Core standards: The final version

The Common Core State Standards Initiative has released a final draft of national English and math standards that the Obama administration wants all states to adopt.

In most states, these standards would be a big step forward, writes Fordham’s Checker Finn.

I haven’t eyeballed the math standards yet but, based on a preliminary inspection, the proposed standards for “English Language Arts & Literacy” are even better than the very good draft released in March.

They’re clearer, better structured, more coherent – and very ambitious. The “text exemplars” (appendix b) are mostly terrific. The “samples of student writing” (appendix c) are helpfully analyzed and annotated. A lot of commendable “content” is tucked in among a well-crafted assemblage of important skills. And while I remain underwhelmed by the research base (appendix a), in the end standards have more to do with judgment than with science.

. . . millions of American school-kids would be better served if their states, districts and schools set out in a serious way to impart these skills and content to their pupils rather than the nebulous and flaccid curricular goals that they’re now using.

Carnegie’s Opportunity Equation also backs the standards.

The standards don’t tell teachers how to teach, writes the New York Times.

“The standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach,” the introduction to the new English standards says. “They do not — indeed, cannot — enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.”

In keeping with those principles, the English standards do not prescribe a reading list, but point to classic poems, plays, short stories, novels, and essays to demonstrate the advancing complexity of texts that students should be able to master. On the list of exemplary read-aloud books for second and third graders, for instance, is James Thurber’s “The Thirteen Clocks.” One play cited as appropriate for high school students is “Oedipus Rex,” by Sophocles.

Five English texts are required reading. High school juniors and seniors must study the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Also, said Susan Pimentel, a consultant in New Hampshire who was lead writer on the English standards, “Students have to read one Shakespeare play — that’s a requirement.”

Texas and Alaska have bowed out of the process. Virginia and Massachusetts may stick with their own highly rated standards. However, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is using the Race to the Top competition to push states to adopt the CCSSI standards by Aug. 2.

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  1. Arne Duncan is either stupid or dishonest, or both. The same goes for all other serious promoters of national standards. Amateurs who accept the arguments for government-imposed education standards succumb to magical thinking.

    Some years ago I took the grades which the Education Trust and the Fordham Institute gave to individual US States for their standards, converted these grades into numbers on a 0-4 point scale, and applied the EXCEL correlation function to these numbers and State-level NAEP scores. The correlation was negative.

  2. The English standards strike me as the same bucket of mush that most states have now. “Students will use context clues…students will analyze the writer’s organizational framework…” etc. So kids will continue to write ad nauseum about random topics; they’ll continue to perform operations upon random texts; but will they really learn anything new? Or are they just going to repeat the same formal operations year after year from 4th grade through 12th, and emerge from 12th with little grasp of grammar, a poor vocabulary and lackluster writing ability as they do now?

    It seems to me that the discipline of English is in a wretched state in this country. How about going back to old-fashioned grammar and the reading of classic literature? I have a feeling that this would be much more mentally nutritious.

  3. 5 required ELA texts and only one of them is unambiguously a work of literature? That’s not good.

    As an ELA teacher, I LOVED teaching the Declaration of Independence (“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” Now THAT’S angry!) But let’s be clear here: it is a list of complaints more than a great work of rhetiric. It is a political document for a particular political time and place.

    The preamble to the Constitution is actually another favorite of mine, but not to teach. Those are political and philosphical ideas, not necesarily masterful writing from a literary persective.

    Character? Plot? Theme? Allegory? Teaching students about themselves and universal aspects and concerns of being human? I believe very strongly — I taught ELA, right? — in the power and importance of literature. And I care a ton about understanding government, politics and philosphy. But I understand that these are not the same thing.

    If that’s the common required read list there are issues. Where is the great American novel? Perhaps it is Huck Finn, or perhaps it is Gatsby. But not even a stab at it? Not even “one of the following 5”? We can’t acknowledge the importance of Whitman, as part of our common core?


  4. I attended the Cato Institute debate about these standards today. Interestingly, the two people proposing the standards were adamant that NO ONE wants to make these standards mandatory for states or the adoption of the standards tied to federal money. I was not convinced.

    I wanted to ask how these standards wouldn’t do the same thing that NCLB has done in many areas – rid the school of science and history – since the focus is only on English and math, but I had to leave before I got a chance.

  5. I’m a big fan of Checker Finn but I don’t share his enthusiasm for the English standards.

    Wait until the 11th grade to teach The Cask of Amontillado? How sad. The suggested years for presenting a lot of the material seems widely off.

    Ben, I like your post except for your call to return to old-fashioned grammar.

    If this is the final version of the core standards, then they dropped the ball.

    They also need to do a better job of proofreading.

  6. Oh, it really is disappointing.

    I was expecting something a lot better.

    Their final version is an embarrassment.

  7. Student of History says:

    Just finished reading the math.

    I know the states want money but how can they agree to adopt the controversial 1989 NCTM standards as our new national policy?

    Designers of curricula, assessments and prof devt are to first and foremost adopt to those process standards. Math content is not even a secondary concern to this document.

    Makes you wonder how many adults involved in all of this have trouble reading carefully and analytically.

    What a frightening national vision for economic suicide.

    Using borrowed money to boot.

    The funny part though is the document says up front clearly that they are not telling the states how to teach math.

    No but if you read on they do say expressly that they are specifying how US students are to engage with the math content.

    Yeah-that avoids the issue of pedagogy.

  8. I would also like to see a return to teaching composition; business letters, resumes, directions, persuasion, research, various personal notes (thank you, sympathy etc.), literature, science or history-based. I’d also like to see the end of required journaling and story-writing; it rarely seems to be corrected for mechanics and it’s often torture for kids who aren’t comfortable with the all-about-me emphasis. Pile on the good literature – original, not abridged; kids can’t learn to write well if they haven’t had a heavy diet of good reading. Read to them in the early grades; Aesop’s fables, classic fairy tales, nature stories, biography, science and history.

  9. momof4, you make perfect sense.


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