Education Week: Student Experiences Are Key to Learning

To the Editor:

I read with concern “Common Core’s Focus on ‘Close Reading’ Stirs Worries,” (Feb. 8, 2012).

Many educators, including me, fear that implementing the Common Core State Standards as described will focus too heavily on what students draw from written text and not enough from their own lives. About 90 percent of what educators use to teach students today is text-based. But that approach doesn’t work on its own, given the cycle of underachievement that defines the American educational system, especially for low-income families and students of color.

The language arts guidelines and implementation of the common core as described in the article not only seem to ignore this, but fail to heed a tenet of good instruction and a lesson from neuroscience: To teach children, you have to use their experiences. Students need to build on their background knowledge and cultural experience in how they think about, discuss, and respond to written text. Student experience is perhaps the most valuable resource teachers have to bring meaning and relevance to complex material.

Experience greatly influences how the brain develops and constructs meaning. When teachers use the prior knowledge and personal references of students, they accelerate and expand comprehension of all text, but especially unfamiliar content. Reuven Feuerstein, an internationally recognized cognitive psychologist and a mentor of many educators, was fond of asking: How do we get into the minds of these kids? His answer: By having these kids get into the minds of teachers.

Our case studies have seen reading gaps close significantly when educators approach students and learning in this manner. For example, in a partnership with the Eden Prairie, Minn., schools, gaps between children of color and white children have decreased by nearly 50 percent, although the more high-achieving white and wealthier students’ scores have increased significantly as well. We are seeing these gains in partnerships with districts in San Francisco; Bridgeport, Conn.; and elsewhere.

The question should be asked: Is there similar evidence as well in the approach of those who advocate for the pedagogy of “close reading”?

Eric J. Cooper
President and Founder
National Urban Alliance for Effective Education
Stamford, Conn.