Sunday, April 20, 2014

David Brooks Hearts Common Core

If you haven’t heard already, New York Times columnist, David Brooks, the liberals' favorite conservative, wrote a column yesterday supporting the Common Core and characterizing critics on the right and left as members of a “circus.”

My blogger colleagues Mercedes Schneider  (deutsch29) and Aaron Barlow (Academe blog) have already done a wonderful job of critiquing Brooks’ peculiar journey into Common Core Wonderland, so I encourage you to visit their blogs for a full discussion of Brooksian misinformation.

There is one statement in Brooks’ column, however, that really frosts my literacy teaching pumpkin. So, I feel compelled to address that one statement here.

In a discussion of how superior the Common Core is to prior standards, champion of the Core Brooks says:

The [Common Core] English standards encourage reading comprehension. Whereas the old standards frequently encouraged students to read a book and then go off and write a response to it, the new standards encourage them to go back to the text and pick out specific passages for study and as evidence.

That’s right folks in the old bad days BCC (Before Common Core), we teachers did not encourage reading comprehension, we just sent our little cherubs off to respond to what they read willy nilly. This claim is so far out of bounds as to be ludicrous. But it is typical of Core advocates, who seem to think the Common Core invented students looking for evidence in what they read. Brooks' comment echoes that of Common Core Chief Architect, David Coleman, who rather famously said, "You will find...that nobody gives a sh*t about what you think or how you feel" about your reading. 

To show you what I mean let me demonstrate a reading comprehension technique that I have been using to teach kids to examine evidence since the Davids Coleman and Brooks were in grade school. I assure you I am far from unique in my use of similar strategies.

The strategy is called Claim-Support-Question or CSQ. With CSQ, the teacher guides the students in identifying a claim in a text, finding the supporting evidence for the claim and then raising questions about the claim.

So, let's find a claim in Brooks' statement above:

Claim - The Common Core encourages reading comprehension.
Claim - Old standards did not. They had students go off and write a response to their reading.

Support - None is provided here by the author. The reader could, if s/he chose, go and look at the Common Core to verify. Then the reader could go off and read the old standards to discover if what they emphasized was going off and writing a response and not emphasizing reading comprehension.

Questions: - How is the Common Core substantially different from the "old standards" when it comes to reading comprehension? What did we know about reading comprehension before the standards were written and how was that implemented in schools? Is responding to a text in writing a valuable reading comprehension strategy? Is writing a response to reading really all that was in the old standards about reading comprehension?

Let us now explore the answers to these questions. The Common Core has brought a greater emphasis to the concept of seeking evidence for author's claims. But to state that this is new or revolutionary is just plain silly. Teachers have been asking students to cite evidence in grades K-12 at least since I started school in the '50s. The Common Core emphasis on evidence is likely in part due to David Coleman's background in "evidence based solution" consulting. Coleman is a big fan of evidence, except for evidence related to showing the Common Core will work, of which there is none (Now there is a claim I invite you to use a CSQ on).

As to what we knew about reading comprehension instruction before the Common Core, it turns out that we knew a whole lot. Just for an example, and as evidence, I would refer you to this summary of reading comprehension research from 1994 in which Fielding and Pearson lay out what good comprehension instruction should look like. The paper is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago, and those practices have been evident in classrooms for a very long time. Among the things Fielding and Pearson found worked was using background knowledge to make predictions and to form inferences. Background knowledge is disdained in the close reading world of Coleman's Common Core, which makes these standards a step backwards for reading comprehension instruction. You can find my discussion of the necessity of background knowledge in reading comprehension here. 

Fielding and Pearson also support the use of student written responses as a way for students to enter the world of the text and build a richer comprehension of the text. So, Brooks' sneer at "going off and writing a response" is a unwarranted poke at a well established and well researched comprehension strategy. You can find my defense of written response here

As far as the "old standards" go, they vared widely across states, but I have yet to see one that did not address reading comprehension or that suggrested that the students just "go off a write a response."

The Pearson of the article cited above, is P. David Pearson, probably the pre-eminent researcher on reading comprehension. Pearson supports the Common Core with reservations. The key reservations revolve around the Revised Publishers Criteria, wherein Coleman and compatriot Susan Pimentel laid out how to implement the standards. Pearson is concerned that the implementation will not match what we know about reading comprehension.

If you would like to know more about the CSQ strategy, you can find a full explanation here.

In closing, I would like to suggest that David Brooks follow sage advice passed down to writers for ages: write about what you know. Because, David Brooks, you don't know reading comprehension.