Common Core Standards: A Cautionary Tale

by Robert Pondiscio
May 12th, 2011

Guest blogger Katharine Beals, PhD is the author of “Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School.”  She teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and at the Drexel University School of Education, specializing in the education of children on the autistic spectrum.  She blogs about education at Kitchen Table Math and on her own blog, Out in Left Field.

When the New York Times presents case studies in education reform, one can often spot between the enthusiastic lines at least a few reasons for skepticism. The latest front-page education article, a piece on the new Common Core standards, is no exception:

“The new standards give specific goals that, by the end of the 12th grade, should prepare students for college work. Book reports will ask students to analyze, not summarize. Presentations will be graded partly on how persuasively students express their ideas. History papers will require reading from multiple sources; the goal is to get students to see how beliefs and biases can influence the way different people describe the same events.”

At first glance this sounds pretty good–although it’s disturbing that it’s necessary to spell out that book reports should include analysis and that history papers should sometimes require multiple sources.

On second thought, however, one might worry about how teachers and their advisors will interpret “persuasively”: does it pertain to an argument’s rhetorical content, or is it a matter of charisma, body language and showy prompts? One might worry, as well,  about the implication that history is only about “higher level” thinking skills like sorting out biases and multiple perspectives rather than about learning a fact-rich core of basic, historical knowledge.  In other words, how much will the Common Core standards play out like a caricature of the New Math of the 1960′s, a.k.a. Some Math, Some Garbage?

Here, accordingly to the article, is what’s happening in Hillcrest, one of 100 New York City schools that are piloting the new standards:

“Until this year, Ena Baxter, an English teacher at Hillcrest High School in Queens, would often have her 10th graders compose papers by summarizing a single piece of reading material.

“Last month, for a paper on the influence of media on teenagers, she had them read a survey on the effects of cellphones and computers on young people’s lives, a newspaper column on the role of social media in the Tunisian uprising and a 4,200-word magazine article titled ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’”

So far, so good, though, again, it’s disconcerting to hear what the 10th grade papers used to be like. But then there’s this:

“Eleni Giannousis made a change in her 10th-grade English class that might make some purists blanch. She had students watch the filmed stage performance of “Death of a Salesman,” starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman, before they read the play. The idea was to have students absorb information through a medium they use for entertainment, one way she was experimenting with her lesson plans to try to meet the new goals.

“It wasn’t about making things easier for the students, but about challenging them to experience a classic in a different way,” Ms. Giannousis said.

Yes, I’m blanching. And yes, I’m skeptical.

As for nonfiction:

“While English classes will still include healthy amounts of fiction, the standards say that students should be reading more nonfiction texts as they get older, to prepare them for the kinds of material they will read in college and careers. In the fourth grade, students should be reading about the same amount from “literary” and “informational” texts, according to the standards; in the eighth grade, 45 percent should be literary and 55 percent informational, and by 12th grade, the split should be 30/70.”

I’m all for elevating nonfiction, but the Times suggests that, at Hillcrest at least, the only medium for it is English class. History and social studies, assuming these are focused on content and not on so-called “higher-level” thinking, should also be a major venues for reading. Indeed, by giving the English Language Arts standards the specific title “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects,” the Common Core underscores the importance of reading in all subjects. Nowhere, incidentally, does it mention film and video viewing as alternatives to reading.

As for math, the Common Core names Statistics & Probability as one of six core areas for high school. How is this playing out at Hillcrest in particular?

“A math teacher, José Rios, used to take a day or two on probabilities, drawing bell-shaped curves on the blackboard to illustrate the pattern known as normal distribution. This year, he stretched the lesson by a day and had students work in groups to try to draw the same type of graphic using the heights of the 15 boys in the class.

“Eventually, they figured out they couldn’t because the sample was too small,” Mr. Rios said. “They learned that the size of the sample matters, and I didn’t have to tell them.”

A whole day in groups for what could be a 5-minute survey and plotting of data points in front of the entire class?

While the Times article shows just a few snapshots of a single school’s attempts to implement the Common Core standards, these snapshots collectively suggest a basic problem with the standards in their current, schematic incarnation. As the Times explains:

“There are guidelines for what students are expected to do in each grade, but it is still up to districts, schools and teachers to fill in the finer points of the curriculum, like what books to read.”

Sticking to general guidelines reflects widespread concern about the federal government micromanaging education, but leaves way too much room for interpretation. Given the dominant Constructivist paradigm, there’s way too much room, in particular for a Constructivist interpretation and implementation of the Common Core standards, and, thereby, for even further Constructivist penetration of  America’s K12 classrooms. In the enthusiastic words of the Times, “In three years, instruction in most of the country could look a lot like what is going on at Hillcrest.”

To ensure that this does not happen, we must constantly remind the education establishment that what the Common Core calls for is a curriculum “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge” and therefore in opposition to much of the dominant paradigm.


  1. Given that the Arthur Miller play was written for the stage, I actually do not have a problem with students seeing the performance first. That’s what I do with Shakespeare for my children. Plays were intended by the author to be watched on stage rather than read.

    Now if Ms. Giannousis had had her students watch a stage adaptation of a novel prior to reading the book, that would bother me.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — May 12, 2011 @ 11:18 am

  2. Well, one advantage of reading the play first is that students have the opportunity to imagine the characters on their own. If they watch a film version first, it more or less implants images of the characters–and the sounds of their voices–in their minds. Very hard to get rid of that.

    When I taught The Glass Menagerie, I showed the film (starring Joanne Woodward and John Malkovich) only at the end. Almost all of the students said that the characters were not as they had imagined them. Had I shown the film first, I doubt that there would have been such a discrepancy. The discrepancy is productive, as it shows students how words can be differently interpreted.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — May 12, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with crimson wife about death of a salesman… It is a play!! I find it ludicrous that the teacher had to defend the lesson plan against those accusing because they automatically think it’s too entertaining to be hard academic work. As a person and student I work hardest on things I find entertaining to me.

    It’s hard to look at a lesson plan and decipher the value within though. Depending on the actual instruction both ena Baxter and the bell-curve statistician may have made it work or totally wasted student time. Difficult to know (and judge) with so little information!

    Comment by Fernando — May 12, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

  4. I can’t see a problem with a PLAY being viewed in class before reading it. Plays are meant to be watched.

    Comment by dangermom — May 12, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

  5. Excellent point, Diana. I have often wanted to read a play after seeing it, to go back and ponder over a scene, some nuance, etc. But you’re absolutely right. Seeing it first risks fixing the portrayal of the characters in the students’ minds. The same is true of novels, incidentally. I remember when the movie Holes came out. My 5th graders who had read the book had similar conversations about the how they envisioned certain characters. After that, it was the rare student who came to my class having never seen the movie.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 12, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

  6. The ELA assignments in the article do not follow the Common Core standards very closely at all. And for that matter I suspect that the previous assignments mentioned didn’t follow the previous New York state standards either.

    Nor, for that matter, does the Common Core Curriculum.

    You know what’s going to align really well? Pearson’s curriculum.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — May 12, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

  7. I wouldn’t be as bothered if they had watched a theatrical production of Death of a Salesmen. I think there’s a big difference between theater and film. Part of what bothers me about having kids watch the play as a the movie is the justification given: “The idea was to have students absorb information through a medium they use for entertainment”. Shouldn’t schools be moving kids beyond their preferred media into more challenging areas that they may be less motivated to explore on their own?

    Comment by Katharine Beals — May 12, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

  8. Katherine-

    Thanks for your story.

    That Hillcrest implementation sounds exactly like what I would have predicted from all those implementation documents that really govern Common Core.

    The Standards just had to have sufficient content language to allow CCSSO and NGA to get a Fordham rating they could sell.

    That was the lesson learned in Georgia which was one of the trial states with its performance standards. No one seems to pay attention to the implementation deviations from content language if you can just point to that Fordham rating as a shield to all criticism.

    Then when you have an academic trainwreck because the implementation has little to do with what we know is effective in transmitting academic knowledge and skill, the powers that be can talk about the rigor being the cause of the problem.

    Comment by Student of History — May 12, 2011 @ 3:09 pm

  9. All excellent observations, Katharine. In the Hillcrest pilot, the new standards seem to have changed little in classroom instruction – while the same tropes have found new life:

    “A math teacher, José Rios, used the heights of the 15 boys in a class to demonstrate the pattern known as normal distribution. ”

    Yep, that’s what they made of it: the normal distribution is now a pattern. You can tell me the n-th value and I’ll tell you the n+1th. This new revolutionary view is set to sweep the nation:

    “In three years, instruction in most of the country could look a lot like what is going on at Hillcrest…”

    God save us all if that were to happen! But how concerned should we be? Because it doesn’t look like The Gray Lady pictured it right: the Common Core are not ‘instruction’ standards. They are ‘content’ standards.

    The standards do not mandate ‘demonstrating the pattern known as normal distribution’. For goodness sake, Common Core means something altogether different when putting ‘demonstrate’ in the context of something called ‘math’.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — May 12, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

  10. Wow! Watching a film of a play (or anything) before reading it? Skepticism jumps right to the fore for me on that strategy.

    Kids do too much watching of everything today; television, movies, video games, even music videos. Is it really necessary they watch more stuff in school? While I realize I’m dating myself as extremely “old school” with this opinion, I would frown on this strategy at least nineteen times out of twenty if not 99 out of 100.

    Sorry also if this offends anyone, but the only teachers I know who employed such a practice were the lazies and/or the marginal.

    As well, if my child came home from school and told about such an incident in one of his classes, as a parent, I would not be a happy camper.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 13, 2011 @ 6:35 pm

  11. Paul-

    Like I have said before Georgia was a pilot state so I could not understand why my talented middle schooler started TIVOing Entertainment Tonight.

    Not on the list of approved programs, it turns out it was part of the new Language Arts’ media literacy emphasis.

    I emailed the teacher and she said it will help the students evaluate the images and information from TV.

    Thoroughly disgusted but not wanting a teacher who will retaliate against my child, I asked the high school English teacher who tutors her once a week in good old fashioned English seminal concepts to add logical fallacies to the list of work they were doing.

    Now when the school pushes such nonsensical assignments, at least she is filtering it through a logical understanding of manipulation.

    It is a waste of valuable time though and most parents do not know or already have a solid content dialogue in place. I remain deeply worried as I got to listen to a newly minted middle school principal this week. She is just waiting to finish her dissertation to get that Ed Leadership doctorate and told the parents that there was so much new research out there and that “what you know is no longer the emphasis”.

    Will the ed credentialers suspend the law of gravity next?

    Comment by Student of History — May 13, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

  12. Student of History,

    What’s amazing; some people still can’t figure out what the problem is with some of our schools or some of our teachers. Even more perplexing; so many from the educational establishment can’t figure out why there’s a preponderance of outliers who are skeptical of the opinions/practices of people from within our schools. Can you imagine? They simply don’t get it. Mind-boggling!!!

    Suspend the law of gravity? First they have to decide whether they’re going to have their schools teach science or religion. Only then can they get into the hard core stuff like the law of gravity.

    You just can’t make this stuff up.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 14, 2011 @ 11:21 am

  13. Some of the comments about watching the play/movie make sense, but I align myself with Paul (#11) even if I know many non-”lazies” who go the other way. Withholding the video — maybe I’ll show it later, maybe not at all — allows me to have the kids debate on ways it could be staged and other engaging conversations like those that Diana and Robert allude to.

    I can always push in a supplemental visual scene early in our unit IF I feel that some of the kids are behind where I want them to be; starting with the visual tends to “write it in ink” in the minds of many — not all — kids, because so many are already inclined to be literal (a generalization, I know, but borne out by my experience enough for me to take it into consideration).

    Talk about persuasive writing: how about, “Make an argument in favor of or against showing the video in class.” Sounds like authentic assessment. (Or is that too meta?)

    Comment by Carl Rosin — May 14, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

  14. [...] of skepticism was reiterated in a self-described “cautionary tale” by Robert Pondiscio of The Core Knowledge Blog. The piece takes as its jumping off point a New York Times story on how the standards are being [...]

    Pingback by Week in Blogs: Common core standards face skeptics « School Board News — May 20, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

  15. I’m with Paul #11… Great reflection on the post, it is amazing how varying the views are on watching a play before performed are.

    Comment by Jake — June 2, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

  16. [...] that feeling of skepticism was reiterated in a self-described “cautionary tale” by Robert Pondiscio of The Core Knowledge Blog. The piece takes as its jumping off point a New York Times story on how the standards are being [...]

    Pingback by The week in blogs « School Board News — October 5, 2011 @ 10:03 pm

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