Common Core – Part 2
I have created a little outline for myself so that I can follow some sort of plan. The reason for this is the bicycle spoke effect that I spoke of in part one. So many aspects of common core are tied to others that I could end up going around in circles trying to cover them all and show the connections. Hopefully I can avoid that issue.
ELA standards – Anyone can Google these and pull them up. As you read through them, they seem to set simple guidelines for what knowledge benchmarks should be reached and when. No biggie. This is an education plan, there is some good stuff in there.
Additionally, you may hear “they are standards, not curriculum, states can still pick their own curriculum.” Only sort of true. While states can pick their curriculum, they still have to align with the standards. Standards exist to drive curriculum. They are the outline used to pick curriculum. Additionally, if states have to pass a test, their curriculum has to match the test. Finally, if all the publishers have adopted CC standards (which they have except for some that produce home school products), the curriculum is already decided when the state purchases the materials. Oh yes, and Bill Gates purchased the majority of Pearson, the largest curriculum provider in the US and Great Britain, shortly before these standards started becoming known.
If you wanted to put together standards for an English Language Arts program (and please note that with the common core standards, History and Social Studies are included in the title though no one ever refers to that fact) who would you ask to write them? Obvious answer, the best high school ELA teachers, ELA and reading teachers for grade schools and middle schools, and of course ELA college professors. Not so with the common core standards. In fact, the primary writers of these standards were curriculum publishers. David Coleman, regularly acknowledged as the author of the common core ELA standards has a degree in English, but it is in business English. There is a huge difference between writing skills in a business capacity and creating a curriculum for reading and writing to be taught at a school level. Additionally, when they put together a standards review committee, there wasn’t one ELA or curriculum development expert on the committee until Sandra Stotsky put up a fuss about it and was put on the committee. She and four others on the committee later refused to sign off on the standards because of the problems in them, and one of the four was the only Math expert on the committee, James Milgram.
Sandra Stotsky is an acknowledged and highly accredited ELA expert and curriculum development expert. You may hear about the state of Massachusetts education program and how wonderful it is and that common core is responsible for the excellence of Mass’s program. Not true. Mass. revamped their entire education system, top to bottom, and did become the top state in the nation educationally. They were the only state that could have competed on an international level, though several other states came close in speciﬁc areas. Sandra Stotsky chaired the board that rewrote the entire state education, including standards and curriculum. Her system has been proven. It was put into place, it raised the education level of the entire state for years.
Mass. like many other states, adopted the standards despite the fact that they already had a highly successful and superior education plan in place because they needed money. They’ve had a few years of good testing (though not the new tests) that show them to still be in top place, but it is residual testing from students who were taught under the old plan. They haven’t had CC fully implemented long enough to determine how the testing results will be.
Sandra Stotsky has numerous research papers out, highly acclaimed and acknowledged by others in the industry, and she completely derides CC ELA and math standards. I was lucky enough to hear her speak this summer so some of my comments come from listening to her, and some from reading her papers.
She covered the basic format for writing education standards or curriculum. Please note, this information comes from my notes and I’m not as experienced as she is so any errors are due to my slow writing and lack of experience, not due to her information. If you want to write standards or form curriculum, you gather experts in the ﬁeld. Then you look at all sorts of research, piloted programs, failed programs, etc. You compile the data and put together a plan, backing up each of your statements with the research and the successful programs. You also look at ages, cognitive abilities, how the standards and curriculum will intertwine among all the subjects at that same age level, etc. You then present this as a white paper to the educational community (and we’re talking tens of thousands of people) along with all of your research and proof to back up your statements and take feedback/responses. You then adapt the plan based on the feedback and write another paper explaining what feedback you received and why you did or did not adapt the original plan, and again, you back it up with proven research. None of this happened with CC. It was written, totally behind closed doors, and is owned by a private trade consortium. No feedback from experts, no documentation or research to back it up, no testing or pilot programs. NONE.
The number one predictor for good writing skills are good reading skills. Sandra and others have stressed that fact over and over. If you want to develop analytical thinking skills (or as CC misnames them – critical thinking skills) you have to read complex ﬁctional literature. Let me repeat that, complex ﬁctional literature.
One of the things that CC cuts is complex ﬁctional literature. In grade school there should be no more than 50% ﬁctional lit. By high school the ELA classes are supposed to be 70-85% non-ﬁction. The focus in CC is on writing skills. If you’re in a business setting, you need to be able to write. To quote David Coleman, who reads novels once you’re out of high school? No, you read business manuals and texts. Therefore, his premise is that if students read more non-ﬁction, they’ll be better at reading and understanding work related information and better at writing in a work setting.
(Again, keep in mind that speciﬁc statements by Bill Gates, Jason Zimba, David Coleman, Achieve Inc, on make it clear the the design of CC is not to “educate” but to create employees – it is very labor oriented. Yes, it’s a good thing for one’s education to give them employment skills, but the creation of labor pools should not be the goal of education, and especially in grade school through at least the early years of high school, education needs to be about expanding interest, creativity, thinking skills and so on.)
There are several problems with this premise about increased non-ﬁction. First, every other thing students read in school, everything for every subject other than ELA, is non-ﬁction. So, if reading more non-ﬁction lead to greater analytical thinking skills, our students should be doing great! However, again, research does not support this line of thinking. I remember reading Huck Finn in my AP English class my junior year of high school and wondering why on earth the teacher had to spoil a good story by trying to shove in symbolism. Years later, having studied English, I now understand that when you learn to pull out the subplot, recognize the understated relationships, read between the lines, your brain learns to do the same thing in other areas as well. Additionally, any good author, writer or blogger will tell you that the key to writing well is reading, reading, reading. But CC cuts back on reading. The focus of CC not only cuts out complex ﬁctional lit, but it also cuts back on full length books and stresses short texts instead. Now, as I say all this, I will ﬂat out agree that any evidence I’ve seen of writing skills coming out of a lot of schools seems to say that our education system is not teaching students how to write well. I think it’s great that the developers of CC want to improve writing skills. I take online classes and am horriﬁed at the writing I see there. However, cutting reading isn’t the way to do it.
My oldest son is a senior this year and in a college English class. Every one of the books he has read this year for college level English is a book that I read in high school. If we want to point to poor writing skills, perhaps we need to look at the decline in many school’s curriculum. Books that used to be high school level are now college level. (Sandra Stotsky has several papers on this also.) My district has the entire curriculum for all core classes available online and I have read through all of it. My tenth grade son has so far read excerpts from Alive (not complex literature, just a very long news article put into book format), excerpts from The Secret Life of Bees (a cute book with some good social issue discussion opportunities – but in no way complex literature or honors 10th grade reading level) articles from newspapers including an interview with Angelina Jolie about her decision to have a mastectomy, and so on. This is not a good curriculum (though it ﬁts the CC standards perfectly) and this is why analytical thinking skills and writing skills are going downhill.
In the 70’s there was a strong push to teach social issues in the context of reading. Schools switched from complex literature to discussion literature. I think my 5th grade son’s teacher does better than my 10th grade son’s teacher does right now at picking out appropriate reading level books with quality vocabulary and subtext to the plot. Next year, my second son will be in 11th grade and he will be taking an online college level course with an excellent curriculum, not common core through our school.
This isn’t something you need to just take at my word. Read everything by Sandra Stotsky, pull up articles by experts, really look into it. If someone thinks the standards are great, read why they think they are great. If not, ﬁnd out why not. Look for speciﬁcs, not just pretty phrases. Many of the articles applauding the standards don’t give any real reasons. They say they are “rigorous” and that they are “internationally benchmarked” but there is no proof; they don’t back up these statements with any hard evidence. There are absolutely no research papers and there is no documentation, comparing these standards to quality standards and proving this point. The best information I have received about the good parts of CC came from teachers who were able to explain clearly what they were doing with the standards. The most information I have about what is wrong with them also comes from talking to teachers about the standards. In both cases, it was important for me to get speciﬁcs, and then to determine if the speciﬁcs ﬁt in with CC or were something the the teacher thought was CC but was not.
In some cases, the reason why people think they are great is not something tied to CC. It is something they can or should have been teaching before CC came along. A sixth grade teacher at my son’s school has a masters degree in reading and in addition to years of teaching, she was the district curriculum coordinator for elementary education. She knows her stuff. She wrote out a list of developmentally inappropriate items in the standards and of things necessary to good reading skills that were left out entirely. A mother I know loves CC at her school. When I talked to her child’s middle school teacher and found out how they were implementing the standards, I was impressed. They were doing some great things with reading and writing. But it wasn’t CC, it was just make-sense education. They called it CC because they revamped their education plan when CC came along, but it wasn’t strictly CC, it was more writing, combined with more reading, and better cross connection between subjects.
The teachers in our district who love it have never been trained on “cold reading” which is the preferred method with CC. In fact, the ones who have never been trained on this method are shocked that anyone would suggest such a method for ELA and the ones who have been trained on this method are ignoring it. This is a method that requires the teacher to give no introduction to a text, and to deliberately remove context and background. So, normally, if a student is reading a full length novel, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, the teacher would introduce the novel with discussion about civil rights and so on; she would set the stage. Realistically, a really good curriculum would have this time period in school correlated between subjects so in history they would be studying something along the lines of civil rights and in social studies they would be doing something similar. With CC, the teacher is not supposed to give any of this surrounding information. Here’s the book, read it, respond to these questions and use the author’s words to back up your response. They don’t even give info on the author. However, knowing who the author is and what their motivation was for writing the piece is a key part of understanding the piece. David Coleman called this information “privileging information”. He speciﬁcally said that if some students know more context and background, it un-levels the playing ﬁeld. So instead of educating all of the students, teaching more, the teachers are supposed to withhold information to level the playing ﬁeld.
In the case of a full length novel, the students are going to pick up on context and background. Maybe not as much as if the teacher had introduced it and told them about the author, but the book is long enough to work it in. However, remember that CC cuts back on full length novels. Now imagine you give your students The Gettysburg Address (which is moved from a History class to an ELA class in CC for a very speciﬁc purpose). The teacher is supposed to introduce the text without a title, and is not to tell the students who gave it (assuming they don’t know) or why it was given. Now you have paragraph where someone is talking about people who were ﬁghting and it was sad and hopefully things will get resolved. Removing context and background changes the meaning of what you are reading, especially if what you are reading is a shorter text, which is the primary reading in CC. Try reading Martin Luther King’s Letters from Birmingham Jail and imagine if you didn’t know who was writing the letters or why. It makes a big difference in the understanding.
If you talk to your teachers and they haven’t heard of cold reading, great! However, it is speciﬁcally a part of CC and it is also a part of the testing. This is one of the many reasons I oppose CC standards and the testing. There is too much that is not good education in them. I would say hey, lets keep the part that is good and replace the part that isn’t, but remember, these standards are copyrighted to private entities. As part of the contract to use them it speciﬁcally states that you can not change them at all and can only add 15% to the content. Why on earth would we keep standards that we are not allowed to change, that parents and school boards can do nothing about, that teachers are not allowed to adapt, etc.? It makes no sense.
Want to read more? I know I did…If you want to learn more come back next week… we will share more, as well as some links and resources to help you better understand Common Core and what it means to YOUR child’s education. In the meantime, this is an awesome article written by a Utah mom about Common Core, and I highly recommend you read it.