Sunday, June 3, 2012

Some Thoughts on the (ELA) Common Core Standards

The idea of having a basic, broad set of knowledge, concepts, and skills that all Americans should learn about, while leaving plenty of room for teacher discretion and creativity and plenty of time for going deeper, resonates with me. I also would like to see American schools stop teaching reading as a subject and, beyond teaching decoding and a limited teaching of reading strategies, stop teaching it as a transferable skill. Reading strategies are not something to be studied in depth, and teaching reading as a discrete subject is tedious for students and has crowded out the teaching of many other meaty subjects such as science, social studies, the arts, foreign language, literature, and English. When I look at the ELA Common Core Standards and compare them with the ELA/Reading SOLs (Virginia Standards of Learning) for elementary students, I want to cry. I desperately want my children to do more stuff that looks like the ELA CCS, i.e., more studying content, more reading literature, and more complex writing, and a lot less of reading strategies. In substance, the CCS (at least the ELA ones--I can't speak for the math ones) look like the closest thing to good that we're going to get in standards. hat all being said, the CCS make me very nervous. 

First of all, I don’t like the idea of privatizing, centralizing and mandating standards, curricula, assessments for public schools—I think they should be created and maintained under the auspices of public democratic institutions. 

Second, I don’t like that the CCS are being forced on states or on teachers—many teachers feel this is being done to them and not with them. This is a recipe for resentment and poor implementation. How have NCLB and RTTT worked out? That’s right, not well. I'm not confident about doing such things on a grand scale, especially when they are being handed down in such detailed, prescribed, and rigidity-inducing manner. If we could have the CCS without pairing it with the current accountability structure I'd feel much differently about it. The current accountability structure corrupts almost everything that gets filtered through it. Also, yes, the logistics of financing and selling all of the materials and assessments and sorting out matters of intellectual property, all of that gives me pause given the way our economy and financial system is structured right now. I am suspicious of much that gets filtered through that, too. 

And it doesn’t help when CCS architect David Coleman’s talking points includes dismissing student writing about “feelings.” And like so many percentages in education policy (e.g., the “lowest 5% of schools” must get turned around or the “lowest 5% of teachers” must be fired because as long we’re employing certain statistical models there will ALWAYS be a lowest 5%, no matter how satisfactorily anyone is performing and there will always be students not progressing within that same continuum if they’re already performing at 90 – 100%), I find it ridiculously arbitrary that teachers will now be mandated to teach a certain ratio of texts to other texts.

Kathleen Porter-Magee talks about allowing and learning from the Common Core’s failures, about seeing what works and what doesn’t. Yes! Great idea! Let's pilot them! Ooops. The CCS are already terribly far away from any tweaking stage--they're going straight to the big time. I believe teachers when they say the CCS are being rammed down their throats and that in many cases the standards and expectations are developmentally appropriate for our younger students (again, how well has NCLB heeded developmentally appropriate practices, especially for ELLs, given what language acquisition research has shown us). The current accountability structure does not allow for failure, even healthy failure. It's premised on the idea that failure is entirely intolerable, that it is the problem.

Finally, even if we accept that the ELA CCS are superior to most states' current ELA standards, that they're more intellectual and more conducive to critical thinking (and I don't know enough to claim that they do or are), it's going to be very hard to implement them in an intellectual spirit if they're being interpreted and handed down in a decidedly rigid, anti-intellectual manner. Furthermore, if systems that are adopting them are purging the more intellectual, knowledgeable, and critically thinking teachers such as the one I discussed in this post, there won't be anyone left who has the subject knowledge and experience enough to implement them as their architects say they are to be implemented. Autocracy does not beget democracy and no matter how fit and hard working they are, good athletes won't make good soccer coaches if they know next to nothing about the game and about good coaching.

I have no horse in this race, no reason to hope the the CCS will fail, but I think my skepticism is well founded. If I'm wrong about this, I shall only be glad.

UPDATE: My next post is a follow-up to this one.


  1. Years ago in grad school, I heard Sizer talking about what makes a good school and who decides (side note- we made a fun game out of turning any question into an "Essential Question" by adding the phrase "and who decides" to the end- for example: What time is it, and who decides? Should we order a pizza for lunch, and who decides?). Someone asked Sizer about what the gov't should do about failing schools, and he came out swinging about the importance of local control. The people who know best what students need are the parents and people of those students' communities. He was very resistant, as I understood it, to the idea of National Standards. At the time, as a good liberal, I wondered if he was right. But after several years under NCLB and other testing mandates in very different school communities, I suspect he was right. Trust the people in a community to create their own schools. As they send their graduates out into the marketplace of ideas, they will decide if that preparation did what they hoped it would do.

  2. I can't understand why you would think that the CCSS are that much better than the VA SOL's. Not that I'm a huge fan of the SOL's either, but they just don't seem that different to me. What specifically do you see as the difference? Is it the standards themselves, or the commentary on the standards?

  3. @Jno: Thanks so much for your comment. I am in the same place you are and I agree, the feds need to trust local communities more.

    @Tom: Perhaps at the secondary level the SOLs change, but at the elementary level at least, they are very skills- and strategies-heavy. Reading is taught as a discrete subject as a transferable skill, even in third, fourth, and fifth grades, even for fluent readers. There's no cohesiveness to the curriculum. The CCS are much more content and literature (yes, I am counting some non-fiction as literature) based. Now, I'd much rather work towards reforming the Reading/ELA SOLs at the state level than have to deal with the CCS behemoth, but I respect the premise of the ELA CCS at the elementary level.