EdWeek’s Quality Counts special report offers a comprehensive catch-up on the issues surrounding the soon-to-be-released work of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Lots of great reads: Sean Cavanagh’s overview looks at the history of academic standards, unresolved issues, and (thank you!) the perpetual confusion between standards and curriculum. Stephen Sawchuk’s piece looks at the issues for teachers. We’ve always had national standards, writes Diane Ravitch in a commentary, citing the de facto standards created by textbooks and college entrance exams in the early part of the 20th century. Comparing the current intiative to those predecessors, Ravitch observes,
The two greatest risks of the current effort to set common standards are that they will be so prescriptive they will be resisted, or they will be so vague that they can easily be ignored. Either course would be likely to end in failure, and neither would promote the rich, full education that our students need.
E.D. Hirsch, Jr. provides the lead commentary in EdWeek’s package and both praises and buries the initiative. He compliments the draft document’s insistence that students must command a “base of knowledge across a wide range of subject matter by engaging with works of quality and substance.” Less commendable is the continued insistence on viewing reading as a transferable, how-to skill
…thus repeating the error of current state standards of encouraging main-idea hunting and “inferencing.” There is no good scientific basis for believing that exercises in logical inference from texts or main-idea finding can significantly raise language abilities. Inference in language is not chiefly a formal skill. Untrained people are able to make very good inferences from texts when they already know something about the subject. But they cannot reliably draw correct inferences from texts about unfamiliar subjects.
“At the very least, then, language standards need to say clearly and forcefully that standards in reading, writing, speaking, and listening are not intended to be explicitly taught as skills. Rather, even these preliminary standards need to stress that academic content—in literature, history, science, and the arts—must be taught coherently and cumulatively in order to impart the requisite language competencies,” Hirsch writes. “There is no other way to verbal competence. The formalistic approach has failed for many years and will continue to do so,” he concludes.
We Americans have had an allergy to tackling the content problem at any level—ignoring the fact that somebody (mainly textbook makers) must always be dictating content in the schools, even if it is trivial, fragmented, skills-based content. If the crafters of our standards don’t encourage or require content coherence and cumulativeness (just to name two necessary elements), they will have failed the most basic requirement of this task: First, do no harm. And they will have done little to improve the unacceptable stasis in American education.