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February 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 5

Radical Reset: The Case for Minimalist Literacy Standards

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Pared down standards are the cure to the Common Core.

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In profound ways, literacy is destiny. It is the single most important goal of schooling and the key to academic and career success. Adequate levels of literacy would nearly eliminate the achievement gap (Hirsch, 2010); inadequate levels account, more than anything, for high school and college dropout rates as well as, according to some, our perversely high rates of special education placement (Ferrandino & Tirozzi, 2004).
This makes the recent research on the English Language Arts Common Core standards enormously important. After a feckless decade of implementation, one major study found, the standards have turned out to be a bust. Instead of improving performance, the standards led to declines in literacy (Barnum, 2019).
To fix this mess, we must (1) conduct an honest autopsy of the ELA Common Core and (2) replace it with simple, radically reconceptualized literacy standards, to be developed at the local level. These new standards would guarantee what past standards should have made their highest priority: that all students should engage in unprecedented amounts of purposeful reading, discussion, and writing every day, across the curriculum. As I'll demonstrate, such standards reflect the practices of the best, most-improved schools I know of and the instructive "Standards for Success" developed at the University of Oregon. They could be developed quickly—and would increase levels of literacy immediately, at no cost to schools or districts.
But first, the autopsy. We need to understand how the Common Core corroded literacy—and education itself. Only then will we be willing to embrace the cure.

The ELA Common Core—At Odds with Itself

In the heady development phase, there was plenty to like about the ELA Common Core. The architects declared their commitment to the fewest, most essential elements of literacy—and lamented the horrific, decades-long decline in the frequency and quality of their implementation. They called for vastly more content-rich, grade-level reading, discussion, writing—and writing instruction—across subject areas.
But then the standards-development committees got hold of the project—and inanity won the day. On the one hand, the introduction and appendices were still inspiring and largely on-target. But the actual standards were a disaster: The original anchor standards had metastasized into an impossible profusion of grade-by-grade minutiae. E.D. Hirsch, an early supporter of the Common Core, now lamented that the new standards would "automatically force schools to focus on strategies and skill drills" (2016, p. 21). An NPR segment on one school's "exemplary" implementation of the Common Core is illustrative: It focused on a "53-lesson skills-based module"—in which no complete works of literature would be read (Pondiscio, 2014, p. 2).
Many of the standards were indecipherable: One curriculum expert called them "blithering, poorly thought out abstractions" (Ravitch, 2013); another dubbed them "pretentious gibberish" (Milgram & Stotsky, 2010). In a 2011 article, former Modern Language Association president Gerald Graff and I expressed our mystification in relation to standards like this one, for 8th graders: "Analyze different points of view of the characters and the audience or reader (e.g. created through the use of dramatic irony creating such effects as suspense or humor)" (Schmoker & Graff, 2011). Huh?
Both bad and abundant, the Common Core's atomized lists of skills spawned an industry of worksheet-based lessons and products. Like an invasive species, they supplanted the historic core of literacy: copious amounts of purposeful reading, talking, and writing, grounded in literature and subject-area knowledge.
Reading and literacy experts foresaw this disaster. Daniel Willingham, Timothy Shanahan, Carol Jago, E.D. Hirsch, and David Liben—the lead researcher for the ELA Common Core—have tried to sound the alarm, but to no avail (Liben, personal communication, 2019; Schmoker, 2018a).
Their fears are echoed in a recent, must-read report put out by the Johns Hopkins Institute on Education Policy titled "The Problem with 'Finding the Main Idea.'" It reveals how the Common Core (and its close cousins in non-Common Core states) continues to corrupt literacy instruction, stymie test-score growth, and prevent students from becoming literate, articulate adults—because it urges practitioners, however indirectly, to drill students in individual but misguided reading "skills" (Steiner & Magee, 2019).
It should be clear from the abundance of evidence and 10 years of Common Core that it is time for a reset. Here's how we can restore the historic, fundamental elements of literacy to their proper place in the curriculum.

How to Fix This Mess

To right the ship of literacy, and ensure rapid, unprecedented gains in learning, we should first launch a public service campaign to inform schools and districts of the catastrophic consequences of the above practices. Public, perhaps inter-organizational statements could have a national impact. Then schools should revise their curricula around radically reoriented, severely reduced norms, specifications, guidelines, and exemplars (all terms used to define the word standards in the dictionary). Their primary function would be to ensure an exponential increase in the amount of core literacy activities, generously integrated into a knowledge-rich curriculum.
That revision must include intensive, explicit phonics instruction—primarily in kindergarten and 1st grade. Done right, this would result in almost every student being able to decode text by the end of 1st grade (Allington, 2011). But as Daniel Willingham (2018) points out, phonics itself "is not a literacy program." A prolonged, excessive emphasis on phonics can encroach on the true "heart of literacy": frequent, abundant amounts of reading, discussion, and writing.

Quantity Counts

It all begins with reading—lots of it. David Liben writes that students must consume "a huge volume and range of texts," including grade-appropriate texts (Pondiscio & Mahnken, 2014). For Kelly Gallagher, struggling readers must "read voraciously" to catch up with their peers (2009). Richard Allington's research likewise demonstrates that students must read "huge amounts" of text to acquire essential vocabulary and become proficient readers (2006).
To that end, Allington recommends two unassailable literacy standards, which could almost suffice on their own: a minimum of 60 minutes of reading and 40 minutes of writing every day, across the curriculum (2011). Large amounts of reading can pay off instantly—even a few weeks of reading-intensive literacy instruction will result in about one full year of academic growth (Haycock, 2005).
And yet students today read, discuss, and write about what they read for an infinitesimal proportion of the school day (Sundeen, 2015). Instead, they engage in dismaying amounts of aimless group activities; of cutting, coloring, pasting; or of completing reams of worksheets. Moreover, the quality and complexity of reading assignments has plummeted by several grade levels in the last 30 years (Paulson, 2014). These may be the two most destructive, underappreciated facts in all of education today.

Essential Literacy Standards

To address these issues, individual schools or districts should develop a viable set of simple, high-leverage standards—which specify, schedule, or enumerate the approximate number, amount, length, and frequency of the following, appropriate to each grade level:
Anchor Texts: The knowledge-rich, grade-appropriate fiction and non-fiction books, articles, textbook selections, poems, plays, and primary resources that all students will read—and analyze, discuss, and write about—in each respective course.
Discussions, Seminars, and Debates: These must be purposeful, grounded in reading, and aligned with simple criteria—for example, speak audibly, clearly, logically, and with civility (see Schmoker, 2018a, pp. 140–141).
Writing Assignments and Papers: To be completed each week, grading period, or year—and predominantly grounded in close, analytic reading. Smart districts build formal, extended capstone writing assignments into the curriculum for certain grade levels (such as 5th, 8th, and 12th) (Schmoker, 2018a). And they employ common rubrics and "exemplars" of effective student writing to maintain quality standards (which include the requirement for proper grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure).

Less Really Is More

Some might ask: Are such minimal standards enough? Recent research and successful schools indicate that they are, that less is more—and that long lists of criteria are actually inimical to high performance.
Marcus Buckingham's research (2005) on organizational management, in particular, demonstrates the power of minimalist performance standards and criteria. If we want people to perform well, concision is king: the fewer the criteria, the easier it is to reinforce, practice, monitor—and thus ensure—that those criteria are fully met. When organizations establish only a tiny set of crystal-clear criteria, both performance—and job satisfaction—skyrocket.
The same goes for schools. There are both historic and contemporary precedents for minimalist literacy standards which would ensure that students read and write in larger—much larger—amounts. As Diane Ravitch (2010) points out, the operative "standards" (her word) embedded in the 1901 college entrance exam required students to read 10 entire substantial books during their senior year (the list was revised annually), and then be ready to write an extended, high-quality essay about any or all of them. The essays were scored with a common scoring guide. Such standards would almost guarantee a transformative shift from worksheets and skill drills to large amounts of analytic reading, writing, and writing instruction.
In a similar way, so would the "Standards for Success" developed by David Conley and his team at the University of Oregon.
In 2005, Conley and his colleagues published a landmark study of college and postsecondary readiness. They found that K–12 schools typically require a highly variant—and grossly inadequate—number of reading and writing assignments. On the basis of their findings, they proposed that schools and districts establish standards for the following, and for every course—in order to guarantee generous amounts of reading and writing:
  • The minimum number of common, core texts to be read.
  • The minimum number of pages students would read.
  • The minimum number—and length—of writing assignments to be written in each course.
In addition, they proposed that departments should implement common scoring guides for the written work.
As we've seen, quantity counts—immensely. Such simple standards, grounded in content knowledge, would redress our decades-long failure to ensure that students engage in large—and life-changing—amounts of authentic literacy activities. Done right, they could transform education in America, as many schools attest.

Successful Schools; Minimal Standards

I've written about a number of high-performing and immensely improved schools that shunned the conventional, atomized taxonomies of literacy standards (Schmoker, 2018a, chapters 2 and 4). I taught English, for instance, at a remarkably successful middle school where we were explicitly charged to have students read, discuss, and write for the majority of class time; the principal visited classrooms to ensure this. We were also required to teach students to write a minimum of two multi-page, text-based essays each grading period—a total of eight each school year. These were scored with a common rubric and exemplars (which quite naturally ensured that we taught students correct grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure). Samples of scored writing assignments were reviewed each grading period by the principal and department head. Those were our only "standards."
I have visited and written about many other schools which deliberately allot, schedule, or enumerate ample amounts of core literacy activities—where students are routinely engaged in close reading, analytic discussion, and writing. Great Hearts, for example, is a high-performing network of about two dozen K–12 public charter schools in Arizona and Texas. Their knowledge-rich curriculum consists of a large, common grade-by-grade sequence of challenging texts—all posted online. The schools' schedules allocate significant amounts of time for students to analyze, annotate, and take notes from literary and historical texts. They analyze and discuss these texts, at length, almost daily, in Socratic seminars. In middle and high school, they write, and are explicitly taught to compose, approximately one extended essay each month about their core texts. During their senior year, they write a 15–20-page capstone essay.
I've written, in this publication, about two teachers at La Cima Middle School in Tucson, Arizona, who revamped their English and social studies curriculum to have students read, discuss, and write about literary and historical texts almost every day. Once or twice each month, students were required to write an extended, argumentative paper about their readings. View Park Middle School in California developed an almost identical regimen—across the entire curriculum. At both schools, the gains, as evidenced by reading, writing ability, and test scores, were swift and prodigious (Schmoker, 2018b).

By the Numbers

Some schools deliberately use numeric standards and clear, daily expectations to ensure that students read, discuss, and write in adequate amounts. In their recently developed curriculum, Doug Lemov's team at Uncommon Schools deliberately designates a minimum of six (or as many as 10) high-quality, appealing books per grade level. Each book is supplemented with additional readings that comport with the theme of the book. And as Lemov points out, the curriculum ensures that students will be "writing constantly"—every day, in "short bursts" and then in longer compositions, about every text (2019).
I recently spoke to Jesse Sanchez, the principal of Brawley Union High School in rural California. Frustrated by years of low performance, he persuaded his teachers to have students write at least two times per week about what they were reading and learning, in every course, including electives. He described to me how, in just two years, this simple standard resulted in an increase from 31 percent to 65 percent of students succeeding on the English Language Arts exam, and an additional 17 percent succeeding in math.
To clarify and sum up: If we want all students to enjoy the benefits of enlightened, authentic literacy standards, right now, we should develop simple frameworks like the one on p. 48 (based on the above examples).
Such a framework for radically different standards would have an astonishingly positive impact on every student's academic and intellectual growth. So why wait? Arrange, as soon as possible, for your school or district teams to develop provisional standards and expectations for reading, discussion, and writing. Then stand back and watch your students' life chances soar.

A Simple Literacy Standard Framework

For each grade level, course, or grading period, school or district-level teacher teams should establish minimum, viable specifications for items like:

___ number of grade-level, knowledge-rich books, articles, poems, textbook excerpts, etc.

___ number of pages of actual text (minus illustrations) per year (for example, at least 1,000 pages per year)

___ number—and approximate length—of inquiry-based discussions of texts per week

___ number of brief, formative written assignments per week, in (ideally) every course

___ number—and approximate length—of formal, multi-paragraph/multi-page written assignments per course (taught in accordance with agreed-upon writing rubrics and exemplars).


Reflect & Discuss

➛ What has been your experience implementing the ELA Common Core (or similar state standards)? Have they been the "bust" that Schmoker describes?

➛ Review Schmoker's literacy standard framework and discuss as a staff what minimum numbers your school or district might establish in each area.

➛ What could you do today to begin increasing the time that students spend reading and writing daily, across the curriculum?


Allington, R. (2006). Fluency: Still waiting after all these years. Retrieved from www.learner.org/workshops/teachreading35/pdf/fluency_still-wait.pdf

Allington, R. L. (2011). What at-risk readers need. Educational Leadership, 68(6), 40–45.

Barnum, M. (2019, April 12). Nearly a decade later, did the Common Core work? New research offers clues. Chalkbeat.

Buckingham, M. (2005). The one thing you need to know: About great managing, great leading, and sustained individual success. New York: Free Press.

Conley, D. (2005). College knowledge: What it really takes for students to succeed and what we can do to get them ready. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ferrandino, V. L., & Tirozzi, G. (2004). Wanted: A comprehensive literacy agenda preK–12. Education Week, 23(24), 29.

Gallagher, K. (2009). Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Haycock, K. (2005, June 8). Improving academic achievement and closing gaps between groups in the middle grades. Presentation given at CASE Middle Level Summit. Available: www.edtrust.org

Hirsch, E. D. (2010). First, do no harm. Education Week, 29(17), 30–31, 40.

Hirsch, E. D. (2016). Why knowledge matters. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Lemov, D. (2019, January 1). What books are included in our reading reconsidered English curriculum? Doug Lemov's Field Notes.

Milgram, J., & Stotsky, S. (2010, March). Fair to middling: A national standards progress report. Retrieved from www.edweek.org/media/fair_to_middling.pdf

Paulson, A. (2014, November 18). Report: Students read way below level that prepares them for college, careers. Christian Science Monitor.

Pondiscio, R. (2014, July 2). A missed opportunity for Common Core. Common Core Watch.

Pondiscio, R., & Mahnken, K. (2014, September 24). Leveled reading: The making of a literacy myth. Fordham Institute.

Ravitch, D. (2010). We've always had national standards. Education Week, 29(17), 28, 30.

Ravitch, D. (2013, June 12). Robert D. Shepherd: Beware the social engineer and his abstractions. [Blog post] Diane Ravitch's Blog.

Schmoker, M. (2018a) Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning, 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Schmoker, M. (2018b). Demystifying writing, transforming education. Educational Leadership, 75(7), 22–27.

Schmoker, M., & Graff, G. (2011, April 19). More argument, fewer standards. Education Week.

Steiner, D., & Magee, J. (2019, January). The problem with 'finding the main idea.' Learning First.

Sundeen, T. H. (2015, September/October). Writing instruction for adolescents in the shadow of the Common Core state standards. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 59(2) 197–206.

Willingham, D. (2018, October 3). Just how polarized are we about reading instruction? [Blog post] Daniel Willingham—Science and Education Blog.

Mike Schmoker is a former administrator, English teacher, and football coach. He has written dozens of articles for educational journals, newspapers, and TIME magazine as well as multiple bestselling books for ASCD. In an EdWeek survey of national educational leaders, he was identified as among the best sources of practical "nuts and bolts…advice, wisdom and insight" on effective school improvement strategies.

Schmoker is a recipient of the Distinguished Service Award by the National Association of Secondary School Principals for his publications and presentations. As a much sought-after presenter, he delivers keynotes and consults internationally throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, China, and Jordan.

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