Peter DeWitt

There Is No Debating the Six Shifts

In education we debate many issues. Sometimes it feels as though we debate just to debate. Whether it's the way we teach reading, writing, or math or the harmful effects of high-stakes testing, many issues create an ongoing dialogue in education. It should be that way only as long as it doesn't prevent us from ever moving forward. As we debate back and forth, a generation of students are waiting for us to get our acts together.

We have all had moments when we just wanted to be told what to do ... and moments when we wanted to be left to make our own decisions. Sometimes we want the opposite of what is being asked of us. As we continue down the road of more mandates and accountability than we have ever seen, we cannot lose touch, no matter how hard it may be, with our jobs to teach the whole child.

Educators need to prepare kids to be career and college ready, but they also need to prepare them for their present world. The Common Core State Standards set out to do that. They're not perfect, but they are a starting point. Unfortunately, they have come with some baggage. Shanahan says, "The recent adoption of the Common Core State Standards by 46 states and the District of Columbia has given rise to anxieties among educators that have fueled the flames of misperception, confusion, and rumor" (2012, p.10).

From the beginning, the Common Core framework has stated that it provides a base for teaching students. The standards never set out to be the only thing that educators are allowed to teach. Unfortunately, some states seemed to lack a clue about how to roll out the standards, which added to the misconceptions. But we have to look at how it can benefit our students.

The Common Core standards will always be only new state standards that educators have to abide by if they don't take the time to truly give them a chance. No matter what any expert tells us, there will never be anything that is considered perfect. There is no silver bullet. A new set of highly researched standards can come out this year, and there will always be a critic who says that they are lacking something.

Dig Deeper into the Six Shifts

The six shifts of the Common Core standards are one such area that needs our positive focus. The shifts will help us educate the whole child and prepare students for their present realities and their future possibilities. Our students need to be educated readers and be able to wade through what is real and what is not.

The six shifts of informational texts, knowledge in the disciplines, building a "staircase of complexity," text-based answers, writing from sources, and building academic vocabulary will help develop better-educated learners. These shifts are not just for our top-learning students. These six shifts in the Common Core will help all of our students thrive and give them the knowledge to become better analytical learners for what they hear in the news and see online. As much as technology has opened up new doors, we are all at risk of getting one-sided views of the world, and the six shifts will help prevent that from happening.

We are inundated with multiple news sources. Many people now look to social media to find their top news stories. They check Twitter and Facebook before they watch the news or read e-mail. They pay attention to what is "trending" and get caught up in the train wreck of watching which celebrities make the headlines before they see what is happening around the world in "real" news.

In a 2011 Ted Talk, Eli Pariser told us to beware of the online "filter bubbles" that streamline our choices. Much like Pandora radio provides us with the same genre of music we like, there are algorithms that do the same in our online searches, which means we only see the results that those algorithms think we want to see. We are not getting both sides of the story, and our students will never develop fully because they get a very narrow understanding of the issues they are searching for online.

"The Common Core State Standards emphasize using evidence from texts to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information. Rather than asking students to respond to questions they can answer solely from prior knowledge or experience, the standards prioritize questions that require students to read texts with care. Quality text-based questions, unlike low-level "search and find" questions, require close reading and deep understanding of the text." (Alberti, 2012, p.26)

It is more important than ever to have media literacy. It is more important than ever to make sure that we don't simply accept the news. If we do, we are perpetuating more untruths. That makes us a part of the rumor mill and tells our friends that we are not accurate in what we share. It makes us one dimensional and not whole.

What We Do Matters

I feel as though we have a great deal of noise that comes at us when we turn on the television, surf the Internet, or listen to the radio. Sometimes we passively sit back and let that noise flow over us as we try to relax. Other times we actively engage with it and try to learn new information that will help us change the course we may be following.

In full disclosure, the Common Core standards do not guide my daily life with students. What guides my daily life, and the lives of the teachers I work with, is meeting the needs of the whole child. The standards are merely a method we use to meet their needs, and there is a great deal of good in the Common Core.

Too many of our students are forced to sit back and passively listen to what we think is important, instead of actively engaging in what they think is important. I believe that we need to have a combination of both. The Common Core State Standards will help us take those passive learning experiences and inspire our students to actively engage in what we teach. It allows them to question the world around them, and that will better help educate the whole child.

Action Steps

  • Watch Eli Pariser's Ted Talk. Have students do Google searches on the same topic to see what comes up. Perhaps they can do this as a homework assignment and create a screen shot (Ctrl + Print Screen to copy the screen. Then, right-click with the mouse to paste it into a Word document) of what they find. Discuss your findings.

  • Create an experiment to see how deeply your students dig down for information. For example, there was a Facebook page mourning the actor Morgan Freeman. Thousands of people left comments and said how sad they were that he passed. Fortunately, Morgan Freeman was very much alive; if some of those people had dug down to more than one source, they would have learned that. Find an untruth and have students explore.

  • Explore nonfiction. At a very young age, students love nonfiction. People are flocking to the movie Lincoln because of the unique perspective of Doris Kearns Goodwin. This kind of passion for nonfiction can flourish in the classroom. Make it relatable to students. Students love to see nonfiction that mirrors their own lives (i.e., biographies).



Alberti, S. (2012). Making the shift. Educational Leadership, 70(4). Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Retrieved from

Shanahan, T. (2012). The common core ate my baby and other urban legends. Educational Leadership, 70(4). Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Retrieved from

Peter DeWitt, EdD, is an elementary school principal in New York. He writes the Finding Common Ground blog for Education Week and is the author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin Press). Connect with DeWitt on his website and on Twitter @PeterMDeWitt.

Comments (4)

Tim Slack

January 10, 2013

Hi Peter! Thanks for the post. I agree 100%. Students have to be engaged and take an active part in their learning. I believe we have to offer students options for learning opportunities that will help them uncover the curriculum themselves. It is always surprising how far students will go if they are involved in an open ended task that they are interested in. The non-fiction piece is key as well. There are so many learners that will never be into stories and novels. If we can get them to read with non-fiction our goals will be met to produce literate readers. Hopefully, they would start to read for enjoyment as they get older. Take care, Tim

Doug Hubert

January 11, 2013

Pete…I figured it was only a matter of time before I saw your name pop up in my SmartBrief listings. Great article. A number of folks, including myself, are really moving in the direction of the flipped classroom which can have major impacts on student engagement, authentic problem solving and learning, and many of the six shifts from the Common Core. I find that I am frequently reminding myself to focus on the positives as we go through this time of rapid change in schools. I also think we need to remember that the majority of people go into education to help kids. Unfortunately, that message seems to have been lost in much of the political posturing in education these days. Just once, I would like to see a high level political figure admit that there is a large portion of the system that is not broken and we need to make sure we don’t throw that out with the bath water. Keep up the good work Pete!!

Janet Abercrombie

January 14, 2013

So many good points in this post. When I started teaching nonfiction, I got stuck into thinking nonfiction texts were limited to textbooks and “all-about” books. Students needed to consider chapters, headlines, main ideas, and topic sentences. Boring.

After working with colleagues on nonfiction units and studying materials by Lucy Calkins and others. Nonfiction includes advice books for girls and boys, magazines, books on becoming better writers (like those written by Ralph Fletcher), photoessays, blogs, and more. My students really took to narrative nonfiction like picture books biographies.

Once students realize the wide range of nonfiction, they start reading it naturally. Once they’re reading it naturally, we can start comparing contrasting the picture book biographies with wikipedia and database articles and magazine articles and…

Janet |


December 29, 2013

“The Common Core State Standards emphasize using evidence from texts to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information. Rather than asking students to respond to questions they can answer solely from prior knowledge or experience, the standards prioritize questions that require students to read texts with care. Quality text-based questions, unlike low-level “search and find” questions, require close reading and deep understanding of the text.” (Alberti, 2012, p.26)

Many great points in your article.  What do we do about the 8th grade student who reads at a 5th grade level because she’s dyslexic and has not been taught to read using the appropriate intervention?  Where will these students be now that reading and searching through texts is more important?  What is the solution that school’s will offer to help educate the 1:5 with a language learning disability such as dyslexia?

I hope school districts seriously consider the 5 points suggested by the Decoding Dyslexia Parent Movement, the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity and Literate Nation ~ screen for language disabilities before K, choose specific interventions proven to work (Project Read, Seeing Stars, V/V), educate teachers about dyslexia & reading strategies in college, and support students with technology.  If this is not done sooner than later, the results of the PARCC testing and CC will be dismal, not to mention the struggling student’s access to the curriculum (and FAPE) in ELA will be limited.

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