Common Core in a Little Town in Arkansas

One of the most memorable schools I have ever been to is little De Queen Elementary -- a third-, fourth- and fifth-grade school in southwestern Arkansas not far from Broken Bow, Oklahoma.

The town of De Queen is dominated by a poultry plant that has attracted immigrants from Mexico and Central America whose children now make up two-thirds of the school population. A colleague and I wanted to understand how could this little school where so many kids are learning English, and so many come from low-income families, be performing toward the top of the state?

What we found were dynamic educators who believe their kids are just as capable of learning to high levels as any other kid -- and who work hard to figure out the best way to teach them.

That means that if kids don't learn something the first time, they figure out what needs to change. Many years ago, for example, when kids weren't mastering the basics of reading, the school adopted Direct Instruction. DI, as it is known, is one of very few programs that has been found to be effective for all children in teaching early reading. Because it is scripted, many educators consider it uncreative and few schools have adopted it.

De Queen's educators don't think that way. Principal Terriann Phillips told me that a scripted program that takes up only part of the day will allow students to be creative the rest of their lives because they are able to read. She was a teacher when DI was first adopted, and she said the certainty that she was doing what her kids needed outweighed having to give up the "creativity" of the whole language program she had previously used.

But the folks at De Queen also know that early reading skills are only part of the reading puzzle, and that building vocabulary and background knowledge are the other big parts. So the teachers plan nine-week units of instruction that focus on specific topics, including fiction and non-fiction across disciplines to systematically build the knowledge that allows new vocabulary and knowledge to stick in students' memories.

When we went to De Queen in 2013, the school was just beginning to implement Common Core State Standards, and they were as excited as could be. Gayla Morphew, the literacy coordinator, even had a "Common Core Ninja" sign on her desk.

When I asked her why she was so excited about the standards, one of the things she said was (edited for clarity):

For me the reason Common Core is more powerful and will be positive for our kids is the emphasis on argumentative writing. In the past our emphasis was on expository and narrative. While those are wonderful, the shift to an argumentative way of thinking creates more analytical, critical thinking. That is one of the greatest things about Common Core -- our kids are analyzing and probing and discussing the text rather than just being inside a little box and spitting out information. I like the idea of students arguing and debating in multiple disciplines -- choosing a position and giving justification that's not shallow and superficial but has some depth to it.

With all the controversy that has surrounded the Common Core State Standards, I wondered if Morphew was as excited about them two years on as she had been. I called her last week, a couple of days before school was about to begin, just to ask. She described some of the improvements the school's been making over the summer, including a new schedule that will ensure that pulling out students for extra help will not interfere with core instruction. Another is a new library of books organized by reading level that will be a "commonwealth of goodies for everyone."

When I asked her about Common Core she said she still thinks it's the right thing for kids -- "I'm still a big supporter. Our kids are smart," she said, and "they deserve good standards."