Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What we talk about when we talk about the Common Core

Several publications have recently picked up on the controversy over the way in which the Common Core standards prescribe 50% “informational text” for assigned reading in grades K-5 and 70% thereafter.  We have written about this silly and damaging quota ever since we heard about it last year: here, here and here.

Now the critique has gone main stream; in recent days, it has been written up in Time magazine, the Washington Post, and Salon.
First, this quota was weakly justified by its supporters that it reflects the distribution of questions on the national NAEP exams (which turns out not to be true.)  Now, Gene Wilhoit, Executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers and a supporter of the standards, claims that that the demand for more “Informational text” was made by “CEOs and University professors”. I doubt the accuracy of this statement too.
David Coleman, the main author of the Common Core, fiercely defends this directive by pointing out that the 70% rule is across subjects, and cites a footnote on page 5 of the 66-page standards in order to back this up. In other words, non-fiction or “informational” text could also be assigned in history, science, and math as well as English classes to make up the 70% quota.
As an example, he proposes that “math students could read Euclid’s “Elements” from 300 B.C.” I haven’t read much Euclid lately, but even if appropriate, this text would likely be very dense.  Only one or at most two pages of geometry can be absorbed per night, along with proofs, problem sets, etc. 
Coleman’s comments lead me to suspect that he and other supporters of the Common Core have not thought their prescription out carefully. Traditionally, in high school English classes, two novels, at least one play and several poems are regularly assigned; that works out to 700 pages of text or more. In order to achieve the 70% ratio without sacrificing huge chunks of literature that would mean that more than 1500 pages of non-fiction would have to be parceled out across all subjects.
And what about K-5 grades? Clearly, the 50% quota in these grades means that half of all assigned reading must be non-fiction in every classroom.  Starting in about third grade, for their independent reading, my son and his friends used to read at least four novels per year, each of them at least 350 pages. They would then have to be assigned 2000 pages of non-fiction in homework to “balance” this out – or else sacrifice the novels which absorbed them and drew them away from video games for at least 40 minutes a night.
David Coleman, who never taught a day in his life, yet was given the power to make these irrational and arbitrary prescriptions for the nation’s schoolchildren.  Who appointed him Czar: Bill Gates?
Now, Coleman says all this discussion of these quotas are a distraction and we haven’t yet got to debating the really difficult aspects of the Common Core, and he may be right.  For example, the Common Core exams are likely to be even longer than the endless tests that our children are already subjected to, and probably two to three times more expensive.  He correctly notes that parents and teachers have lost confidence in standardized testing, but then suggests that these “longer but more thoughtful” exams will “redeem assessment in the hearts and minds of teachers and parents.” Want to bet?  One wonders if he’s ever spoken to any of the parents who have risen up in anger about the amount of time that is already absorbed by testing in our schools.
And what is all this for?  What is the evidence that more informational text, more rigorous standards or more “thoughtful tests” help kids learn? In a recent column  in Ed Week, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute compares the Common Core to the “Dr. Pendergast's miracle cure for everything that ails you”.  

He proposes that the real underlying purpose of the Common Core is to persuade parents in suburban school systems that after their children flunk these new exams, that their schools must be failing too: “Finally, newly convinced that their schools stink, parents and voters will embrace 'reform.' … Common Core advocates now evince an eerie confidence that they can scare these voters into embracing the "reform" agenda.” 

It is unlikely, Hess opines, that this will newfangled Shock Doctrine will work to persuade suburban parents to fall in line with the radical reform agenda of test-based teacher evaluations, free market competition, more charters, vouchers and the like.  Yet privatizing our urban school systems is not enough for the corporate reformers; they want to expand their grasp into middle class communities as well. Shall we talk about this, now, David Coleman?


Anonymous said...

What about the fact that we are not allowed to even see the Pearson tests. My daughter had a perfect score on the ELA exam in third grade. Ever since then, she has scored lower every single year. She is now is 7th grade and for the first time received a 3 instead of a 4 yet she continues to get high grades from her ELA teachers. I would love to know why. Is it Pearson's fault? WHY AREN'T WE ALLOWED TO SEE THE TESTS?

stlgretchen said...

The whole argument about CCSS is summed up in these sentences:

"David Coleman, who never taught a day in his life, yet was given the power to make these irrational and arbitrary prescriptions for the nation’s schoolchildren. Who appointed him Czar: Bill Gates?"

Arne Duncan and private corporations do not have the legal authority to establish national standards/curriculum, but yet they are attempting to do so under the false statement that these are "state led". How many billions of dollars and students destroyed will it take before the root of the problem is discussed and this unholy (and illegal) alliance is dismantled?

Anonymous raises a good point as well. Not only will Pearson not let parents see the test, parents cannot see the tests from NWEA.


With the assessments on line, there will be nothing for the student to bring home to review with the parents. The taxpayers who are paying for the public schools are denied basic information on their students' education.

Advo Snob said...

I have to comment here as NYC is the only NY area where parents are informed and speaking out on the common core roll out. As the saying goes, the 'Upstaters' are about 3-5 years behind whatever NYC is talking about, 5-10 years behind in fashion.

I live in one of the wealthy ROC area suburbs and parents have their heads in the sand. Everything's all butterflies & roses when 98% of the district's kids graduate with honors and AP credits out the whazoo. Special education parents are just beginning to catch on how NYSED & the Board of Regents has made it easier for districts to alter IEPs (a/k/a 'tie IEPs to the CCLS'). The ones impacted the most-- as far as I can see-- are the non alternate assessment ASD & other cognitively impaired middle and high school students. Students, like my 16 y/o son, are now being FORCED to sit in "Special Class Regents" classes where the materials are modified but where the Regents finals will not be. The Local diploma 'Safety Net' option misses the mark by lowering the passing grade. My child can learn but he can't take decipher those tests. Meanwhile he has to sit in classes that he has no chance of passing when perhaps he could be using his time enrolled in things that interest him and that will help him get a job. Yes, so please Mr. King and Ms. Tisch, longer exams and more of them are *exactly* what our NYS children need.

Special ed parents are apparently supposed to l-u-v CCLS b/c it promotes inclusion and (finally) mandates access to the gen ed curriculum, and perhaps if my son were entering K or 1st grade I'd swallow the CCLS dialogue our district is feeding us: Common Core objectives are the unicorns to the butterflies & roses; CC offers an educational 'cure' for autism, learning disabilities, etc.; and our teachers are just so gosh darn ready to get their professional development (once we spend $$ on the highest snake oil vendor) so that someday in the very near future (we promise) Gen Ed teachers will finally be ready to embrace your special needs child in the classroom.

CCLS is another budget-saving gen ed intervention to delay, identify and serve special ed students. Special ed parents have heard/seen it before: RtI, UDL, DL are all aimed at keeping parents as far away from their IDEA rights and for as long as possible. And watch out, b/c the Feds are coming for IDEA before Arne Duncan leaves DC.

Long rant, sorry. After 9 years of being shuttled to pull-out services and self-contained classrooms, NYSED and our wealthy district is a day late and, er, about $40k/year short on educating my son.

Anonymous said...

It's butterflies and roses on the Upper East Side too.

Tom Hoffman said...

Often problems with standards stem from which particular experts had a "seat at the table" at the right time.

The ELA/Literacy standards were, to the extent they were designed by educators or academics at all (a lot of it was just testing experts), it was dominated by reading/literacy people, not English Language Arts teachers and particularly not high school English teachers.

I gather that they may have a point regarding the lack of non-fiction in packaged elementary reading programs, but, like you said, didn't give the implications for other grade levels much thought.

It isn't so much a nefarious scheme as the inevitable result of keeping the standards-making process too closed.

LeBear said...

Why is non-fiction being called "informational text"? When I go the library, bookstore, New York Times Bestseller List, or Amazon Kindle Store, I see these books listed as non-fiction... How is changing the term for these books helping children? What other terms are being changed and why? For example, main idea is no longer main idea. Supporting details is no longer supporting details. It makes absolutely no sense except to deliberately confuse children in the hopes of lower scores or to make someone's friend, reltative, or donor more money. I don't know - maybe both...