Catholic scholars oppose Common Core

More than 100 Catholic scholars have signed a letter to the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops urging church leaders to reject Common Core Standards for Catholic schools, reports Education Week. Gerard V. Bradley, a Notre Dame law professor, wrote the letter.

More than 100 dioceses and archdioceses have adopted the new standards, reports Ed Week.

Common Core expects too little of students, charges the letter. The “bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education . . . shortchanges the central goals of all sound education and surely those of Catholic education: to grow in the virtues necessary to know, love, and serve the Lord, to mature into a responsible, flourishing adult, and to contribute as a citizen to the process of responsible democratic self government.”

Bradley spoke at a Common Core conference at Notre Dame along with other critics such as James Milgram, a Stanford professor emeritus, and Sandra Stotsky, a University of Arkansas professor. Milgram believes the standards don’t prepare students for college math, especially if they plan math or science majors. Stotsky, who played a leading role in writing Massachusetts’ standards, opposes Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction.

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.

Without books at home, few read well

Children raised in low-income families have few age-appropriate books in their homes, according to First Book, which gives books to disadvantaged children to encourage reading.  The infographic is based on research by Susan Neuman, co-author of Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance.

[INFOGRAPHIC] The Haves and the Have-Nots

Education reform starts with reading, writes Michael Mazenko in the Denver Post. He supports Common Core standards’ recommendation that 70 percent of all high school reading be non-fiction. Students can analyze literature in English class and think critically about informational text in social studies, science, math and arts classes, he writes. That will help the 44 percent of high school students who can’t truly comprehend what they read, according to NAEP.

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.

Shakespeare or Stein?

Instead of reading Shakespeare, students of the future will analyze the writing of Joel Stein, writes Joel Stein in Time. It makes him nervous. Common Core State Standards will shift reading lists to non-fiction, Stein writes. By reading analytical essays, they’ll learn to write analytical essays — instead of journal entries about their feelings.

Stein reads Faulkner or Joyce to improve his writing. CCSS urges students to dip into FedViews by the Federal Reserve of San Francisco.” Which is not quite the same.

Fiction also teaches you how to tell a story, which is how we express and remember nearly everything. If you can’t tell a story, you will never, ever get people to wire you the funds you need to pay the fees to get your Nigerian inheritance out of the bank.

Education isn’t just training for work, Stein writes. “It’s training to communicate throughout our lives.”

If we didn’t all experience Hamlet’s soliloquy, we’d have to explain soul-tortured indecisiveness by saying things like “Dude, you are like Ben Bernanke in early 2012 weighing inflation vs. growth in Quantitative Easing 3.”

Teaching language through nonfiction is like teaching history by playing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or teaching science by giving someone an unmarked test tube full of sludge and having him figure out if the white powder he distilled is salt or sugar by making Steven Baumgarten taste it, which is how I learned science and how Steven Baumgarten learned to be more careful about picking people to work with.

That’s “something he could have learned by reading Othello,” Stein concludes.

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.

Build knowledge to teach reading

Building background knowledge orally is the “secret sauce” of Core Knowledge’s reading program, writes Robert Pondiscio.

Freed from the cognitive work of decoding, children can more readily understand a story with sophisticated vocabulary when it’s read out loud than if they had read it on their own.

. . . This is critical for children from low-income homes and especially those where English is a second language.  They usually come to school on Day One with smaller vocabularies and less background knowledge of the world than more advantaged kids, who tend to hear more rich and complex language at home and enjoy more opportunities for language and knowledge enrichment. . . .  If we wait until a child can read independently to build background knowledge and vocabulary, we are almost certainly cementing their knowledge and language deficits permanently in place.  If you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.

Also on Core Knowledge Blog: ‘Opinion is to Knowledge as Dessert is to Vegetables.’

Elementary reading books are short on non-fiction, but California’s new readers are a small step in the right direction, writes Dan Willingham on his blog. He agrees that background knowledge is critical for reading comprehension.

Common Core reading: Too hard? Too factual?

The new common standards for K-2 reading are too hard, “harsh” and “dreary,” writes Joanne Yatvin, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, in Education Week. The standards “overestimate the intellectual, physiological, and emotional development of young children,” Yatvin writes.

This amounts to meeting children where they are and keeping them there, responds Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. He lists the standards’ “three big ideas.”

1. Students should read as much nonfiction as fiction.

2. Schools should ensure all children—and especially disadvantaged children—build coherent background knowledge that is essential to mature reading comprehension.

3. Success in reading comprehension depends less on “personal response” and more on close reading of text.

The standards call for teaching vocabulary and background knowledge. It’s too much academics too soon, writes Yatvin. She thinks children should “learn words connected to their everyday lives and their interests rather than to things and experiences as yet unknown.”

We learn most words in context, Pondiscio replies.

So while it certainly it makes sense to connect words to kids “everyday lives and experiences” it’s something very close to educational malpractice not to make a concerted effort to expand a child’s knowledge base beyond their immediate experiences.  If there is anything that ensures a low-level of academic achievement it is the idea that kids can only learn from their direct experiences.

Yatvin also disagrees with the standards’ call to teach non-fiction as well as fiction. Young children have “limited experience in the fields of science, geography, history, and technology,” she writes. “It is one thing for a child to read The Little Engine That Could for the pleasure of the story and quite another for her to comprehend the inner workings of a locomotive.”

Actually, many children, especially boys, enjoy reading about science, nature and technology, including trains. I was a huge fan of history and geography — anything that wasn’t about the boring suburb where I lived.

Little Engine That Could “is ripe with opportunities to build background knowledge” about “colors, mountains, trains and transportation, to name but a few,” writes Pondiscio.

I’m all for reading for the pleasure of the story.  But start building background knowledge of the world beyond a child’s immediate surroundings today, and you geometrically expand the number of stories a child can read for pleasure tomorrow.

Very few kids have personal experiences with dinosaurs, dolphins, pirates or superheroes, yet many enjoy reading about them.  The first graders I’m tutoring in reading love the Magic School Bus series, which teaches science. They can’t read the book I’ve got (about kitchen chemistry), but they’re longing to be able to.

Time to drop the whole-class novel?

It’s time to stop teaching one novel to the whole class, argues Pam Allyn on Ed Week.

Sam, a 12-year-old struggling reader, can enjoy Horton Hears a Who! but can’t decode or comprehend the class book, To Kill a Mockingbird.

He faked his way through it. Ashamed, he did whatever he could to distract the teacher and his fellow students from recognizing his struggle, from fooling around while everyone was reading to acting goofy when the teacher asked a question.

Instead of trying to teach the same novel or story from a basal reader to all students, teachers should let students choose reading that fits their interests and abilities, Allyn argues. Boys, in particular, would benefit from a wider choice of readings.

If a student has found 16 blogs about boats, let him read those in school. And maybe that student will follow one of those blogs to a newspaper series about a regatta, or to Dove, Robin Lee Graham’s personal account of sailing around the world as a teenager. In these ways, our students will be exposed to a wider variety of genres than the whole-class novel ever allowed, and they will be more compelled to think critically across genres, as the common-core standards will require of them.

. . . By reading a lot and reading every day, our students ingest. And the more they ingest, the faster and smoother they read. Stamina is vastly underrated. Reading DK Readers or Harry Potter or game manuals or a thousand mobile texts all help children learn to read longer, stronger, and faster.

If a teacher thinks it’s important for every student to read a certain book, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, read it aloud in class, Allyn suggests.

She seems to be designing the whole reading program for the kids who can’t read very well. Some won’t be passionate readers of anything. Is there a middle ground?

Remedial prep

Edupundits’ focus on teacher quality, misses the point, argues Will Fitzhugh on The Concord Review. What counts is whether students do serious academic work in high school, such as reading history books or writing a research paper.  Academics Lite students aren’t prepared for college reading and writing and often end up in remedial classes, doing high school all over again.

They’re not prepared for the workforce either. Employers spend more than $3 billion a year trying to teach writing skills to their employees, according to the Business Roundtable.

Students aren’t held responsible for doing the work, Fitzhugh complains.

As Paul Zoch has so regularly pointed out, the message (sent) down the line to students is that their job is to get through high school with a minimum of work, while it is someone else’s responsibility to educate them.

. . . We should not kid them about the need for serious reading and academic expository writing, and when we do, we are not educating them, we are cheating them.

Many students, especially those whose parents aren’t college-educated, have no idea what skills, knowledge and work habits are required to pass college classes. They pass classes labeled “college prep” with B’s and C’s. They think they’re doing well enough.  If they knew they were in remedial prep they might work a lot harder.