The Common Core: Better Than the Old Standards

Peter Machera

The Common Core Standards may not completely remedy the vacuous and jargon-filled education standards of old, but they do represent an improvement, notably in curriculum. Whereas previous standards lent themselves to caricature, the Common Core is at least a serious effort to guide teaching. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of the Common Core, but it is important to distinguish such criticisms from deliberate misrepresentations. Ultimately, only by exploring what education standards have been thus far can we begin to contextualize the gains made by the Common Core.

The Shortcomings of Previous Educational Standards

National secondary education standards have always been laughably vague. For example, the National Council of Teachers of English, Standard #2:

Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

This standard gives a teacher so little direction, one must ask, what purpose does it serve? The existence of such standards, paradoxically, represent a rejection of standards more than an assertion of them. The NCTE standards are peppered with the word “different”:

Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes (Standard #5, emphasis mine)

Standards by definition require sameness. Any type of uniformity, though, is antithetical to the aesthetic of the educational professor class and establishment. Their standards therefore have the flavor of defiance: “we will not follow any rules and we refuse to dictate to students what they should do,” is the subtext of the NCTE standards.  

State standards, on the other hand, have always been an odd combination of overwrought detail and vacuity. They’re written in an ultra-bureaucratic tone which manages to say very little with very many words. A typical state’s standards for English count twenty pages. It’s simply unrealistic that a teacher could cover all of these benchmarks in anything other than a token effort. And much of these standards are jargon-laden.

The state standards focus on what “skills” students are supposed to learn, as opposed to any particular knowledge of literature they should acquire. This is a criticism which has also been leveled at the Common Core Standards.

But some state standards are quite ambitious. Here is a sample from New Mexico State’s English standards, Grade 9, under the subheading of “Language”:

Recognize that the relationship between nouns, verbs, and modifiers create different syntactic structures (e.g., that an intransitive verb creates a subject verb pattern, transitive verbs create a subject verb direct object pattern, and linking verbs create a subject linking verb predicate adjective and subject linking verb predicate noun.) 

I have not encountered any 9th grade student who could do that. At any rate, state standards which treat grammar and mechanics tend to be satisfyingly concrete (or even too specific) because such matters are apolitical. Conversely, state standards have been mute on matters of curriculum.

Another section of the New Mexico state standard proclaims that students shall “communicate effectively through listening and speaking.” Is “Listening” a rigorous academic standard? It is interpreted broadly:

…listening for contextual clues to infer meaning of unknown words, interpreting figurative language; interpreting non-verbal clues; listening in order to distinguish between main ideas and details; listening for transitions; noting sequence and organization of ideas; extending the speaker’s ideas based on prior knowledge and personal experience; determining the need for further information and research; visualizing using mnemonic devices; summarizing and synthesizing; and considering significance, value, and possible uses of the information. (Communication Strand III, III D, ELA Grades 9-12)   

Apparently the framers of the standards liked the idea of having a strand which treated “listening,” and then arbitrarily threw in everything but the kitchen sink under that subheading. It seems to be purposefully confusing. The Common Core also extols nebulous “listening skills”:

Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives. Synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible, and determine what additional information or research is needed to deepen the investigation or complete the task. (Speaking and Listening Strand, 11th and 12th grades)

Mandating of “listening skills” is an unusual endeavor, but it shows how ineffable some academic skills are, and how seemingly futile it is to explicitly delineate them in this fashion. It is hard to imagine a teacher deliberatively inculcating these skills, and it is even more difficult to imagine a high school student self-consciously employing these metacognitive strategies. Is it a reasonable goal that students will “analyze in detail the structure of a specific paragraph in a text, including the role of particular sentences in developing and refining a key concept” (Common Core, Reading for Informational Texts, Grade 8)? Or instead, should we focus on students demonstrating a literal understanding of the meaning of what they read, and having them respond intelligently?

Unfortunately, the Common Core resembles other state standards to the extent that it spins off nebulous skills into countless subcategories.

Ideology of the Common Core

E.D. Hirsch wrote in City Journal that the Common Core “may offer a ray of hope,” which is wide praise from someone who has spent his career excoriating the educational establishment, specifically for the follies of progressive education. As Hirsch explains, “progressive education” is not inextricably linked with a progressive political view—though the two philosophies are not mutually exclusive either. Hirsch uses the term “progressive education” to describe what can be otherwise termed “student-centered education”, or “constructivism”: an educational movement which has bedazzled its consumers and followers with high-sounding rhetoric, but left American students ignorant of the basic facts and body of knowledge prerequisite for a culturally literate citizen.

In the following manners, the Common Core has mollified critics of progressive education:

  1. The Common Core Standards have sought to remedy the inherent weakness of personal-response writing assignments, in which students are simply asked to relate literature to their own lives. Authors of the Common Core Standards David Coleman and Susan Pimentel admonish that “even the youngest readers need to keep the text central.” That may seem obvious, but it flies in the face of the constructivist dogma taught in ed school, which holds that students’ personal reaction is the most important response to literature—this is known as “reader response.” Reader-response has been the dominant method practiced in secondary school, and this has been reinforced by textbooks. For example, in a question for Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, students may be asked: “What does friendship mean to you?” Can a response to such a question ever be wrong? Instead, the Common Core emphasizes what is referred to as “evidenced based writing,” and this is a welcome change.
  2. The Common Core project ultimately requires students to be given standardized tests which are meant to gauge the extent to which students have achieved the standards’ objectives. In New Mexico, these core subject end of year tests have become graduation requirements.
  3. The Common Core unequivocally requires that students gain “sufficient command of Standard English,” whereas the NCTE encourages teachers to have students “develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use…” (Standard #9). This is another welcome change.
  4. The Common Core advocates a relatively traditional program of literature study, to be detailed below.
Skills vs. Content

The framers of the Common Core have anticipated—or reacted to—criticisms that it is too focused on skills and not enough on content: “The standards recognize that both content and skills are important,” they explain. The standards do address both. But the content tends to get lost in the mix of the exhaustive skills-focused standards. Just as the state standards for ELA 6-12 were typically exhaustive at twenty pages, the Common Core Standards for ELA 6-12, for all its purported succinctness, weighs in at… twenty pages.

Education writer Mike Schmoker, writing in Phi Delta Kaplan,  criticizes the Core Standards because, “they embrace the unproven notion that literacy consists of separate, often specious, individually taught skills…”. Schmoker believes that the Common Core, as other educational standards before it, arbitrarily concoct reading skills that do not reflect the learning experience of actual emerging readers. “When will we learn that no one ever became literate by being taught how to “find the central idea of a text”?”, he asks. (Note Common Core’s Grade 8, Reading for Literature Strand: “Determine a central theme or idea of a text...”)

Teachers implicitly understand that reading gains are made organically, with repeated exposure to increasingly profound literature. Beyond the learning of phonics and vocabulary, reading comprehension gains are more of an implicit affair. The Common Core, like the standards before it, seeks to micro-manage the process of reading by laying out explicit, metacognitive reading strategies, which they set forth with all the clarity of IRS tax filing instructions:

  • Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g. where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed) (Reading for Literature Strand, 11-12th grade)
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text…(Reading for Informational Text Strand, 11th to 12th grade)

Many English teachers understand reading to be more intuitive and less clinical. They therefore instinctively resist the standards movement, though they may not articulate their resistance as such.

Is a Literature Curriculum Addressed?

The standards do address the literature curriculum adequately, if one reads them carefully enough. The standards mandate that Shakespeare and foundational texts in American history be read, and they lay out additional, reasonable curriculum suggestions. That is an improvement in terms of concreteness compared to previous state and national standards.

To refer to the New Mexico state ELA standards once again, there scant mention is made of specific literary works. Students are to read “significant works of literature from various genres” (Strand IX, Literature, Grade 9). By grade ten, we have narrowed down the literary requirements to 300 years of world history: “significant 18th, 19th and 20th century works of literature” (Strand IX, Literature, Benchmark A). The New Mexico standards do, though, specify several times that students are to read “Hispanic and Native American oral and written literatures” (Strand IX, Literature, Benchmark A, Grades 9 & 10). So to put it in perspective, yes, the Common Core represents an improvement in literature curriculum. Furthermore, the Common Core yields less to multiculturalism than what we have become accustomed to from the educational establishment.

As a kind of addendum, the standards give examples of texts that demonstrate “text complexity.” 11th grade suggestions include venerable non-fiction works by Emerson, Thoreau, and Orwell. Lest it should be considered Eurocentric, Richard Wright is included, along with a writer named Rudolfo Anaya, whose recommended essay is titled “Take the Tortillas out of your Poetry.” Fiction suggestions for 11th graders include Charlotte Brontë, Dickinson, Fitzgerald, and Neale Hurston. These suggestions, however, are made on page 56 of the standards, a page that I doubt many teachers will reach, considering the ponderous nature of the preceding 55 pages.

In the standards proper, 11-12th graders are to read “seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century foundational US documents of historic and literary significance (including the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features” (Reading for Informational Texts Strand). In the “Reading Standards for Literature” strand, grades 11-12, students are to “Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, poem, or drama…(include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist).” Again, it is admirable to mandate Shakespeare. The Common Core should have gone even further by specifying which Shakespeare plays should be read in which grades.  For example:

9th grade: Romeo and Juliet

10th grade: Julius Caesar

12th grade: Macbeth or Hamlet

Do not expect those who resist the Western Canon to suddenly embrace it because of the Common Core, though. Case in point, the Connecticut State Department of Education provides a sample lesson that is supposed to assist teachers in conforming to the Common Core. The authors admonish teachers: “Texts should be diverse, multicultural, and responsive to student needs and interests...” In other words, it’s business as usual when it comes to interpreting the standards. Like a certain politician who chooses which laws to enforce according to his personal preference, left- wing education bureaucracies will adopt, and co-opt, the Common Core for their own purposes. Suggested reading for Connecticut Department of Education’s sample lesson plan: Alexie, “Indian Education”; Anaya, “Take the Tortillas out of your Poetry”; Angelou, “Champion of the World”; Garcia, “Dreaming in Cuban”; Haley, Roots; Nieves, “Puzzle”; Tan, “Fish Cheeks; and for good measure, more Tan, “Mother Tongue.”

So no, the Common Core does not necessarily harbinger a return to the classics, whatever the standards themselves might actually say. In the spring 2013 issue of Academic Questions, English professor Mark Bauerlein gives depressing detail as to how textbook publisher Pearson has similarly co-opted the Common Core’s curriculum suggestions with its own “bias and sensitivity” filtered material. Having scrutinized Pearson textbooks over the last few years as I have taught from them firsthand, this comes as no surprise. I know well how futile any effort would be to create sensible English textbooks, and yet it is exasperating to see one step forward taken with the Common Core, and two steps back as the establishment bastardizes the spirit of the standards. Alas, we cannot blame the Common Core creators; they did not invent the PC game, but are, like the rest of us, just hapless players in it. That being said, we should heed Bauerlein’s call to view the Common Core as “an opening for resistance.”

Conclusion

The Common Core standards are an unequivocal improvement upon earlier standards in that they reference quality literature, advocate Standard English, and reject journal-style responses to literature. Though I’ve pointed out a couple standards I find to be overwrought, and I am generally skeptical of metacognitive reading strategies, I ultimately arrive at a positive assessment of the Common Core, especially when comparing it to its predecessors.  

The standards implore students again and again to focus on what a text “explicitly” says. This means that if we are true to the Common Core’s spirit, we’ll let the authors of great literature speak for themselves, and we will let students hear those voices unencumbered by modern theory.

Peter Machera holds an MAT in English education from Fairfield University and currently teaches English in New Mexico, where the Common Core Standards are in effect.

Image: Pixabay, Public Domain

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