Nobody Loves Standards (and That’s O.K.)

by Robert Pondiscio
June 14th, 2012

Note:  This piece originally appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly and Common Core Watch blog.

I don’t love standards. I doubt any teacher does.

I love literature. History. Science. I love grappling with ideas. I’m excited to know how things work and to share what I have learned with others, especially eager-to-learn children. Standards, by contrast, are unlovely, unlovable things. No teacher has ever summoned his or her class wide-eyed to the rug with the promise that “today is the day we will learn to listen and read to analyze and evaluate experiences, ideas, information, and issues from a variety of perspectives.”

“Won’t that be fun, boys and girls?!”

Well, no, it won’t. Standards are a joyless way to reverse engineer the things we love to teach and do with kids. Thus I understand and sympathize if beleaguered teachers view Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as just one more damn thing imposed on them from on high, interposed between them and their students. But if they do, that’s a shame. Because far from being just another compliance item on the accountability checklist, the Common Core State Standards, implemented well and thoughtfully, promise to both improve literacy and make teaching a lot more fun and significantly more rewarding.

In the essential primary grades, where most of our educational battles are won or lost, CCSS promise to return sanity to the work of turning children into readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers. David Coleman, the principal architect of the English language arts standards, recently said CCSS “restores elementary teachers to their rightful place as guides to the world.” He’s exactly right, and here’s why:

Content is back

“A student never thanked me for teaching the main idea,” a teacher wrote to me recently. “But many thanked me for teaching them about animal migrations.” CCSS remind us to engage children not just with rote literacy skills work and process writing, but also, and especially, with real content—rich, deep, broad knowledge about the world in which they live. The conventional wisdom has become that CCSS “add nonfiction to the curriculum,” but that’s not right. Common Core restores art, music, history, and literature to the curriculum.

Why did they ever leave? Reading is “domain specific.” You already have to know at least a little bit about the subject—and sometimes a lot about the subject—to understand a text. The same thing is also true about creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. Indeed, nearly all of our most cherished and ambitious goals for schooling are knowledge-dependent. Yet how many times have we heard it said that we need to de-emphasize teaching “mere facts” and focus on skills like critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving? CCSS rescue knowledge from those who would trivialize it, or who simply don’t understand its fundamental role in human cognition.

Coherence matters

Common Core asks not just for more nonfiction, but for a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum in English language arts. Yes, there’s a difference. Perhaps the gravest disservice done to schoolchildren in recent memory is the misguided attempt to teach and test reading comprehension not just as a skill, but as a transferable skill—a set of tips and “reading strategies” that can be applied to virtually any text, regardless of subject matter.

Make no mistake:  Building the foundations of early reading—teaching young children to decode written text—is indeed skill-based. The CCSS recognize this crucial truth by calling for the systematic teaching of explicit phonics skills. However, “the mistaken idea that reading [comprehension] is a skill,” University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has written, “may be the single biggest factor holding back reading achievement in the country. Students will not meet standards that way. The knowledge-base problem must be solved.” CCSS aim to solve it by requiring a curriculum “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” Let’s be clear: The standards are not a curriculum and do not pretend to be. But they have plenty to say about the importance of “building knowledge systematically” and choosing texts “around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.”

Sandra Stotsky recently expressed her dismay “that one badly informed person [lead Common Core author David Coleman] could single-handedly alter and weaken the entire public school curriculum in this country.” But at least at the K-5 level there is no curriculum to alter or weaken. The fruitless focus on teaching reading as a content-neutral skill—find the main idea, identify the author’s purpose, compare and contrast—created conditions where what kids read doesn’t matter; in that regime, “text” becomes a vehicle for practicing non-existent comprehension “skills.” Big mistake. Putting history and science at the center of ELA instruction doesn’t exclude literature. It repudiates the imperialism of trivial fiction that has debased ELA and deprived students of the knowledge they need to understand serious fiction—and just about everything else.

By asking teachers to focus their efforts on building knowledge coherently—and making it clear that doing so is fundamental to literacy—CCSS represent an essential breakthrough for reading comprehension and vocabulary growth. The intellectual DNA of Common Core ELA Standards belongs to E.D. Hirsch, Jr., whose fundamental proposition has long held that a knowledge-rich classroom is a language-rich classroom.

CCSS invite elementary-school teachers to rethink the tedious regimen of content-free “mini-lessons” and empty skills practice on whatever reading materials happen to be at hand. “There is no such thing as doing the nuts and bolts of reading in Kindergarten through fifth grade without coherently developing knowledge in science, and history, and the arts. Period,” Coleman said recently at an event run by Common Core (the non-profit organization). “It is the deep foundation in rich knowledge and vocabulary depth that allows you to access more complex text,” he said.

Show what you know

Perhaps the most controversial new thrust of CCSS is their “reliance on text and evidence-based reading” for fiction as well as non-fiction. Too many people have tried to characterize this as diminishing the importance of fiction and literature. That is not the case—and close reading of text is necessary for both. The very worst that can be said about a reliance on text- and evidence-based reading and writing is that it’s an overdue market correction.

As any teacher can tell you, it’s quite easy to glom on to an inconsequential moment in a text and produce reams of empty “text-to-self” meandering using the text as nothing more than a jumping off point for a personal narrative. (“How do you feel about the character’s decision to hit her friend?”) The skill, common to most existing state standards, of “producing a personal response to literature” does little to demonstrate—or to build—a student’s ability to read with clarity, depth, and comprehension. I understand the criticism of those who find the focus on texts and evidence as too narrow, but I don’t agree. Indeed, it has always struck me as inherently condescending to assume that children cannot be engaged or successful unless they are reflecting upon personal experience nearly to the exclusion of other subjects.

In sum, Common Core strikes me as, at long last, the re-emergence of common sense in our classrooms. We’re no longer ignoring what we know about reading comprehension and language development. And we’re making elementary-school teachers the most important people in America. I still don’t love standards. I never will. But the big ideas enshrined within CCSS were long overdue to be restored, renewed, or otherwise placed at the heart of ELA instruction from the first days of class in every American school.

Even Common Core opponents should be pleased.

49 Comments »

  1. I just read Stotsky’s testimony and I find it pretty darned trenchant. Your optimism about Common Core, in contrast, sounds too much like whistling past the graveyard. I would be interested if you would one day respond to Stotsky’s criticism in depth. If there are readers in this forum who don’t know it, Stotsky is one of the hero’s of the “Massachusetts Miracle.” To quote her out of context appears to be an act of scorning one of your strongest allies. I am sure you didn’t intend it in that sense but, nevertheless, that it how it appears.

    Comment by bill eccleston — June 15, 2012 @ 8:35 am

  2. Hi Bill. I have the utmost respect for Professor Stotsky professionally and fondness for her personally. I corresponded with her extensively before writing this piece precisely because I had no desire to be perceived as “taking her on.” I recognize that my viewpoint on CCSS puts me in disagreement with a significant number of people whose opinions and support I value.

    I don’t particularly care for the process by which CCSS was rolled out. And as David Coleman pointed out, when the first draft was released, this blog pronounced them “dead on arrival.” But in subsequent drafts, the CCSS more than acknowledged the importance of knowledge to language growth. It enthusiastically embraced it and enshrined it. My difference with Profesor Stotsky is one of orientation. She is looking more at literature at the high school level; my concern is exclusively early childhood and elementary level, where skills-driven, content-free “literacy” has come to dominate (and ultimately defeat) the effort to create students who can read, write, speak and listen with understanding. At the risk of painting with too broad of a brush, if we don’t solve for the problem early in a child’s educational trajectory, then what we do in the latter years almost doesn’t matter. The damage is done early and if unaddressed is fatal. Remediating lack of knowledge and limited vocabulary becomes geometrically harder every year it goes unaddressed.

    My “optimism” (I wish I were optimistic, but the pernicious literacy practices I decry seem harder to kill than horror movie monsters) is predicated on the observation that the knowledge rich brand of literacy that E.D. Hirsch has argued for for decades, and which I strongly support, has been embraced by CCSS. I seem incapable, I confess, of understanding why that is not a good thing.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 15, 2012 @ 8:56 am

  3. In all fairness, Bob, you should have pointed out in your blog that my concern, consistently, has been 6-12 and that the points I make address those levels, for the most part. Readers who take the time to read what I wrote about David Coleman’s forked tongue will see that. They, and others, should also know that Rowman & Littlefield will release my book, titled “The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum: What Secondary English Teachers Can Do” on or about June 16. Perhaps comment on that in your next blog. Sandy

    Comment by Sandra Stotsky — June 15, 2012 @ 10:32 am

  4. You’re right, Sandy. I made that clear in my comment above, but not in the original post. But that was because, as I said to Bill Eccelston, that I didn’t want to be perceived as “taking on Stotsky.” I’m not. I should have been more explicit about that. Robert

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 15, 2012 @ 10:41 am

  5. I am not a curriculum expert, and just a parent, but I can tell you that the common core mandate for 50% instructional text reading in grades K-5 is not common sense to me. It is arbitrary and wrong-headed, and I believe if enforced, will likely kill the love of reading among many children.

    In recent years, it is nearly miraculous how many kids have been enthusiastically caught up in reading long novels like Harry Potter and other similar works in their independent reading , instead of spending even more hours playing video games. My son reads 20 or more novels a year in his independent reading; which is part of his assigned reading for school along with other “texts”. In fact he reads far more novels than I do every year, accounting for many thousands of pages a year. Should he be forced to read thousands of pages of non-fiction to match this? or should he instead be discouraged from reading novels, so that his “informational text” quota can be more easily reached?

    Coleman always natters on about the need for students to cite “evidence” in their writing, but where is the evidence that replacing fiction with equal amounts of informational text will help kids in terms of literacy or otherwise? All that he and others cite is that students have to read more non-fiction in college and that this is primarily what is tested on the NAEPs. But this is not evidence that a 50/50 split in the early grades is called for; or 70% thereafter. Where are the controlled studies, random experiments or pilot projects anywhere in the country or the world, to show show that this sort of rigid mandate has helped kids learn better? Doesn’t common sense also means testing out your personal preferences somewhere, before foisting them on the entire nation?

    As for the need for more background knowledge, I agree; but have you read Coleman’s version of “close reading” telling teachers they cannot assign texts ahead of time and in teaching the Gettysberg address, for example, they should not refer to the Civil War battle that preceded it? The Common core scripted lessons command that teachers must “avoid giving any background context” because the close reading strategy “forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all.” Is this also something that Core Knowledge supports? Again, this is not common sense, at least to me, it is nonsense.

    For more on this, see our parent blog here: http://goo.gl/q3JFx and the Answer sheet (by a HS English teacher who had formerly supported the CC before he saw the scripted lessons)here: http://goo.gl/JJj4t

    Comment by Leonie Haimson — June 15, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

  6. @ Leonie You are being very modest to say you’re “just a parent.” We both know that’s not so. Some of the issues you raise are hardy perennials on this blog. As a former teacher, I certainly understand the need for kids to be engaged and love reading. But I also know that kids are unlikely to love something they’re not good at, and with a diet of nothing but fiction and poetry (especially for low-income kids like my former South Bronx students who come to school with comparatively limited vocabulary and background knowledge) they aren’t going to love reading for long if they struggle to comprehend more complex books. Which is exactly what will happen in the absence of a rich, well-rounded education.

    Coleman may “natter on” about informational text, but so too does Don Hirsch, who has long championed (and for a long time solitarily) the critical role of background knowledge in comprehension. For a good ten-minute of the scientific evidence for this, check out “Teaching Content is Teaching Reading” a ten-minute YouTube video by Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia.

    I haven’t seen the particular piece of Coleman’s about the Gettysburg Address you mentioned, but I think I understand where he’s coming from. The focus on what the text says strikes me, as I said in my post, as a badly needed correction to the “produce a personal response to literature” standard we have in NY and elsewhere that disregards completely what the text is about, and instead invites kids to make pointless “text-to-self” and “text-to-world” connections that might have nothing to do with the story at all.

    Your description of “avoiding background context” seems very strange, obviously. But this leads to precisely the reason I don’t want to lose sight of the huge improvement CCSS represents in the critical K-5 years. By the time a kid gets to middle school and encounters the Gettysburg Address in, say, 8th grade, he or she should know very well who Lincoln was, what the Civil War was, who fought and why. Right now, they don’t (or too few do, at least) Until or unless our 8th graders walk in with that inside their heads, any attempt to teach the Gettysburg Address–scaffolding or not–is going to be superficial at best and not particularly meaningful. That’s the Big Idea that CCSS gets and is important whether or not there had ever been a CCSS initiative. Broad knowledge is essential to broad literacy. Period. Full stop. Until we get that right, the rest is all sound and fury.

    CCSS gets that Big Idea right. What other mechanisms are promoting this proposition in U.S. elementary schools? None that I’m aware of.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 15, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

  7. My repeated concern is that the implementation looks nothing like the content standards. There may be places that stick to the content standards but not if you are in a school or district with what I call a Gypsy Super or Principal. Pushing a radical vision of implementation to get that next lucrative promotion. Hiring Cambridge Education to push the teacher may not teach model. Becoming a charter with an agreement that dovetails perfectly with every element of Transformational outcomes based education from William Spady’s handbook. Or Charlotte Danielson’s.

    Sandra-has anybody focused on how much this implementation looks like what is going on in Australia under a similar timeframe. There it is clled the Core Skills Framework.

    I have been writing for a while on the links to the UN’s Education for All and Millenium Development Goals. Also the social and emotional learning emphasis coming in through these NCLB waivers and their language about Growth. Also the Positive School Climate as bullying becomes an excuse to show affirmative programs or face civil rights complaints. Finally the National Center for Learning Disabilities says the PBIS, Positive Behavior Intervention Systems, under RtI are to apply to all students going forward.

    Gee I cannot imagine why I see the content standards as largely a political bait and switch to really bring in the rest of this without notice.

    And to finally get formative assessments as the primary measure of what is going on.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — June 15, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

  8. @ L. Haimson not all parents look at scripted curriculum in horror. I saw it as very reassuring in that new teachers would have a lot of guidance and a parent could actually see what their kid should be absorbing versus what they actually are absorbing and make some judgement on skills.

    My concern with the CC shift is that we will not see a shift in test scores fast enough because content takes time to build and thus will be declared dead too soon. Never mind the level of training and resources this shift will require long term. Finally what does happen to all those middle school and high school students who have not had nearly enough enriched content? Do we write off the next 10 years of kids and just focus at the elementary level?

    Comment by DC Parent — June 15, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

  9. Robert-the Gettysburg Address discussion of Coleman is on one of the Hunt Institute videos he did with Sue Pimental on implementing the Common Core.

    I also recognize whose theory of reading Coleman is using. Use her theories without mentioning the name because she was quite graphic as to her purposes. Repeatedly.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — June 15, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

  10. Robert, the problem is that the standards are now driving curriculum. That’s backwards.

    Curricula should come first. THEN the standards specify the kind of competence the students should attain in relation to the curriculum.

    Of course, the subject of curriculum is far too volatile in this country. People get upset enough about test exemplars.

    So the standards nudge in the direction of curriculum without actually specifying a curriculum. They quietly make room for the big C without saying its name (except in the explanatory notes).

    If you start with the curriculum–that is, by specifying what you want students to learn, then the appropriate standards come clear, and they make more sense than generic standards. Put the standards first, and you end up constraining many curricula, even good ones.

    Well, how would you have it, then? some might ask. If we can’t and won’t agree on a common curriculum, aren’t standards the next best thing? Maybe yes, maybe no. I’ve been trying to puzzle out some alternatives. But even if they were the next best thing, that wouldn’t make them as compelling and important as curriculum itself.

    That said, I see good in the standards. There’s just no reason to treat them with special reverence. They should be secondary to the actual works and ideas that students study, and they should be subject to thoughtful criticism.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 15, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

  11. @Diana When you say the standards shouldn’t be treated with special reverence, I hope you’re not referring to this post. If so, perhaps you overlooked where I wrote, “I don’t love standards.”

    More seriously — and given that I really, truly do not love standards; I’m a curriculum guy — even I find the idea that standards should follow curriculum odd (assessments, definitely). Standards by definition are supposed to describe what curriculum does. To say otherwise is to suggest that you build the house first, and then write building codes to describe what you have built. Or am I missing the point?

    Would I prefer a national curriculum? I’m not big on top-down prescriptions, but it does seem to me it’s a vital function of schools in a big, diverse country like our to agree on what we want our all American children to know. And whether it’s politically popular or not, it’s a precondition of literacy, in not national unity. But obviously, that’s not going to happen, probably ever. So yes, common standards are the next best thing. Especially when they say you’ve got to have a coherent curriculum. My article of faith is that if every state and district sits down to craft their own coherent curriculum (heavens forfend the should do so under federal coercion), the good people of Texas will decide they want their kids to learn shapes and colors, the names of the continents, the three branches of government, and how photosynthesis works. And so will the good people of Colorado, New Jersey, Ohio, etc.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 15, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

  12. Robert, no, I wasn’t referring to your post when I said standards shouldn’t be treated with special reverence. I just meant that criticism has a place.

    I see nothing odd with the assertion that curriculum should come first–or, at the very least, curricular standards. The CCSS are not curricular standards. They describe skills, not knowledge, that students should attain.

    To some extent, those skills are compatible with good curricula. But there are plenty of cases where they might not be. For example, all those speaking situations described in the standards–why so many? A good high school literature course may consist mainly of lecture and seminar discussion–and that’s just fine.

    Also, there’s no reason, necessarily, why a student should have to trace the development of a particular idea or theme through TWO literary works in a single paper. A first-rate, college-level paper could just deal with one. Sometimes it is appropriate to compare two works; sometimes it isn’t. Again, that depends largely on the curriculum.

    There are more examples of this kind. I hope you see my point. I don’t think it’s off the wall.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 15, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

  13. I had it wrong–the standard doesn’t say to trace an idea through two literary works; it says to analyze the development of two or more ideas in a single literary work:

    “Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.”

    My objection is the same, though: it isn’t always necessary, and it isn’t necessarily more sophisticated than the act of tracing one idea though a text.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 15, 2012 @ 9:21 pm

  14. Robert, here’s another way of looking at it.

    If you are shaping a school and a curriculum, what guides you at the outset? Generic standards? Probably not, at least not at the outset. Suppose you have no restrictions; you are at liberty to construct the best curriculum possible. Well, you’re likely to think about the general topics and specific ideas and works that students should study.

    You might want students to read ancient drama, for instance, so that they become familiar with its structures, characters, myth, language, and ideas. Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Sopocles’ Antigone might be among your choices. You might also want students to read at least two epics–say, the Iliad and the Odyssey, or the Aeneid and the Inferno. And so on. You build from there and then determine how much flexibility there should be. You determine what sort of essay topics students should be able to tackle (should they be able to write about various kinds of recognition in the Odyssey? “Pieta” in the Inferno?)

    Once you start fine-tuning, you might work back and forth between the curriculum and other specifications–for instance, descriptions of skills and competencies that students typically need for college. That’s where more generic “standards” come into play.

    But the original driving force is a vision of what students should learn. Generic standards don’t speak to that. There’s nothing about ancient drama in the CCSS, for instance, yet I would argue that ancient drama is an essential part of a liberal arts education. Yes, Oedipus Rex is included in the text exemplars, under “Drama,” but that’s it.

    The standards don’t even touch on the sort of things that make up the meat and bones of education–for instance, discussions of divine retribution in ancient Greek literature. Why must Oedipus suffer punishment for crimes he committed unwittingly? How is Antigone playing out the family curse even while performing a noble deed? This is the stuff that matters, or some of it, yet the standards graze by it as though it were incidental.

    As for your analogy with building a house, doesn’t one begin with an idea for the house? Then one examines the building codes to make sure it can be carried out. The building codes do not give you a vision of the house. They may even restrict it. They’re mainly there to set the parameters of the possible–and what’s possible in one zone may not be possible in another. Buiding codes do not describe the “good” of architecture; they are there mainly to help ensure safety and public welfare. Some have to do with engineering principles and are universally applicable; others may depend on the nature of the zone or neighborhood.

    Say you’ve commissioned an architect to build you a house. The whole point is for it to be beautiful and functional. Then the architect goes over it with you, advises you on what might be even better than your idea, and alerts you to any possible code violations. Either the location or the house gets adjusted from there, or the plan gets dropped.

    I don’t expect that I will ever commission the design of a house, but were I to do so, I wouldn’t derive my inspiration from building codes.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 16, 2012 @ 6:35 am

  15. What I am seeing is the formative assessments are to drive what goes on in the classroom. In fact the projects and reports and activities become the curricula. The subject is tangential. In fact when i was doing research on Australia’s implementation of all this, the OECD reviwers were annoyed that the State of Victoria was still clinging to subject matter disciplines instaed of focusing on changing the child.

    The other major classroom driver is the definition of what is to constitute effective teaching. That is to govern who keeps the job and who gets a salary increase and it is based on Charlotte Danielson’s Implementing Outcomes Based Education handbook. Ray Pecchione’s and Robert Pianta’s OBE work and its classroom translation are also influential.

    That’s the definition of effective teaching the Gates Foundation was funding. Now it is rolling out in states with either a Race to the Top grant or an NCLB waiver. Or just an ambitious principal or super who knows pushing these ideas is what the accreditors look for in deciding who gets to be elevated to the gravy train of ever more lucrative administrative promotions. All at our expense of course.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — June 16, 2012 @ 8:05 am

  16. Diana, thanks for your post. I completely agree with you about the proper order of things. In my previous comment I was merely pointing out (however ham handedly)that you don’t teach standards, you teach curriculum. But on the other hand, you don’t create a curriculum and then write the standards to justify what you are teaching.

    In the end, I’m not sure it matters. It’s inconceivable to me that good standards wouldn’t support a good curriculum, and vice versa. And that brings me to my question: Can you think of a anything you would want your students to learn that CCSS would specifically preclude? One of the reasons I view CCSS favorably, is that it strongly supports precisely the kind of curriculum I believe to be most beneficial to kids (Core Knowledge). And schools that are delivering that kind of curriculum are all ready meeting the standards.

    When you say the standards “don’t even touch on the sort of things that make up the meat and bones of education” and cite your example, that’s simply because that’s not what standards do. Can you imagine the howls that would rise if CCSS mandated “discussions of divine retribution in ancient Greek literature” and required schools to assign Antigone? But what in CCSS prevents you from doing so or denies you’re meeting standards if you do?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 16, 2012 @ 8:20 am

  17. Robert, on the whole I agree with you that the CCSS support good curricula. However, they aren’t perfect.

    One of the most glaring weaknesses, in my view, is the division between argumentative and informative writing at the high school level. There’s a vast category that isn’t addressed here: literary interpretation. Literary interpretation is part argument; you’re making and defending certain claims about the text. However, unless you’re writing about a controversial point of interpretation, you don’t necessarily need to present counterclaims. The standards place great emphasis on counterclaims.

    Literary interpretation is also partly informaive and explanatory. To a large extent, you’re telling the reader what the text is about and what it means. But you go beyond this. If, for instance, you are writing about “pietà” (piety, pity, compassion, regard) in Dante’s Inferno, there are many directions you might take. You would offer ideas on why Dante the narrator shows “pietà” for some sinners and not for others. You would spend some time on the paradoxical words (uttered by Virgil in Canto XX), “Qui vive la pietà quand’ è ben morta.” (I hope the accent marks don’t get garbled when I send this through.)

    So, there’s that. It would help greatly to have an additional writing category.

    Also, the term “informational text” is an unfortunate misnomer. I wouldn’t call Plato’s Republic or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty “informational.” What’s wrong with the good old-fashioned word “nonfiction”?

    Then there’s the emphasis on American literature. I’m all for it; it’s important for students to read American foundational documents and works of literature. However, schools may see this and hesitate to devote a great deal of time to ancient, medieval, and Renaissance literature. That, in my view, is a loss. It isn’t that the standards preclude it, but it doesn’t seem to be on the radar, except in the exemplars. Schools in doubt may try to do what’s safe: go with the American literature and the “informational texts.”

    That leads to the trickier problem of the clamor that tends to accompany any education initiative, including standards. Over the past year, there has been a lot of noise about “informational text”; you’d think the standards contained nothing else. This isn’t only critics’ doing. District administrators (in NYC and elsewhere) have been emphasizing the need for more “informational text” and more writing about such texts. None of this has to be onerous, but the peripheral aspects can distract from what’s important.

    In short, the standards themselves could use some revision, and the clamor around the standards could use some balancing and clarification. On the whole, I like the standards. I don’t see them as evil. But they could be better, and it’s important to say so.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 16, 2012 @ 9:01 am

  18. I think it’s possible to get lost in the weeds of what the standards do and do not say, encourage or discourage. But my larger point remains: I have yet to see a specific example of good, substantive, content-rich teaching and learning that would be precluded by CCSS. Hence my point that we would do well to focus on the big picture, rather than points of orthodoxy. Could the standards be better? And is it it important to say so? Definitely. Could they be worse and fatal to the ideal of substantive education? Also yes. And it’s important to say so.

    The biggest news that no one seems to mention is that if elementary schools insist on the kind of vague, skill-driven, content-free literacy instruction that you and I have long railed against, they are most definitely NOT meeting standards. And that may be the most important point of all.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 16, 2012 @ 9:14 am

  19. The standards themselves may not preclude what you and Diana wish to do with the standards, but a principal or district super eyeing the next lucrative promotion certainly can. If they do not do it themselves, they can fire an outside reviewer like Cambridge to do a School Quality Review that inevitably tells the teachers they must reject teacher centered instruction.

    The accreditation standards themselves certainly do. I have seen them. The idea that emotional and social behavioral outcomes under Response to Intervention are to apply to all students and be embedded in the academic coursework is binding too.

    Every avenue that in the past allowed for teacher or school autonomy to still teach content is being systematically closed off.

    Some places quicker than others but it’s all targeted. And it’s all scripted. In fact, I have elementary teachers in the early grades telling me they may not utter a non-preapproved word any longer in their classrooms.

    Now that’s fidelity of implementation.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — June 16, 2012 @ 9:40 am

  20. @Diana and @Robert at some point your arguments feel like so many angels on a pin. How does this get implemented at the school level, what does the professional development look like? How do principals and districts with shrinking budgets provision classrooms with more content laden materials? Robert to your point about the Gettysburg Address, what do you propose for remediation, fact is that there are a lot of kids for many years to come that will not have this content background, how do we address it? How do we address recent immigrants? Just because it has slowed down does not mean legal and illegal immigration has stopped. I read the arguments in this blog and it does not feel real to what a teacher experiences or a parent. Yes DC has issues, but our funding and poverty issues are pretty common nationwide. This blog needs to get real about how CC or CK really is implemented. I love Jessica’s posts because they represent some of what could be, but they also represent a small slice of economically elite system. Not the reality for most of us that are in middle class or working class or heaven forbid poverty stricken systems. What is the CK experience in a poor neighborhood? Does it exist, what do those teachers have to say about the experience?

    Comment by DC Parent — June 16, 2012 @ 11:44 am

  21. @DC Parent The “CK experience” says all children should learn about the Civil War and the Gettysburg Address. That’s what I propose for remediation. What do you propose?

    What I’m arguing is about the furthest thing I can imagine from so many angels on a pin. My point is simple: A good, thoughtful, knowledge rich curriculum not only meets CCSS requirements, those requirements practically scream out loud for it. You could argue until you’re blue in the face about this or that nuance, but I’m arguing the opposite: give kids a knowledge rich classroom experience that builds language proficiency and vocabulary. Keep the focus there and you’re most of the way toward meeting the standards.

    You can’t design any system of schooling that will catch up all recent immigrants, mitigate the worst effects of poverty, etc. If you could, no one would need to go to school until the last minute, then we would instantly catch them up and send them on their way. The lack of realism stems from those who insist we can.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 16, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

  22. Dear DC parent, as to angels on a pin, I hope a bit of irrelevant levity won’t offend you. The number of angels that can dance on a pin is well known, or was in medieval theological circles. The answer is: an infinite number. That’s because ANY extension of the surface at all will support an infinite number of extensionless creatures such as angels. The real problem that beset the Doctors of the Church was how many angels could dance upon the POINT of a pin – an extensionless object. Now that’s a puzzle. My late learned and witty colleague Peter Heath wrote an entire essay on the subject in a Dictionary of Philosophy. He deduced, as I remember, the correct number is about thirty. His view has not been challenged since, I believe, though I am open to correction on that point.

    Comment by E D Hirsch — June 16, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

  23. DC Parent asks good, practical questions. The problem of kids who haven’t had a solid, content-rich curriculum affects even schools committed to the CK approach. There is always turnover in public schools – traditional or charter – because of the high mobility rate of Americans. Mobility is highest among lower-income people, which is one of the strongest arguments for a curriculum that is at least somewhat shared by all kids everywhere. Kids entering a good CK school at older ages are almost always behind the kids who have been there for several years.

    I’m sure CK is successful at Jess Lahey’s school, but that’s not mainly because most of the students come from more affluent and well-educated parents. It’s because her school community believes in the CK philosophy – from the top administrators to the classroom teachers, and including parents who are informed about curriculum matters.

    It’s a matter of will and desire. My kids’ CK/classical charter school students mostly come from middle class families, although there are kids in the free and reduced lunch program. This school’s outstanding academic program is a result of the community’s commitment to CK and high standards – the socioeconomic status of the kids is a very secondary factor.

    Almost all public schools could be much better academically if they had this same will and desire. The sad reality is that the CK-type philosophy is not supported by most of the K-12 world.

    Comment by John Webster — June 16, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

  24. I agree with John Webster–much depends on the school’s will and desire. Yes, CK fits the CCSS like hand to glove, but it’s also possible to fill that glove with Jell-O and get by.

    Why? Because the ELA assessments will be largely content-free or content-trivial. Just look at the PARCC model content frameworks–there’s no content there. Here’s a description of a “research project”:

    “Each module includes the opportunity for students to produce one extended project that uses research to address a significant topic, problem or issue. This task should entail integrating knowledge from several additional literary or informational texts in various media or formats on a particular topic or question drawn from one or more texts from the module. Students are expected to assess the usefulness of each source, refocus their research during the process when appropriate and integrate the information gathered in a manner that maintains the flow of ideas. Students can present their findings in a variety of modes in informal and more formal argumentative or explanatory contexts, either in writing or orally. (Research aligned with the standards could take one to two weeks of instruction.)”

    A lot of verbiage for what sounds like a superficial project.

    In the meantime, the Danielson Framework will favor those teachers who turn the classroom over to the students. If the students are initiating their own projects, choosing their own materials, forming groups on their own, and so forth, the teacher will get Danielson points. Woe to the teacher who stands before the students and teaches.

    I’m not trying to be a naysayer. My point is that you have to start with an idea of education. You have to defend what’s important and valuable (as a community, as John Webster notes). Yes, if you have that, the standards should be second nature. But such an understanding must precede the standards; the standards won’t inspire or even force it.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 16, 2012 @ 7:05 pm

  25. Don, thank you for mentioning Peter Heath. I believe I have encountered his work, but it was a long time ago. I look forward to reading his essay about the angels, his essay on “nothing,” and “The Philosopher’s Alice.”

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 16, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

  26. Diana-

    I am not being a naysayer either as a matter of policy.

    But I know what the documents say and I know what is going on elsewhere in the world and how it fits.

    I also know how education fits in with other issues. If you are lucky enough not to be in a school or district or state hurtling ASAP after all the components, I am glad.

    I am screaming so teachers and parents will be alert and listen while we try to get this turned around. If I seem alarmist, it’s only because I have peeled the same onion several more layers. And then tracked down the implications.

    And then found the blueprints on what to do with the onion.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — June 16, 2012 @ 10:13 pm

  27. @DCParent: “What is the CK experience in a poor neighborhood? Does it exist, what do those teachers have to say about the experience?”

    There is a really good book called IT’S BEING DONE that describes schools with a large percentage of poor, minority kids that have achieved a high level of academic success. Many of the schools described in the book are CK schools. At most of these schools, remediation takes the form of pull-out instruction. http://www.hepg.org/hep/Book/65

    Comment by alamo — June 17, 2012 @ 6:04 am

  28. [...] Nobody Loves Standards (and That’s O.K.) « The Core Knowledge Blog [...]

    Pingback by Common Sense for the #CommonCore: Weekly Roundup (weekly) | Engaging Educators — June 17, 2012 @ 8:44 am

  29. alamo-I am glad it is a CK school and real content and knowledge. On so much of the Effective Schools research you discover they have changed the definition of school success and it is a largely affective definition of student achievement.

    On one of the NCLB state waivers I reviewed, there is language about how an inability to read should no longer be a barrier to moving along in a timely manner.

    Really? Will anyone tell the student or parents?

    Education it turns out has been using words in contrary to common sense ways for years to obscure what is really intended or actually going on.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — June 17, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

  30. Having an exact number of angels (30) on the point of a pin to think about IS comforting to a lot of people, and Don’s contribution to our quantitative knowledge base made me realize that there may be more to David Coleman’s 50/50 mandate than I at first thought. Whenever I read a pirate story to my three-year old son (this is years ago), he always asked how many good pirates there were in the world. “37, Steven,” I might say on one occasion. “How many bad pirates, Mummy?” “23, Steven.” No matter what numbers I came up with, he was extremely comforted by having concrete numbers to think about. 40 years ago, David could have been another Steven. Steven fortunately outgrew this obsession.

    Comment by Sandra Stotsky — June 17, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

  31. Thank you, Robert, for straightening me out re your views vis a vis Stotsky’s.
    Also, I now note we both see eye-to-eye, or rather, shield-to-shield, regarding the Hydra: “pernicious literacy practices.” I have an anecdote to share.

    Just last Monday, in a casual conversation with the “Lead” English teacher at my middle school, she mentioned spending her meagre classroom library book budget for next year on “Informational Reading.” I pressed for details. Well, since we are adopting Common Core and it requires a big jump in “Informational” reading, she has purchased an Informational reading anthology, a hodge-podge of short subjects lifted mostly from the news media bearing no relation whatsoever to our existing curriculum. Being of the “reading comprehension is a bundle of discreet, transferable skills” school of thought, she intends to use the book to teach “Informational Reading Skills.” We have an assistant superintendent for curriculum who thinks exactly the same way, and I would rate the prospect very likely that when our Common Core curriculum is “rolled-out” on the first day of the coming school year, (amazing, isn’t it, that a curriculum can be written in a dozen after-school workshops in the space of nine months,) it will be stipulated that the english teachers and elementary school teachers at each grade level will have to consider and adopt an Informational Reading Anthology before budget decision time.

    So, who do I shoot? …Them or myself?

    Comment by bill eccleston — June 17, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

  32. <<< So, who do I shoot? …Them or myself?

    Depends. How many bullets do you have? And how many have you allocated to shoot bad pirates and angels off pins?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 17, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

  33. Great post, Robert. But until each of our schools gets a well-rounded curriculum — written, taught, and tested; in the major subjects (literature, math, history, science, art, music, geography) — none of this standards debate will really matter. Using the CCSS as vehicle to get us there may work, but the debate about it is sure distracting.

    cheers

    –peter

    Comment by Peter Meyer — June 17, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

  34. [...] our freedom. We should keep our eyes on the prize and remember the way that Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio phrases the issue. We must take some risks for a reform that “restores art, music, history and [...]

    Pingback by John Thompson: The Complicated Promise of the Common Core « « DediCommDediComm — June 18, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

  35. [...] our freedom. We should keep our eyes on the prize and remember the way that Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio phrases the issue. We must take some risks for a reform that “restores art, music, history and [...]

    Pingback by John Thompson: The Complicated Promise of the Common Core | Demete — June 19, 2012 @ 1:55 am

  36. [...] about teaching language arts – Jer) We should remember the wisdom of Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio, however, who explains that Common Core does more than cut fiction, it also “restores art, music, history, and [...]

    Pingback by On the Common Core by John Thompson via Edweek’s Living in Dialogue « GAERA — June 19, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

  37. So Student, when should we expect to read your research with all its implications? Sounds like the news is not good for the future of public education if certain parties get their way. Will you be naming names, pro and con?

    On a somewhat related note, I can’t help but wonder where Diane Ravitch stands on the CCSS, as she has long been a supporter (at least until recently) of its first cousin, the Core Knowledge philosophy.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 19, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

  38. Hi Paul.

    I name some names. Important influential people who are not well enough known. But it’s the ideas and the whys and the consequences.

    I have the blog trying to slow down the forward momentum. There is a real rush to get all the elements in place. So part of today was reading over a recent Colorado presentation on using RtI and what the actual implementation with CCSS would look like. Nothing like anyone has been told. Then I pivoted to read the new NAS report “Research Universities and the Future of America”.

    Then I read the final draft at Rio+20 and gave some comments. Then I read the new CTE Career Pathways Common Standards. And every single one of them relates to how the US Common Core will look like in the classroom. Yesterday I heard prospective state legislators and school board members from a myriad of districts being told they needed to defer to educators on everything but taxes. I had some words to say on that.

    And everything says the book is right on what’s going on and how we got here. So right now I am trying to keep the US and other countries from being shoved into the abyss. Then we can talk about how it got so bad.

    Don’t worry both the book and the blog are the best friend of every teacher just wanting to do right by students to the best of their abilities. Administrators and accreditors though are really on my bad list.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — June 19, 2012 @ 10:28 pm

  39. [...] writers I read voraciously contributed really smart pieces to the Common Core conversation this week. And I think they do a great job of capturing the [...]

    Pingback by Keeping our eyes on the Common Core prize — June 20, 2012 @ 3:00 pm

  40. I have now written a post on last Monday’s meeting on basically blocking school board members who want to make sure education remains about academics.

    http://www.invisibleserfscollar.com/who-is-really-in-charge-the-school-board-the-super-the-accreditors-or-unesco/

    I had already written on the issue of the accreditors being affiliated with UNESCO back on June 5, 2012.

    I also talk about the Educational Leadership degree and how it is not about educational administration as so many people assume.

    Obviously the accreditor story really impacts all states. The school board training requirement came from Georgia which is where AdvancED, the holding company for most of the regional accreditors, is based. It may thus be a pilot that will now be pushed on more states.

    Most of the presumed safety valves that should keep education where the typical parent or taxpayer or teacher assume it is going have either been turned off or are being redirected.

    Just a heads up. As you can see there’s really nothing in place to keep Common Core anywhere close to its PR sales campaign.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — June 22, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

  41. Although the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) promise some changes in instructional approaches and educational outcomes, I see this new reform as another prescriptive to fit the goals and interests of those in control.
    As a parent and a teacher, I am concerned for the future of our children. When a nation chooses to incorporate national standards that ensure all students produce the same results regardless of their experiences, abilities, aspirations, I have to stop and question the logic in this proposition. Of course, the wealthy and influential Gates Foundation (the benefactor) and the policy makers have an explanation for their reasoning, which may seem appealing to some, but does not sit well with many educators and parents. Another dominant ideology is being integrated in our schools at the expense of our students, whose voices are silenced; whose histories are erased; and whose skills are molded to fit one homogenous output.
    Fundamentally, these standards constitute an essentialist philosophy of education or commonly known as “one-size-fits-all” model. For more information on all educational epistemologies (perennialism, essentialism, progressivism, and critical pedagogy) link to this website.
    I want my children to have the basic skills, but for the purpose of pursuing their dreams, not reaching a national objective.
    Who determines what is essential and relevant knowledge?
    I understand Ruth Dandrea’s frustration with meaningless tests, which she expressed eloquently in An Open Letter to Her Students. I salute her audacity to speak up.
    How do we test knowledge that cannot be easily quantified such as tolerance, inquisitiveness, humanity or open-mindedness?
    How do we justify a society that is equipped with basic literacy and numeracy skills but lacks passion for learning, is insecure and fragmented, and does not tolerate cultural and language differences?
    I would like to know my students’ strengths and utilize them in developing my instruction, not feel pressured by rigid standards, summative assessments, and approaching deadlines, and ultimately lose sight of my role in the classroom. I envision my role to be integral but not autocratic; one of a facilitator, not a lecturer; one of a navigator, not a driver.
    The proponents of the CCSS, promise to improve students’ critical thinking skills by incorporating critical analysis and synthesis. For this reason, “informational text” instruction is increased, which demands the production of new textbooks.
    Let’s picture a utopian scenario, where all the money invested in implementing this initiative are instead contributed to more noble educational initiatives such as ensuring no children are homeless and malnourished; providing adequate resources for each school (regardless of its status and population); serving quality and nutritional food to all students; and engaging students in active learning by offering opportunities for social service projects. These efforts will ultimately prove to be fundamental lessons of human integrity, respect for the individual, and build students’ confidence and curiosity for learning.
    Students should be given power to reflect and determine the course of their future. Collectively, we as adults should not have to waste our energy and time in fighting over curriculums and standards, but scaffolding our children to think deeply about the world and helping them to utilize their potential and creativity to build a better tomorrow.
    Who are the puppets? Who is pulling their strings?
    Should we be teaching our students how to fit quietly into the status quo?

    Comment by Kara Jones — June 24, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

  42. Student,

    It’s been my experience after having worked closely with school committees and supers for years that the super is hired by the committee/board to administer the district while the school board establishes policies for said district.

    The superintendent as a dictator is clearly the extreme but one with a strong personality who cares little about their interpersonal relationships could clearly come across in this manner. The school board should be perspicacious in ensuring this does not happen in their district. It can be a challenging balancing act for both parties.

    Personally, I find it difficult to accept the notion that any superintendent can operate pell mell mandating their agenda down the throats of most any competent school district, not impossible, mind you, but clearly unlikely. Perhaps I’m simply naive, but it’s never occurred anywhere where I worked.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 24, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

  43. Paul-then it is coming. I have heard from school board members since I wrote that piece confirming that is what is happening. I am in a state trying to get to the most extreme form of Outcomes Based Education and they need the school boards out of the way.

    Most of the regional accreditors are now owned by AdvancED which is based in Atlanta so this is home to them. Georgia originated the concept of P-16 and that’s important too. One continuous system redefining what learning means.

    http://www.invisibleserfscollar.com/gypsy-principals-gypsy-supers-and-engrenage-3-more-superb-things-to-know/
    explains the ambition that drives this. Not all supers and principals are like this, but the ones who want to move up in a state or district determined to move onto a different type of OBE is. And as districts come up for education renewal this will be required.

    In higher ed, as I mentioned in today’s post on what Career Ready really means, the accreditors use their veto power over who gets to participate in the federal student loan program to coerce.

    I know you do not want me to be right and I don’t blame you. Find out when the next accreditation review is. Tell your current super to stay put. Same for your principal. And don’t hire Cambridge Education to do any School Quality reviews. They mandate moving away from teacher centered.

    All those things ill only buy time though. Only full disclosure can stop this. Which is why I talk about it in all its current manifestations all over the world.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — June 25, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

  44. The Wall Street Journal had a whole section on education today. Here is the link for the section:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204603004577269231058863616.html?mod=ITP_thejournalreport_0

    None of what they say is ground breaking, but what strikes me is that they don’t define a standard the same way. One seems to describe it as a way of teaching and another as what is taught. Is content and the politics tha surrounds it the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about?

    Comment by DC Parent — June 25, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

  45. WSJ is having this same debate. What strikes me is how much they are talking past each other, are standards the content or how people are taught.

    Here is the link

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204603004577269231058863616.html?mod=ITP_thejournalreport_0

    Comment by DC Parent — June 25, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

  46. Once again…another loooong list of debates on standards. I’m bored & my eyes are crossing. Wake up, folks. Until we get rid of ‘standards’ and let kids read FOR FUN (imagine that!!) and include lessons around THE FUN, we’ll never get it right. Will it ever happen? No—politicians & too political. It’s always just ‘the next newest, biggest thing’. The U.S. is so far behind on what REALLY works. Funny how we never needed all this while we were growing up!

    -A parent of 10 (who all ENJOY reading without the standards’ interference), a librarian, and a state certified preK-6 teacher

    Comment by FedUp — June 29, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

  47. [...] 1. A great first read: Nobody Loves Standards [...]

    Pingback by Chickering's Virtual Playground » Blog Archive » Common Core Journey — July 5, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

  48. Robert,

    To find out the problem with standards please read and understand Noel Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” to be found at: http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/577 . Wilson points out the many errors of the process of educational standards and standardized testing regimes (and that is what is at the core of educational standards) that psychometricians gloss over. The red headed stepchild of educational standards are high stakes standardized testing. High stakes standardized testing is a farce, illogical, irrational, invalid and the way the results are used UNETHICAL.

    Wilson has never been rebutted and his argument against educational standards and standardized testing is air tight logically, empirically and rationally.

    Let me give the definition (from Wilson) that I use. A “standard” can be conceptualized as one of two things. The actual Standard, i.e., the ideal toward which one strives. And then the standard which is the measuring device and/or the thin red line (Wilson’s term) that separates the acceptable from the unacceptable. Both have valid meaning and both play a role in the concept of educational standards. Now because educational Standards involve human behaviors, i.e., a student learning something about something, there can be no standard as the thin red line as learning is a quality of an individual and not a quality and cannot logically be “measured” which is what the standard supposedly does. It is logically impossible to quantify a quality so that it is impossible to know if a Standard has been achieved as it is not possible to verify, even with rubrics, cut scores etc. . . , whether the standard has been reached or not.

    Comment by Duane Swacker — July 14, 2012 @ 10:57 am

  49. [...] The Core Knowledge provides a counter-point: As any teacher can tell you, it’s quite easy to glom on to an inconsequential moment in a text and produce reams of empty “text-to-self” meandering using the text as nothing more than a jumping off point for a personal narrative. (“How do you feel about the character’s decision to hit her friend?”) The skill, common to most existing state standards, of “producing a personal response to literature” does little to demonstrate—or to build—a student’s ability to read with clarity, depth, and comprehension. I understand the criticism of those who find the focus on texts and evidence as too narrow, but I don’t agree. Indeed, it has always struck me as inherently condescending to assume that children cannot be engaged or successful unless they are reflecting upon personal experience nearly to the exclusion of other subjects. [...]

    Pingback by Content vs. Reflection in the Common Core Standards | Think. Learn. Speak. — September 13, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

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