That Dog Won’t Hunt

by Robert Pondiscio
August 16th, 2012

“How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg?” Abraham Lincoln is famously reported to have asked.   Four, said Abe.  “Because calling it a leg doesn’t make it one.”

And calling your ELA curriculum Common Core aligned doesn’t mean it really is.

At Fordham’s Common Core Watch blog last week, Kathleen Porter-Magee posted a piece that deserves more attention.  It’s an eye-opening look at how literacy guru Lucy Calkins is “rewriting the Common Core” to basically argue for the same old literacy practices that have largely failed our students.  A new book by Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth and Christopher Lehman, Pathways to the Common Core “sounds like a useful resource that ELA teachers can use to figure out how to align their instruction to the new standards,” writes Porter-Magee. However…

“Unfortunately, it misses the mark. Part ideological co-opting of the Common Core (CCSS) and part defense of existing—and poorly aligned—materials produced by Heinemann, the book is the leading edge of an all-out effort to ensure that adoption of the new standards requires very few changes on the part of some of the leading voices—and biggest publishing houses—in education.”

This is as unsurprising as it is dispiriting. “The anti-intellectual monopoly of the education world, combined with the financial power of a few large publishers makes the new common-core initiative highly precarious,” E.D. Hirsch warned two years ago.  “There is every likelihood that the same diluted and fragmented early curriculum will be given a new label and present itself as conforming to the new standards.”

The helpful-sounding mission of Pathways to the Common Core is to help educators “grasp what the standards say and imply—as well as what they do not say—deeply enough that they can join in the work of interpreting the standards for the classroom and in questioning interpretations others may make.”  Here’s Porter-Magee:

“And question the ‘interpretations’ others propose, they do, as they often contradict not only the guidance released by the lead authors of the Standards (including that found in the “publishers criteria” for ELA, something the authors outright dismiss), but also the guidance included within the four corners of the CCSS document itself. Of course with any set of expectations there is room for debate on some of the finer points. But the lengths that the authors go to explain away the parts of the standards with which they are least comfortable is breathtaking.”

Phonics, for example, is derided as “the low-level literacy work of sound-letter correspondence and so on” which has been, “thankfully, marginalized in its own separate section of the CCSS.”  Whoa, says Porter-Magee. “These statements are patently false and represent a damaging misdirection of the expectations laid out in the Common Core standards.”

“The truth is that there is an entire section of the standards—a section that is given the same prominence and importance as the Reading Standards for Literature and the Reading Standards for Informational Text—called “Reading Standards: Foundational Skills (K-5).” There, the standards make the importance of student mastery of these supposedly “low-level” skills abundantly clear, not only by delineating precisely what is expected of students, but also by saying that they “are necessary and important components of an effective, comprehensive reading program designed to develop proficient readers with the capacity to comprehend texts across a range of types and disciplines.”

There’s much more, and I strongly recommend reading Porter-Magee’s smart takedown start to finish.  I’ve just ordered a copy Pathways to the Common Core.  Having been trained in Calkins’ content-hostile approach to reading and writing and forced to implement it in my classroom, I’ll be very interested to see how she explains away CCSS’s insistence that “texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.”  Or the Standards’ clear and unambiguous call for a content-rich approach to literacy:

“By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

“We will never have an honest discussion about the relative merits of one approach versus another if publishers avoid the difficult conversations and merely seek to bend the Common Core to their own will—and self-interests,” Porter-Magee concludes.

N.B.  Kathleen has another piece on CCSS implementation at the Shanker Blog that is also a must-read.  And check out the comments for a surprise appearance by CCSS authors David Coleman and Sue Pimentel, who log in to say, “Kathleen’s got it right.”

It’s on.


  1. I can only imagine what we will learn if/when Kathleen turns her eyes to the responses by the math publishers.

    Horrorshow, as Anthony Burgess once wrote.

    Comment by Matthew — August 16, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

  2. Robert,

    I’d like to think it’s possible to have a fair-minded discussion of different views about the Common Core and, even though I still have many concerns, I’m open to hearing other viewpoints.

    However, when critiques are couched in terms of suggesting that Lucy Calkins is acting as a publisher’s shill, as Ms. Porter-Magee writes in her post, I (and, I suspect others) just tune out whatever else she has to say.

    I think it’s a good idea to generally assume educators who have differing viewpoints have them for reasons other than a profit motive. I also believe that there are exceptions, but certainly nothing in Lucy Calkins’ history should lead anyone to suspect that she is one.

    Larry Ferlazzo

    Comment by Larry Ferlazzo — August 16, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

  3. I’m withholding judgement until I read her book. But I will say that when I read the CCSS guidelines on content-rich literacy I quipped to colleagues, that CCSS “would put Lucy Calkins out of business.” I simply cannot wrap my head around how such a student engagement-driven, fiction-heavy, strategies-focused and content-agnostic approach could be reconciled with Common Core. When my classroom was the “demonstration classroom” in my school for Calkins’ readers and writers workshop, I remember well being told it wasn’t a curriculum at all, but a “philosophy.” I’m deeply skeptical that philosophy can be applied to CCSS in a meaningful way. Thus I don’t suspect she is “acting as a publisher’s shill.” Her publisher’s financial interest and her reputational capital are alinged, but not the same. I do not think she is seeking to merely line her pockets. Rather, she is defending her own work, which I have long argued ill serves in particular low-income students like the ones I taught.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 16, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

  4. Robert,

    Thank you for sharing. I think this is an important conversation and one worth having.


    The biggest challenge I have with Calkins’s book is that she does not take a principled stance against what the Common Core asks for. She and her coauthors are far too quick to dismiss things that seem clear and unambiguous in the standards. Why?

    I have no doubt that Lucy Calkins believes her program serves children well. I never say or even suggest otherwise. What I do say is that, while I am unsurprised that a corporation would bend their marketing to match the next education wave, I am genuinely surprised that someone like Calkins would do the same. I would have expected her to take issue with the requirements of the standards; to make a principled argument against them. Not to pretend that her curriculum is aligned to them.

    Incidentally, I agree that we should assume that people on all sides are motivated by the desire to do right by students. I wish everyone shared that belief. If your only take away from the piece was calling Calkins a corporate shill, then clearly I did do something wrong, because the purpose of the piece was to call into question what seemed to me a clear and deliberate attempt to undermine and rewrite essential elements of the CCSS.


    Comment by Kathleen Porter-Magee — August 16, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

  5. @Kathleen I was probably the one more guilty of conflating CCSS implementation and corporate shillery by referencing the Hirsch quote. Like Don, I have long assumed publishers would simply up the amount of nonfiction in their basals and whatnot to 50%, keep pushing the same old skills-and-reading-strategies approach, and claim their wares are CCSS-ready. But I have harped constantly (some would say incessantly) for the last year or so about the CCSS requirement of a knowledge-rich, “intentionally and coherently structured curriculum” because that is at odds with the Calkins’ approach and fiercely resisted in a skills-and-strategies approach. I don’t know how that circle can be squared.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 16, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

  6. What do the leaders of the world know, that the rest of us don’t know? The elite knowledge should be shared.

    The most important subjects should be given the most emphasis. Every person should be practically prepared in life for success in: Thinking, Decision Making, Wisdom, Values, Leadership, Discipline, Social Relations, Ethics, Politics, Wealth Creation and Management, Law, Math & Engineering. Nutrition and health.

    In my humble opinion.
    Thank you.

    Comment by Scott Evans — August 16, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

  7. Ideologues or profiteers: is the difference really all that significant? In education they’re almost synonymous.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — August 16, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

  8. I think Allington’s comment to the article on the Shanker blog is interesting in that I do find children (I have watched this with my own)develop reading proficiency by reading “many texts accurately, fluently and with strong understanding.” He goes on to say that “children don’t develop reading proficiencies when they are given texts they cannot read accurately, nor read them fluently, nor read them with understanding.” But isn’t this exactly what the standards aim to do? Scaffold the instruction so that students can learn to read more challenging texts? And wouldn’t part of that scaffolding be to include supplementary texts that might be “just right” for a particular student to serve as bridge-building to more difficult texts? Part of the problem I have seen with “just right” books is that when a student gets frustrated with the text, we assume it is not “right” and instead of scaffolding instruction, we grab a different text.

    Comment by Dennise O'Grady — August 21, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

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