Conservatives can like the Common Core

Conservatives should support the Common Core standards, write Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern, who describe themselves as “education scholars at two right-of-center think tanks” (Fordham and the Manhattan Institute).

Glenn Beck  calls the standards a stealth “leftist indoctrination” plot by the Obama administration. Michelle Malkin warns that they will “eliminate American children’s core knowledge base in English, language arts and history.”  Not so, write Porter-Magee and Stern.

Common Core State Standards . . . describe what children should know and the skills that they must acquire at each grade level to stay on course toward college- or career-readiness, something that conservatives have long argued for. They were written and adopted by governors—not by the Obama administration—thus preserving state control over K–12 education. And they are much more focused on rigorous back-to-basics content than the vast majority of state standards they replaced.

Common Core doesn’t force English teachers to drop To Kill a Mockingbird in favor of government manuals, they write.  All teachers — not just English teachers — will expose students to informational texts and literary nonfiction. That includes “foundational texts of American history—the Gettysburg Address, Common Sense, and works of thought leaders like Emerson and Thoreau.”

(Non-fiction reading can inspire creativity, writes an AP English teacher in Ed Week’s Teacher.)

On the math side, opponents argue the standards are “squishy, progressive and lacking in rigorous content.”  But the math standards are dominated by content, write Porter-Magee and Stern.

 Unlike many of the replaced state standards, Common Core demands automaticity (memorization) with basic math facts, mastery of standard algorithms, and understanding of critical arithmetic. These essential foundational math skills are not only required but prioritized, particularly in the early grades. The math standards focus in depth on fewer topics that coherently build over time.

“For decades, conservatives have fought to hold students accountable for high standards and an academic curriculum imbued with great works of Western civilization and the American republic,” conclude Porter-Magee and Stern. “This is our chance to make it happen.”

Common Core could lead to “federal control of school curricula,” writes Neal McCluskey on Cato’s blog.  Porter-Magee will serve on the U.S. Department of Education’s technical review panel vetting Common Core tests developed by “Department-selected consortia,” he adds. If the feds control the tests, they control what’s taught in schools, argues McCluskey.

Huck Finn and the bias biddies

While new Common Core State Standards call for students to read classic literature, tests will avoid “emotionally charged language,” race, sex, religion or anything that anyone might find offensive, writes Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory, in How to Keep All of Huck Finn in the Classroom.

The standards say students should to read “classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare.”

To measure them, tests will have to include passages from “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” Henry Thoreau’s “Walden,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and Emily Dickinson’s verse.

However, test aligned to the new standards must heed “bias and sensitivity guidelines” that rule out “race and sex imbalances, stereotypes and pretty much anything that might upset or disserve any particular group of students.”

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, for instance, is writing questions “free of offensive, demeaning or emotionally-charged language” and “reflective of a balance of authors by gender, race, and ethnicity,” Bauerlein writes. There will be no “religious references” either.

But in trying to make the experience of every test-taker free of conflict, in removing virtually all racial, sexual or religious elements from the readings, test developers can’t properly assess Common Core’s literary-historical mandates. A full sample of the classics would upset the balance demanded of bias review — too many white men — and many canonical works display scenes charged with racism and sexism.

Think of all the central episodes that wouldn’t survive — Shylock’s speech, Hester Prynne emerging from her cell brandishing a sparkling golden “A,” Douglass fighting back against the sadistic slave-breaker Mr. Covey, and hundreds more. If reading tests genuinely addressed the classics, bias and sensitivity reviewers would denounce them outright.

In addition to a sanitized, bias- and content-free test of reading skills, developers should add “a test on literary-historical knowledge, including open questions that make students draw on Twain, Shakespeare, ancient myths, Edith Wharton and so on.”

The literary-history exam would be an essay test, raising a theme, style, genre or other topic and asking students to draw copiously from literary history, for instance, asking students to address the theme of individualism in six foundational works of American literature.

The essay test would see “how much knowledge students have of the best works of American civilization, a special duty of public schooling necessary to the formation of responsible, independent and informed citizens,” Bauerlein concludes.

But there’s already push back against too much time spent taking tests. Why not dump the silly sensitivity guidelines?

Who will teach informational reading?

Students should read more non-fiction and “informational text,” say Common Core State Standards adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. The new standards say half of elementary school reading assignments should be nonfiction, growing to 70 percent by grade 12. Who should teach informational reading?

Already, English teachers are cutting literature units to make room for recommended texts, which include Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” “FedViews,” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) and “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management,” published by the General Services Administration, reports the Washington Post.

But David Coleman, who co-authored the standards, say educators have it all wrong.

Teachers in social studies, science and math should require more reading, which would allow English teachers to continue to assign literature, he said.

Social studies teachers, for example, could have students read the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” while math students could read Euclid’s “Elements” from 300 B.C.

. . . The standards explicitly say that Shakespeare and classic American literature should be taught, said Coleman, who became president of the College Board in November.

. . . The specifics are spelled out in a footnote on page 5 of the 66-page standards.

Across the country, English teachers say their principals have told them it’s their job to teach students to read non-fiction. Social studies, science and math teachers are not sharing the responsibility.

Study art for art’s sake

Why study art? It’s not a way to boost math and reading scores, much less to prepare students for the 21st century workforce, writes Jay Greene. We’re trying to educate civilized human beings.

As he researches the effect of field trips to art museums on student learning, Greene encounters arts educators eager to climb on the economic utility bandwagon. Afraid art will be seen as a frill, they feel compelled to argue it’s a form of job training.

Most of what students learn in math and reading also has no economic utility.  Relatively few students will ever use algebra, let alone calculus, in their jobs.  Even fewer students will use literature or poetry in the workplace. When will students “use” history?  We don’t teach those subjects because they provide work-related skills. We teach algebra, calculus, literature, poetry, and history for the same reasons we should be teaching art — they help us understand ourselves, our cultural heritage, and the world we live in.  We teach them because they are beautiful and important in and of themselves.

Policymakers, pundits and others suffering from PLDD (petty little dictator disorder) use economic utility to club their critics into submission, Greene writes. Even math and reading must prove to be economically useful.

You have folks like Tony Wagner and the 21st Century Skills movement suggesting that we cut algebra because students won’t ‘need’ it.  Instead, students would be better off learning communication skills, like how to prepare an awesome Power Point (TM).  And you have Common Core cutting literature in English in favor of “informational texts.”

If the purpose of school is workforce prep, then let’s do away with it and set up apprenticeships, Greene writes.

His study asked 4,000 students to write short essays in response to Bo Bartlett’s painting, The Box.  “It may be harder to code and analyze essays about paintings than to run another value-added regression on the math and reading scores that the centralized authorities have collected for us, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.”

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Welcome back, dead white males

Welcome back, dead white males  writes Mark Bauerlein, an Emory professor of English, in a New York Daily News op-ed. Common Core Standards adopted by 45 states plus D.C., require students to “demonstrate knowledge of 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century foundational works of American literature,” as well as foundational historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence. It’s about time, writes Bauerlein.

For bookish types and patriotic citizens, too, the canon of Ben Franklin’s “Autobiography,” Emerson’s essays, “The Scarlet Letter” and “Huck Finn” is a personal inspiration as well as a sacred heritage.

But to the people in control of high school English — those who craft standards, select anthologies, monitor curricula and teach classes — that great tradition is not a treasure. It’s a threat.

Until the 20th century, they note, nearly all authors were white males, and the cultures in which they thrived cast females and people of color as inferior.

In the last 30 years, high school students have read quota-driven anthologies instead of classic literature, Bauerlein writes.

We’re told that female, black and brown students must encounter inspiring female, black and brown characters and authors — or else they won’t realize that they can become successful adults.

English teachers have to comply, whether they like it or not. Common Core gives teachers “a solid defense against identity quotas in the classroom,” Bauerlein writes.

Via Core Knowledge Blog.

Where’s the literature?

Secondary teachers should stress classic works of literature, argue Sandra Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein in a paper critical of Common Core Standards. The new standards name only a few required texts, such as foundational American documents (for example, the Declaration of Independence) and a Shakespeare play, notes Ed Week.

(The standards) say that half of what students read in elementary school—and 70 percent in high school—should be informational, arguing that mastery of such texts mirrors the demands likely to be made on them in college and job training. is.

. . .  some English/language arts educators . . .  fear that literature will lose its important place in students’ studies. The standards’ architects have argued that the opposite is true: Teachers of social studies, science and other subjects will inherit new responsibilities for teaching writing and reading in their areas, freeing English/language arts teachers to dive deeply into literary works with their students.

Stotsky, a University of Arkansas professor nd a chief architect of Massachusetts’ highly regarded academic standards, and Bauerlein, an Emory English professor, believe “the analytical and critical-thinking skills developed by a deep study of literature” will prepare students for college more effectively than reading informational texts.

Private schools and public schools in affluent suburbs will teach a literature-rich curriculum, while most public school students will suffer from a “literature deficit,”  Stotsky and Bauerlein predict. That will widen the achievement gap, they write.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn isn’t included in Massachusetts’ new Common Cored curriculum, write Charles Chieppo and Jamie Gass of the Pioneer Institute. (It’s not banned either. It’s just not mentioned.) “These new English standards include less than half as much classic literature and poetry than the Massachusetts standards they will replace.”

 

New reading fight on ‘just right’ books

Common Core standards have opened a second front in the Reading Wars, writes Fordham’s Kathleen Porter-Magee. Unlike most state standards, which were “vague and virtually meaningless,” the new standards ask that “all students be exposed to and asked to analyze grade-appropriate texts, with scaffolding as necessary.”

No one likes war, but this is an important fight that’s worth having. And it’s one that has been put off for too long.

. . . There have long been two very different schools of thought about the best way to organize curriculum and instruction in literature. On one side are those who believe that reading comprehension will improve if teachers assess students’ individual reading levels and give them a bevy of “just right” books that will challenge them just enough to nudge them to read slightly more challenging texts. Yes, teachers do provide some guidance and instruction, but that instruction is limited. In essence, the book choice is leveled to meet the student where he or she is; the “heavy lifting” of reading is placed squarely on the students’ shoulders.

On the other side are those who believe that reading comprehension improves as domain-specific content knowledge deepens and students are exposed to increasingly complex literature and nonfiction texts. Here the role of the teacher is more pronounced, and instruction more explicit. The instruction, not the text, is scaffolded to meet the students where they are.

Common Core’s call for teaching challenging texts to all readers is “a sweeping change that holds enormous promise for improving the quality of ELA curriculum in America’s classrooms, she writes. However, “just right’ advocates are trying to co-opt the new standards to keep their “existing — and poorly aligned — materials” in the classroom.

Is literature necessary?

Never Mind Algebra. Is Literature Necessary?  English teacher Tim Clifford, not a fan of Common Core standards, asks the question on the New York Times‘s Schoolbook.

English teachers already have given up on teaching spelling, vocabulary, and grammar, Clifford complains. Creative writing has been “replaced with unending persuasive essays that are the darlings of the Common Core standards.”

Many schools teach reading as a set of skills to be mastered rather than as a journey to be embarked upon. Children are taught how to predict, to connect, to draw inferences, and so forth, but they are rarely allowed the leisure to savor what they read or to reflect on the art of good writing.

Until last year, his sixth graders conceived, wrote and illustrated a 20-page graphic novel, learning “story structure, characterization, use of dialogue, and exposition.” Now, as a result of Common Core standards, they must write an eight-page research paper, “filled with facts but devoid of imagination.”

The Common Core has already veered many schools away from narrative writing, or almost any type of creative writing at all. So what’s left to be picked from the remains of English study?

Literature.

Starting this year, at least half of all reading in our schools is supposed to be non-fiction. And that includes kindergarten.

What makes matters even worse for later grades is that students already read non-fiction almost exclusively in all their other courses, so if you take science, social studies, and math into account, only one-eighth of student reading will be literary. And that fraction is likely to shrink in the future.

If algebra is dispensable, why not Austen? Clifford asks. Both can be difficult for some students: Graduation rates might rise if students didn’t need to struggle with algebra or Austen. Neither is essential for most jobs.

It’s great to read Great Books

The Great Books really are great– and relevant for today’s kids — writes teacher Jessica Lahey on Core Knowledge Blog.

It is important that we ask students to read great works of literature because, when we hand them Dickens or Shakespeare, we offer students so much more than a good story. We give them the opportunity to step beyond the safe boundary of the known world and journey into the uncharted territory of challenging vocabulary, unpredictable plot, and shifting perspectives. I’m with Virginia Woolf on this one, “Literature is no one’s private ground. Literature is common ground; let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.”

. . . great works of literature require more than simple retrieval and regurgitation of others’ ideas; they demand feats of intellectual bravery, patience, and trust.

Great books contain more than challenging vocabulary and syntax. Great books contain novel ideas, universal themes, vivid sensory experiences and complex literary construction absent from commonplace works of literature. Great books teach great lessons. When students learn to ask more of the books they read, they learn to ask more of themselves.

That the classics are difficult to read is a bug, not a feature, Lahey argues. Is this realistic?

Sometimes a curtain is just a curtain

Lynne Diligent on Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor presents: How High School Students Feel in Literature Class.

What the Author Meant