A Place at the Standards Table for Content?

by Robert Pondiscio
July 2nd, 2009

One of the early criticisms of the emerging “Common Core standards” initiative has been the question of who is writing them–and who isn’t.  The groups behind the multi-state effort, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, have set up a website that includes a list of the individuals working on math and English standards. As Edweek notes the list is “dominated by three organizations:” Achieve Inc., the College Board, and ACT Inc.

What’s new and interesting is the announcement of a pair of “Feedback Groups,” to offer expert input on the draft standards, which are due at the end of this month.  “Final decisions regarding the common core standards document will be made by the Standards Development Work Group,” notes the NGA announcement. “The Feedback Group will play an advisory role, not a decision-making role in the process.”

If you believe that content matters as much as process in crafting standards–that any attempt to write national standards should outline the specific material to be covered, not just describe the skills children should master–then the inclusion of Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein is a welcome name among the members of the English-language Arts Feedback Group, along with Fordham’s Checker Finn.  Bauerlein, author of the best-seller The Dumbest Generation, has been a consistent voice in favor of cultural literacy and teaching broad background knowledge.  Ironically, he may have presaged the debate he’ll find himself drawn into when he wrote recently about the difficulty of reaching consensus in college curriculum meetings.  Traditionalists, he observed, ”want to identify core texts, events, figures, and ideas….Progressivists want to enlarge the canon and contexts, to give representation to other cultures and identities, and explode the reigning ‘normativities,’ and they resist a core knowledge of any kind being set down as official.”

There doesn’t seem to be any way out of the impasse, however, which I think partly explains the rise of the “skills” movement in education circles. What the skills emphasis does is neutralize the culture-wars conflicts inherent in any knowledge selections in a curriculum. It speaks about abstract cognitive abilities such as “critical thinking,” “higher-order thinking skills,” and “problem solving.” No disturbing questions about representation of female authors on a syllabus or about Thomas Jefferson’s racial attitudes. Instead, the skills approach promises to empower students to handle those questions better later on — not here in the classroom, but after they have graduated from the skills curriculum.

Whether the feedback process is genuine or merely a way to blunt criticism remains to be seen, of course.  For now, the entire enterprise can be viewed with guarded optimism–the willing suspension of disbelief that anything of use will emerge.


  1. Interesting juxtaposition of two contentious ideas: #1) the question of who gets decision-making power in structuring the now-inevitable National Standards (which will quickly be accompanied by assessments and instructional materials) and #2) the core raison d’etre for CKB: the question of “knowledge” vs. “skills.”

    #2: I realize this is not “research,” but I have never, ever met a K-12 teacher (and I know literally thousands of them, across the country) who says that skills can be divorced from knowledge. K & S are inextricably bound together. It’s not good enough to remember “stuff”–one must be able to use the stuff in real life. But stuff is important. Knowing and applying a lot of stuff is a pretty good definition of “educated.”

    It is only in academic faculty meetings like Bauerlein’s (and I am recalling Sir Ken Robinson’s observation that higher ed types have bodies only to carry their heads to meetings)–that arguments over the relative merit of knowledge and skills rage on. K-12 teachers are all busy teaching to their state content frameworks (for better or worse) and statewide assessments. They’re not out there thinking–gee, kids don’t really need to know about the structure of the cell, or Emily Dickinson, now that we have the Internet. Knowledge vs. skills = false dichotomy, interesting to bloggers, but of limited relevance to teachers.

    #1, on the other hand, is key: the right stuff at the right time. There’s a lot of stuff, and not all of it is of critical importance. So who is making the decision about what’s important for kids, what knowledge will make them educated, productive, a valuable citizen? Politicians and corporate leaders (via Achieve) and test-makers (ACT, College Board). And then they’ll run them by academics for “feedback.” People who are actually educating children, at the moment? Not invited.

    I’m not worried about whether feedback from the academics will be sufficient to elevate knowledge over skills. I’m just sorry that the opportunity to create the useful, broad standards for teachers and students has already been turned into a highly politicized power struggle. Too bad.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — July 3, 2009 @ 8:33 am

  2. Wow, Nancy. I’m absolutely thrilled that you’ve “never, ever met a K-12 teacher who says that skills can be divorced from knowledge.” I can’t claim your range of experience and expertise, but mine has trended in precisely the opposite direction. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a teacher or administrator express the opinion that teaching content doesn’t matter, that our job is to help students “learn to learn” (or some other hackneyed variation on that theme). Perhaps this is the difference between working in a struggling school and working in a high-functioning one. I’m reminded of something I heard dozens of times when I would lament the lack of subject matter taught in my elementary school: “First we need to make sure our kids know how to read,” I heard repeatedly. “There will be time for everything else later.” This concept of reading — like critical thinking, problem solving, etc. — as a stand-alone and transferable “skill” was not merely an article of faith, it was “obvious” to my colleagues. And frankly, me too. I could sense it didn’t add up, but there was absolutely nothing in my professional development or my education school coursework that even hinted that knowledge and skills were intertwined. So either you’ve been extremely lucky, or I’ve been extremely unlucky. But once the false dichotomy was revealed to me, I quickly became militant about it. If you’re right — that this is something teachers know and it’s of little relevance–I’d go back to my classroom a happy and contented man. But I’ll wager you this. If you were to take a poll of elementary school teachers and ask them to agree or disagree with the following statement: “Because content knowledge expands so rapidly, it is more important for class time to focus on building skills like problem solving and critical thinking than mastery of individual subjects”– I’d bet you’d get nearly overwhelming agreement. And the less experience the teacher has, the higher the percentage of agreement.

    If, as a profession, we really understood that skills can’t be divorced from content, we would see it reflected in the way we teach children to read. We’d stress not just decoding and reading “strategies” but a systematic buildup of background knowledge. But we don’t do that. So even if you’re right, that teachers “know” all this, it’s not reflected in our practice.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 3, 2009 @ 8:58 am

  3. I am not sure I know what “learning to learn” means, either. Excuse me for circular arguments, but I think kids learn how to learn…by learning something. (Lather, rinse, repeat.) And the entire whole language movement was based on the principle of learning to read something that was worth reading, rather than skill-building separate from actual literature and expository content. Speaking of politically in/correct…

    I did spend 30 years in a fairly high-functioning school (although we were in the very lowest tier of per-pupil funding, and rural–it’s a myth that all good schools are well-funded and in the ‘burbs). But I’ve also worked with National Board Certified Teachers and candidates in Detroit, a dysfunctional system if there ever was one. And those teachers were hell-bent on finding consistent evidence that their students were learning the content in Michigan’s GLCS (aka “the Glicks”–grade level content standards– which are pretty good). After all, isn’t it “what students should know and be able to do?”

    About the problem-solving and critical thinking– I do think that those are real skills (along with creativity and collaboration). But don’t you solve problems in disciplinary field(s)? And think critically about accrued knowledge or opinion? Inextricable. You can’t teach skills in isolation from content.

    You can, however, teach content in isolation from applied skills. You simply dump the content on the kids, then–quick!–test them while they still remember, then congratulate yourself on your expert teaching. I saw a lot more of that in Detroit. The only skill-building minus content I witnessed there was the relentless phonics/DIBELs drilling. Plus, of course, the endless skill-drilling of Saxon Math, devoid of genuine mathematical content. (ducking)

    I’m in agreement, however, with your polling statement: content knowledge–even knowledge that might be considered “core”–is expanding very rapidly, and it’s important for students to develop some fluency in critique, persistence, ability to entertain multiple viewpoints, curiosity and other “soft” skills related to understanding (as opposed to repeating) content. Which makes the selection of national content standards critical–and why I’m miffed that the process has been turned over to the testmakers, elected politicians and business leaders.

    On the other hand, I agree with your theory that less experienced teachers are more likely to have absorbed the “skills matter most” argument. But let’s not put all the blame on teachers, who must account for both content acquisition and skill development. Most teachers do what they’re told, and do what will be tested. The days of teacher autonomy and creativity (again, for better or worse) are over.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — July 3, 2009 @ 9:44 am

  4. Hi. Although I’m involved in education, I’m not a professional educator. In short, I’ll be brief.

    In my experience, 100% of the world knows that there is a question of balancing of how much students learn skills vs content. Mostly, a 50-50 balance seems to be the consensus point with the expectation that most of the skills will be there for many decades but much of the knowledge will have a much shorter half-life. The math facts and sight words are two exceptions from elementary school education that are lifelong knowledge learned by rote.

    I think a significant question from the original post is whether the current effort is simply to codify the accepted conensus standards from the states into a national one or is it a chance for dramatic reform (and debate) over fundamentals. My belief is that it’s the former and that mostly, the goal is to achieve some significant efficiences thru a national set of standards that reflect what is broadly accepted at this point

    Comment by john edelson — July 3, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

  5. Bauerlein is right on target in some respects, and off the mark in others. I am not sure that the “skills” in question neutralize the culture wars. Nor do I see the approach as “skills first, questions later.” To the contrary: many of the suggested projects in the 21st Century Skills maps emphasize “big” social questions. Big social questions are fine and well–but are students in any way prepared to tackle them?

    Here’s an example of a 12th-grade social studies project:

    “Students investigate online social actions sites (e.g., Free the Children, iEARN, Mercy Corps, or Taking It Global,) and select the group most attuned to what the students want to achieve. Students choose one of the issues (e.g., support women’s micro-business project in Africa). Then students research and analyze the potential contributions of other student groups, local organizations and/or policy leaders and devise a strategy to secure and leverage their support. Via a district-approved social networking site, students engage in an ongoing online discussion with representatives from each of the participating groups (public or private, local, national or international). Throughout the project, students evaluate their progress toward accomplishing their goal as they demonstrate responsibility and ethical behavior.”

    While the emphasis is on developing a strategy, setting goals, and evaluating progress, the students are also supporting a social action agency. That is not a bad thing; it is common for schools to raise funds for worthy organizations (and nothing new to the 21st century). But is it a neutral skill-building activity? Not exactly. There are many more like these: where the emphasis might be on advertising, persuasion, presentation, collaboration, etc., but the activity itself involves community outreach, community service, etc.

    Again, those are not bad things in themselves. But they definitely tilt a history or social studies curriculum in the direction of action and the present day. In other words, they do nothing to neutralize the culture-wars conflict, nor do they do any justice to the study of history. Yes, there are a few projects related to historical events, but the vast majority emphasize current global events and the local community.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 4, 2009 @ 10:20 am

  6. You make several good points here, Diana (as usual):

    “…those [community outreach projects] are not bad things in themselves. But they definitely tilt a history or social studies curriculum in the direction of action and the present day. In other words, they do nothing to neutralize the culture-wars conflict, nor do they do any justice to the study of history.”

    A couple of thoughts:

    #1) Once again, the skills-content discussion is veering off in politicized, culture-wars directions. Your point about essential core content knowledge (history, economics, influence of public media/journalism, government, civics) being lost in the desire to “collaborate” and “do good” is absolutely correct. In fact, I would argue that Paolo Friere acolytes do themselves and their students no favors by sending kids off on social-improvement projects without a solid base of the aforementioned knowledge.

    #2) I think a lot of these projects begin as an attempt to inculcate “relevance”– a word deserving of re-examination. Relevance doesn’t mean “applied to what’s happening to students in their personal lives at this moment.” It means “connected, valuable, appropriate, important, applicable.” Students cannot know how history is relevant until they study history (or literature, or music, or mathematics). Content first, relevance will follow.

    #3) The education culture-wars arguments are grounded in differently held views about the purpose of education. And as long as there is publicly funded education in America, those divergent beliefs will spark continuous flare-ups. To many Americans, the purpose of school is self-evident and anyone who thinks otherwise is a moron (or union member, or ed-school soft-head). Culture wars are grounded in stereotyping and the desire to win. Let me indulge in a little stereotyping myself: most people’s beliefs about the purposes of education come from their own educational experiences (“worked for me!”) and media-driven “information.” The conventional wisdom is true: everyone thinks they know how to fix schools.

    My personal philosophy about the purpose of education is grounded in 30 years’ worth of experience in teaching real kids, and has shifted considerably over time–because I’ve been paying attention to my students’ feedback and needs. And I’m more than a little frightened about recent top-down policy pronouncements and public anger and blaming.

    #4) Perhaps the best place to hash over the benefits/drawbacks of 21st-centuryish project-based learning would be in a disciplinary field other than social studies. (There’s a reason for the current disciplinary hierarchy of LA-Math-Science, and SS if there’s time–SS is more politically dicey than other subjects.) I developed strong content-based projects around music (including the science of the overtone series, relationships to literature and western culture) that nobody could call political. And I’m guessing you could do the same with literature, given students with a knowledge base.

    #5) None of this discussion mitigates the need to have real educators on a national standards committee.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — July 4, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

  7. Nancy: Your points #1 and #2 are brilliant and I agree with them 100%. However, I see the culture war in my conversations with colleagues and students/faculty members in my graduate classes when I try to make points or arguments along these lines. All to often I get labeled or slammed for being conservative, in every sense of the word. Occasionally, if I question Freire I might even be hit with a racist tag. What amuses me about this is that I am young, technologically savvy and have been active in Democratic Party politics my entire life. Why can’t people separate their personal values from the pragmatic issues of what actually works in school?

    Comment by Matt — July 5, 2009 @ 11:45 am

  8. I admire and agree with most of Nancy’s analysis but have one suggestion, with reference to her comment #2 from July 4, in the context of Diana’s example.

    Approaches need not be limited to “Content first, relevance will follow”; I would like to suggest “No relevance without content” instead. By this I mean that we educators always leverage relevance — a tool for engagement — as a means to make content make sense to students.

    Diana’s social studies example made me think of this. Were I teaching this as a project to 12th graders (admission: I am certified in English/LA, not social studies, but I teach and have taught a variety of interdisciplinary courses at one of those high-functioning schools), I would probably include early in the unit the required study of one or two historical examples of “securing and leveraging support.” I’d give the students a starter list from which to choose to research, with names like Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Alice Paul, etc. (Upon reflection, I note that these happen to be fairly “liberal” names, but there’s no reason the list couldn’t and shouldn’t also include Ward Connerly, Paul Weyrich, etc.) How did those people strategize? What were their MOs, their principles; who were their supporters, their opponents? What was their context? Lest students think their activism exists in a vacuum (an ironically imperfect term to use in this social responsibility context, but not without some merit for referring to today’s learners), we help them form a basis to link them to the world. That’s the essence of content, for me.

    I love skills AND content. I worry that teachers miss opportunities to weave them into each other, as Nancy wrote earlier: “K & S are inextricably bound together.”

    Another question is: how do we make something like this come in Standards form?

    Comment by Carl Rosin — July 5, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

  9. Thanks for your nice words. Matt, the Ed Policy department where I have been doing graduate work is strongly bound to “scientifically based” systemic reforms and quantitative measurement. My policy cohort is made up of folks who would feel right at home hanging with Joel Klein and Checker Finn. The first book I read in ProSem was Hirsch’s “The Schools We Need,” followed by lots of Diane Ravitch, Chubb and Moe, and Caroline Hoxby. You can’t find a critical theorist to save your soul. And this is a highly regarded program and university. The other university in my state is, if anything, even more to the right (mostly because ed policy has trended rightward in the past 8 years, and research one universities follow the research money).

    Which is a shame. I do think programs have a tendency to attract people of similar philosophical bent–which depresses honest dialogue and scholarship. I can’t tell you how many times colleagues in my department asked why I was studying Ed Policy and not Teacher Education. After all, I was a teacher for 30 years–what business did I have in Policy? Which is also a shame. When you can’t examine assumptions and arguments honestly, and it’s only about winning, it’s hard to make good public policy–or prepare teachers, or develop leaders, or whatever it is universities are supposed to be doing.

    Carl, I absolutely agree that there is no relevance without content. And I agree that HS students should always be exposed to a range of political and cultural forms and ideas. That scares the daylights out of most education thinkers. They don’t trust teachers to present controversial ideas neutrally, and probably don’t trust students to (ahem) think critically and come up with preferable solutions. But learning complex subject matter always involves the development of critical judgment–literature, science, the arts.

    Back to standards, then. It’s hard to figure out how to combine skills and content in standards when you haven’t clearly delineated what a standard is and what it’s supposed to do. Many people think national standards will look like a grade-by-grade national curriculum, which can be transposed into teaching materials and cheap, easy-to-administer tests, measuring content memorization and only the most low-level skills.

    I think that rich standards can be written, outlining broad content and skill goals–and that teachers can learn to creatively apply those standards to the kids in front of them. In fact, they’ve already been written in some disciplines. I don’t think that’s what we’re going to get, however. I think we’re going to get lists, prescriptions, detailed outlines, and mountains of tests.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — July 5, 2009 @ 9:35 pm

  10. You’re probably right on the mountains of tests, Nancy, but I’ll be truly surprised if we end up with “lists, prescriptions, and detailed outlines,” at least on the ELA standards. I expect there will be surprisingly few and quite unspecific “standards” that will describe what students should be able to do. I expect not a word on what they should actually read or learn. In fact, I’ll bet you a buck there’s not a single book mentioned at any grade level.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 5, 2009 @ 9:47 pm

  11. OK, Big Spender. You’re on.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — July 5, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

  12. Nancy, when you say “learning complex subject matter always involves the development of critical judgment–-literature, science, the arts,” I cheer in agreement. But is a content-focused standard that can inspire this (to continue working on Diana’s example) something like “The student will be able to provide a detailed description of the context, chronology, and relevance of a world-historical example of social activism and apply/compare it to a modern conflict”?

    Acknowledging my limitations as a standards-writer, I would still imagine that CoreKnowledge would be reasonably happy with a standard something like that even if it doesn’t mention a book or individual. Robert may win his bet with Nancy and that probably would not upset me much. I am thrilled to have my students read “The Great Gatsby” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” but I have seen too much brilliant American literature — and know that there’s a ton I haven’t seen — to accept that a great American Lit curriculum can exist ONLY if those books are on it.

    On the other hand, I agree that to say that NO books need be taught, or no details be recalled, or no texts of merit be expected, is far worse. This is why I included the terms “context” and “world-historical” in my stab at a standard two paragraphs ago. The polar positions strike me straw men, though. Nancy wrote, “I think that rich standards can be written, outlining broad content and skill goals–and that teachers can learn to creatively apply those standards to the kids in front of them.” What terminology/phrasing and accountability strategies have worked in your districts? Would Robert call my example “unspecific”?

    I’m not just arguing here. I have my opinion, of course, but as my district gears up for rewriting curriculum I really want to know what the CoreKnowledge community thinks. I want to bring your ideas to our table.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — July 6, 2009 @ 9:54 am

  13. Carl,

    It occurs to me that one big advantage of specifying books is that it would enable teachers within and among schools to talk about teaching specific books instead of general teaching strategies. Twelve years into this career, I don’t think I’ve had a single professional development experience that focused on actual content.

    Comment by Ben F — July 6, 2009 @ 10:20 am

  14. You raise an interesting point, Carl. And off the top of my head, I would suggest that if a student (presumably in high school) can indeed provide a “detailed description of the context, chronology, and relevance of a world-historical example of social activism and apply/compare it to a modern conflict” that would require a significant level of content knowledge. So your standard is a solid one. It’s how we get there that’s the issue. One of the interesting things about ths NGA/CCSO effort is that as of this moment, they’re taking a pass on science and “social studies.” But it’s a knowledge of history and social movements that will enable our hypothetical student to hit your standard. Personally, I’d probably agree to have no ELA standards whatsoever, as long as we had a rich, deep curriculum in place in history, geography, science art and the humanities. I think that would be more likely to get us where we need to be than a skills-focused set of ELA standards, unsupported by any expectation that there is a body of knowledge worth knowing, for exactly the reasons you cite in your comment.

    Like science and social studies, our language and discourse is full of literary allusions, expressions and references that literate speakers and writers fully expect their audience to know. Is it important for every student to know the Great Gatsby? Maybe, maybe not. But I would hope every student would be familiar enough to understand what it means if something is described as Gatsbyesque (a word I saw in the NY Times just recently). I’m not arguing that shallow knowledge is better that deep knowledge, merely that there is a place for both if we want to be fully literate and conversant in our own culture.

    Being specific about content gives educators hives because it smacks of codifying a canon. But rarely do we consider the price of not doing so: it consigns an unacceptable number of children to something like intellectual second-class citizenship, and prevents them from full participation and engagement in civic and literate life.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 6, 2009 @ 10:30 am

  15. I never made the connection before, but the combination of Robert’s response and his comments about Dan Willingham (teaching content/reading) put it in terms that I think make the best sense to me. There is no essential reason that both of these statements cannot be true: Science and Social Studies must have standards based on specific content; ELA need not have standards that are as specifically content-based.

    To treat all disciplines the same is not necessarily…necessary! Being “fully literate and conversant in our own culture” is an admirable and rewarding goal, but I have never been convinced that it’s what English is about, at least on the high school level. I feel that it IS, however, essential to have a firm and content-rich grounding in certain other disciplines. “Equal” isn’t always “fair.”

    (To be honest, the thing that I’d most like to see is to have every high school teach interdisciplinarily, but that’s a topic for another day, I guess….)

    Comment by Carl Rosin — July 6, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

  16. I like Carl’s standard, too–and it could not be accomplished in a quality fashion without significant content knowledge and intellectual skills. But a standard like that, which frames a set of tasks or products, using broad concepts, rather than absorbing specific content, looks a lot like the Social Studies standards that were the center of controversy– lots of people thought they represented the essence of critical concepts, and lots of people thought they were “vague.” I’m thinking it’s the second group that will be writing the national standards.

    Arguments about the canon have been going on for centuries. And I would agree that there is a body of recognized classic literature and all students would benefit by studying examples. But I’m not sure that there is an optimum reading list for all 10th graders in America–or that kids who don’t read Beowulf are second-class citizens, intellectually. (I feel the same way about Moby Dick, BTW.)

    I was once on a national committee to develop a standardized assessment for music teachers. Several of the teachers on the committee attended Historically Black Colleges. When it came to developing an assessment around music history, we could not develop a list of must-know composers and works. There was a major division– was it more important to know specifics about the Mannheim Rocket and Monteverdi (the Western canon, taught in most schools) or the rhythmic and melodic elements born in African cultures that ended up shaping about 75% of the music all our students were listening to (which half our committee knew little about, but constituted the foundation of music history studies at HBCUs)?

    We lost committee members in the bitter arguments that ensued– which changed my mind forever about what I “knew” about what all students should know. Not knowing about Scarlatti, Hayden, or Liszt–cornerstones of the Western canon–would not prevent “engagement in civic life,” but the ability to create and perform forms of popular music (frowned on by the classicists) might not only pay the rent, but offer life-long pleasure.

    Not arguing. But sweeping statements about kids’ eventual life outcomes, based on their mastery of a traditional, classical curriculum might be extreme.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — July 6, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

  17. Not arguing back, but this may be one of those areas where a significant amount of time spent outside education helps (or taints) my perspective. People in professional circles make judgments, often harshly, about one’s intelligence or education based on their inventory of mental furniture. This was precisely the point of Mark Bauerlein’s piece a few weeks back on the value of cultural literacy. Perhaps we can’t know if never having heard of Moby Dick or Beethoven will effect a child’s future career or educational opportunities. I prefer to think of it as an educational form of Pascal’s Wager. Let’s assume that there is much to be gained in being familiar with a broad body of knowledge and cultural references. Certainly there is nothing to lose.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 6, 2009 @ 10:40 pm

  18. I find it interesting that so many of the same people who profess admiration for Finland, Singapore, Japan, European countries etc. are also against real content standards, since those places have specific national curricula and standards.

    Comment by momof4 — July 8, 2009 @ 8:19 am

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