The common core starts to get real

It’s been two years since the common core standards were released to the nation, and the 46 adopting states are starting to get serious about implementation. Up until now, CCS criticism has been rather muted. But this seems to be changing as administrators and teachers attempt to translate CCS language into classroom instruction.

The Washington Post this week reported on English teacher backlash to the common core standards in their field.  The CCS call for non-fiction texts to comprise 70 percent of high school students’ reading and define benchmarks for reading in history/social studies, science and technical subjects. The reporter spoke to several English teachers who don’t like it, lamenting that poetry and literature will be sent to the curricular backseat. Judging by the letters written in response to the story, a lot of people side with the teachers.

I believe their concerns, although real, are misplaced. First, there’s a good reason the common core goes so far to specify what kind of texts students should work with and how much.  U.S. students do well in international comparisons of reading literature, but their performance drops significantly when being asked to read for information.  Our 15-year-olds, for example, perform better than all but five OECD nations when reading to “reflect and evaluate.” In comparison, 14 countries outscore us in reading to “access and retrieve.”  U.S. fourth-graders do about the same.

Other issues have to do with implementation. In this regard, the English teachers are right to be annoyed for they were not intended to be the only ones teaching reading. The teachers of other subjects should be responsible for the ELA standards in their areas. Yet the English teachers quoted in the Post are clearly taking on the whole burden under the assumption that reading and writing is their job.

For their part, many science and history teachers fear that taking on the task of teaching the reading and writing standards will detract from teaching their “subject.” Nothing could be further from the truth, though, because it’s impossible to separate reading and writing from learning content. But as any good editor knows, there are specific rules of rhetoric for different purposes.

A university English department head once told me about a student he had, who managed to get to her senior year without taking the required freshman comp course and so ended up in his. She was by his account a very sharp psychology major. Still, he was constantly surprised at how awkward her essays were until one day he had an epiphany. He recognized that she was following the rules of structure and argument unique to psychology— not English lit. He also realized the university’s freshman comp course was not preparing students to read and write in the range of disciplines. As a result he initiated a major course overhaul.

The new ELA standards open a big role for higher ed. Teacher preparation programs need to be explicit about how to read and write in different subjects. They can also provide professional development for practicing teachers that is subject specific. Reading and writing belong in every classroom. Plus it will let us keep time for poetry in the English classroom.

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