The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-tilted thinky tank and long-time staunch supporter of the Common Core, just released a survey of ELA teachers and some attendant conclusions about how the Common Core reading standards are playing out in actual classrooms. They offer four recommendations, and those recommendations reflect some of the damage that has been done, particularly in high school classrooms, by the Common Core movement.
Some of this damage cannot exactly be tied to the Common Core Standards themselves, but are rather linked to the test-based accountability measures that were part of the Common Core movement. Advocates of the Core often argue that the standards and the tests are two entirely different things, and that is technically true. But without the testing regimen, the Core would just be a list of suggestions that schools and teachers could follow or ignore at will. When the Core hit the scene, “Here are some new standards” was followed directly by “and how well you follow them will be judged by these new standardized tests which will be used to evaluate districts, schools and (eventually) teachers.” David Coleman, CCSS architect, understood that tests would drive the curriculum and teacher behavior.
One Fordham recommendation is that teachers should make sure they aren’t overlooking “classic works of literature.” But the standards have almost nothing to say about classic works or about content-knowledge save some lines and suggestions in appendices. The standards treat reading as a skill that can exist in a vacuum, independent of context or content. The accountability tests, put in place to show how well we have (or haven’t) taught the standards double down on that, with reading selections that are carefully chosen so that prior knowledge cannot be a factor. This makes sense to a point; if you ask questions about themes in The Great Gatsby, those questions clearly favor students who have studied the work. Instead, students have to be “surprised” by an excerpt from some work they’ve never heard of before. There’s a whole discussion to be had about the inseparable nature of reading and prior knowledge, but in the meantime, teachers have been given a clear message– he evaluation of your teaching effectiveness will have nothing to do with how well you teach (or don’t) classic literature.
Preparing students for a standardized reading test is completely unlike teaching them about a work of classic literature. In an English class addressing The Great Gatsby, depending on student ability and prior knowledge, the teacher might take several weeks to help the students find their way through the work, followed by a period of discussion and reflection to dig a little deeper before finally embarking on a large project (paper, presentation, interpretive dance, etc) that would take days to complete and would, the teacher hopes, show how the student can connect several different threads from the work.
Contrast that with a standardized reading test like the PARCC or SBA (tests developed specifically to check for how well teachers have been teaching the Core standards). The student is given an excerpt of a few paragraphs cut free from the context of the larger work. Then the student is required to answer some questions (likely multiple choice) about those paragraphs right now. No opportunity to reflect or connect to a larger context.
All across the country there has been a booming industry in Common Core reading test prep books, and they are all essentially the same. Page after page of short articles or excerpts, followed by a short series of multiple choice practice questions. In many cases, there is not a shred of “classic literature” in sight.
Nor does there need to be. A teacher could coach students to higher PARCC or SBA scores by reading nothing all year but articles from the morning newspaper. Remember– the current definition of “effective teaching” is “teaching that raises standardized test scores.” That doesn’t have to include any classic literature, or, what may be worse, only a few paragraphs of them (“Didn’t you read The Great Gatsby in high school?” “Well, I read a page of it.”) Fordham wants teachers to take the lead “in adopting content-rich curricula” and teachers would have to take the lead, because there is nothing in the Core to support leading in a content-rich direction, and much in the Core-linked tests to obstruct it.
Fordham is concerned that literature has also been abandoned for nonfiction works, which should come as no surprise to anyone since that’s what teachers were instructed to do, despite the fact that there has never been evidence that there is some benefit to doing so. After a decade, it seems that this shift is simply an expression of the personal bias of David Coleman, Common Core’s ELA architect.
Fordham stands by the Core’s insistence that students be given grade-level texts rather than reading-level texts (in other words, if your eighth grader is reading at fourth grade level, she should still be given an eighth grade level assignment). Fordham’s survey indicates “serious backsliding” on this point, which should come as no surprise. Again, there has been little evidence offered of benefits of forcing students to read above their frustration level or below their ability level (and lots of room to argue about what “grade level” even means). As with many aspects of the Core, teachers have “adjusted” the standards to meet the actual needs of their real live students. Unfortunately, the standardized tests continue to penalize teachers whose students are “behind” in reading. In some states (e.g. Florida) the situation is even worse, because students who don’t “pass” the third grade reading test are held back. That means that primary teachers are pushed to focus on test prep rather than actual reading instruction, and that in turn runs the risk of squashing any hope of fostering a love of reading in students. By the time they get to high school, reading is just some dumb game they have to learn to play for that big test at the end of the year.
David Coleman proudly described the architects of the core as a group of “unqualified people,” but many of the problems that have emerged from the core are, in fact, the result of having educational standards written by educational amateurs. That holds true for problems cited by both Core opponents and Core supporters alike.
More Info: www.forbes.com