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Common Core State [sic] Standards


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    Ohanian Comment: The New York Times article under discussion is of a piece with my examination of New York Times bias, Who They Gonna Call: Bias at the New York Times on Education Reform The New York Times is sticking to its Public Relations puffery of Common Core.

    by Curmudgucation
    Last Friday, Kate Taylor took to the pages of the New York Times to provide a sort of update on what's going on in English classrooms in the "Common Core era." So how are things going? According to Taylor, pretty swell, thanks.

    Taylor focuses on the shiny new injection of "informational" reading into the English classroom, leading with the pairing of fiction and non-fiction works, like Catcher in the Rye and articles about bi-polar disorder, the Odyssey and the GI Bill, Tom Sawyer and an op-ed about teenaged unemployment.

    The piece is a monument to reportorial Swiss- cheesery, and while I recognize that reporters do not have infinite space available to them, Taylor has skipped over some fairly significant parts of the story.

    Here are some things that Taylor does not know.

    Taylor does not know that Common Core is in the weeds

    She takes a half-sentence to note that schools choose their own readings, so I'm guessing Taylor's heard that not everybody feels the CCSS love. But she fails to teach the controversy here.

    She also fails to note that Common Core increasingly means whatever the local authorities want it to mean, or nothing at all. The Common Core of the actual standards is not the same as the Core in the Big Standardized Test, nor is it the same as whatever teaching materials your district has bought-- and all of that is before we get to your local administrator, who may have her own idea of what edited version of CCSS to enforce. The term "Common Core" now means so many different things that it is essentially meaningless.

    Taylor does not know where the informational text requirement came from.

    Taylor notes that "the new standards stipulate" that a certain percentage (50 for elementary, 70 for high school) of a student's daily reading diet should be informational. And that's as deep as she digs.

    But why is the informational requirement in the Common Core in the first place? There's only one reason-- because David Coleman thought it would be a good idea. All these years later, and not one shred of evidence, one scrap of research, not a solitary other nation that has used such a
    requirement to good results--- there isn't
    anything at all to back up the inclusion of the informational reading requirement in the standards except that David Coleman thought it would be a good idea. Coleman, I will remind you, is not a teacher, not an educator, not a person with one iota of expertise in teaching and is, in fact, proud of his lack of qualifications. In fact, Coleman has shared with us his thoughts about how to teach literature, and they are -- not good. If Coleman were student teaching in my classroom, I would be sending him back to the drawing board (or letting him try his ideas out so that we could have a post- crash-and-burn "How could we do better" session).

    Coleman has pulled off one of the greatest cons
    ever. If a random guy walked in off the street
    into your district office and said, "Hey, I want
    to rewrite some big chunks of your curriculum
    just because," he would be justly ignored. But
    Coleman has managed to walk in off the street
    and force every American school district pay
    attention to him.

    Taylor does not know what we've given up to meet the new requirements

    Taylor uses a quote to both pay lip service to and also to dismiss concerns about curricular

    "Unfortunately there has been some elimination
    of some literature," said Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. But she added: "We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we
    maybe aren't teaching an entire novel, but we're ensuring that we're teaching the concepts that
    that novel would have gotten across."

    So, you see, we really only use literature in
    the classroom as a sort of bucket to carry in
    little nuggets of concept and skill. The
    literature doesn't really have any intrinsic
    value of its own. Why read the whole novel when
    we only really care about (aka test) a couple of
    paragraphs on page 142? If we were hoping to
    pick up some metaphor-reading skills along the
    way, why not just read a page of metaphor

    This is an attitude of such staggering ignorance and numbskullery that I hardly know how to address it. This is like saying, "Why bother with getting to know someone and dating and talking to each other and listening to each other and spending months just doing things together and sharing hopes and dreams and finally deciding to commit your lives to each other and planning a life together and then after all that finally sleeping together-- why do all that when you could just hire a fifty- dollar hooker and skid straight to the sex?" It so completely misses the point, and if neither Taylor nor Skillen can see how it misses the point, I'm not even sure where to begin.

    Literature creates a complex web of
    relationships, relationships between the reader
    and the author, between the various parts of the
    text, between the writing techniques and the

    You don't get the literature without reading the
    whole thing. The "we'll just read the critical
    part of the work" school of teaching belongs
    right up there with a "Just the last five
    minutes" film festival. Heck, as long as you see
    the sled go into the furnace or the death star
    blow up or Kevin Spacey lose the limp, you don't
    really need the rest of the film for anything,

    Taylor does not know that English teachers
    have heard of non-fiction

    Taylor makes sure to point out that sometimes,
    non-fiction is interesting to students. Why,
    thanks, ma'm! I have also heard that students
    enjoy the rap music and often eat more than one
    type of food. Also, water is wet. Taylor also
    doesn't know that some literature is non-
    fiction; like most writers on this topic, she
    mentions the Gettysburg Address as a new non-
    fiction focus, even though the speech (along
    with "I Will Fight No More Forever") is in every
    major 11th grade literature anthology in the US.

    But Taylor goes with the notion, anecdotally
    supported by one administrator, that the English
    teaching world is loaded with teachers who only
    and always teach fiction, even though there was
    this one time that an administrator totally saw
    a class fully engaged in discussion about a real
    life issue.

    I don't know. Maybe New York is just another
    world. But I find it hard to believe that Taylor
    could not have walked up any hall and found an
    English teacher who has always taught non-
    fiction material in her class. So if non- fiction
    is not news to us, then what's the big deal?
    Hold that thought for a few subheadings.

    Taylor does not know why we teach literature
    in the first place

    Hint: it's not just so that literature can be a
    bucket in which to carry other skills to the

    The purposes of teaching literature is a topic
    that deserves not just its own post, but its own
    blog. But let me just skim the surface of the

    Literature lets students experience people and
    places and feelings and ideas that they do not
    encounter in their own world, and it lets them
    encounter things exactly like what they
    experience in their own, and it lets them
    experience both in ways that open the experience
    up to new understanding and expression.
    Literature opens up new worlds to students, and
    it opens up familiar worlds as well. It builds
    depth of understanding and depth of expression.
    It gives them practice and exercise in
    developing, holding, connecting many ideas.
    Reading literature is part of the process of
    growing and advancing and becoming more fully

    Taylor slips in the notion that some literature
    is just hard and probably pointless; she
    recounts the story of one teacher who was happy
    to cut Beowulf back to an excerpt
    because, you know, who really wants to teach
    that piece of ancient junk?

    But the selection of particular works is tricky,
    because the "right" work is found at the
    intersection of teacher, students, and the work
    itself. A literary teacher is the students'
    guide to that world. The best guides to a place
    are not the ones who either don't know it or who
    just plain hate it; the best guides are the
    people who know and love the territory. You
    could not pay me enough to teach "Paradise Lost"
    to high school students, but I have a colleague
    who does it every year with huge success.
    Meanwhile, I'm about the only teacher I know who
    likes to teach Heart of Darkness. Most on
    point, I teach "Hamlet" every year, and I teach
    it differently every year, partly because of me
    and partly because of whatever group of students
    I'm teaching.

    Pet peeve: "making" works relevant. Either you
    can see how it connects to the world and your
    students or you can't-- there's no point in
    trying to force or fake it. But of course all of
    that also applies to non-fiction as well. Here's
    a delightful quote from a newly-minted assistant

    Ms. Thomas said she believed many students were
    more interested in talking about real-world
    issues like genetic testing than about how a
    character changed over the course of a novel.

    Yes, because how people change and grow and
    develop is certainly a fake, not-real-world
    issue that teenagers could never relate to. Gah!
    The notion that fiction is somehow "fake" and
    unrelated to the "real" world is just so-- dumb!
    Literature is one more engage with what is real
    and true about the world, and anybody who
    doesn't get that is welcome to come watch my
    students argue endlessly about Edna Pontillier
    (The Awakening) and the proper role of
    women in the world.

    Taylor does not know what the real problem
    with Common Core reading is

    If administrators keep their heads and don't let
    Common Core scare them, the losses under Core
    reading are minimal. But if administrators start
    to worry about test scores, things get ugly.

    Perdido Street School lays out some of the losses in New York school district that lose their heads and jump into the EngageNY pool. That's
    similar to what happens in places where
    administrators take seriously all the baloney
    about Close Reading 2.0, which is a thing that calls itself close reading
    and which is really just test prep.

    For schools that decide to let the Big
    Standardized Test drive the curriculum bus, the path is clear-- the significant change is not read more non-fiction, but to do all reading in
    little chunks. The Common Core can pay lip
    service to reading whole works and developing an
    understanding of themes and ideas that are
    developed through an entire work, but that will
    never, ever be on the test.

    So, as Taylor's article hints but never flat out
    admits, we don't cut "Romeo and Juliet"
    entirely, but we only read a few key portions.
    Tom Sawyer? We'll just read that fence-
    painting scene, thanks. We'll read literary
    slices and filets. We'll get our non-fiction
    fill with short articles. But we will never,
    ever again, read an entire book from front to

    And we will always read our short selections to
    suit someone else's purpose. Personal responses
    are not the point; the point is to find the
    answers to the (probably multiple choice)
    questions in the packet, questions modeled on
    the BS Test so that students are better prepared
    for that experience. Do not stop to develop any
    sort of personal relationship with the reading;
    figure out what the questions want from you, and
    go look for that.

    Common Core ELA supports the notion that
    reading, in fact all human relationships, are
    simple transactions in which the only real
    question is "What can I get from this and how
    can I get it?" It is dehumanizing for both
    teachers and students.

    Outside of missing all of that, Taylor did a
    super job with the article. It's fluffy and to
    the untrained eye hardly looks like more Common
    Core PR at all.

    — Curmudgucation
    November 21, 2015

    Index of Common Core [sic] Standards

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