One of the great joys of being the editor of this fine publication — and straddling both the media and education policy arenas — is that it allows me to indulge my inner geek and read through materials that I would otherwise ignore. This is especially true in dissecting the arguments of supporters and opponents of the effort by 45 states and the District of Columbia to implement Common Core reading and math standards. And it is particularly clear when one actually looks at the argument offered by the coterie of movement conservatives, hardcore traditionalists, and smattering of otherwise-sensible conservative reformers opposed to the standards that Common Core’s reading standards will weaken the quality of teaching, curricula, and learning in classrooms.
For much of the past two years, Common Core foes such as Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas, have articulated two reasons why they think Common Core’s reading standards are weak. The first? Because teachers are now required to focus at least some of their time focusing their students on reading so-called informational texts — mainly books of nonfiction such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, speeches such as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and op-eds as well as other forms of expository essays — as well as on writing their own fact-driven op-eds and essays articulating points of view. From where Common Core foes sit (and as some teachers, including those profiled this past December in the Washington Post), this focus on nonfiction comes at the expense of the traditional classroom focus on great works of fiction such as The Great Gatsby as well as on writing stories and other pieces talking about their experiences. In turn, Common Core’s emphasis on reading and writing non-fiction weakens the quality of curricula, instruction, and ultimately, student learning in classrooms because children are not exposed to the great works of fictions that challenge their minds and stimulates their thinking. Proclaims Stotsky in an abbreviated version of a piece she wrote for the Pioneer Institute: “Common Core’s damage to the English curriculum is already taking shape.”
Then there’s the second argument against Common Core’s reading standards: That the standards themselves are not clear or self-explanatory. From their perspective, the standards are incoherent, don’t offer teachers enough in the way of instruction to understand what they should be doing in classrooms, and don’t help kids fully understand what they should know. More importantly, because most English teachers haven’t been trained to do this work, they are unable to understand what they are doing, and thus, will fail. This argument, along with the complaints about the focus on nonfiction as well as the loss of that mythical thing called local control of education (which, given that states are charged constitutionally with providing public education, and that districts, as local governments, are merely arms of their respective state governments, has never existed), is among the more-serious arguments offered by Common Core foes.
Yet when one actually reads through the actual standards itself, the arguments Common Core foes offer fall apart.
For one, Common Core actually emphasizes both fiction and nonfiction reading and writing, as well as reading books on history and science. This is a good thing because many state standards don’t focus teachers and districts to focus kids on reading nonfiction, while the focus on fiction is often desultory at best. During the first two grades, teachers are required to focus students on such fundamentals of analyzing and interpreting fiction as describing characters and understanding the central plot and message of a story, while also learning how to describe the “main purpose of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe”. By the time kids reach high school, they must figure out Shakespeare’s plays draw from other great texts such as Ovid’s The Metamorphosis as well as determine how, say, John Stuart Mill’s point of view in On Liberty and how he “uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose”. And on the path to high schools, kids are asked to understand how, for example, director Kenneth Branaugh’s version of Frankenstein digresses from Mary Shelley’s original work, and at the same time, “analyze how 2 or more authors writing about the same topic shape their presentations of information” on the same issue. Simply put, teachers are required to help students master the kind of sophisticated reading, writing, and analysis that they will have to do once they enter the adult world.
The standards implicitly forces English teachers to improve the quality of books they assign for students to read. After all, to engage in the kind of sophisticated reading required under the standards, children (and their teachers) have to actually read great works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Iliad and the Old and New Testaments. At the same time, it still grants teachers wide latitude in how can bring relevance — including incorporating American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian cultures — into instruction. For example, a teacher at the Kamehameha Schools in Hawaii, a private school focused on improving the futures of Native Hawaiian children, can actually tie together the “rose by any other name” scene in Romeo and Juliet and Native Hawaiian poems about the various flora that kids can find on every one of the state’s islands. This ability to bring relevance as well as comprehensive learning into reading and writing is one reason why Native communities have become less-resistant to implementing the standards than foes of the standards outside them.
Meanwhile an actual reading through the standards themselves shows that they aren’t exactly hard for teachers and school leaders to understand. It is really hard for any competent district curriculum director to not understand what it means to “determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details” and even harder for a good or great teacher to comprehend what it means to “trace and evaluate the argument” presented in, say, a Thomas Friedman column. In fact, an average parent or caregiver with a strong understanding of concepts such as close reading (or the careful and sustained interpretation of fiction and nonfiction text) can grasp Common Core’s reading standards, and actually handle instruction themselves in a home-school or tutoring setting. If anything, Common Core’s reading standards do something that most state standards don’t do very well: Explain to teachers what they should be teaching in their classrooms, and what kids should learn in order to be successful once they enter higher education (including traditional colleges and apprenticeships) and move on to the adult world, regardless of what career paths they choose.
The importance of Common Core’s reading standards in focusing American public education on exposing children to the great works of nonfiction cannot be understated. After all, so much of our activities and discourse in public and private life is shaped by ideas espoused in books written by Thomas Paine, Aristotle, Marx, and Voltaire. One cannot understand, say, American and even international economic policy for most of the past six decades without reading the works of Friedrich von Hayek and John Maynard Keynes. The architecture of Washington, D.C., and, in fact, nearly every state capital, is shaped by architect Andrea Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura, which was read by the leading intellectual among America’s Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Considering the role of nonfiction books in shaping how we think and what we believe, especially in an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society, there is more need than ever for children, especially those from poor and minority households, to read, write, and understand nonfiction. Arguments by Stotsky and other Common Core foes to the contrary are not only wrongheaded, but absolutely, positively lacking in seriousness.
All that said, one of the problems that will be faced in implementing Common Core is the fact that far too many teachers lack the skills needed to provide high-quality reading instruction. This is one of the culprits behind the nation’s education crisis — and why 33 percent of fourth-graders (as of 2011) are functionally illiterate as well as will likely drop out. But this isn’t the fault of either the standards themselves or even of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (which crafted them). This problem lies with the nation’s university schools of education, which have long ago faltered in their recruiting and training of aspiring teachers. As the National Council on Teacher Quality concluded in 2006, only 11 of 71 ed schools it surveyed in 2006 adequately trained future teachers in reading; recent studies from NCTQ have also reaffirmed the abysmal quality of teacher training. Common Core foes don’t seem to acknowledge the underlying problem, and in fact, offer no solutions to overhauling teacher recruiting and training. This unwillingness to admit that Common Core — which has only begun to be implemented — is not the problem, as well as their lack of solutions also makes their arguments hard to take seriously.
Of course, Common Core foes such as Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey will complain that your editor is merely mocking his allies. After all, they have already complained about the mocking of their positions by Common Core supporters such as Benjamin Riley of the New Schools Venture Fund, who satirized the arguments of Common Core foes in a recent piece on the school reform outfit’s blog. [Of course, at least Common Core supporter, Larry Grau of Democrats for Education Reform’s Indiana affiliate, is engaging in equally unserious arguments against Common Core foes that are counter to the school reform movement’s principled bipartisanship. DFER Executive Director Joe Williams should tell Grau to take a time out, and the organization should stop engaging in this ridiculousness. Right now.] What foes of the standards fail to realize is that it is hard to take all but a few Common Core foes seriously (McCluskey being one of them) because of their association with allies who engage in misinformation and conspiracy-theorizing.
From the argument of Gatesers that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has somehow engaged in a stealth campaign to implement the standards that is somehow a violation of American democracy (even as it has been clear long ago that the Gates Foundation’s efforts have been anything but stealthy or anti-democratic), to statements by others that Common Core’s implementation would lead to kids having to use facial recognition software, to less-than-factual statements by movement conservatives opposed to Common Core such as otherwise-sensible syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin that the standards would lead to middle-schoolers not taking introductory algebra classes (even though few take such courses now, and the standards actually allow for states to further efforts to provide seventh- and eighth-graders to take Algebra 1), Common Core foes have been their own worst enemies.
Take the the particularly interesting rhetorical ploy that Common Core is unworthy of implementing because they have been “untested”. The statement would have merit if not for the fact it isn’t completely so. Aspects of Common Core’s nonfiction reading standards, for example, are echoed by the curricula standards put in place by Massachusetts 12 years (and the similarities between those standards and Common Core may be one reason why the Bay State moved to adopt the latter). Just as importantly, standards (along with other aspects of education, including those reforms that many Common Core foes tout, including charter schools, which have turned out to be successful) aren’t ever field-tested in the first place. Whether standards and curricula should be tested is a different story, and your editor would tend to support testing them out first. But Common Core foes have never articulated why such an approach should be taken. They have just tossed out the words “untested” thinking that would actually resonate with anyone other than those opposed to any form of common standard. That is clearly less-than-serious rhetoric unworthy of any consideration.
In fact, one of the reasons why they haven’t succeeded so far in halting implementation of Common Core is because supporters of the standards have been able to mock the less-than-serious arguments and obscure the more-serious objections. It is hard for even those who may support your position to publicly do so if they surmise that your allies are offering reasons and arguments that make talk about one-world governments seem more-plausible by comparison. This, in turn, has allowed Common Core supporters to evade important arguments such as whether there should there be national curricula (especially in reading and math) and whether anyone should fear this happening. This is an important question because the possibility of Common Core leading to national curricula is one reason why serious foes of the standards are so ardently opposed to its implementation. Given the wide latitude provided under Common Core for anyone looking to develop curricula — as well as the fears, well-founded or not, about the impact of a national curricula — this is unlikely to happen. In fact, one of the positive impacts of Common Core is that those who want to develop curricula actually have the ability to craft high-quality content based on a set of standards. All that said, whatever your position on that issue, it is a question worth discussing.
It also allows Common Core supporters to avoid discussing the real problems of implementing Common Core: That without strong accountability — most-concretely in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act, whose Adequate Yearly Progress provisions have been weakened by the Obama Administration as part of its waiver gambit — the standards may not actually be implemented effectively, especially in improving curricula for poor and minority kids). And that it will take vigilance on the part of reformers and state education departments to ensure that curricula actually meet the underlying standards, an issue already difficult to address now that textbook publishers are now trying to proclaim that their offering are “Common Core ready”. This matters because many Common Core supporters have oversold the likely efficacy of the standards. And this, in turn, is not a good thing for either side. When school reformers and those who want systemic reform (which movement conservatives opposed Common Core do want, something that their allies among traditionalists certainly do not) fail engage in serious discussions about implementing reforms, the movement suffers. Unlike education traditionalists (who depend solely on the passions generated from benefiting from a failed, amoral model), the school reform movement derives its strength and success from being thoughtful in developing solutions to address the nation’s education crisis. We need thoughtful conflict. Period.
Common Core foes could actually force supporters of the standards to actually think through these problems — and defend the standards in a more-meaningful way that advances systemic reform — if they rid themselves of those offering arguments lacking seriousness within their ranks. Until then, those less-than-serious arguments will be mocked. And so will they.