Common standards: Where's the content?

A draft of proposed common core state standards for high school students is available as a pdf. The English Language Arts and math standards are supposed to provide “sufficient guidance and clarity so that they are teachable, learnable and measurable.”

Dead on Arrival” writes Core Knowledge Blog, which was the first to provide the pdf link.

. . .  the ELA guidelines offer almost no specific content and little that would be of use to teachers in planning lessons – or parents in understanding what their child is expected to know.

. . . Framed as a series of benchmarks students must reach “to be college and career ready,” the draft enumerates standards such as the ability to “determine what text says explicitly and use evidence within text to infer what is implied by or follows logically from the text.”

. . . Educators hoping for guidance on what particular texts are expected to be taught, or how to get students to reach the bland and obvious standards will be disappointed. On specific “texts” the draft says merely:

The literary and informational texts chosen should be rich in content….This includes texts that have broad resonance and are referred to and quoted often, such as influential political documents, foundational literary works, and seminal historical and scientific texts.

Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. complains that the standards ignore content knowledge. “They assume that the ability to understand literary and informational language is chiefly a how-to skill, whereas it is chiefly a topic-dependent skill that varies with specific topic familiarity.”

For example, students might have excellent reading skills but be unable to understand the sample text on covalent bonds because they don’t understand the science references.

This has been a hurry-up effort, so I’m not surprised at the lack of specifics. But I do wonder whether it would be better to start with the most-respected standards — Massachusetts’ — rather than starting from scratch.

The standards are a first draft that can be revised and improved, writes Common Core’s Lynne Munson. She hopes for “clear guidance and examples of the kind of novels, non-fiction works, poems, and plays that students should read.”

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  1. Actually, this isn’t bad and is fairly rigorous. I saw a bunch of lesson plans jump out at me, so I don’t know what Core Knowledge is talking about there.

    For example, I’m sure every English teacher who reads this knows exactly how to design a lesson to teach “Support and illustrate arguments and explanations with relevant facts and details.”

    These are also very measurable skills.

    I know Core Knowledge wants a Reading List, but they’re just not going to get one. Even AP and IB don’t do that — they offer an extensive list of suggested texts instead, and while IB does say you have to choose from this huge list, AP just says “or comparable complexity.” The suggestion here of a mix of canonical and contemporary works combined with lots of non-fiction makes absolute sense. I suppose you could specify works from certain time periods, cultures, and literary movements, but I really don’t think you can demand that all students be able to identify the setting of A Tale of Two Cities.

    Guidance on texts is offered through the samples. They have an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence and a Katherine Mansfield story. That’s difficult stuff, and would certainly tip me off about the caliber of texts to choose for my curriculum.

    FWIW, they haven’t started from scratch here. How could you? We keep changing up the name a little, but English instruction hasn’t changed. This stuff is as old as the hills (and resembles the MA standards in many places — but some of MA’s standards are not measurable in a standardized testing situation… “write poems in a variety of forms using figurative language” or “write and perform drama” … um, sure).

  2. Bill Leonard says:

    Sure, Lightly Seasoned. “Everyone” knows what you are supposed to teach. But no one, apparently, can offer so much as a list of books.

    And why, pray tell, are you surprised when so many knowledgeable parents go to private schools or home schooling?

    Enjoy your union benefits while they last, comrade.


  3. Mr. Leonard, if you are the product of public schools, they failed you. Unless you were that stupid to begin with.

  4. Bill Leonard says:


    I doubt the public schools failed me, since I started to school in 1948 and learned to read — via the Des Moines school system — with Dick and Jane, but also with phonetics.

    If any public schools failed, it was the California public school system that I was enrolled in, in the fall of 1955. I was at that point almost one full year ahead of my seventh grade class, academically. I managed to earn a BA and the equivalent of a masters.

    But the question remains: Gve me a meaningful 11th-grade or 12th-grade English reading list. But don’t presume to tell me that I was “that stupid to begin with.” At least, not in my presence.


  5. Bill, you need to re-read what I wrote because I think you misunderstood some of my positions.

    I’ve never expressed surprise over home schooling or private schools. In general, I’m very pro school choice. I’ve taught advanced comp to home schoolers.

    My benefits are disapearing along with the rest of America’s, so don’t lose too much sleep over that (my medical deductible is $3000 and I have to pay the entire cost of family coverage — about half my salary; other than a pension that replaces social security and a discount at Barnes & Noble, that’s about the sum of my bennies). But that’s really not germaine to a discussion of national standards. Is there a definitive list of texts? What 40 books should be taught in high school to the exclusion of any other?

  6. The larger issue — and I would go as far as saying it’s the largest issue in contemporary education — is our insistence on treating reading as a skill, which is clearly the logic behind this set of standards, and focusing on reading strategy instruction at the expense of robust content. Why is it that poor readers suddenly look like good readers when they are tested on passages on which they have background knowledge? Luck? If we know this is so, it doesn’t sense to continue to insist on teaching reading as a separate skill (if you can make inferences successfully for one non-fiction text, then — mirabile dictu! — you should be able to do it for all non-fiction texts). Pity it doesn’t work that way.

    If you want the standards outlined in this document to be reached, there is no way to achieve it without assiduously, rigorously building background knowledge. It’s not about enshrining a canon, but recognizing a simple, unassailable fact:

    Teaching content IS teaching reading

  7. Ragnarok says:

    “Mr. Leonard, if you are the product of public schools, they failed you. Unless you were that stupid to begin with.”

    Ahh, eloquence from the master! The rapier wit, the quicksilver tongue – of course Hg murders your brain, (see evidence above), but who cares?

  8. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Why are we, the readers of this blog, insulting one another? I have come to expect better here.

  9. Content and reading are not equivalent: they are reciprocal. A 6-year-old doesn’t know too much, so instruction leans more heavily toward skills (decoding, phonics, etc.). A 16-year-old has the skills and needs the content to maximize them, so you may teach some strategies for more complex texts (ie. annotation), but the point of those texts is content knowledge.

    Again, Robert, which 40 books/works to the exclusion of all others?

  10. LS,

    The trouble is when they teach those same strategies to grade schoolers, which they do in many public schools. Putting the cart before the horse seems to be a hallmark with all of these newer reform curriculums.

  11. A 6-year-old may know a great deal, since even small children learn readily from spoken language. This is why kids from educated families who read a wide variety of good literature and nonfiction to their kids and expose them to many other educational opportunities start school so far ahead of kids from the bottom of the SES spectrum. Learning to read (which many of such kids learn before kindergarten) accelerates their acquisition of knowledge, because they readily make connections to what they already know.

  12. Why would you even assume a demand for an absolute list with no deviations? Bill’s request was for “a” list, not “the only acceptable” list – and his request followed the observation that such lists rarely seem to be available.

    Specifically, this document purports to propose a common standard – and yet it does not contain a particularly meaningful standard (or at least not a useful one). If every teacher in every school is free to choose whatever books they wish to teach, what chance is there their students will walk out of class at the end of the year knowing any of the same information?

    As a non-teacher my proposal is obviously lacking in nuance and experience, yet I’ve tended to find that building the plan itself on common sense and then refining the details with all available help from experts still results in something usable, and it frequently has the benefit of making more sense to outsiders (in this case, parents). Why not start with a core list of about 5 “must-teach” books, and a much longer list of suggested additional texts?

    The core 5 books provides a standard base which all students and all teachers will share. Augmenting this with a common framework for most of the discussion of the books will mean that all students will be presented with the same core of knowledge. If the books are chosen with an eye to interdisciplinary use they will also enhance the rest of the educational program. For example, if one of the core 5 is a specific history text, then while the students are learning their language skills (this would be an excellent choice for annotation, cross-reference, and citation practice, also) they are also developing a common set of knowledge to apply in their history classes, to be built upon in more depth.

    The list of additional texts will provide options for customizing the content to each teacher’s personal strengths, and matching State or local guidelines, and also provide some guidance as to what sort of non-listed texts would be appropriate. My theory is that for testing purposes it would be better to use selections from this list rather than the core 5, so that it’s a better test of skills learned than potentially testing pure memorization of class discussion (note: this is where my lack of teaching comes in – it would be up to educators to confirm that’s a good or useful idea, since I have no way to support it myself).

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    I’d suspect that Harry Potter won’t be on the list, if there ever is one.
    Too bad, because kids will be reading that instead of the listed books. Gaining skills through practice, and vocabulary. Having a great old time reading, learning books are your friend.
    I don’t believe that books are chosen for the reason that there is evidence the kids will hate them. But I do think that books which are too popular with kids will be viewed with suspicion.

  14. OK, David. Choose the 5.

  15. Parent2 says:

    Pages 100 to 114 on the Massachusetts State Framework for English Language Arts would be a good place to start. They don’t list 40 books–they list hundreds of authors, for grades 9-12. If you take a look, you’ll see a wide array of suggested authors. The writers selected for earlier grades would build a strong foundation.

    Suggested Authors, Illustrators, and Works Reflecting our Common Literary and Cultural Heritage
    Contemporary American Literature
    Historical and Contemporary World Literature
    One small selection follows, the authors for Contemporary American Literature (no, I don’t know why Saki, a Brit, is on this list). The full list is 14 pages, and includes standards for earlier grades.
    FICTION : James Agee Jamaica Kincaid J. D. Salinger Maya Angelou Maxine Hong Kingston William Saroyan Saul Bellow Jon Krakauer May Sarton Pearl Buck Harper Lee Jane Smiley Raymond Carver Bernard Malamud Betty Smith John Cheever Carson McCullers Wallace Stegner Sandra Cisneros Toni Morrison Amy Tan Arthur C. Clarke Joyce Carol Oates Anne Tyler E. L. Doctorow Tim O’Brien John Updike Louise Erdrich Edwin O’Connor Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Nicholas Gage Cynthia Ozick Alice Walker Ernest K. Gaines Chaim Potok Robert Penn Warren Alex Haley Reynolds Price Eudora Welty Joseph Heller Annie Proulx Thomas Wolfe William Hoffman Ayn Rand Tobias Wolff John Irving Richard Rodrigues Anzia Yezierska William Kennedy Leo Rosten Ken Kesey Saki

  16. If you want a list of books here is one

    Another would be the Newberry award winners.

    If you still need more you might try asking a librarian or English teacher for suggestions.

    Finding quality content is easy. What specific skills to be taught with the content is more difficult. The only content I would support is a list of topics the books should cover such as WWII, or Civil Rights, etc.

    A bad teacher with a list of books could simple fulfill the state mandated standards by assigning the books and giving an AR at the end of each. Those students who failed would have to re-read the books and fill out graphic organizers over and over again until they could pass the test.

    Yes, content is important but I have yet to meet anyone who knows everything. Except of course my wife.

  17. Looks like a great list, Parent2, but that’s not what is being argued for. If you have a choice of hundreds of books, how do you know the kids have all learned the same thing?

  18. Oh, there is no such thing as a shortage of lists of great books. My daughter has a bookmark with a pretty workable list that she bought at the mall.

  19. Parent2 says:

    After glancing at the Common Core document, I’d say they’re aiming to prepare students to handle a certain level of complexity by the end of high school. So, it’s aimed at skill level, rather than the mastery of a defined canon.

    Again, after glancing at it, I’m concerned. Many of the skills seem reasonable–that is, I can’t make an argument that you shouldn’t be able to perform certain actions. Something is missing, though. I see no recommendation that students should develop the capacity to read a lengthy book. I see references to a, or the, “text.” In most cases, though, “text” could refer to an excerpt on a standardized test. This may be the influence of the College Board and ACT.

    The ability to deduce what a writer means to convey in a short snippet of text is very different than the ability to read, understand, and remember book-length arguments. They do refer to “foundational literary works,” and “substantive contemporary fiction,” but it’s so dry. I’m an education parent, but “career and college readiness” doesn’t stir my blood.

    I suppose the intent should be to set a minimum level of complexity expected for high school reading material. It would be better, in my opinion, if a list of writers were appended. As you say, lists of great books are freely available. Yet, in my quick perusal of the document, I didn’t see any mention of plays, novels, poetry–unless we’re supposed to pack all that into “foundational literary works.”

    The danger I’d see for these common standards are students driven through weeks and weeks of short story and short essay analysis, with time reserved for work with media, until they give the “right answer.” Until they “meet the standards.” Yet in college they’ll be expected to read long, complicated works quickly and with understanding, and to synthesize their reading with prior knowledge. Their essays will be much longer than 5 paragraphs.

    “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
    Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”