Getting to the Common Core: Using Researchbased Strategies that Empower Students to Own Their Own Achievementreviewed by Nicholas H. Wasserman  October 22, 2015 Title: Getting to the Common Core: Using Researchbased Strategies that Empower Students to Own Their Own Achievement Author(s): Sharon L. Spencer, Sandra Vavra (Eds.) Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte ISBN: 1623969700, Pages: 594, Year: 2015 Search for book at Amazon.com In Getting to the Common Core, Spencer and Vavra remind readers that seemingly seismic shifts in education, like the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), are not as daunting as they might appear. They point out that educators have longstanding educational principles—a “common core” so to speak—that can serve as a guide to help weather any storm. And it is the voices of teachers, who actually implement educational reforms like the CCSS and embody years of wisdom, that are critical to exemplifying these principles in practice. The book is a tribute to the collective voice and wisdom of classroom teachers, demystifying the novelty of new standards by pointing to and exemplifying researchbased best practices in education. Drawing on Dewey’s principles for effective teaching and educational philosophies, the authors contend that the primary aim for schools has always been to “produce welleducated students who think critically and solve complex problems, despite the times” (p. xvi). They view the CCSS, although new and entrenched in the current educational climate, as both supportive and reflective of longstanding educational tenets and aims. They also posit that they embody an increased understanding of best practices, such as studentcentered instruction, constructivism, differentiation, multiple intelligences, cultural responsiveness, etc. Yet they recognize that the CCSS, like all other standards and educational reforms before them, will ultimately be changed, overhauled, or discarded. So, instead of focusing on the CCSS, the book emphasizes and illustrates how the “common core” of education, through researchbased strategies, can help achieve the “Common Core” State Standards, amongst other things. Although the CCSS referenced in the book, which are primarily listed in large chunks at times over several pages, could have been incorporated more cohesively into the text, the book’s focus on the “common core”—not just the “Common Core”—is clear. The book is largely split into two parts. The first third (Chapters 2–11) is meant to be an introduction to each of the ten different researchbased strategies: (1) learning styles and interest inventories; (2) anchor activities; (3) cooperative learning; (4) foldables, graphic organizers, and mind maps; (5) learning centers and learning stations; (6) learning contracts, independent studies, and project/problembased learning; (7) literacy; (8), mnemonics; (9) movement; and (10) summarizing and notetaking. Each chapter begins with a brief introduction to the strategy and a discussion of the supporting research, followed by a few classroom examples (and the associated CCSS), illustrating the strategy in practice. The second twothirds (Chapters 12–19) is a practical resource: a gradelevel breakdown of the more than one hundred teacherauthored classroom examples. For each grade level in elementary and middle schools, the classroom examples are organized by researchbased strategies and are interwoven with brief commentaries and reflections by the teachers. Balancing theory and practice is at the heart of the book. The book is at its best when the succinct summaries about researchbased strategies are illuminated by the teachers’ classroom practices. This kind of format grounds the discussion of research in examples of lessons and activities, which is very powerful and important. For example, the authors introduce learning stations, which should “include a variety of activities at varying achievement levels and student interests in order to differentiate learning” (p. 92). The description is followed by a few examples, one from a fifth grade mathematics teacher’s incorporation of learning stations into a unit on volume (pp. 96–98). Her classroom example—which includes a description about a station where students rolled a die three times to determine the side lengths of their own prism and another that involved building different rectangular prisms from 24 unit cubes—serves not only as a practical resource for teachers but also to bolster the readers’ understanding of the learning stations strategy itself. The book is filled with many such examples, placing the creativity of classroom teachers on display. At times, however, the format can have the opposite effect. Particularly when strategies are unfamiliar, the authors’ brevity does not always provide sufficient description of the strategy and the teachers’ examples can serve to confuse rather than clarify. For example, are basic worksheets considered anchor activities? Is a quiz a jigsaw activity? Part of the confusion, no doubt, stems from having multiple people—authors, different teachers—contribute to the book’s primary text, using the same terms in slightly different ways. There is also little room for added nuance in understanding the more general strategies from the specific examples. In the mnemonics section, for example, the authors discuss two familiar examples: King Henry Died Unexpectedly Drinking Chocolate Milk (kilo, hector, deca, unit/one, deci, centi, milli) and PEMDAS (parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction) (p. 158). However, mnemonics for memorizing vocabulary, such as the metric prefixes, and for normative ordering of simplifying operations in expressions, may be qualitatively different. There are important concepts that undergird the order of operations that are not present in the former. Not to mention that PEMDAS also conflates two different ideas: operations on the one hand and symbols of grouping on the other, which can be a source of confusion. In these cases, further synthesis of the disparate voices as well as elaboration on some of the nuances of each of the strategies would have been beneficial. Overall, the book makes a solid contribution to existing literature due to the authors’ choice of letting teachers’ voices be heard, without amendment: “When left to their own devices rather than having mandates imposed on them, educators have demonstrated a solid record of working toward a critically literate citizenry as a key outcome” (p. 4). This is to be celebrated. Throughout the discussion of researchbased strategies, classroom examples help depict and flesh out theoretical ideas. Furthermore, the entire latter part of the book serves as a voluminous resource for teachers, featuring any excellent activities, lessons, and ideas. No doubt the book will provide excellent stimuli for teachers and other educators to consider how best to engage their students’ in learning. It is the broader “common core” of educational values on which Getting to the Common Core focuses, which will continue to drive education forward both while the CCSS persist and long after.
