Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Common Core in English/Language Arts: A Critically Literate Reading

In her guest post on this blog, The CCSS: Knowledge is Power, Cindy Mershon recommends that all educators take a critical literacy approach to the reading of the Common Core State Standards. She recommends we seek to answer the following questions as we read:

Who is/are the author(s) of this text?
Who are we hearing from in this text?
Who are we NOT hearing from in this text?
How might this text be different if someone else had written it?
Why did the author(s) write this document?
Why did the author(s) write this document in this way?
What message do you think the author(s) wants us to take away from reading this document?

I decided to give this reading of the CCSS a shot. Here are the answers I have been able to cobble together from my reading of the CCSS and other sources.

Who are the authors of the CCSS?
The lead authors of the CCSS are David Coleman and Susan Pimentel. David Coleman has a background in management consulting. He once tutored children while a student at Yale. Susan Pimentel is a lawyer who specializes in standards driven reform.

Does the fact that authors of the CCSS have extremely limited experience as educators matter? One CCSS critic, Sandra Stotsky, a career educator and one of the authors of the highly regarded Massachusetts standards says, “[TheCCSS’] misplaced stress on informational texts (no matter how much is literary nonfiction) reflects the limited expertise of Common Core’s architects and sponsoring organizations in curriculum and in teachers’ training”(emphasis mine).

Who are we hearing from in the CCSS for E/LA?
Clearly we are hearing from David Coleman, who has rather famously said in reference to approaches to teaching literature that focus on students relating to the text, “As you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a s**t about what you feel or what you think.”

Who else are we hearing from? The Gates Foundation has spent millions in funding the development and the promotion of the Common Core. Bill Gates is, of course, the chairman of Microsoft. Gates’ education efforts are led by Alan Golston whose online biography says he has an MBA and has a background in finance, health care and education. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, led by long time education reformer, Chester A. Finn, and proudly listing former Bush era Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, as a Board Member, has worked throughout the country cheerleading for the implementation of the Common Core.

Who are we not hearing from in the CCSS for E/LA?
Teachers, principals, parents and students.  As Anthony Cody reported in Education week, “the two ‘Working Groups’ that actually wrote the first drafts of the standards do NOT include a single classroom teacher. You can see for yourself on this list provided by the National Governors Association. The two ‘Feedback Groups’ include only one classroom teacher.”

There was a standards review process that involved a large number of teachers. One teacher characterized his participation in this way: “My input was politely heard. I vaguely recall some wording tweaks from the CCSS folks, but my main issue - that the standards could be a guide to be used creatively and professionally rather than another big ‘accountability’ list - wasn't really part of the review agenda” (see Anthony Cody’s full interview here).

There were also no early childhood teachers, researchers or experts on the team writing the CCSS.

How might this text be different if someone else had written it?
One thing is for sure, if the most experienced standards writer in the country, Sandra Stotsky, had been involved in the writing, the emphasis on reading informational text would have been entirely different. There would have been much more emphasis on reading literary texts. You can read Stotsky’s criticisms here.

If literacy experts, Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, had been involved, student voices would have been more valued in the creation of meaning from text and that CCSS favorite “close reading” would have included some of what we have learned about student transactions with text since 1937. You can read about their perspective in the excellent book, Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading. You can read my discussion of their approach to close reading here.

If early childhood literacy specialists, Elfrieda Hibbert and Katie Van Sluys, had been consulted, there would have been no change in the Lexile levels of text reading for children through third grade. Hiebert and Van Sluys posit that there is plenty of research evidence to show that the pre-CCSS levels are appropriate for children and that we need to focus on fluent, comprehending reading at these lower levels for younger children. You can read my full summary of their article here.

Another thing that is clear is that if some early childhood educators had been involved, the standards for K-3 children would look very different. As early as 2010, when the Standards were still in draft form, the Alliance for Childhood issued a statement that said in part, “We have grave concerns about the core standards for young children now being written by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The draft standards made public in January conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development, and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades.” You can read the full statement here.

Dr. Carla Horowitz of the Yale Child Study Center was quoted in The Answer Sheet blog in the Washington Post as stating, “The Core Standards will cause suffering, not learning, for many, many young children.”  And child psychologist, Dr. Megan Koshnick told the American Principals Project that, “Instead of thinking about what’s developmentally appropriate for kindergarteners, [CCSS proponents are thinking college] is where we want this kindergartener to end up, so let’s back track down to kindergarten and have kindergarteners work on these skills from an early age. This can cause major stress for the child because they are not prepared for this level of education.”

If noted educational historian, Diane Ravitch, had been involved in writing the standards, the standards would have been truly voluntary for the states to adopt and they would have been pilot tested to see if they were effective before a national roll out. You can read about Dr. Ravitch’s concerns here.

Why did the authors write this document?
This document was written in response to the perceived concern that the USA’s students were losing ground to students in other nations and that this was a threat to the economic security of the country.  Part of this concern was driven by US student performance on international tests, like PISA, where the country has been scoring in the middle of the pack for many years now. The thought was that a rigorous set of national standards would raise achievement levels and insure that the country could maintain its place as a world economic leader.

A further reason for writing the new standards was that the authors’ research indicated that students were not “college and career ready.” Over the past several decades college level reading material has been getting more difficult, while middle school and high school texts have become less difficult. By increasing the “text complexity” of what children were required to read in grades 2-12, the authors hoped that students would complete their K-12 education “college and career ready.”

What message do you think the authors want us to take away from reading this document?
The authors want teachers to believe that the standards identify what children are supposed to know and be able to do by the end of each grade level. By ensuring that children meet these standards the authors believe that students will be “college and career ready” and that our students will be competitive on a global stage. The authors further want us to believe that this is the “correct” core knowledge that children should attain at each of these grade levels.

I use the word “believe” in the paragraph above, because the authors of the CCSS are asking all of us to take it on faith that these standards will create the desired results. There is no evidence to support this.

Extra Credit Question

What is my “reader response” to this close reading of the CCSS in E/LA (apologies to David Coleman who doesn’t give a s**t how I feel)?
I am not opposed to standards. In fact, when I was a teacher I demanded the highest standards of myself, even though I did not always achieve them. When I was a supervisor, I demanded the highest standards from the teachers I worked with and most of the time I got just that. I am opposed to standards that were developed with minimal input from teachers, teacher leaders, literacy and early childhood experts, parents and students. I do object to standards that fly in the face of sound and long standing literacy research. I do object to the rapid implementation of untried and untested standards. Finally, I object to standards that will drag the country further into the “test and punish” mode first instituted by No Child Left Behind and currently being reinforced by Race to the Top.

Unlike David Coleman, I do give a s**t about how teachers feel and think. I also care what children feel and think. That is because I am an educator. So tell me, how do you feel and what do you think about all this? Your input is welcome.