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Why the performance plateau? Four reasons curriculum directors struggle to increase ELA scores

Christina Pirzada
Oct 28, 2019

After years of improvement in the 1990s and 2000s, American students’ literacy achievement has reached a stubborn plateau that educators can’t seem to break—and just as troublingly, the gap between the highest performers and the lowest ones has widened in most states. Recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores paint an even starker picture, with average eighth-grade reading scores declining in more than half of U.S. states since 2017. The most ambitious educators are determined to confront these problems head-on and break the stalemate.

In the past decade, flatlining student performance has created the need to scrutinize curriculum. Large financial investments have been flowing to ELA, as well as multiple efforts to overhaul standards—all in hopes of boosting achievement. That achievement boost has been slow in coming. There are a few perceived reasons for this: Some blame states’ tumultuous transition to standards based on the Common Core, and others point to the aftereffects of the Great Recession. The obstacles are manifold, and curriculum leaders are bogged down in approaches that don’t work for today’s students. Nationwide, here are four pitfalls tripping up curriculum directors trying to solve these challenges.

Decoupling ELA skills from general knowledge

Stagnating test scores have created a vicious cycle, in which disappointing scores increase pressure on teachers to improve, pushing them to “teach to the test” in a way that divorces skills from content. Teaching literacy skills in isolation from content knowledge might seem like a more efficient and direct way to cover all the skills required for tests like NAEP but, in fact, it impedes students’ learning

Here’s a theory about why ELA scores are stagnating: It’s all in (or not in) the content. Today’s students are more diverse than ever. Nearly half are from minority backgrounds, and, by 2025, most high school graduates will be students of color. They also have unprecedented access to educational resources and peers around the world, and the way they prefer to learn reflects that. Research has long told us that students learn better when they can see themselves reflected in materials, and instructional content hasn’t reflected that.  

Consequently, students of all backgrounds won't be able to map new content knowledge to old content knowledge if they continue to be exposed to random content. They also won't build authentic skills in reading, writing, and verbal communication because the underlying content isn't cohesive and real. Thus, they struggle to recall and apply these skills in authentic settings. 

Treating legacy materials as bedrock resources

Many ELA educators have classic materials they love to teach, and there will always be a place for tried-and-true methods. But too often, curriculum leaders default to legacy materials not because they’re a great fit for how students learn in the 21st century, but because they’re seen as a familiar fallback. The problem? Legacy materials often aren’t the bedrock resource administrators think they are. ELA textbooks are a common culprit: A recent Newsela study found that administrators think ELA teachers use their textbooks half the month, but the teachers themselves said they use their textbooks less than 20% of the time. This disconnect between theory and practice means administrators are investing heavily in resources that aren’t nearly as central to the curriculum as purchasers think they are. 

Why are teachers leaving legacy ELA textbooks on the shelf? The answer is simple: Their content fails to offer an accessible entry point for all students. Whether it’s lack of differentiation (by skill or by interest) or lack of real-word relevance, textbooks and other basal materials fail to meet students where they are—and the data evinces that these shortcomings are a collective dealbreaker.

Superficial attempts at increasing representation in texts

 A truly diverse content library must include a wide variety of material that encompasses all lived experiences and reflects the full complexity of intersectional identities—but unfortunately, many districts stop at theoretical approaches to diversity that gesture toward inclusion but do not truly achieve it. The traditional ELA canon does not adequately represent marginalized groups, including racial and ethnic minorities, LGBT students, and women and girls. Many educators now know this, but overreliance on legacy materials has left them on their own as they attempt to update their materials to reflect the students who will read and learn from them. Some researchers have proposed alternative frameworks that center students’ identity construction. But this kind of adaptation isn’t easy, especially when teachers start with an outdated curriculum that needs a complete overhaul.

The need for instructional content that does more is urgent. In order to approach old and new canon literature, having a nuanced understanding of our society is vital—complexities and all. One doesn’t simply learn about literary and plot devices when studying Little Women and The Great Gatsby; there are also issues of gender equality and queer theory to consider to make the texts relevant today. The traditional canon must be made contemporary and contextualized. 

A survey by Education Week Research Center and Newsela found that 57% of teachers say that with better instructional content, they could teach about controversial topics—entering the classroom in the form of politics, LGBT issues, and race, among others—more effectively. Educators need and deserve help in creating rich content libraries that engage all students—and all students deserve to learn from a canon that validates and represents their experiences, whether it be through a mirror, a window, or a sliding glass door

Addressing nonfiction content gaps with manufactured content

Diversity isn’t the only area where traditional content libraries are lacking. The Common Core’s heavy emphasis on nonfiction literacy left many educators scrambling to find enough high-quality informational texts to meet the standards’ recommendation that informational text comprise half of students’ reading before high school and 70 percent by the twelfth grade. While pursuing nonfiction literacy is laudable, there was clearly a dearth of satisfactory nonfiction content, often manifesting as manufactured and inauthentic passages. A 2018 report states that “students cannot follow complex text through to its meaning because they do not know the meaning of too many words in the passage or they have not been exposed to the knowledge the author assumed readers would possess. The ‘cure’ for both issues is providing students with more opportunities to read broadly on a range of conceptually coherent topics, ideally self-selected by the readers, at least in part.” 

Some teachers try to fill the gaps by writing their own content specifically for classroom use, or turning to web searches that often yield unvetted results. But these are not long-term solutions, especially when trying to solve the challenge of providing sufficient student choice while ensuring instructional content is aligned to standards. Content designed for classrooms and not the real world will always feel inauthentic, and just as importantly, this job should not fall to teachers with increasingly overloaded plates. 

What would a better approach to ELA look like? 

To master literacy skills, students need to experience both sides of ELA: studying literature like scholars and practicing skills like everyday communicators. They must have access to robust, modern content libraries that reflect their experiences. However, the growing gulf between these goals and reality has resulted in fragmented, outdated ELA study that fails many learners. To leave these pitfalls behind and break through the achievement barrier, educators need instructional content that gives students the background knowledge to draw connections between seminal literature, real-world skills, and their own lives.

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