……….They’re still not going to know how to write..Why the Common Core matters to higher education folk

Dear College Instructor,

Hello-I am a high school English teacher.    I am that person who didn’t teach your students how to write.   I am sure your students have told you that they never had to write essays in high school, that they just filled out worksheets,  wrote occasional journals, and wiled away their time with collages and spark notes, their “education”  punctuated occasionally by inspirational quotes and kitten hanging from tree memes.    I’ve been to your parties, yes yours Humanities PhD people,  in which you not only scoffed at the school of education for not REALLY being a school of study,  but you wondered why a sophomore in high school isn’t reading Walter Benjamin,  and then asked if I majored in Education(which no, I didn’t).
But I digress.

I am here to talk about an issue that you should care about-the Common Core.  I realize that you know nothing of national standards-because there are other things happening at the university level-but this is important.   Maybe you’ve heard about the common core on NPR-how bad the scores were in New York,  how teachers are mad about it,  how tea party members think it’s Obama taking over their child’s education-and all of this interesting to me and to people with children-but maybe not to you.   But I think you should care, because the way the Common Core is being implemented now  will not only mean that students will be even worse at writing a few years from now,  but they will be even worse at reading.

A Brief Summary:

The common core purports to make students college and career ready.    While the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and Pearson contributed vast sums of money to the creation of them,  as far as I can tell,   very few college professors were consulted.     The main “architect” (an astonishing nomenclature he embraces) is a man named David Coleman,  who has never taught a day in his life, nor does hold a graduate degree.     He has spent the majority of his adult life as a consultant for text book companies and now heads the college board.  His most current innovation is taking the essay requirement out of the SAT.

I am providing a  link here to the common core http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/CCRA/R/  so you read them at your leisure- but here is the goal:

The skills and knowledge captured in the ELA/literacy standards are designed to prepare students for life outside the classroom. They include critical-thinking skills and the ability to closely and attentively read texts in a way that will help them understand and enjoy complex works of literature. Students will learn to use cogent reasoning and evidence collection skills that are essential for success in college, career, and life. The standards also lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person who is prepared for success in the 21st century.’

They seem to have a very different idea about what it means to be a “literate” person.     Literature-something that very few students read enough of anyway,  takes a back seat in favor of what are called “informational texts”.     For example, in elementary schools, it is decreed that students should read a 50/50 divide of literature and informational text,  by high school,  it is 30% literature to 70%   informational texts-which represents a 40% decline the reading of literature as they move through secondary school.

Why it’s Bad:

My main criticisms of the Common Core are as follows:  First, that it takes a weirdly quantitative approach to reading novels in that the standards are overly concerned with the structure of literature and the actual words on the page, not with tracing the development of symbols and metaphors.    In an article in scholastic,http://frizzleblog.scholastic.com/post/10-things-worth-doing-your-classroom  David Coleman provides ten helpful insights in how to teach novels the Common Core way. In number four he admonishes teachers to “ Only draw conclusions that can be substantiated by the words on the page. Scrape away terms like “metaphorical,” and talk as simply as possible. Once you bring up metaphor and meaning, kids are out of the game.”     So by David Coleman’s metric the mockingbird in To Kill a Mockingbird was just an annoying bird that would occasionally sing and was a sin to kill. Maybe the streetcar in a Street Car Named Desire, was just a streetcar -and Holden Caulfield just wore his hunting cap because it was cold outside, and Proust just went on and on about a cookie-for no reason what so ever.      If you think your students aren’t great at recognizing symbols now -imagine how much worse they will be five years from now.

This is no more evident than the obsession with what they call “Close Reading”.    Under the Common Core,  the activity of a “Close Read”  is reduced to a game of Gotcha where students are tested on their ability to be able to cite facts from inane and pointless  informational texts.    It begins in the first grade.     I swear,  the close read on the test is actually designed to be an exercise in how well you well you can tolerate relentless banality.     If you’d like to see what I am talking about, here is a link to a practice  test-try grade 11.  https://sbacpt.tds.airast.org/student/    .    If you were to take the test, you would notice that not only are the vocabulary questions unfair,  but that there is only one piece of literature in the entire test for the 11th grade.     I should point out that it is literature only in the loosest definition of the term-in that it is a short story about high school students who have to read “Much Ado About Nothing”  for a test-How  postmodern, right?

This leads to my second criticism of the Common Core- by constantly insisting that students engage with the text as an observer rather than a participant,  by treating a novel  or book as a document with “evidence”,  it reduces the act of reading to fact collecting and as a result-takes agency away from the reader/student.    Coleman, and by extension, the standards, prioritize the words, or what happened in the novel  over the ideas of the novel. In the same article he states “Look at it carefully, step by step, to see how it unfolds. Live within it. In a well-wrought work, each word is worth pondering.”   It’s not about the meaning of the text, of how a student might interpret the text, or have their own thoughts about the text,  but the book becomes an authority which students are not encouraged to question in meaningful ways.   I am afraid that the text becomes a kind of objective vehicle of knowledge that is above petty concerns of subjectivity;  reading becomes an act of internalizing your subordinate role in an existing power structure rather than an act of agency, liberation and joy.

Which is not only unimaginative, and misses the point of why people create art, but can be dangerous as well.      Take this standard:

Text Types and Purposes:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1
Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1.a
Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
Notice that the standards aren’t asking students to evaluate the arguments that are being made-they’re not asked to be critical of them at all.    Under these 12th grade standards,    it would be within the realm of possibility that a student could write an essay about Mein Kampf and it would never once occur to them to be critical of Hitler.    The ability to evaluate ideas should be as important as the skill of tracing an argument.    What is the point of knowing someone’s argument if you can’t engage with it in some way?
I know that it’s important to strike a balance between the students’ limited experiences and the ability to actually cite examples from a text they were supposed to read.     But these standards are not teaching them how to ask interesting questions of their own about the text, the standards do not reward students for having interesting insights,   nor do they encourage students to develop confidence in their interpretation of things.    At their core,   the standards show an utter lack of understanding of the project of the  humanities.    As a result,  students will most likely struggle even more than they already in their intro courses-because they won’t know how to even begin to think about things.     While they will be really adept at explaining someone else’ argument,  they may not be able to think of their own thesis.
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3 thoughts on “……….They’re still not going to know how to write..Why the Common Core matters to higher education folk

  1. Pingback: on pinboard for March 14th, 2014 through March 18th, 2014 | Morgan's Log

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