Common Core

The rumbling in the district probably started long before I first started hearing about coming “new standards.” We’d just revised the state standards a few years earlier, but I’d begun teaching in the state the year the new standards went into effect, so I never had to go back and revamp plans to correspond with new standards.

“Well, I guess I’ll see what that’s like now,” was my only real concern. But I was confused: I knew little about what these “new standards” might be or whence they might come. I assumed it was the state again, fiddling eternally with the numbered guidelines that are my daily metric of effectiveness.

Last year, though, we began going through the process of shifting from old state standards to the Common Core. This meant, it turned out, decidedly more than changing standard numbers on our lesson plans. The head of English instruction in our district, in a series of workshops preparing teachers for the change, constant told us (and more importantly, showed us) how these standards would necessitate a change not only in what we teach but also in how we teach.

I did have some initial concerns over the standards, though. The English standards place high importance on what in Common Core nomenclature is known as “informational texts.” We used just to call it “nonfiction,” but somehow that’s not descriptive enough, I suppose. This is not nonfiction as in essays and biographies, though. By one definition,

informational text is:

  • text whose primary purpose is to convey information about the natural and social world.
  • text that typically has characteristic features such as addressing whole classes of things in a timeless way.
  • text that comes in many different formats, including books, magazines, handouts, brochures, CD-ROMs, and the Internet

This includes, then, things like textbooks, pamphlets, forms, and myriad other textual forms. I’m certainly not going to suggest these things have no place in a classroom; indeed, they’re critical in the classroom. But what proportion? The Common Core suggests that by high school, students should be reading seventy percent informational texts. This means, in short, the classics are essentially gone. Only thirty percent of high school students’ reading should be fiction, and I’ve heard from a friend who is also a teacher that her principal has informed the librarian that she will receive absolutely no funding for the purchase of fiction this year.

What’s the thinking behind this? The earlier-quoted article continues by providing four reasons why these texts are so important:

we feel children should encounter more informational text in the primary grades for the reasons explained below:

  • Informational text is key to success in later schooling.
  • Informational text is ubiquitous in society.
  • Informational text is preferred reading material for some children.
  • Informational text often addresses children’s interests and questions.

It’s all a question of supposedly getting kids ready for “the real world,” where most of the texts they read are informational texts. Indeed, the first point echoes things I’ve heard in my own district about informational texts: students get to college and have difficulty reading college textbooks. They’re used to reading primarily fiction, goes the argument. This is simply ridiculous, most conspicuously for the stunningly obvious fact that high schools use textbooks, which ironically is a function of the second point about the ubiquity of informational texts.

Beyond that, though, it belies the my experience and that of everyone else I know who successfully completed college: we all made the shift from (supposedly) primarily fiction reading to mostly nonfictional texts without much difficulty. There is some truth to the claim that much of informational text in the world is argument, written to persuade, but all middle and high school curricula covered that without Common Core’s insistence on seventy-percent informational text coverage.

Yet other portions of the Common Core struck me as reasonable, even necessary. For instance, the CCS places a much higher premium on writing than other standards, and the proposed shift in assessment (via Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) seemed more like things people do in “real life” rather than simply choosing A, B, C, or D. It involves reading resources with the aim of synthesizing something from them (often an argument). People do that all the time in their jobs, and it’s a critical skill.

I’m ashamed to admit that I never stopped to think about what political forces might have lined up behind these new standards. Somewhat like Milgram’s thirty-seven, I just did what I was told. I heard the hoopla, went to the meetings, studied the new standards, and went along with it, changing my unit plans, ditching this and that, adding that and this. Yet the more I learn about it, the more concerned I am.

The major concern right-leaning people have about the Common Core has to do with the apparent increased control it gives the federal government over education. Yet that seems to be a misplaced concern. Yet I am worried about the loss of state control over education, not to the federal government but to the private corporations that make the tests that will assess students’ and teachers’ performance with the new standards. It is, as one commentator called it, “Education without Representation.”

Another worry: we’re going headlong into these new standards and tests with very little empirical testing. All these states just seem to be jumping on the bandwagon and saying, “Hey, great idea — let’s do it!” But will these standards actually accomplish what they’re touted to accomplish? In modern education, it’s all a question of data, data, data — except in this case.

A final worry is the one that likely rolled around in the thoughts of all teachers who have spent more than a couple of years in the classroom. Educational fads come and go. Standards change and then disappear, reappear, and are reshaped. My fear is that this too will only turn out to be a fad, something that everyone gets excited palpitations about now but only appears in the footnotes of Intro to Ed books. If that is the case, a final, more politically conservative concern: think of all the tax dollars wasted in that case in this clamoring toward these new supposedly salvific standards. We could likely do some real good in the classroom for all that money.

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