Thursday, June 6, 2013

When the Common Core is old wine in new bottles

I have been enjoying Education Week's series about the Common Core Standards in action. The second article depicts classroom practice in a DCPS middle school Language Arts classroom. I found this post especially intriguing--I felt like a fly on the wall reading it.

This is what impresses me:

First of all, it does seem like the teacher has a certain amount of freedom--not much of the what (the curriculum), or the how is being dictated. It does seem like the standards are doing what they are supposed to do: guiding. Also, the use of coaches are apt and administrators get that the students need a lot of guidance and that they can't go straight to "grade-level" texts.

Second, the authors and the art that the students are reading and studying seem amazing. Many of the assignments also seem worthy. I would want my own children to read those authors and texts (though, in full--I'll get to this) and write such essays.

Finally, learning grammar, vocabulary,and literary devices as the students are doing in Ms. McNair-Lee's class is a good idea (and all the better that they're doing so not isolated from the text). This serves not so much to develop them as readers but to develop them as writers (though, yes, one must be a good reader to have a shot at being a good writer).

Here's what troubles me:

He [the student] gets the material one-on-one but not on the assessment. Okay, so the kid is reading the book and getting it, but this isn't reflected on the assessment. Therefore, we are failing him. Because it's all about the tests, not about what the kid actually gets and learns? This is where I would say that there is something wrong with the test. Except we can't because in the current climate the test is all mighty.

There seems to be a lot of practice that happened just the same as pre-Common Core standards, but just that the Common Core texts are more "complex." As I said before, it is a step forward that they are reading such texts and authors, but I noticed that they are often not reading entire texts but "excerpts." Yes, see with the old standards, students read "passages." If no one is reading whole books, it doesn't matter if you call them "excerpts" or "passages" because the students are still not reading whole books or whole articles or collections of poetry.

It is good practice to have students cite evidence from the text when they make arguments. But otherwise, students are also still practicing things like finding the main idea, making inferences, and using context clues to figure out meaning of words. Also, I fail to see the difference between doing a "close reading" of an "excerpt" (Common Core) and "attacking a passage" (old state standards) I have said this over and over and over again (and I will say it again in the future): Reading comprehension can't be taught. As in you can't teach someone to comprehend what they're reading. If reading is not a skill, then reading is not a skill. Finding the main idea may be a strategy, but you either know how to do it or you don't. You can't practice it and get better at it. Same with making inferences. These are strategies that can't be practiced and the ability to successfully complete such strategies is highly dependent on background knowledge. I thought the Common Core was supposed to deliver us from the misguided emphasis on reading strategies. But at least from this account, it doesn't seem to be.

And this leads me to two more points. One is what I argued here, it doesn't matter if the texts are more complex, it doesn't mean teaching reading strategies and reading as a skill works any better to make kids stronger readers. Simply promoting what students are reading from "simple" to "complex" and from "passages" to "excerpts" will not do the trick. There is not some dial on the rigor-o-meter that you turn up and presto our "scholars" are all career and college ready.

Two is that are they learning about any of this literature in context? I can't say definitively that they aren't because the article doesn't address the matter, but NCLB doesn't mandate and DCPS doesn't give comparable history assessments so I am assuming that no, the context, aka history, is de-emphasized or not taught at all. A text's meaning is heavily dependent on the context in which it is written. Truly comprehending a text is heavily dependent on what you know already. This is not to claim that previously students learned about the history or content highlighted in conjunction with reading a text, but, again, the Common Core is supposed to be a vast improvement. You can't do a true close reading of a text and get much out it if you are ignorant of the context of the text-- a "close reading" of a "complex text" puts us in the same boat we were in with the old, supposedly inferior standards.

Finally, and this isn't a Common Core practice per se, but it's emblematic of the reformy approach of which the Common Core is a part: K-12 students aren't "scholars." You're a scholar when you're making a career of studying something, which K -12 students aren't doing yet. Calling them "scholars" doesn't make them so; it's patronizing and propagandistic.

So far students of the Common Core ELA Standards seem to be attacking decontextualized isolated passages and practicing reading strategies which can't be practiced. And there is nothing scholarly or reformed about that.

UPDATE: A critical response to the same article from Lisa Hansel of the Core Knowledge Foundation is posted on the WaPo's Answer Sheet.


  1. Indeed, in this whole stunted debate over the Common Core ELA, how often have you seen straightforward apples to apples comparisons to the standards they replace? They just aren't that different, and the most prominent differences are things that have been omitted from Common Core.

    1. @Tom Hoffamn: Thanks for reading & commenting. I always feel like I've written a semi-decent post when it gets a comment from you. But yes, I don't understand why they didn't compare standards before adopting them. And I see form your post that you share my frustrations with the approach to reading and English instruction depicted in the article.

  2. Yes, yes, yes. Although I'm not sure why you thought the CCSS was supposed to deliver anybody from direct instruction of reading strategies. Almost any lists of "skills" or "performance-based standards" will lead to direct instruction of those very skills, and the Common Core effort has never said anything about reading volume. So inevitably what we get are short passages and teachers asking "close-reading" questions about those passages to which the teachers already know the answers. In other words, we get lessons that are very close in form and spirit to standardized tests. This is no way to teach reading. As you say, reading can't be taught. As the Singaporeans say, "Teach less, learn more." As I say, "Natural teaching may not be natural learning."

    1. @EC: I think I thought that because fellow content-rich curriculum advocates who I respect hold them up as not teaching reading strategies. Anyway, thanks for reading & commenting. It's always nice to know there's someone else out there with a similar POV on this topic. It can be very lonely sometimes . . .