisher; Barbara Stripling, president-elect of the American Library Association; Bernard Margolis, state librarian of New York; and David Liben, senior content specialist at Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit that works to reform reading instruction and helped to develop the English and Language Arts (ELA) standards. Andrew Richard Albanese of Publishers Weekly was the panel moderator.

Aronson kicked off the discussion by addressing concerns that Common Core will be “here today, gone tomorrow,” like so many other educational reforms. To date, he said, 46 states have implemented the ELA standards; 45 states have implemented the Mathematics standards; and the push for full compliance marches steadily on. The United States Defense Department has moved to implement the standards in schools on military bases, and Common Core is even getting nods from overseas. “This is something that’s happening all over the world,” Aronson remarked. “Common Core is a real effort by real educators to make real change.”

Margolis encouraged audience members to “embrace” Common Core and “maximize involvement” in the initiative, citing as a valuable resource. He encouraged publishers to enrich their descriptions of trade materials, noting that the more teachers and librarians know about a particular title the more they will be able to determine if it is Common Core compliant or not. Margolis warned against the assumption that the Common Core won’t happen. “I wouldn’t wait — it’s here!” he said.

Margolis also stressed that “Common Core is not curriculum.” The new standards seek to provide a consistency to what skills students are expected to master, not a specific itinerary of how all students must acquire these skills, he said.

Liben, who had a hand in synthesizing much of the research behind Common Core, explained that “backwards design” was employed in the standards’ creation. Essential skills for college and career readiness were pinpointed, he said, and the standards were then created to ensure that students meet benchmarks each year to acquire the needed skills by high school graduation.

The panelists all agreed that Common Core creates opportunities for trade publishers in both the classroom use of texts and in the authoring of the new assessments to come. Texts used in classrooms must be of greater depth and complexity than they were previously, but Aronson stressed that these books must “reward the effort” that students put into working with them. “Common Core asks for nonfiction that rewards reading and re-reading,” he said.

What’s more, Aronson added, “Common Core mandates that the paragraphs used in assessments must be taken from real text.” Although the implementation of new assessments is still two years away, the mandate opens the possibility of using excerpts from adult trade nonfiction books on the exams, gaining them a wider — and younger — audience.

Liben urged publishers to consider releasing more popular nonfiction titles in paperback, as hardcover is often much too costly for teachers to purchase and use.

Common Core also puts a greater emphasis on research, and “every child needs to be doing research regularly,” said ALA’s Stripling, who noted that this is wonderful news for librarians. But, she said, they want to see trade publishers provide more nonfiction books about “things that matter — things that kids care about.” How can educators and others determine if texts have this elusive “it factor”? Stripling asserted, “It’s easy for kids to decide. They’re the best lens.”

“It factor” aside, texts must be complex and Common Core compliant. Aronson noted that a web-based text evaluation tool is currently being developed by an extensive team of experts that will determine the exact ways in which texts align to Common Core. Although Common Core’s Appendix B offers examples of texts that can be used to meet the new standards, Aronson criticized the list for consisting of mainly “old books [that are] not particularly multicultural.” Appendix B also fails to be “specific about why the books are exemplary,” he said.

Of the search for complex informational texts that meet the standards, Stipling said, “Librarians are looking intensely for this kind of material,” but their aim is far from accumulating texts that list facts; librarians want the focus on titles that seek to build knowledge.

Liben stressed that texts must be checked for adequate complexity before they are used. He recommended that those interested in finding out what makes a text complex see page 55 of an article that he co-authored, “Measures of Text Difficulty,” for information about several approved measuring methods.

Liben also noted that with the implementation of the new standards, “50 percent of what’s being read aloud [to kindergarteners] needs to be high-quality nonfiction.” This may have a positive effect on the reading engagement of boys. “Boys don’t read [fiction],” he asserted, “but that’s what we use to teach reading.”

However, Margolis assured listeners that “fiction is not in any way abandoned” in Common Core. In fact, “fiction is celebrated.” Students will be asked to interact with a higher volume of informational texts, but quality fiction will remain a large part of the educational experience. Margolis noted that there will be a significant emphasis on summer reading programs as Common Core is implemented, as these types of initiatives encourage youth to read independently.

“The reason why I love [Common Core] so much is that we’re teaching kids how to think critically and creatively,” Stripling said. “If Common Core goes away, the essence will not.”