With the Common Core, the Whole Is More Than the Sum of Its Parts

by Lisa Hansel
June 13th, 2013

In a new post on Diane Ravitch’s blog, Robert Shepherd makes many insightful observations about the sad state of reading instruction:

Back in 1984, Palinscar and Brown wrote a highly influential paper about something they called “reciprocal learning.” They suggested, in that paper, that teachers conducting reading circles encourage dialogue about texts by having students do prediction, ask questions, clarify the text, and summarize. Excellent advice. But this little paper had an enormously detrimental unintended effect on the professional education community. All groups are naturally protective of their own turf. The paper by Palinscar and Brown had handed the professional education community a definition of their turf: You see, we do, after all, have a unique, respectable, scientific field of our own that justifies our existence—we are the keepers of “strategies” for learning. The reading community, in particular, embraced this notion wholeheartedly. Reading comprehension instruction became MOSTLY about teaching reading strategies, and an industry for identifying reading strategies and teaching those emerged. The vast, complex field of reading comprehension was narrowed to a few precepts: teach kids to identify the main idea and supporting details; teach them to identify sequences and causes and effects; teach them to make inferences; teach them to use context clues; teach them to identify text elements. Throughout American K-12 education, we started seeing curriculum materials organized around teaching these “strategies.” Where before a student might do a lesson on reading Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he or she would now do a lesson on Making Predictions, and any text that contained some examples of predictions would be a worthy object of study….

The question of how to “make an inference” is extraordinarily complex, and a great deal human attention has been given to it over the centuries, and a quick glance at any of the hundreds of thousands of Making Inferences lessons in our textbooks and in papers about reading strategies by education professors will reveal that almost nothing of what is actually known about this question has found its way into our instruction….

I bring up the issue of instruction in making inferences in order to make a more general point—the professional education establishment, and especially that part of it that concerns itself with English language arts and reading instruction, has retreated into dealing in poorly conceived generalization and abstraction. Reading comprehension instruction, in particular, has DEVOLVED into the teaching of reading strategies, and those strategies are not much more than puffery and vagueness. There is no there there. No kid walks away from his or her Making Inferences lesson with any substantive learning, with any world knowledge or concept or set of procedures that can actually be applied in order to determine what kind of inference a particular one is and whether that inference is reasonable. Why? Because one has to learn and teach a lot of complex material in order to do these things at all, and professional education folks have decided, oddly, that they can teach making inferences without, themselves, learning about what kinds of inferences there are and how one evaluates the various kinds.

But to my way of thinking, he goes too far in indicting the Common Core State Standards:

Have a look at these standards, and what do you see? Well, the standards are abstractions, generalizations: The student will be able to recognize the main idea. The student will be able to draw inferences. The student will be able to determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text. In English language arts, the CONTENT of what is studied is treated in the new standards AS AN AFTERTHOUGHT. We are told that students should be reading substantive, grade-level appropriate works. Some examples of these are given in an appendix. But the standards themselves are simply a list of abstract skills and “strategies.” They don’t even include ANY descriptions of procedures that students might learn for carrying out tasks. So, they completely ignore both world knowledge (knowledge of what) and procedural knowledge (knowledge of how), though they occasionally make vague references to what would result if one had (miraculously, by what means they do not say) acquired the latter….

In our rush to make ELA education scientific, in our emphasis on abstract form over content, we’ve forgotten why we read. We don’t read to hone our inferencing skills. We don’t read because we are fascinated by where, in this essay, the author has placed the main idea. Our purpose in reading is not to find out how the author organized her story in order to create suspense. We read because we are interested in what the text has to say, and the metacognitive abstraction about the text is incidental. It grows out of and relates to what this particular text does and takes meaning from that. The Common Core State Standards in ELA is just another set of blithering, poorly thought out abstractions. And starting from there, instead of starting with the text and its content, is a mistake.

One could implement the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts perfectly and have students entirely miss what reading literature is about. They would not come away from their literature classes with the understanding that when they read a literary work well, they enter into an imaginative world and have an experience there, in all its concreteness and specificity, and it is then THAT experience that has significance, that matters, that has “meaning.”

While Shepherd is spot-on regarding the purpose and value of reading, and on the devastating overemphasis on reading strategies, on the CCSS he is making the same mistake that many educators are making—focusing too much on the standards and too little on the text surrounding the standards. The individual standards are abstract goals. Alone, they could inspire more strategy-focused instruction. But they do not stand alone.

To ensure that students acquire the breadth and depth of knowledge needed to read with ease across academic domains, the standards repeatedly call for a content-rich curriculum (the page numbers given refer to the PDF version of the standards):

While the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document. (p. 6)

Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge as well as familiarity with various text structures and elements. 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. (p. 10)

The standards also show how to accelerate knowledge and vocabulary growth through a carefully sequenced, grade-by-grade approach to constructing content-area domains:

Building knowledge systematically in English language arts is like giving children various pieces of a puzzle in each grade that, over time, will form one big picture. At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students. Within a grade level, there should be an adequate number of titles on a single topic that would allow children to study that topic for a sustained period. The knowledge children have learned about particular topics in early grade levels should then be expanded and developed in subsequent grade levels to ensure an increasingly deeper understanding of these topics. (p. 33)

Word acquisition occurs up to four times faster … when students have become familiar with the domain of the discourse and encounter the word in different contexts…. Hence, vocabulary development for these words occurs most effectively through a coherent course of study in which subject matters are integrated and coordinated across the curriculum and domains become familiar to the student over several days or weeks. (Appendix A, p. 33)

Anyone who brings a checklist mentality to these standards will get checklist results. But they won’t be able to honestly say their approach was in keeping with the spirit or intent of the Common Core.

The CCSS are stronger than states’ previous efforts to produce ELA standards because they do explain the need for domain-based studies organized in a coherent, content-rich curriculum. But in deference to America’s tradition of local control, the CCSS fall short of sealing the deal, of requiring even a few specific texts for each grade.

Just consider what Virginia, a state that did not adopt the CCSS, is currently doing. According to Rachel Levy, VA is clearing content out of the way so students can spend even more time on strategies:

Recently, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell proposed and the General Assembly approved a bill that allows elementary schools to apply for waivers from high-stakes science and social studies testing (aka SOLs) for third graders. So far this testing season, approximately twenty-five public elementary schools have availed themselves of this waiver. The idea is that before struggling readers can learn content they have to master reading comprehension.

Virginia’s Deputy Secretary of Education Javaid Siddiqui thinks this is a good idea:

The law, which expires in 2015, is a kind of a pilot program, Siddiqi said. He said that schools with low reading pass rates often have low pass rates in social studies and science because the two are connected. “It’s not about what they know,” Siddiqi said. “They are struggling with comprehension.”

On the one hand, I am all for reducing standardized testing in Virginia. I also acknowledge that the intention here is worthy: to help struggling students, to not set them up for failure.

However, I’m afraid that the logic is misguided and that that this will mean a decrease in social studies and science instruction and an increase in reading test prep. Yes, reading is a gateway to learning and limited instruction in reading strategies can be helpful, but the reason these students are struggling to comprehend what they read is because they aren’t learning enough content. It’s true that “it’s not about what they know;” it’s about what they don’t know. A valid test of reading would have passages related to the subject matter the students have already learned.

Putting off content-rich instruction to “focus on reading” will only serve to put off progress in reading proficiency.

Sadly, Virginia’s misguided new plan clearly shows that the CCSS are a real step forward. They give states, districts, and schools a strong foundation to build on. So instead of trying to tear down that foundation, let’s help the nation’s educators build up the excellent curriculum, and related materials and professional development, they need.

21 Comments »

  1. In the old story, a man brings a stone into a village, saying it makes a miracle kind of soup. He puts the stone in a pan and asks everyone to contribute something—meat, vegetables, etc., and they all do, and Voila! pretty soon there actually is a soup there. Common Core is like Stone Soup, with a set of “methods” for which everyone else is to provide the ingredients (academic content). The problem comes because the assessments cannot measure content (not common) and so are stuck measuring (and reinforcing) clever methods of analysis and glib little “essays” which any good computer can score. Some soup!! fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — June 13, 2013 @ 11:34 am

  2. I sort of get this line of defense of the CCSS – and I’m not a math or ELA teacher, so I’m not as up-to-speed on the standards – but defenders of the NGSS make the same kind of argument and I ultimately just don’t find it compelling.

    The whole point of having standards is to clearly articulate what students should know and be able to do. It sounds, even from your description, like the CCSS for ELA don’t do that but instead promise that the details will be fleshed out elsewhere.

    (The NGSS suffers from what strike me as analogous problems: the standards are extremely vague and omit lots of content, but there are plenty of assurances that it will show up in “appendices” and other supplementary materials.)

    So do the CCSS really “call for a content-rich curriculum” without specifying the content of that curriculum? If so, what use are they and how are common assessments – which must necessarily assess students in particular domains – supposed to work?

    It seems to me the way to provide a “strong foundation” for ELA instruction is to articulate the content first, and then determine what, more abstract things you want students to be able to do with it. This seems…backward.

    Comment by Paul Bruno — June 13, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

  3. Right you are—-backwards and going backwards, for 45 states, and at a cost of how many severals of millions of dollars, not to mention the waste of time.

    Will Fitzhugh
    fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — June 13, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

  4. Thank you so much for picking up my post–I am flattered. I can empathize with your optimism about having a set of national standards. I am also in favor of having a broad set of national standards.

    However, though I respect that you are comfortable doing so, I am not comfortable endorsing the Common Core Standards as a step forward, nor do I harbor any regret thus far that Virginia has not adopted them.

    Although I am by no means an expert, from what I have read (see my commentaries http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2012/08/17/when-the-common-coreteaching-reading-strategies-2-0/ and http://allthingsedu.blogspot.com/2013/06/when-common-core-is-old-wine-in-new.html), the Common Core ELA standards at least in practice seem to facilitate more of the same approach to Language Arts instruction as before, meaning heavy in the out-of-context texts and reading strategies department. I also share Paul Bruno’s skepticism as stated in his comment on this post. Even if the standards are appropriate and strong, I don’t see how they can succeed if they are being filtered through such a rigid and corrupting accountability structure (see my commentary http://allthingsedu.blogspot.com/2012/06/some-thoughts-on-ela-common-core.html).

    Finally, from what I can tell the process by which the Common Core Standards and associated assessments was not transparent or inclusive of stakeholders. And now, there is no real means by which to provide actionable feedback and for modifications to be made before they hit the Big Time.

    From the standpoint of a parent, teacher, and advocate, the distance between me and the top is much closer and the route much clearer to the district and state level in Virginia than it is to the Common Core level (does anyone even know where that is?)

    Comment by Rachel Levy — June 13, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

  5. My introduction to the CK philosophy occurred when I was 45 years old and read two Hirsch books: “Cultural Literacy” and “The Schools We Need.” The emphasis on content knowledge as essential for reading comprehension and critical thinking made perfect sense when I reflected on my college courses and post-college independent reading about various topics: economics, history, political issues, etc. I could remember quite accurately when I had mastered particular facts and concepts, and I could see how NOT knowing those things had hampered my critical thinking capacities on those topics. As I read more deeply in those topics, I found that previously acquired background knowledge enhanced comprehension of the new, but related, reading.

    My experiences are shared by and are obvious to any serious and reflective adult reader – this is how adults learn by reading. Here’s the key question: do children learn in the same way by reading as adults do, or is there something about young humans’ brains that means they learn differently than adults? If there are little or no differences, then why do supposedly educated adults greatly overemphasize the “reading strategies” approach and disparage content knowledge?

    Any cognitive scientists, brain experts, or well-read laypeople out there who can address this question about children’s brains?

    Comment by John Webster — June 13, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

  6. Lisa, I keep coming back to the thought that the lovely language you cite in the new standards WON’T MATTER. In fact, I’m afraid none of the standards will really matter. The only thing that matters to superintendents, principals and even many score-obsessed teachers is the new tests. I’ve taken California’s pilot Smarter Balanced Assessment for 7th grade ELA (a grim and painful experience). I don’t see how this test won’t send a loud and clear signal to people like my principal that drilling skills is where it’s at. I fear that you, Coleman and other policy wonks don’t fully appreciate the degree to which educators have completely reconfigured their minds over the past decade so as to make test scores central. It makes sense: job security, status, self-worth –central human concerns –are equated with test scores. Lovely language without teeth will be efficiently disregarded; frightened educators are going to hone in on what counts: the tests. And mapping out a path from a rich curriculum to high SBA test scores is going to be very, very hard to do. Even in my little district where I’ve been agitating for Hirsch’s ideas for years and have a number of sympathetic colleagues, I don’t think I’ll be able to convince my principal. Much easier to trace a plausible-looking path from skills drills to high SBA scores.

    All that said, it IS nice that Common Core gives a nod to Hirsch’s ideas. Perhaps this will turn out to be the thin-edge of a wedge. And there is still hope for rich history and science content in the New Order if the coming SBA tests in those areas seem to require teaching of content (although I can conceive of a scenario in which they won’t!). Finally I have hope that Tom Torlakson’s promise to reduce the importance of ELA and math test scores in calculating API/AYP could lessen the invidious effects of the new tests on curriculum and instruction here in California. If I understand him correctly, he wants to increase the weight of history and science tests in school ratings: this would be a positive development.

    Comment by Ponderosa — June 13, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

  7. Lisa, you say that I make “the same mistake that many educators are making—focusing too much on the standards and too little on the text surrounding the standards.”

    But what I said was “The Common Core State Standards in ELA is just another set of blithering, poorly thought out abstractions. And starting from there, instead of starting with the text and its content, is a mistake.”

    I would say that that is just about as far from focusing on the standards and too little on the text as one can get.

    Warm regards to all at the Core Knowledge Foundation. –Bob

    Comment by Robert D. Shepherd — June 13, 2013 @ 8:34 pm

  8. The Core Knowledge Sequence is superb precisely because it is NOT a set of poorly thought through statements of goals for mastery of abstract skills and cognitive and metacognitive processes (which is precisely what the CCSS in ELA are. It’s sad to see the Core Knowledge Foundation, whose founder has thought so clearly and written so eloquently, for years, about the mistake of basing our instruction on lists of abstract skills would embrace the CCSS, which is nothing but such a list. Yes, the ancillary materials to the Common Core in ELA (e.g., Appendix A, the Publishers’ Criteria) call for a great RETURN TO THE TEXT, but that’s not what is going to happen because these standards, written in this way (as a list of skills to be mastered) will determine curricula to an enormous extent. I am already seeing this in the publishers’ new “Common Core Editions.” Lessons that teach not “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or “Dover Beach” but skills RI4.6.3a and RI6.3b. There are complex reasons, having to do with how the textbook publishing industry works, why these new skills-based (not content-based) standards will determine what our curricula will look like.

    Comment by Robert D. Shepherd — June 13, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

  9. To get an idea of what is actually happening as a result of the new standards, have a look at Lucy Caulkins’s recent post about the new CCSS-based test items appearing on state exams around the country:

    “In the online posts at elafeedback.com, you’ll find a few issues that are raised again and again. One of these addresses the interpretation Pearson makes of close reading of nonfiction. For most teachers, the goal of teaching kids to read nonfiction successfully is to teach in such a way that students can learn from the nonfiction they read. That is, if they read an article on the Pony Express, the goal is that they learn quite a bit about that topic. If you look at the Common Core standards themselves, this reading work would encompass standards 1-3, which asks students to determine central ideas and supporting details, and analyze their development in the text, as well as standards 7-9, which asks students to synthesize and integrate, compare and contrast, and weigh and evaluate, ideas suggested by texts on the same subject.

    “Yet the Pearson exam seems to have asked few or no questions that addressed standards 7-9, as they chose to present students only with isolated texts rather than text sets, and many questions on standards 4-6, that ask students to analyze the craft and structure of texts. “Which term best describes the structure used in paragraphs 4-6?” “Why did the author include the image of….in line 12 of paragraph 5?” This sort of highly metacognitive, analytical reading-writing connection work is not usually the primary reading lens of nonfiction readers. Teachers are getting the message that their instruction should no longer channel students to read lots of nonfiction in order to expand their knowledge and grow ideas about a topic. Teachers are gathering that what counts to Pearson and New York State is that even children as young as nine year olds read nonfiction texts in order to analyze the author’s craft.”

    In other words, what is happening, and what will happen, as a result of the CCSS is that students and teachers and schools will be evaluated based upon students’ demonstrated “mastery” of abstract skills (as opposed to their world knowledge–knowledge of what–and procedural knowledge–knowledge of how)–exactly the opposite of what the Core Knowledge Foundation has, in the past, called for.

    Comment by Robert D. Shepherd — June 13, 2013 @ 9:17 pm

  10. This sentence from Caulkins’s post says it all:

    Teachers are getting the message that their instruction should no longer channel students to read lots of nonfiction in order to expand their knowledge and grow ideas about a topic. Teachers are gathering that what counts to Pearson and New York State is that even children as young as nine year olds read nonfiction texts in order to analyze the author’s craft. (That is, to demonstrate not knowledge but “skills”).

    Comment by Robert D. Shepherd — June 13, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

  11. I think you are right on Robert! I just finished a graduate teaching program, and I can’t count the # of times I heard the word metacognitive.

    Your criticism of “abstract” teaching strategies is spot-on also. I recently finished a great book on the brilliant William James written by Jacques Barzun. I highly recommend it for those interested in understanding better the pitfalls of “abstract” thinking over the pragmatic approach of James. It really underlies the whole emphasis on content over strategies.

    Administrators love buzz words like metacognitive and there will be a new one when educators get tired of hearing metacognitive mindlessly repeated without anyone really knowing how it should be applied or what it even means.

    Administrators will also continue to do whatever they can to bring up test scores and graduation rates, which are their real concerns (understandably to a degree). Locally, the administrators are using every trick they can think of to increase graduation rates. It is, of course, only done by lowering the bar not making schools better.

    Comment by Jim — June 14, 2013 @ 12:36 pm

  12. Robert-

    I have Pearson’s internal docs that say they are pushing 21st century skills as the purpose of the SBAC, PARCC, and Texas STAAR assessments. Those skills align with the digital learning push that is what I believe is the real core of what was sought with the CCSSI initiative. It also gets the US aligned with what is going on globally which s Pearson’s focus.

    I don’t know if you are aware of the history of Ann Brown’s work but Courtney Cazden’s book Discourse Classroom explains her interest in Vygotsky’s psycholinguistics work. That is what the strategies emphasis is importing. Also it is Ann Brown who pushed the Fostering Communities of Learners approach also grounded in Vygotsky. Mandating FCL as part of the actual common core implementation in the schools and classrooms is being incorporated into the criteria for being an effective principal. ASCD has published those criteria.

    A few months ago I tracked down the actual definition of what college and career ready meant using a paper David Conley wrote for the Gates Foundation in 2007. There is hardly any content envisioned for CCR.

    I am glad no one has sent Cambridge Education to the CK schools to tell the teachers they may not teach content as happened in other NYC schools after Michael Barber recommended Cambridge to Joel Klein in 2007. They came to our high performing district last year with those Orwellian named Quality Reports.

    Comment by Student of History — June 14, 2013 @ 1:35 pm

  13. Now it is not just metacognitive skills and critical thinking skills (poor Newton and Shakespeare, getting along with just thinking), but Deeper metacognitive skills and Deeper critical thinking skills. From now on I am going to describe the history research papers I have published by diligent HS students from 39 countries since 1987 as Deeper history research papers. I think that will make all the difference, don’t you?

    fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — June 14, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

  14. Since I have covered what I know about sociology, I might as well say something about political science as well. In regard to politics, I have always liked Lily Tomlin’s line, in paraphrase: “I try to be cynical, but I just can’t keep up.” We all feel that way sometime. Actually, having been in Washington now for almost 11 years, as I mentioned, I feel that way quite a bit. Ultimately, though, cynicism is a poor substitute for critical thought and constructive action. Sure, interests and money and ideology all matter, as you learned in political science. But my experience is that most of our politicians and policymakers are trying to do the right thing, according to their own views and consciences, most of the time. If you think that the bad or indifferent results that too often come out of Washington are due to base motives and bad intentions, you are giving politicians and policymakers way too much credit for being effective. Honest error in the face of complex and possibly intractable problems is a far more important source of bad results than are bad motives. For these reasons, the greatest forces in Washington are ideas, and people prepared to act on those ideas. Public service isn’t easy. But, in the end, if you are inclined in that direction, it is a worthy and challenging pursuit.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/06/ben-bernanke-to-princeton-grads-the-world-isnt-fair-and-you-all-got-lucky/276471/

    Quoting Mr. Bernanke may not give me much credibility, but I have to say the education debates often remind me of the Washington debates. I have sincerity on my side and you are representing some nefarious cause, group, idea. What is so hard about these ideas is that they matter in that they are not just our children, but economic and political future of our country and people have real and sincere differences. If we sometimes gave each other the benefit of the doubt and actually explained the hows and whys we might be a lot further… just saying. Now I need an emoticon.

    Comment by DC Parent — June 14, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

  15. I clicked over to read the entire post and I stopped reading after this comment (so I didn’t get far):

    “Ideas matter. In part, the faculties of education schools and state and local education administrators have brought the current education deform movement”

    I’m sorry but you are not a professional of any credibility when you resort to name calling. This is not how professional adults act.

    It has become a sad state of affairs that this behavior has become the norm. Some of the wounds the education establishment have are self inflicted.

    Comment by KateC — June 14, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

  16. I tend to agree with Robert that CCSS is just more strategies education devoid of content. A discussion that took place at a training in my district galvanized this point. The reading coach was pointing out that in addition to the standards there was a list of recommended texts given in the appendix. When the point was raised that these were included as examples and weren’t meant to be a comprehensive list of all books taught, another teacher said “Well you can be sure that those will be the texts on the test so we better make sure our students have read those particular titles.” The reading coach then suggested that we simply split up the list by grade level and order titles for each grade level. No mention was made of designing units of study around the titles; the idea was to simply make sure that students read those specific titles. After the meeting I took the reading coach aside and showed her the information from CCSS that discuses the need for knowledge development and units of study across grade levels. She was surprised to discover this, and could not understand why our state had omitted that information from all the literature on CCSS that they had put out. She showed me a huge thick book put out by the state on the standards and said it was nowhere in the book. I had to take her to the web site and show her the information before she would believe me. Unfortunately I’m afraid that teachers are so enmeshed in the skills and strategies of reading instruction that this scenario is more likely the norm than the exception. If this is the case it does not indicate that CCSS will be anything but more of the same.

    Comment by Mary S. — June 15, 2013 @ 3:43 am

  17. We really must be civil when examining the dismantling of the academic content of education under the Common Core. As Noel Coward suggested after World War II, when so many in the UK were saying “we have to be friendly to the Germans”:
    “Let’s let them think they’re swell again, and bomb us all to hell again, but let’s not be beastly to the Huns.” (He was probably put out over the tens of thousands of English people killed by Nazi bombers, V-1s and V-2s at the time.) So we can try to arrest the damage from Common Core as long as we remember to smile in the process… fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — June 15, 2013 @ 10:57 am

  18. Mary S., that is exactly, exactly what happened at our Common Core curriculum training session at our Middle School: the list of “exemplar” texts was placed before us and we were told to choose which of the texts on the list we thought should be taught at each grade level. I attempted to challenge this, but discovered that none of my colleagues, apparently, know the meaning of the word “exemplar.” Their understanding was that these books constituted “the Common Core Curriculum”—handed down God-to-Moses style from the powers that be. This was the Common Core curriculum and we had damn-well better adopt it. The further understanding was that these titles were chosen by these experts precisely because they were the best possible texts from which to teach “Complex Text Reading Skills.” (I put that in caps because that’s how it was stated.) As I’ve said here before, with such poor leadership coming from Dr. Coleman et al, Common Core might well turn out to be a monster that simply destroys everything before it—it could be such a train-wreck, such a political disaster, that sound curricula reform such as CK will be swept over the falls with it when the forces of reaction achieve ascendency. I fault Coleman heavily because he has failed so far to confront this widespread misunderstanding of the very foundation-stone of his thesis. To date he has been not much of a leader at all.

    Comment by bill eccleston — June 15, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

  19. Here is the problem, as I see it. The Common Core can be a fine thing if put in its proper place: that is, secondary to curriculum.

    The skills listed in the Common Core cannot hold a candle to a high school course on tragedy, for instance. In a course on tragedy, students will develop all kinds of skills, but they might also read Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Racine, Goethe, Miller, O’Neill, and more. The act of reading, pondering, and discussing those plays is richer than that of developing the generic skills, however important these skills may be.

    It would make sense for schools to build or adopt curricula that have coherence, meaning, challenge, and beauty, and then examine how those curricula do or do not address the CC Standards. A good curriculum will naturally address most of these skills; it should not be too hard to make adjustments for the rest.

    In contrast, when the standards are placed first, many things go wrong. They become the end goal of instruction, when they should come second to the actual substance of learning. They end up determining the curriculum and thereby shortchanging it (people hesitate teach anything that isn’t blatantly CC-aligned). Because the content is treated as secondary, all sorts of misconceptions and bad initiatives can fester–for instance, the requirement that English teachers include more “informational text” in their courses, regardless of what they are teaching and what is being taught in other classes.

    There is yet another problem with teaching “to” the standards–that is, treating the standards as the primary goal. You cultivate student writing that is by-the-book, programmed, and in many cases uninspired. Students get the message that they’re supposed to cite textual evidence thoroughly (for instance), and they get good at doing so. In the process, they lose sight of what they’re reading and saying. The act of citing evidence is held higher than the act of immersing oneself in interesting literature and ideas.

    Of course students should be able to cite evidence. But some of the most inspiring literary criticism, historical analysis, and philosophical writing has a subtle mixture of evidence, interpretation, and postulation. One textual detail might release a stream of ideas, or a collection of textual details might coalesce into one principle. Moreover, not every assertion or argument requires literal “evidence”; part of the point of writing is to raise possibilities. Emerson doesn’t give “evidence” for many of his points, yet he wakes the reader up into thinking.

    Granted, many students are still learning to write a coherent essay; citing evidence should be one of the fundamentals they master. Still, what matters more, and what will do at least as much for their writing, is to grapple with interesting literature (and other subject matter), sometimes methodically, sometimes not, but always with the goals of taking in the works, coming to understand them more precisely and deeply, and articulating one’s thoughts about them as well as possible.

    None of this is in conflict with the Common Core, but it is more likely to happen within a curriculum that stands on its own merits.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 16, 2013 @ 9:22 am

  20. With regard to citing evidence: I remember many years back when I was required to cite textual passages to support an argument. I found it difficult and often ended up just throwing in something that sounded like it fit. The writing assignments were built around teaching the skill of citing textual evidence. It would have worked better if I was focusing more on my ideas and a passage came to me as a result of that process. Kind of like when Diane says that the skills and knowledge that the CC identifies will come naturally with a curriculum rich in content. Exactly!!

    Here’s a side point: I had particular trouble responding to literature in a reflective and critical way.

    The goal of having students write essays is to get them to reflect, to form an opinion, to engage others’ objections etc. I have found that students today aren’t that comfortable making arguments. They have a “they are entitled to their opinion” attitude. I think it comes from people growing up in a “balkanized” culture where you can find your own news channel, music channel or whatever you want without having to be exposed to anything new or challenging. It wasn’t like this just a few decades back.

    As a newly-licensed English teacher, I have found that it helps my students when I initially have them respond to other essays like op-eds. When I have them write on literature it is in response to very carefully written writing prompts. Few of today’s students have the depth and breadth of knowledge to respond intelligently to say, Aeschylus. There are also few teachers who can teach Aeschylus and other great works in a way that elucidates the grand ideas that those works wrestle with.

    Sorry if I took things a little off topic, but Diane, I think you really nailed it. A good curriculum will take care of the common core standards.

    I am trying to start a charter school in Eugene, OR built around the humanities. It has been to my astonishment that not only have I had trouble finding like-minded teachers and educators to get involved, I can’t find anyone who knows what I mean when I say the word humanities.

    Comment by Jim — June 16, 2013 @ 1:23 pm

  21. Peter Meyer writes today for Education Next
    that “there is no Common Core curriculum,”

    —but it has “agreed-upon expectations for
    what children should know in certain subjects.”

    “What children should know in certain subjects”
    IS a curriculum—and may be found only in a
    curriculum and this is clearly something which the
    Common Core most certainly does NOT have.

    As a result, the Testing Consortia cannot test
    students on what they should know in certain
    subjects, because the Common Core says
    nothing about what knowledge all students
    should have.

    All that remains for the Testing Consortia
    to concern themselves with are: “Methods
    of Thinking,” “Deeper Thinking Skills,”
    and other analytical process nonsense.

    Someone is confused here, and perhaps
    doesn’t understand the meaning of words
    used.

    Will Fitzhugh
    fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — June 17, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.